It took some time until you published your first fantastic story, so it might be interesting to hear what you did before and whether those years were in any way a preparation for your writing.
I have been writing since my mid-teens. I focused on poetry first, for many years, and a few short poetic prose pieces. I started writing prose more in my mid-twenties when I couldn’t progress the poetry. The more fantastical side of literature had always been a draw to me, but it was often from a more surreal and stranger angle; the works of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka seemed to resonate more than the classic canon of the British/American weird and supernatural. I studied literature, drama and philosophy, which was a great foundation for my approach to the literary fantastic. As I continued with my studies, I worked in the wine trade for a good number of years – an aspect of my life that has recently returned in my writing with the publication of my short novel, Terroir, a folk horror story set in a French vineyard.
I started teaching in Higher Education in 1999 in Performance and Fine Art, having previously run some Philosophy and Literature classes. As the years went by I settled into a more permanent academic career and greatly enjoyed teaching and research for many years. Alongside that I started to write more stories, and gradually found my direction as a writer. I was never particularly bothered about publishing the work. I sent a couple of stories off, got a couple of rejections, but never stopped writing. I tinkered a little, but with the publication of An Emporium of Automata, with Ex Occidente Press, I started to really enjoy working more on the stories.
Sadly, with the introduction of student fees here in the UK, the fundamental principles of Higher Education were deeply, perhaps irreparably, undermined, and over the last few years the foundations of the ethical relationship between lecturer and student have been eroded. At that point, the career I had so enjoyed, and the work that had given me such pleasure for so long, no longer existed. I had to make a decision – plod on until retirement doing something I no longer believed in, or strike out on a new path. So, at the end of 2018, I left academia to pursue the writing more seriously. But, most certainly, everything I have done, from working with wine, to teaching and researching, especially in the context of theatre and philosophy, prepared me for writing – or perhaps, more accurately, prepared my writing for me.
I would like to begin the discussion of your stories with their lightest aspect: playfulness. Some of them – I'm thinking of a story like „Mors Janua Vitae“ with its surprise ending – seem to be written just for the fun of it. They seem to be nearer to the parodistic legal information or the humorous „notes about the author“ in your books than to your more complex and darker stories.
Play. Yes! To follow on from your previous question – play is fundamental to the work I did in Drama, especially in the context of workshop experimentation. So, playfulness comes rather naturally into my writing. Sometimes that is simply structural, in terms of formatting, or a framework for the story, sometimes the lightness might be more focused through character or the narration. I try to offer a variety of elements to the writing so that, especially in a collection of stories, the reader moves through zones of affect. Of course, not everyone will enjoy all of the stories in a given collection, but I always hope that even the ones they have not enjoyed have made some impact, sometimes that may be through this playfulness you mention, at others through the darker qualities of another tale.
Contrary to popular belief, this lighter aspect is only rarely to be found in your tales about Mister Punch and other puppets or marionettes. In these stories obsession, aggression and anarchy are predominant. And, conspicuously, the sheer craftsmanship of the creators of puppets and puppeteers. One of your first explorations of this important motif is „Memorabilia“, a cycle of four stories and a frame.
That is an interesting point. The puppet stories do tend towards those aspects. Again, to move from your previous question into this, play is often regarded as frivolous and silly. For so many people puppets are toys for children—and it is only children who play, they think. But play is also deeply serious. And, in many ways perhaps it is only children who properly play—without care for what others think of them. Watch the intensity of children at play, note the worldbuilding and the creativity, see with what seriousness they guard their ephemeral wooden towers and what joy and focus they bring to their constructions made of cardboard and string—it is a very, very serious business, behind the laughter, and it is, for that time, their complete reality. But everything there is brittle and delicate—both the things and the emotions. So, yes, obsession, aggression and anarchy, are excellent descriptions of the serious world of the puppet—for everything, in a sense can be a puppet, manipulated by us, often to aid a task, but also through the capacity of our imaginations. And obsession, aggression and anarchy, are also excellent descriptions of the energy of play—it should be a total investment, volatile and without boundaries. Thus then, the world of the craftsman comes in; the making of the puppet both revealing and taming the propensity for exuberance; the adult puppeteer constrained by the articulation of joints and the function of string, limbs and fixed expressions. ‘Memorabilia’ is one incarnation of this, indeed, but not really the earliest, but it is the one that is probably most clearly framed as such.
It is obvious that the remarks of a character or a narrator don't necessarily represent the author's attitude. There is, however, at least one story whose narrator seems to outline important aspects of your personal poetics. I'm thinking of „The Phantasmagorical Imperative“ with its crucial echoing of the advert of the „Nature Theatre of Oklahoma“ in Kafka's novel Amerika.
Yes, if there is anything like a manifesto in my work it can be found in that story. Equally though, that statement is itself about constant transformation and the coda to the story urges a compassion for all things, as they undergo their constant process of change. The element of performance, that I often use in my writing, brings the consideration of appearances to the fore. The reference to Kafka is also important as it raises the issue of becoming trapped in eternal circles of repetition—constrained by the confines of the real. The story urges us to embrace the mystery of creativity—to allow literature, or any other art form really, to do its work and help us to transform.
An additional aspect appears, for example, in „Holzwege“. True, the story can be read as a grim comment on certain aspects of Heidegger's philosophy. But on a different – and subtly related – level another motif seems much more relevant: that of indomitable forces in our lives. Whether we call these forces natural or supernatural is of minor importance; important is their ineffable influence. An influence that is at the same time familiar and alien. And this paradoxical combination is the best definition of the word „uncanny“, unheimlich.
The arrogance of humanity, and of the individual is something that I return to often—our propensity for cruelty and lust for power. What Holzwege allowed me was a story where that force itself narrated, and uncanniness could be made manifest through the reader in that way. The background to that story is the rise to power of the Nazis, and the contexts of their myth-making. Heidegger’s obsession with the woods and the idealised history and culture of a certain kind of Germany proved a really fertile environment to consider how one of those forces (the rise to power of totalitarianism) encounters another force (the timeless supernatural woodland beings), and that whatever monolithic monstrosity we create, whatever perverse system or regime comes to the fore, it will always meet its end. Given Heidegger’s abhorrent politics, but beautifully redemptive, caring and careful philosophy, that contradiction offered a suitable backdrop to that work.
The darkest aspect of your stories, however, is the individual's confrontation with absolute annihilation and nothingness. Even some of your earliest stories like „One is Less than or Equal to Nothing“ explore this motif.
The relationship between the light and the dark that you have highlighted earlier is also a key to this, I suppose. ‘One is Less than or Equal to Nothing’ also played with vanishing, and emerging, words, through the text—so it had a typographic play, that illuminated its darker aspect. To return to Heidegger for a moment, existence is a kind of attempt at standing out, or emerging—an ekstasis—and characters in a story also emerge, in relation to each other, their constructed pasts and the developing ‘future’ of the story. In the same way that I am interested in a care for objects, I am equally interested in the character’s appearance, and return to darkness, within our own minds, as writers and readers. That mirrors our own experience as beings. In that sense the experience of literature is a microcosm of our own existences—or the play of multiple possible existences in our minds. Thinking beyond Heidegger, through someone like Levinas, the ethical encounter between beings, which is an infinite task, captures the movement back and forth between reader and writer in the context of the darkness of ‘absolute annihilation and nothingness’. Perhaps it is claiming too much for literature but I think that there is almost an ethical imperative to multiply our possibilities of existence, through the work of the imagination, against the tide of inevitable destruction and erasure.
Let's come back to some lighter aspects. You are a very European writer. It is hardly imaginable that any British author apart from you should hide an allusion to E. T. A. Hoffmann in the title of a story and begin its first paragraph with Mikhail Kuzmin. You did this in „Dr Dappertutto's Saturnalia“.
It is interesting you start that question with a return to ‘lighter aspects’; my interests in Europe often stem from the darkness of its history, especially that of the horrors of the Twentieth Century. I feel a great affinity to European writers, I’m not quite sure why. There is less genre rigidity I feel; absurd, surreal, fantastical and downright horrific works seem to erupt as easily amongst more realist fiction, or often within it, and that seems to offer a more open engagement as a reader. I also feel a deep obligation to the entirely admirable European ‘project’, if we can call it that. As cultures in our twilight years it seems that a re-invigoration of our communality was required, politically, socially and culturally. A more integrated Europe offered that and I would always proudly call myself European. Sadly, the last few years of British politics have demonstrated a shameful self-indulgence predicated on an entirely delusional retelling of the past—ironic really, given that our discussions are about fiction. I often make reference to European writers, and other creative practitioners, to give another context to the story—or other way of reading it, related to that reference. Something like, ‘Conflagration’, for example, is a series of vignettes that span the Twentieth Century, taking place in various places across Europe, framed by the experiments of the avant-garde theatre. The references there can enhance a reading of it, or it can function instead as a more stream-of-consciousness experience for the reader; its European contexts can offer other readings which broaden into reflections on the war, Soviet occupation, and the revolutionary aspirations of certain strands of creative endeavour.
A reader who has a look at the gallery on your website will realise that you appreciate the Quay Brothers. There is, indeed, a certain parallel between the mood in some of your stories and the atmosphere in many of their films, among them, for example, Nocturna Artificialia. Do you see other parallels? Maybe even parallels in narrative technique, despite the different medium?
I discovered The Quays through Bruno Schulz, and Schulz through the theatre of Tadeusz Kantor. The three of them together (well, four really… if The Quays are indeed two), the mood and atmosphere of their work have had a deep impact on my writing. In theatre and film you have the opportunity of working with image and sound, alongside the text. In writing one has to work in a different manner to generate the atmosphere of a piece. I always return to Meyerhold and Kantor’s approach to their theatre—they considered it in the manner of a musical score. When I am writing I try to be very attentive to how the mood of the story can be served by the pace of the language. So, I attempt to generate a kind of score for the tale that will work to evoke the mood that is necessary for it.
One of your most impressive new stories is „Blood and Smoke, Vinegar and Ashes“. Characters, setting, and narrative voice are highly individual and distinctive; but its fundamental plot structure is the old fairy tale motif of the three fateful wishes. Maybe this is an opportunity to talk about such oral traditions that are still to be found at the basis of some of the most advanced contemporary weird tales.
Those are kind comments on that story, thank you. Yes, I think it is clear that so many works, including those in the contemporary weird, are part of an ongoing relationship with such oral traditions. Again, to raise the issue of theatre—it is vital to be attentive to how a story performs itself. I often think carefully about how a story might come across when read aloud; and reading aloud is the best form of editing and proofreading, I find. Storytelling is so fundamental to being human—both in terms of its imaginative creation (the work of invention) but also in its sharing with others (performing for, and with, others). Despite being locked inside paper pages and ‘performed’ through the medium of the reader’s mind I still think of writing as ‘putting on a show’.
Apart from E. T. A. Hoffmann, Kafka and Heidegger, whom I have already mentioned, there are Novalis, Kleist, Hölderlin, Meyrink, Ewers, Robert Walser, Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein among the impressive number of German speaking writers and philosophers you either quote literally, allude to or have written stories in homage to. I am well aware that it must be virtually impossible for you to describe in a mere interview what they mean to you. But maybe you could give your readers at least a hint?
I do not speak, or read, German—to my shame. It is a language that has intrigued me for years and, yes, the list above shows how much such writers and thinkers have influenced me. What they mean to me… that’s a tricky one. What they mean is a constant dialogue, and the connections and re-interpretations that the works offer. I am fascinated by the thinking of the fragment, by writers such as Schlegel. He wrote, in Athenaeum Fragment 77, ‘A dialogue is a chain or garland of fragments’ and this captures wonderfully that sense of engaging with a rich heritage of thought and literature, both in sequence and in a cycle; not as part of a broken whole that you are attempting to piece together, the German Romantic fragment was different to that, but as a creative, vibrant and ongoing reworking of the past.
Your story „At the Sign of the Burning Leaf“ was first published in Booklore, an anthology of stories, essays, and memoirs about different reading experiences. Your wistful little tale deals with a very special bookstore, so my final question may almost seem inevitable. Is it still possible for you to read a story just for your own pleasure? And do you, after a certain time and contrary to your protagonist and narrator, return to one or the other writer whose work you have already read before?
Yes, indeed, reading is always a great pleasure, nothing could take that away! The writer I return to most often is Maurice Blanchot. His work offers a fusion of fiction, criticism and philosophy that is constantly revealing with each return to it.
D. P. Watt, thank you for this interview.
Thank you for inviting me, Martin, and for such interesting questions.