How would you describe your most recent book?
A reader reviewing Anthropocene Park on Amazon described it as “both funny and prophetic at the same time”. It’s a comedy, but dealing with a serious issue- the fact that while our science has rapidly advanced to the point where we have been able to make a geologically significant impact on the planet (we have entered the so-called “Anthropocene” period) our minds- and ethical values- have not had time to evolve much further than those of our savannah-dwelling hunter-gatherer ancestors. It plays with the idea that intelligent machines, being free of human limitations, might be able to complete the project of planetary consciousness, while compassionately preserving the obsolete humans in a safe haven: the Anthropocene Park of the title.
How does this book connect to your other writing? Are there particular topics or subjects you find yourself coming back to?
I suppose the connection is a concern with the existential. Characters keep bumping up against the hard frustrating fact that the ultimate nature of reality is unknowable. In my previous novel, Peter and Paul, Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus- “What is truth?”- gets the answer: “The truth, Pontius, is that the world is as it is, and hidden from us utterly.” Who are we? Why are we? These are the unanswerable questions I find myself continually worrying at, through my fictional characters. In the end, I would say that the questions I keep coming back to are essentially religious in nature.
Who are your influences? Who do you read, and what of them do you think might seep into your own writing?
Anthony Burgess has been a huge influence. In a TV interview recorded in March 1989, he says, “In fiction- any kind of verbal art- words should be… characters, language should be a character in itself. [For example,] Freddie Forsyth gives you a transparent language, you look through it, into the action, whereas with me the language is a bit more opaque.” And, let’s face it, James Joyce is the father of us all. In 1990 Burgess was kind enough to read and comment on a very Joycean early novel of mine- Loseable Paradises– pointing out that Joyce’s experiments were for himself alone, and that I’d better try to find my own voice: I hope I’ve managed to take his advice. There is a little homage to Burgess in Anthropocene Park: a chapter entitled Earthy (sic) Powers. An element of Peter and Paul is a parody of Burgess’ Kingdom of the Wicked. I also find the influence of Shakespeare inescapable: the latter part of Anthropocene Park is set on Lindisfarne, but it is also Prospero’s island, and the characters and action here reflect The Tempest. One of the characters- a machine version of Ariel- speaks in iambic pentameter. I could go on listing influences- another speaks like P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, and there are sections recalling Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker- but I don’t want to give the impression that the novel is a patchwork; rather I would say that these are examples of how, for me at the moment, language can function as character. As for more recent influences, I’ve been very impressed lately by Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which seems to me to re-invent the narrative voice with an astonishing freshness.
How have your experiences affected how and why you write? Does the fact that you studied music, and taught literature, inform your work?
When I was a teacher, I used to take pupils regularly to an outdoor education centre on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales. A friend I met there taught me to love the Welsh language, and the way landscape and mythology work together. My first serious attempt at the novel, Tristan and the Dragon Girl, comes out of this experience; I’m not sure why I wrote it- it just seemed to happen. Having studied music at university (specialising in composition) I have always been concerned with form as much as content; in my writing you can see variation, transformation, rondo, and other compositional concepts determining the way the narrative is expressed. As a composer, I’m also very interested in the sound effects implied by the written word. I once wrote and set to music a group of poems in Welsh called “Lleoedd”. This is the Welsh word for “places”. It isn’t easy to say “lleoedd”. Pull your tongue back between your rear molars, bite on it and exhale sharply. That’s the double L. Then release your tongue while saying a short E as in egg. The OE is a diphthong as in “oil”, and the terminal double D is the old English thorn as in “then.” Try it: Lleoedd- places. So, the physicality of words is important to me. As for teaching literature, I found that it really makes you think about what writing is. I’ve already mentioned Shakespeare (I adapted and directed half a dozen of his plays for school performance) but the standard set texts like Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies also gave me lots of ideas and are referred to in Anthropocene Park. I used to teach drama, and wrote a lot of plays for my pupils: this may be why I am comfortable expressing action through dialogue, rather than having a narrator explain to the reader what is going on.
Where will your writing go next, do you think? Are there places or ideas which you know you want to explore?
Back to “Lleoedd”- places. I’m currently very interested in the idea of “thinking with places”. What does a particular place have to say to you? Is it a place remembered from long ago, with affection, or anxiety? Or is it the place you’re experiencing now? How does it make you feel, what voice does it evoke? There are places in South Wales which have huge significance for me, but I’ve also been thinking about the place where I grew up: the Wirral and its astonishing views across the Dee estuary to North Wales. These ideas have been thrown into relief for me recently by reading Geoffrey Hill’s collected poems- Broken Hierarchies. Their technical complexity and emotional power- and sense of place- have moved me very much, and perhaps helped me to sense the direction in which my writing might go next. But I’m still recovering from Anthropocene Park, and can’t see what the future holds just yet.