This week I have the great pleasure of welcoming my special guest Paul Sutton Reeves, who’s kindly agreed to have a chat about his new book Jamboree Bag, available here. I’ve read the book in draft version and can recommend it wholeheartedly; Paul is a superb writer, though he in his modesty would probably never say so himself. In the meantime, if you want to sample some of his writing for free, head over to his blog. But anyway, on with the interview…
Jamboree Bag is an unusual book, especially for a first publication. It’s a collection of many different pieces of work: extracts from novels and novellas, short stories, journalism, song lyrics, and even blog posts. Why did you choose to publish such a work, rather than something more conventional?
I had several things in mind. I’m as yet undecided about whether to go down the self-publishing route. As you know, I do have a novel, a novella and a short fiction collection pretty much ready to roll. In the meantime, I wanted to have something printed up that I might show to interested parties, whether that be publishers, agents, friends or anyone else who might be curious about my writing. I like the compendium format and I felt that I’d been writing long enough to justify putting one together.
It’s not quite my first publication, though. Music in Dreamland, my biography of leftfield musician, Bill Nelson was published by Helter Skelter in 2009 and I wrote one of the chapters in Speak the Culture: Britain, published the same year.
How did you decide which pieces to include in the collection?
Well, I have a huge store of bits and pieces, so it took some time! I experimented with different combinations until I hit upon one with which I was reasonably happy. As regards the extracts, I tried to find chapters or passages that would work in a stand-alone capacity.
Included in Jamboree Bag are some chapters from your novel Mayflies, which in my opinion is magnificent. Can you tell us something about the novel?
Well, firstly, may I say, thanks very much for the compliment. The novel took me six years to write. It’s very long! Ostensibly, it’s about an RAF bomber crew flying raids on Germany out of a base in Eastern England during the Second World War. It’s about plenty of other things too, though – the loss of youth, the nature of courage, the relationship between truth and fiction, camaraderie and the dismantling of England’s post-war dream, to name a few of them. It was my best shot but I don’t seem able to an interest a publisher in it…
Which writers have had the greatest influence on you?
Hmm, that’s tricky – where to begin? The influences on my writing are legion. Just for a start, then, in terms of wordplay and experimentation, I’d cite Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and W G Sebald. So far as prose is concerned, I aspire to – and inevitably fall short of – the clarity attained by George Orwell, Rex Warner, William Golding, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. Other Titans whom I’d name as influences in a more general sense include Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, Tove Jansson, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera and Jorge Luis Borges. There are more contemporary writers whom I admire but I wouldn’t say that they’re influences.
I’ve noticed that you revel in language: in stretching it, playing with it, experimenting with it, and sometimes putting constraints on it. You’ve also mentioned your admiration for Oulipo. Why are you so attracted to linguistic games?
That’s a good question, Mari, and one to which I’m not entirely sure I know the answer. It’s something that’s always appealed to me. Words and what you do with them is where the interest lies for me. If writing is nothing more than a plot with characters and action then it might as well be television (and that’s not a good thing, to my mind). I believe that I drew a parallel with painting in that post, noting that it was forced to raise its game once photography had come along and removed the need for representational work. And constraint can force writing to grow in intriguing ways that it would never do otherwise.
You frequently mention non-English-speaking writers, and have said that you find Anglo-Saxon literature rather dull by comparison. Why is this?
Well, it’s not a deliberate policy as such to read non-British writers. It’s just that I find much of the literary scene in my home country – its concerns and its mannerisms – unappealing. Writing from other countries, on the other hand, France, say, or the Czech Republic seems in much ruder health. Writing from the UK strikes me as very narrow – London-centred, public school dominated – and at the other extreme too provincial to be universal in any meaningful way. I wouldn’t necessarily include US authors in this – I get the feeling that there’s a more vibrant scene over there. There are some current British writers whom I do rate – Edward Carey (even though he ignored me on Twitter!), early Magnus Mills and Dan Rhodes. They’re all “outsiders”, though. Ishiguro’s pretty good too. There’s a whole world of fiction out there to be discovered, so why limit your reading to the output of one small country?
In Experimental Fiction, Part Two: in Defence of Literary Games you write, “Fiction has to aspire.” Are you sometimes depressed by those writers who seem to aspire to nothing but the next pay cheque?
Yes, would be the short answer. Obviously, readers need books and books need readers, but as soon as money becomes the priority I suspect that the art is dead. But then, I’ve read that most of Roberto Bolaňo’s fiction was written to provide for his family while he was seriously ill, so maybe I’m wrong! Obviously, it’d be nice if somebody paid me to write but it’s simply not the motivator so far as I’m concerned. I aspire to write the very best book of which I’m capable, the sort of book that I would want to read myself.
In your writing you often reference other writers: a striking example in Jamboree Bag is The Brief Literary Career of Lewis Burgess. To what extent do you consider yourself to be part of an ongoing literary tradition?
I very much view literature as a continuum and a dialogue, so to that extent, the answer is yes. My writing is littered with hidden – and not so hidden – nods to my literary heroes. I wouldn’t dream, however, of comparing myself to Borges (to whom the story is in part a tribute), an incredible talent and a major player on the world stage.
You’ve also included extracts from two works-in-progress, Transitory and Five. Can you tell us something about these works?
Well, they’re the two novels upon which I’ve been working over the last couple of years. Five is very loosely a sequel to “Mayflies” and has a Cold War setting. I’ve planned it out and written some 15,000 words. The title refers in part to five members of an aircrew and the relationship between them. For the past year or so, though, it’s been on the back-burner while I’ve worked on Transitory, of which I now have around 80,000 words written. It’s a fairly experimental work, particularly with regards to its structure. It’s about a people that have gone into exile after a series of disasters befall their small country. Myth and untruths abound. Narratives are buried within narratives. I like a challenge! Can I make it work? Time will tell…
You’ve worked as a music journalist; indeed, several of your articles are included in Jamboree Bag. Did this experience influence your writing? If so, how?
Writing music journalism played a huge part in my development as a writer. I’ve always had plenty of book ideas and I knew how to craft a sentence but that was as far as things went. The three manuscripts of fiction that I produced in the 1990s bear witness to this. Working as a journalist taught me to work much more efficiently and with far greater concision.
You clearly love music; I believe you were once in a band. Does music influence or overlap with your writing?
Yes, it’s true that I love music and I did play in several bands. The principal way that it overlaps these days is that I listen to it a lot while I’m writing. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental music, post-rock, mostly, things like Mono, Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. There are no lyrics to get in the way of my thought processes. Having said that, working as a lyricist was the first genuine writing that I did and that’s why I included a couple of examples in Jamboree Bag.
Someone remarked that it was odd how little music there is in “Mayflies”, given my fondness for it. Music does feature in my novella, Norwegian Rock – hence the title, in part. And it figures significantly in my two works-in-progress. I make reference to music if it feels right for the project.
Traditional publishing, self-publishing, print-on-demand, eBooks: we live in interesting times. What’s your take on all this?
I honestly don’t know, Mari. It’s all in turmoil right now, isn’t it? I can’t even make my mind up about how I should try to get my own work into print! I believe in-store print-on-demand has a big role to play in the survival of bookshops. For myself, I much prefer to read physical books, to browse in libraries and book stores. The crux of the matter for me is how we’re going to unearth the good stuff that’s being written. Traditional publishers are taking fewer and fewer risks while the self-publishing scene is incredibly diffuse with almost no quality control.
I’d like to thank Paul for agreeing to be interviewed today, and for providing us with such a fascinating insight into his work. I hope, too, that some of my readers will be tempted to buy a copy and see for themselves how high the standard of writing is. Many thanks, Paul!