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Interview with Reading Books [spoilers]

What has been your main career to date?

Teaching English as a foreign language.

What encouraged you to write The Beginning Woods; have you always wanted to write?

I didn’t really commit to writing (something I did daily) until my early twenties. Up until then I’d say it was simply a hobby.

The most encouraging things were strange little coincidences. For example, in an early version of the book, Boris, one of the main characters, was Polish, not Russian. His nickname for Max was czarne wiewiórki (black squirrel) – they were the only Polish words in the book. Shortly after finding out how to translate “black squirrel” into Polish I read Sebald’s Austerlitz, also a book about someone tracing his origins. Austerlitz sees a stuffed squirrel in a shop window, and wonders why he has noticed it and why the Czech word for squirrel, veverka, is one of the few he can remember. (Later he discovers why.) And then, when I saw this word veverka, I realized that I even already knew it myself, because it was the surname of a very good friend from Japan, an American called Joe Wewerka. For some reason the fact that this word was bonking me over the head was extremely encouraging.

What did you read as a child and who is your favourite contemporary writer?

I think I’d quite like to keep under my hat how little contemporary writing I read. I usually follow my nose and my nose hasn’t been twitching for a while – maybe my powers of scent are growing dim!

I read a lot more when I was younger. I mentioned Sebald already, he’s probably my favorite. I devoured all of Paul Auster when I was a starving, threadbare actor in London. Another of my favorite books is Baldwin’s Another Country. I’m just finishing Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone right now. Next up is Elena Ferrante.

When I was a child (I guess you mean pre-teen) I read a lot of the usuals, like Dahl, Blyton, Lindgren, Manning-Sanders, CS Lewis (this was in the 80s). Plus all the usual classics, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons. I’d quite like to give a shout out to the Hounds of the Morrigan.

When I was eleven or twelve I got into choose your own adventure type books as well. Fighting Fantasy – the Steve Jackson / Ian Livingstone books – and fantasy generally, mainly Dragonlance, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Piers Antony.

The Beginning Woods has already been published in German and I wondered how that happened, do you have links with Germany?

It was the last roll of the dice before the self-publishing route.

I lived for a time in Berlin, and I met someone there (the neighbor of a friend) who I described the story to – he worked in academic publishing. A few years later, after I’d tried getting it published in the UK, he said he would send it to someone he knew – and they bought it. The chances of that break occurring just seem vanishingly small - I don’t even want to think about what had to happen to get that particular neighbor into that particular flat, for him to be in publishing, for him to actually offer to do it. I only ever developed this connection to Germany because I stuck my hand up in assembly in 1994. But that’s another story…

You start The Beginning Woods with two mysteries: a baby, Max, who appears suddenly and who no one wants; and people simply vanishing without a trace. What inspired each of these ideas and did you know how these threads would eventually be drawn together?

The Vanishings sounds like an intentionally philosophical sort of idea – actually they just came about because of the “Why don’t we just call the police?” problem.

Usually the problem shows up in a story after the Big Evil Power has revealed itself. And mostly you deal with it by some version of this conversation:

KID A: Oh no! Our teacher is a zombie / a vampire / a demon.

KID B: Why don’t we call the police?

KID A: They’ll never believe us!

Kids have to face the Big Evil Power alone, so basically all forms of protection, somehow, have to be removed. But kids are hardly ever alone and unprotected. This means the people most in danger of imminent destruction at the start of any kids book aren’t the kids - it’s the parents. In James and the Giant Peach, for example, Dahl had the parents eaten by an escaped rhinoceros in the very first sentence.

So I was thinking about how to “get rid of the parents”, and I wanted to be even more blatant about it than Dahl. All right, I thought, just get rid of them without explanation—so I disappeared them from right under the kid’s nose, at the breakfast table. One minute they’re buttering the toast, the next – poof!

In this version of the story, the kid was immediately taken to a psychiatric hospital – that’s where story led me. So I went back and started thinking about why the parents might have Vanished.

This turned out to be a gigantic question that I spent months thinking about – it drew me through existentialism, Heidegger, Kundera, Paul Auster, and my own condition, which seemed to be one of slowly Vanishing.

When I finally came up with a reason, which I still find quite hard to put into words, I realized other people would be Vanishing too. That’s how the Vanishings went worldwide. Then it was just a matter of logic – if there’s this new worldwide problem, there would be a concerted effort to stop it; if there’s a scientific organization where would it be, who would be its leader, and so on. It all snowballed very rapidly.

As for Max, he came about very gradually. To begin with he was just a boy who saw his parents Vanish, so he had a personal investment in solving the Vanishings. And when he told people what had happened, they decided he was psychotic. The story didn’t spent very long in that form.

The idea that he caused the Vanishings didn’t come about until much later in the story’s development. Soon after the Vanishing of his parents he fell in with an early version of Boris, an American private detective called Freddie Vinz. I needed a reason for why this private detective had been hanging around Max’s house. Even though he was investigating the Vanishings, and Max’s parents had just Vanished, it still seemed like too big a coincidence that he just happened to be snooping around this particular house when there were thousands of other Vanishings he could have been investigating. So it stood to reason there had to be something special about Max that had brought him there. It didn’t take long for me to realize what this was.

So neither of these ideas were really inspired at all – they were just the result of following the internal logic of the story’s needs, the rules of plausible action and so on. I think they’re good examples of how plot problems can be positive events. So if you’re writing and you come across a plot problem, think of it as an opportunity for invention, not as something negative.

I didn’t plan the ending at all. I just used the materials that were available to me. This means it looks deliberate and structured, but it’s really mostly improvised. Sure, you go back and tweak a bit, and drop in clues here and there to strengthen this or that theme. But mostly you take an image and watch it bounce through the story in different ways. Teeth, for example. Snap snap snap! I never said, I’m going to make a motif about teeth because I want X to happen at the end, so I need to have a Kobold and a Grinder and a Dragon and a rotten tooth and Shredders. I just let the theme surface when an opportunity presented itself.

Max is a boy who is drawn to dreams and stories, and whose explanations of the world are like fairy tales rather than science. In his stories about how snowflakes are created and skies painted, are you reflecting on how children make sense of the world, or how we have always created stories to explain the world? Do you have a favorite among Max's 'stories'?

I think stories are simply externally-realized versions of something our brains do all the time. They create a kind of coherence about the world. The brain doesn’t “care” whether a belief or an assertion is true or not, it just has to make a kind of internal sense and “slot in” without causing noticeable contradiction or some sort of harm to the organism – the coherence simply has to allow the organism to interact fruitfully with the environment.

So when children are growing up, their brains are building a kind of coherence (a story) about life and the world. If you tell even a small child something completely fantastic, they will believe it if they can detect a tiny amount of coherence, not because it’s Mum or Dad telling them something. Why are some things a certain color? That’s how they were painted. So the sky might also have acquired its color through painting. (Obviously this is a sort of comic exaggeration.)

This coherence gets tested and modified (or not) as we get older by our observations and by exposure to other ways of thinking, especially de-personalized one such as logic or the scientific method. But mostly, I think, it’s still stories we respond to.

It’s very striking, for me, the similarity between the way small children think of the world, and the way the ancients thought of the world, or even just people in general before the modern era. Some of them were actually thinking roughly scientifically, as in, out of curiosity and an awareness that there was something out there to be discovered – an order of some kind. They were trying to form conclusions from their observations rather than just what they’d heard someone say, or what tradition told them, or from public opinion. But even “great thinkers” like Socrates (or Plato) wrote astonishing "the sky gets painted” nonsense about massive rivers surging about under the earth. And of course there are the mythological explanations of phenomenon, and so on. I just thought it would be fun to write about a place where that imaginative way of thinking turned out to be the actual fact, and it was the science that was the mistake. Because there was a kind of wonderful freedom in that time, when you could just look around at the world and say, “Well, I guess the fire is crackling because it’s angry!”

So yes, we use stories all the time – or at least, our brains operate in a way that is similar to what writers do when they write stories (building a coherence). In War and Peace there’s a peasant who looks at a steam train and says, “It’s the Devil makes it go!” Well, the peasant is wrong, of course. But I think this is how the brain just works. The brain sees a challenge to its coherence (heavy objects cannot move of their own accord – you need many men or horses to do it) and in the absence of any other explanation it has to fall back on the useful catch-all of the Devil. In this way the peasant keeps his “story” intact. This is a lot easier than accepting some new, strange notions about pressure and expansion and pistons that are going to utterly destroy any coherence his poor brain has managed to lash together over the years.

This is why superstition is so tenacious – because stories are psychologically significant in a way that logic and science is not. What you think Love is, for example, is a story you tell yourself, and one we tell to each other. Watch what happens when a neuroscientist comes along and tells you its simply a flare of neuronal activity, or an evolutionary biologist tells you we’re being manipulated by our genes. The story of “Love” is in effect no different from a superstition, but it’s an important way of describing and enriching human culture, of allowing us to proceed through life. It gives life shape and texture and feeling. Science isn’t so good at this. This is really what Courtz means when he says we talk science up, but we’re still really dreamers at heart.

Max is an orphan and an outsider, and the book follows his quest to find his 'real' parents and his identity. Do you feel many older children / teenagers - the readers of this story - struggle with the question of identity and is that why you wanted to explore it?

I don’t think I had other people in mind when I wrote the story. Not directly, at least. On the one hand, I think writing absolutely must try to address concerns and issues, of course it must. But only through something personal and internal, not through a kind of guesswork at what others are going through. You write, for the most part, about yourself (though this includes the world you live in, so it’s not solipsistic) and you assume that because you are not unique, your writing will also speak to other people (though not everyone). So writing in this way does limit your audience. So-called “pop culture” tends to describe or deal in more universal states, that everyone can relate to.

So even though I do think teens struggle with identity, that didn’t have anything to do with it. The struggle for identity isn’t just a teen thing - it’s permanent. I’m forty and I’m still asking myself these questions, about who I am. Living is a state of continual negotiation between yourself and the world. The negotiation is particularly irksome when you’re young, partly because of the destabilizing effects of puberty, but also because you’re only just realizing (and probably refusing to admit) that the negotiation is “a thing” in the first place.

But there’s no escaping it. You’d better find a way of handling it that doesn’t generate conflict, or you will simply end up in dysfunctional relationships. This kind of negotiation Max doesn’t do so well, not at least until someone actually takes up residence inside him – then there’s no way he can push them away, and the consequences of doing so are made pretty explicit to him.

Also, the issues of identity explored in the book aren’t really “identity” as we talk about it today. For me, partly because I’m a white, straight, British guy, I never had an urgent need to thrash out my identity, the way, say, James Baldwin had to in his writing. I don’t really have anything to kick against - the issue wasn’t shoved at me by intolerance or prejudice or by the marginalizing effects of language, or by being in a conspicuous minority. There are features of my personality which are fairly marginal, and anything like that becomes something you start to think about as you become aware of the world – Why am I like this? Is it good to be like this? Why am I asking myself these questions in the first place? And so on. But none of these questions were urgent in the way that they were urgent for James Baldwin.

I just remember when I was younger, I think in my late teens, being very, very impressed by certain ideas about “truth” and “self-knowledge”. I read Bacon’s essays when I was still at school, and it seemed very clear to me that life was hardly worth living if you didn’t make some sort of conscious, deliberate effort to investigate and understand your self and the world (in the way that Bacon did). I’ve since modified that view a little, but I still mostly agree with it. So really this emphasis in the book on questions of identity are really just a reiteration of the old injunction to know who you are – it’s not political. The “invitation” to the Book House that Porterholse sends out repeats these old Baconian ideas pretty explicitly – they can’t be repeated enough.

Through Max and Courtz, you show what might happen if we indulge in either too much dreaming (Max's daydreaming about his biological parents) or too much logic (Courtz destroys all books to stop people imagining). Why did you want to explore these ideas and how well do you feel our contemporary world is doing on either score?

Actually I was more interested in ideas and what ideas were, than in dreams vs reality, and what happens when people have ideas about the world – fixed ideas.

So the thing about Max and the Mulgans is really about how easy it is for things to go wrong invisibly, over time, because of small ideas that go into our heads, virtually unnoticed. So, Forbes says something to Max, with good intentions, and the way he says it is perfectly fine - but it sends Max down this train of thought that causes misery. Boris drops those questions into Max’s head, out of desperation, but he certainly shouldn’t have done this, because Max is unequipped to answer them. It’s about the power of ideas, the fragility of children and their impressionability, rather than about dreams vs logic specifically.

Courtz, not Boris, is an adult version of Max - he too is possessed by an idea in just the same way as Max, and this is why they end up so close together. It’s a bit like that old switcheroo that left-wing intellectuals perform when they suddenly become right-wing intellectuals, or vice versa – it’s actually not that much of a change. The only way for Max to get back to being a person is to be smashed apart (made complex). People become very dangerous once they’re in the grip of a single idea, as we see on the news virtually every day, though it’s often very reassuring to have this single idea. Boris stays healthy as a thinker because he was forced to confront complexity and randomness from a very early age, though the constant grappling with complexity makes him quite miserable.

How are we doing in the contemporary world? I think Courtz would be very happy with how things are going. But he is right about one thing – stories are incredibly powerful, influential, dangerous things. Once a story takes hold of you – that’s it, forget it. Your chances of escape are slim. They are far, far more influential on human behavior than reason and logic, for the simple reason that reason and logic is basically human thinking stripped of personality, so there’s something cold and unappealing about it – as a sort of operating system to live under. Logic and reason quickly become intricate, as well, which is time-consuming and boring. It’s better and much more satisfying to simply leap to a conclusion, to apply a general belief, to allow confirmation bias to operate, etc.

How did you develop the idea of the Beginning Woods as a setting and what was your process of world-building, given how intricate / demanding it is?

Actually I don’t think it’s that intricate, not as intricate as most fantasy worlds. There aren’t any maps, there’s no unusual language or tribes or customs, I don’t create new costumes or anything like that. It’s basically just Dickens + trees and that’s it. I planned to do all that with the five book series, but when nobody took up the first book I had to compress the whole thing into a single book, half of which was in the World, half of which was in the Woods. You just don’t have time to create those textures in half a book. That was actually why I decided to make the Woods a kind of copy of the World – to save space! Again, out of necessity, not because of inspiration.

I don’t know why people say it’s demanding – I think this is just because I don’t pay much attention to things like pace or generating that sort of intense vibe you get in fantasy / YA fiction, so readers have to get through the story on their own steam. This is intentional, by the way – this “under your own steam” thing is going to become necessary for reading adult literary fiction, if you want to, and if you can’t deal with a certain amount of resistance, you’re going to struggle. If you don’t want to go on to read literary fiction, fair enough, that’s your choice – but there’s no denying that it doesn’t “help you along” in this way, it doesn’t have the same narrative force, generally. About the only thought I had about the publishing context of the book was that I wanted it to be a fantasy that was more of a gateway or bridge to older fiction than the ones I’d read myself – which bore absolutely no relation to literary fiction, at least as I encountered it.

What is your favorite concept in the Woods, and your favorite creature? Any you'd like to bring home with you?

My favorite creature by far is the Wasp Witch, she was hilarious to write. Actually, if you know the film The Goonies you’ll see the character is a pretty direct lift of Anne Ramsey’s amazing Mama Fratelli.

I love this whole idea of the Merry-Go-Round at the bottom of the pond. Don’t ask me where that came from!

Why do you make modern technology so bad for the Beginning Woods? Are there parts of modern tech that you would lose if you could?

You mean light? I’m not really making any point about it being bad, it’s just that this is what would happen. Is fire bad because it burns paper? Not really. It’s just how fire works.

The Woods represents a way of thinking, let’s say a mythological way, and the way of thinking the World represents is anathema to the Woods – scientific thinking literally shrivels up myth. So what New Light does to Forest Folk is just … that.

It became very hard to follow this Woods-ish way of thinking (to “go to the Woods”) once the Enlightenment occurred, which was a real fork in the road for us. After it, we moved into a different era when the Woods and the World became more separate and difficult to travel between. Light is one of the most fundamental phenomena, and it has poetic and storytelling potential in a way that, say, gravity doesn’t. It’s all around us, it can be produced easily by things and people in the story, it’s common, and in storytelling it creates a nice effect when you take something that is very familiar, and give it a little twist, or a new feel. So I made light a kind of illustrative example of how the Woods differs from the World – sharply differs. In essence.

I’m not sure I’d want to lose parts of modern tech, but I think things surrounding tech are very worrying. I think technology has this unstoppable feeling to it, which is alarming. It seems to be marching deeper and deeper into our lives. Previously it was all about manipulating the physical world. Now it’s something very different – it’s taking over our social interactions, the way we think, our memories, and so on. It is virtually no longer possible, for instance, to say goodbye to someone – this experience has practically gone from human life. Children born today have absolutely no conception of what “goodbye” used to mean to me. Well, who cares? I don’t think we even live in a time that is that bothered with this sort of distinction, which is part of the problem.

I really think this is something new. First of all, it’s happening so rapidly that we’ve had no chance, none, to negotiate the change. It’s corporate, energetic, massively-financed, omni-present and ubiquitous. To challenge it has become a kind of weird heresy (always a danger sign). And a lot of it makes deliberate use of psychology to encourage addiction. This isn’t good.

On the other hand, a lot of it is massive fun.

During the time of the 'Vanishings', the Beginning Woods and the real world - London - overlap in places. Are there parts of today's world where you feel you could glimpse the Beginning Woods?

Nope! You know, actually one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I think the Woods is further from us than ever before, and I wanted to remind people that it wasn’t always like this. We live in an anti-Woods world, at least in the West. You see little flashes of this everywhere, not to do with religion or anything, but little pointers. So, for example, when Tony Blair says he feels like a nutter if he talks about God – this is actually the tiny little tip of an absolutely gigantic cultural shift showing itself. Not only that we now live in a pretty secular society, but that a kind of collective decision has been made, there’s been a kind of hardening of attitudes, about what is and what isn’t a fundamental, legitimate way to interpret reality – and it’s the scientific way. So long, the Woods. Nice knowing you!

Having said that, sometimes I’d feel, late at night when I was wandering around London in the winter, and it was dark, and the street lights, and I was listening to Sibelius or something, sometimes I’d get a little sniff… You know what it’s like. A little whiff of the Woods.

The Beginning Woods is also an exploration of creating and writing - for example, the Grinder machine which both provides the initial impetus for the story and enables you to change its ending. What was the writing process for you when creating this book?

I think I answered this previously really.

The Grinder is very strange for me. That whole thing about teeth and grinding, those images began to pile up in the story very rapidly. Then, when I was at drama school, I discovered one of the principal areas in which my body generated tension was in my jaws. This was after all this stuff about teeth and grinding had come into the story. Mysterious...

It’s hard to talk about the process without a massive splurge of text, and we’ve had enough of those so far! The story that takes place in the World contains some new material ('new' as in about three or four years old), but the majority is ten to fifteen years old, and all of it has been rewritten dozens of time. The section that takes place in the Woods is much newer – it dates from the decision I made to turn it into one book, which was in 2008 I think (still, not very new). Then there was the re-editing I did for Pushkin, which introduced some further changes.

Where and when do you write? Describe your perfect writing place? What are you writing now?

I’m very bad at creating a fixed pattern of work. I never say, “OK, today I’m writing between nine and twelve and that’s it for the day.” This doesn’t mean I spend all my spare time writing, it just means whenever I have spare time I feel like I should spend it writing. Mostly, though, time for writing is limited and you just have to grab it when you can.

My perfect writing place is anywhere quiet and isolated from interruption. I wrote for a few days in a croft on South Uist – that ticked all the right boxes.

At the moment I’ve nearly finished another book. It’s totally unrelated to The Beginning Woods, and about as different as you could imagine. Although maybe there are a few of the same concerns.

I understand you've travelled a lot - what is the most inspiring place you've visited? Where haven't you been that you'd like to see?

Someone else asked me about what inspired me – I think there must be something wrong with my brain, I hardly ever get inspired – I wish I did because it sounds very nice. I tend to just be more interested in things. Maybe that’s a kind of inspiration.

The most interesting places I’ve visited are those that are most different to the UK – so, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

In Saudi Arabia the first thing a lot of the students said to me was, “Do you think I’m a terrorist?” This used to sadden me and surprise me – I thought they weren’t getting a balanced view of what westerners thought of Muslims from whatever news they were reading. Now I see they were completely correct to ask this question, and that in a way it was just prophetic of what was going to happen to Muslims down the line in the tolerant, free-thinking West with its liberal attitudes and healthy intellectual life. They saw it coming even if we didn’t. Just this morning I hear about another group of Muslims being taken off a flight. The level of ignorance and hysteria surrounding this is absolutely shocking - it represents a complete failure of our culture.

In Vietnam the men walk around with their t-shirts rolled up, and their big, merry bellies exposed. That is quite inspiring.

How would your perfect day go?

My happiness seems to depend entirely on whether or not I’ve made progress with what I’m writing. This isn’t so good... but still, that’d be my perfect day. Good progress, then anything else, maybe a long lunch in a good pub with friends, some good conversation, a walk in the park, that sort of thing.

And the sun would have to be shining, of course.


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