Elena Bowes interviewed author and 26er Nick Barlay about his new book and how he “catches stories as they fly through the air.”
Scattered Ghosts, your first full-length work of non-fiction, has just been published. What inspired you to write it? How did it feel writing non-fiction after your other novels?
It was less inspiration, and more a case of critical mass. Scattered Ghosts is the story of my Hungarian Jewish family over two hundred years to contemporary Britain. At a certain point, I realised I’d been a collector of tales, facts, memories, all my life. There came a point where it seemed to fall to me to write a family history. From the beginning, I knew that such an undertaking comes with the truths, myths and lies of any family. It couldn’t, therefore, be a straight non-fiction book or extended journalism. It had to allow for the empathetic truths and insightful leaps that really only fiction allows. At the same time, with a journalistic background, I couldn’t let any facts or evidence go unrecorded, even if all the material I found wasn’t included in the final, true, story.
It’s also the case that, although much has been written about the Holocaust in Hungary or 1956, (there’s a book for virtually every bullet hole), there’s next to nothing about the broad historical sweep, and how families survived the great totalitarianisms of the 20th Century. I was conscious throughout of trying to record the representative lives of ordinary men and women who are now very much part of a disappearing world.
I read that your grandmother escaped Auschwitz as a little girl by bending down to tie her shoelace? What happened?
Actually, this question merges a couple of stories: many family members were killed in Auschwitz, one of whom, a great grandmother, left behind a letter that remained unread for 70 years. From the letter it was possible, eventually, to reconstruct her life, her neighbours’ lives, her deportation and her final footsteps to the gas chamber. But the grandmother and her shoelaces is another tale that occurred in the vicinity of Budapest in 1944. The grandmother in question was already an adult and had been taken from her daughters by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross. She was forced, with many others, along a route that became known as one of the ‘death marches’. Her story, which I first heard in my childhood, was always that she managed to escape by bending down and pretending to tie her shoelaces as the column moved on. Again, the circumstantial detail was possible to research. And, somehow, she did return to her young daughters three days later, filthy and starving. The mythical quality of this tale comes from my grandmother’s clever hands: she was an accomplished piano player and always used to say: ‘It’s in my fingers.’
You’ve written in so many genres from novels to plays for radio to short stories. Does one genre inform another? And if so, how? What do you consider the unique joys and challenges of each? And which genre comes most naturally to you?
Markets force genres upon us; radio, tv and film force form upon us…In the end, stories, and storytelling, form a continuum. But there’s no doubt that a certain idea needs its own particular mode of expression. Radio – and I wish there was greater opportunity for inventive or challenging radio drama – can be a particularly intimate medium. A voice, especially in monologue, can be very ‘up close and personal’. And it can’t be stopped in quite the same way that one can put down a book. To me, though, one of the freedoms of fiction is to hear, create, invent a voice with his/her own language. Modernist first person ‘streams’ force invention, so despite the noirish plots of my novels, the narrative voices are all different. As long as there is space to discover or invent, I don’t mind the form.
The Times wrote, “I don’t know anyone who speaks like this” about your novel Curvy Lovebox. You have a real ear for exuberant, authentic-sounding dialogue. What advice would you give writers on how to develop that skill?
The obvious answer is to listen, to be able to listen, to learn to listen. The other is a more technical, yet often profoundly overlooked aspect of the process: how to put on the page what you’ve heard, to transcribe but also to represent visually in a way that captures or reflects the original voice. An unusual visual schema or non-standard punctuation adds a layer of difficulty, to be sure. But I do have a ‘no prisoners’ attitude. In other words, if people have a hard time with it, tough. Many publishers/writers would err on the side of prescriptive use of language, with a symbolic example of descriptive use – how words are actually spoken – thrown in. For me, this is not only phony but suggests that marginal, unconventional, statistically-outlying, odd, slangy, made-up language is wrong. The Times reviewer, well, we know the kind of dinner parties he goes to.
I read that for Hooky Gear you knew some burglars before you needed to start “rambling among them” for research for the novel. Can you tell us about how you get under the skin of London’s underbelly?
Most of the ‘getting under’ was fairly easy: I was already under. I wasn’t a burglar, by the way, but knew people who were. The population of my first three novels, the loose trilogy of loose people, as I called it, were pretty much known to me directly. When told my first novel was about 24 hours in the life of a petty North London hoodlum, a petty North London hoodlum replied: ‘There’s nothing petty about me.’ The person who said this made it into Hooky Gear, as a ‘character’ of course, and any resemblance is purely coincidental.
Some of these ‘characters’ I’d grown up with; some I’d grown older with. But the Babel of people and stories, incidents and experiences had to be sifted and rationalised. And some facts about criminal underbellies do help. These came partly from articles I had written, and partly from direct research, for example following human trafficking trails from Belgium, through the port of Tilbury, to London.
Where do you get your ideas from?
From life, is the simplest answer, and more obviously so in the case of the published novels…less so with the dystopian adventure I’m working on. But even this is strongly based on observable realities, contemporary Britain, connections between people and power, our darker behavioural traits, and the pressures, inner and outer, of existence.
Describe what you do in 26 words?
Catching stories as they fly through the air: a turn of head, meant or not, is all it takes to reveal or inspire new narrative directions.
What advice would you offer to 26ers wanting to make a living from writing?
Is it best to start with the hard-core realism of Hemingway? He said that if a writer is transacting business with, say, a producer, it’s as if each stands on opposite sides of the county line, the producer holding the money, the writer holding his work. Hemingway’s advice: always make sure the producer throws first.
Or is it best to start with the general observation that more people want everything from writers for nothing. The internet (let’s not get into how great it is…) has definitely been responsible for the blurring of verbs: to write = to blog = to type = to provide content. So there’s no doubt that a certain versatility, a multi-skilling, a diversification of modes all help to promote at least the possibility of a range of income streams. You could get lucky with a big advance, rights sales etc but breath is not to be held under any circumstances. Having had a book published in France, where the equivalent of the net book agreement still exists, I’ve seen the smaller publishers and bookshops survive but that doesn’t mean anyone’s getting rich. On this side of the Channel, a writer seems to have to decide early on whether to follow the bend of the market (note EL James readalikes) or to be ahead of the curve and face oblivion. I was talking to someone recently, who knows about digital technologies, and was told of the future of interactive literature apps with customised… my head went fuzzy. Can’t you just want to write stories because you love to?
What do you like most about belonging to 26?
The feeling of being in a wide and strange yet nurturing net…if that isn’t too confusing a metaphor… a net with a strong yet broad mesh that allows wondrous things to flow in and out and remains a net.
Where do you write best?
Generally, anywhere but at a desk – in other words, Edward Gorey’s itinerant rather than sedentary, writer. Usually, there’s a notebook involved, followed by the typing of those notes. Wherever the typing takes place, it’s an editorial step in what seems at the time to be the right direction.
What book do you wish you’d written?
I recently read Sebald’s The Emigrants, which I thought was beautiful.
Who are your literary influences?
The dystopian adventure I’m writing has, inevitably, a long literary genealogy, from Wells via Zamyatin to Orwell and the literary connections between them. But Arthur Koestler and Ayn Rand, too, as well as the more directly autobiographical prison or concentration camp accounts of people like Henri Alleg and Miklos Nyiszli.
And last but not least, how do you relax?
A drug-induced stupor used to be quite efficacious in every way. But these days it interferes with a more natural and purposeful creativity. Walking, running, martial arts all produce Zen-like endorphins, and even ideas. If all of the above fail, there’s always a nice select committee hearing on the BBC Parliament channel.