With publication of Adam Steiner's debut novel "Politics Of The Asylum" (my review here), I was very struck by his stylistic and linguistic approach as well as the fact that the novel is that most rare beast in UK fiction, a political novel. So we got together to talk all things writerly and compare and contrast our approaches to language and politics in fiction.
MN: The novel is called “Politics Of The Asylum”- How political do you regard your novel?
AS: Good question – it's hard to say how political any novel is under the skin. We can all make declarations of intent, expose horrors and strike out a short sharp j'accuse but it doesn't mean we're actually saying something [new] about a given state of affairs that hasn't already been expressed – although, the flip side of this would be Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid's Tale. For me, I don't think I've said anything particularly controversial, but I certainly took the extremities of the current situation and drew them into wild and sometimes illogical conclusions [as I say, it's fiction] but what is odd, as opposed to it being purely prescient which is what most people say about the above titles, the book exists in something of timequake – I started writing it in 2011/12 – so it has kind of stretched and warped according to contemporary context. What gets me is that the book expresses so much paranoia, alienation and self-loathing [personal, public and political] that it is slightly smothered under a fair swathe of negativity, hate you could call it, such that the saving of lives is undermined and undervalued – as I keep saying – Ballard's Death of Affect – what else can you feel when people are living through bludgeoned times of near-PTSD. I think you nailed this in your review, I don't think the book is miserable or depressing per se, but it is a challenge and a confrontation, hopefully that sparks meaningful arguments.
MN: Is there a danger with political or even contemporary writing that it gets out of date and becomes a historical snapshot?
AS: Yes – absolutely – there is the absolute danger that people can have well-meaning terms applied to them, which for some spark a death-knell, of being "relevant/timely/urgent" – I appreciate that angle, but lots of my kindest reviewers have said those kinds of things because they are very true. It is utterly bizarre that PoTA makes more sense now than when it was first written years ago, and in the intervening period the events and themes of the book have become more real, or if you like, calcified.
I guess the risk is that in writing a book [novel] which is too much about current events or trying too hard to fix/save the world you risk your own obsolescence and it does betray some lack of imagination. Equally, people don't seem to change too much, within the lessons of Greek tragedy especially [hubris – trump] so much of which holds and we are still re-making these scenarios. But even then, the historical snapshot has value, because looking back we can see that people did care, did speak out in their own small way, ideally these books would evoke that time. People still refer to Dickens or less sensationally George Eliot and Thomas Hardy [none of whom I really like] as being of their time, and I do admire that striving to be contemporaneous not escapist. What gives their work credence in that sense is that they provided analysis, they had an angle, they evoke and draw upon their times to make something new, this is why pure soc-realism falls flat on the heart and the ears.
By way of a positive example, I saw that Nikesh Shula who has been pushing greater diversity of stories and publishing pros for ages, before most big publishers bothered to notice, has written a real-time novel in relation to riots. The England riots happened in 2011, ages ago in modern terms, but, I get the sense that he saw there was something socially significant in this which had not been fully explored beyond the media – so I think it's great he has stepped-up and used the riots to how us something about our society which we are still experiencing the repercussions of, without fully-knowing why.
MN: Just what political impact can fiction have?
AS: I think as above, we all have feelings, inclinations and leanings about how things should be in the world, but because we are ultimately human, feeling beings [most of us] these exist quite outside of and in incompatibility to political systems, much of which is essentially a game, for and by politicians, quite rarely are they real people, they tend not be particularly qualified in anything that counts in real life – I think that makes us all pawns, de facto, just look at the royal family – you wave a flag for them and kiss their feet – they are strangers – they do not know you or care what happens to you - they just want your money [and to be adored] – books are great to spark ideas – but it only takes a few pitchforks, a few matches...
MN: What do you see as the current landscape in the UK for political fiction writing?
AS: Hard one to answer. I'm not one for Pikkety's examinations of capitalism - over my head – but in terms of fiction, I do think that creative non-fiction can play a stronger hand. People build a human narrative into real events [twist and tweak the events slightly] and this gives insight, drives empathy and helps people to see how and why things matter. This is perhaps a better "in" for letting people appreciate the human impact of politics, when democracy in action is often third-hand to most of us. It is so hard in the UK, a country riven and driven by class to attempt to put yourself in someone else's shoes, to feel their own struggle. It's all very well checking your privilege, but it doesn't bring us together; the prince and the pauper were both alien to the other, and think that's important, because you either strike off a whole swathe of people, who will then never vote for you or seek to align their views, or you try and force them into a homogeneity, we are anarchic beings, political divides should not be able to constrain us.
MN: ”people build a human narrative" - is not the problem that every narrative can be neutralised by a counter-narrative and that all government has to do is react to narratives that cause them problems and counter them, often by blowing enough smoke in our eyes? The Big Society idea of David Cameron to restructure the nature of charitable giving in this country was abandoned very quickly (and quietly), yet Charities rely absolutely on the human narrative of the the people they seek to help, save a child's life/sight/give her clean water in order to get us to put our hand in our pocket, set against the political narrative of constantly wanting to cut the foreign aid budget. And then charities are blighted by compassion fatigue?
AS: Indeed! That' a comprehensive overview! Ironically, narrative display our personal drives; our paths betray us. Saying is no replacement for doing, and on that note, giving money is rarely doing, clicking as an action – it just doesn't translate. The right wing view off charities is that they self-perpetuate, thrive on myth-making – they kind of have a point. By being perpetually under-funded, always needing more, it is continual war, a la the NHS, as in Orwell's 1984. So then what? I do think that humans have a disposition towards the right/left and within that selfishness abides, so we have to struggle with the better angles of our nature. I would like to go Buddhist on this and say be better, everyday, where you can. Change is life and little things make a big difference. charity begins at home, meaning helping yourself enough to be able to help others; to do small acts of kindness, without reward or virtue signalling. there doesn't have to be a metaphysic to this; it is the form of work that is engendered by hospital staff, anyone can wrap a bandage, take blood, try to break the worst kind of news – it is the way in which these repetitive acts are performed that define your disposition, as a thinking, feeling [human] being.
And yes, the foreign aid budget is vital. We already pay our taxes but we are rarely given the option or transparency to know and decide where they are dispersed – potholes, street lighting and bin collections are not the same thing as creating wells for water, sexual health programs and creating sustainable micro-economies. We have a collective colonial responsibility, still – so may of us choose to ignore. There are no borders, no citizens of the world, only human beings.
MN: With novels that have challenging language, is there is a risk of being too exclusive for a general readership and therefore undermine any political designs for the fiction?
AS: Definitely. But I go back to me earlier mutterings and attest that it is really important to use the voices at your disposal, and to remark upon your prejudices and misunderstandings; to show yourself tripping. I wanted to write as an orator, not a speech-writer or a marketing consultant – see Jonathan Meades on Jargon [BBC doc]. I always loved the line in Alan Bennett's The History Boys: "etcetera is what the Nazis would have said." I think he has historical accuracy slightly off, but it speaks of a tyranny of reductionism, crushing depth and expression. Libraries gave us [GIVE US] power – I see so many writers at the moment, especially the financially struggling of London [who don't have a spare room/desk/office space] using libraries as a stronghold to write/read/learn/resist – in the days of internet access [information overkill/spin/troll anger/alternative facts/post-truth] books offer you an escape from noise and bullshit – its an impressive show of solidarity that they fight the government from a desk in books that will sold and read by the underground and in indie bookshops across the world.
MN: Could you elaborate more on writer as orator? I've not conceived of it in those terms before (and yes the Meades' programme was wonderful, how jargon is used to shut down conversation and communication).
AS: I guess the writer has an obligation to do the police in as many ways as they can find or create. You establish voices for your characters, and your narrative and style, and you throw them as best you can. Let the blind man see and the ignorant show their vulnerability. One problem of the UKIP crowd and the Britain first lads is they feel disenfranchised and neglected, ignore the ignorant – I agree – but it'll only get you so far. This iwhere all but the most exploitative and populist politicians fail, if you cannot bring people on side, instead of existing in an echo chamber, what is your use, what are you for?
I didn't want to establish a platform for particular views necessarily, but I did want to show how good people can easily become "bad" and how bad people are not rotten to the core, there is capacity for change, quit on that and you quit on hope.
I think the one thing I can say for myself and the book, is that it is honest, within its own confines.
MN: Also, speaking of a tyranny of reduction, how do you view social media, in how its algorithms channel users into echo chambers of people with the same views, plus the shouting down and hectoring of those with different views?
As to artistic resistance, I think this is a myth. If resistance art sells, it will be absorbed by the authorities and corporates and defanged as with punk. After the Grenfell fire, lots of writers put up their wares for an auction to raise funds for the victims which was laudable, but none of those authors were what you would call activists or political, being writers of romance or fantasy, so there will be no sustained outcome of their campaign beyond the money raised? For me this is little different to the equivalent of performers snorting cocaine backstage at Live Aid, a well-meaning giving of their time but of limited duration as they then slide back to their normal writing lives with no more interaction with the political.
AS: Interesting. Social media is damn tricky. So many voices, so many flare-ups, policing the internet begets trolling and the marshalling of arguments - minefield. for me, it's a great way to share knowledge and connect with other people, who I can then have a proper human conversation with, ideally. I mean, look at trump, he just rants and accuses, he states opinions as fact and the rest is just follow mein leader. Into the abyss...
I think people might find cause to change from getting involved in activist causes. And I think people can write out their own truth, similar to what I was talking about earlier, people can find and offer solidarity, and so many amazing things are sparked or started by revolutions in the head, people arm themselves with the knowledge or passion gleaned from books – that's encouraging.
and - surely the artist has a right to cocaine - give the anarchist a cigarette..
What this means is that an angry generation are making a stand [by] writing their works, and the offer of the library, or just reading and expanding your mind is to empower yourself. My point here is, like Russell Brand who has a silly authentic-ish accent but is very articulate, we should allow for difficult writing, challenge, extremity. I wanted to write in my own way, not just to sell books, not within the pre-conceived notion of the novel as entertainment, music and films can give you exactly the same level of brute sophistication, it's too easy to tune out, drop out, browse with no appetite or hunger, just to be entertained.
A book like mine might exclude some people and that's ok. Not because it is so high minded or too brilliant for them, more likely they choose not to put the effort in, or they want twists and turns and a knowing surprise at the end – fuck off – go to McDonalds, put your head in the trough, ignore the storm – get thee to a library, learn your language[s] as a tool, learn how to spell, get inspired, go read a fucking book instead of just consuming.
I'm starting to sound like my character now...
MN: The language is very lyrical/poetic, what are your thoughts on the poetic novel?
AS: It can go either way. I was keen to experiment, this was the first book I ever wrote [finished writing] so let's have fun, play and learn. I read up on purple prose and meddled with bathos, so easy to slip into this, trying to make someone feel X or Y rather than feeling it yourself in the work of your writing [ this is very difficult, not sure if I achieved it 100%]. I think prose-poems are specific and valuable thing, like poetry, a bit precious, it can spark the fire against the everyday. There's value in reading widely, stretching your brain.
MN: Is language the highest value for you in a novel?
AS: I wonder...it was definitely playtime for me, but I put effort into making archetypal characters, almost cut-outs that suited the pop-art scenes that jump out at you throughout the book. I worked towards a plot, but I'm happy to have some failure, a healthy dose of crash and burn. The language is perfect, but I think I spent the most time on it, I wanted to make every sentence ring [impossible] and not have to say ordinary things, I wanted it all to be pointed, I think like PiL it perhaps came out too spiky – but I'm cool with that. As much as I tried to take the brilliant in the banal dull and mundane, I wanted to luxuriate in language a bit, rather than just drag the reader from character A to B, through door C and then have them talk about an affair, death in the family - I wanted those things to bleed off the page.
MN: The language IS perfect and the sentences do ring - just a comment, not an actual question.
There is a lot of both word play and visual manipulation of the type such as words stretched out by the spacing. What effect do you see these as having for the reader? How do you decide when and where to employ them?
AS: I think [know] I was slightly crazy at the time [ another luxury ] and as such I could push the form, the artwork in the book is not pictures of the characters, like in Sherlock Holmes, it wasn't an illustrated guide; equally the physical madness of the text was stretching new muscles within the form, if yes, then why not? I love beautifully weighted prose, but I also want rough edges, hard angles, thwarted landscapes; you can do all of this with words and the breakdown of their structures – equally – you can't just take the piss.
I think it served to alienate the reader, bore them a little, keep a safer distance – all the headfuck that was Nathan [Finewax, the protaganist] I thought the book could be filmic, the way impressionistic shots will blur a murder through a doorway, you get the sense of what's happening, even though your sense are impaired, you're living their dream-nightmare along with the character. To be taken out of the ego of our own headspace is the most liberating things about art – like getting drunk.
MN: I think that's a really interesting thing to aim for, but it does risk alienating the reader, or perhaps demand that the reader be guided how to read this book, not in the sense of its meaning, but in its language, typography and how its sentences work (which is also a high risk writing strategy). Did you have that in the back of your mind as you were writing it?
AS: I don't feel I respect my reader. That's about it. I don't necessarily value them like I should. But, I had the armour of newness, striving, trying, enge-nuity - fresh genius. If everything was for and of the reader, then I would be Lee Child – brilliantly done, but I'm not sure why I would be writing then, apart from money...
The reader deserves to be pushed and pulled, come along for the ride, this is the way step inside. I broke no boundaries, but if I'm bored then the reader must be also. On that note - boredom is sometimes underrated. Nathan's boredom is a pain we can all share, it is the gripe and grit of work, and we are increasingly deadened by administration, what could be more relatable than that?
MN: It’s clear what the role of sound is in poetry, but does it have a role across the length of a novel?
AS: I was conscious to show zings and zips, and the sharpness of too many sips. Sounds that seem to evade the listener but exist as non-music, non-functional performances of crashes and fractures, all very real. Hospital is a great example of this, noisy, then extremely quiet – it comes back to the war analogy, all quiet until it kicks off - which can be any time, its an unhealthy headspace, sounds, like an illness, can creep up on you like a darkness. I also went quite lyrical at times, I wanted to chain together a run of ideas, what might seem like a dirge for some was a sprint for me. Over the course of the novel, the voices recede, become muted noises, incidental. I think more like a breath, you get the sense of withdrawal, closing in and closing down.
MN: Oh to have scratch and sniff versions of novels!
It’s not surprising that a book about a hospital devotes so much writing to the human body and its failings. But does all your work start from the body?
AS: I’m really drawn to the influx/reflex of the body; how sense impressions can be an overload where and when you indulge them. This can be internal stimulus, brooding, overthinking things, but also external influence and alterations to a settled state. Within the the novel, I allowed myself to get lost in every inflection, the creep of skin that is always shedding but attached to you, it is and is not your own. You can easily go too far in this; they said Eliot's main failing was that he was the kind of fella who could hear the grass grow – that is nice to indulge but it can be overwhelming. I guess bodies just have so much to teach us, but listening can be deafening, like we lack capacity as beings to hear ourselves, easier to deny.
MN: There’s so much more to say on that last point, perhaps the starting point for a future novel?
AS: Who can say? It might be that the body-reflex is a perpetual concern for me, and I never knew it except in writing. Willing to take that most domestic of chances! I just think that in showing so much ugliness you can sharpen the appetite for something better, to that nature cannot be all bad, and to recognise those worse off [as we might see it] than ourselves.