ARCHIVE: In the City – Anthony Cropper, James Nash and Dee Rimbaud

Andrew interviewed Anthony Cropper, James Nash and Dee Rimbaud in 2005. ‘I remember this interview well,’ says Andrew, ‘It was an experiment, for weeks I had tried to arrange meeting all three writers together but our diaries wouldn’t marry up. In the end I interviewed them all by email and then created the location. It is common practice amongst journalists to do this, to add or subtract material after a meeting, via phone or email. I took it one step further, there was no pub but I created it! The writers in question where rather bemused by the interview. It just shows that all journalism is only one viewpoint of the truth. I wrote up the interview in a pub’.

In the City: Anthony Cropper, James Nash and Dee Rimbaud. Interview by Andrew Oldham

With the release of Naked City I took the opportunity to catch up with the editor of the collection, Anthony Cropper and two of the writers in an undisclosed location in the city.

I ask Dee Rimbaud and James Nash about their short stories, The Model Woman and Father and Sons which make an appearance in the new collection from Route, Naked City. Can you both tell us a little about the story?

“It was a bit of a tease really…” starts James.

“The Model Woman…” adds Dee, “Is about a waitress who works in an Italian Restaurant in Glasgow. Her world revolves around the restaurant, as she is engaged to one of the owner’s sons; and it would appear the trajectory of her life is already mapped out. Then, one day, she is confronted with the apparition of her fantasy-self in the flesh; an encounter that shakes her confidence and makes her doubt her chosen path.

“I’ve always been interested in the father and sons relationship, and that we have real and ‘pretend’ ones throughout our life. Some fathers are looking for sons, and some sons are looking for fathers, perhaps because they have lost their own, or theirs were unsatisfactory. I also wanted to show how some of these ‘pretend’ relationship can be pathological,” finishes James.

I turn my attention to the editor of the collection, the award winning writer, Anthony Cropper and ask the million dollar question that all writers want to know. What made you think ‘yes, this is good story’ when you read tDee Rimbaud’s The Model Woman and James Nash’s Fathers and Sons?

“Both were engaging right from the start. Both were detailed, close pieces with a strong sense of place and reality. Father and Sons offered much by way of suggestion, whereas Model Woman seemed more direct, more forceful in its prose”.

Where did the ideas for your stories come from?

“I knew someone once who sacked all his friends from time to time, and made new ones. He had been seriously damaged as a child, and his adult relationships reflected this. Brendan was loosely based on this person,” answers James.

“I was having a late lunch in Dino’s Restaurant in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. I was watching staff taking lunch, relaxing in between rush periods, and I just let my imagination take off from there” is Dee’s response.

Cropper watches them both as the two writers take a sip from their respective drinks. I have to ask them. How did you find Anthony as an editor? James nearly chokes and Dee smirks. Anthony sighs and looks out the window.

“He was a sympathetic and subtle editor, never intrusive, and always intelligent. Whenever he made a suggestion, it was a good one,” starts James.

“He and Ian Daley have done a fine job in putting together Naked City, and I am very pleased to have my story included in this collection,” answers Dee. They both watch Anthony, wait for his response, he sighs, laughs a little, reaches for his own drink – they wait – all writers crave praise, because their parents never actually figured out what they did and therefore couldn’t actually praise it.

“I can’t con myself. If I think something’s good, then I say so. Whether that’s objective or subjective I don’t know. I read stories, any stories, and I always think about how the writer has done things and how I do things. I’m pretty critical, but realise you’ve got to let writers have their own space. The main thing in this collection was getting a cohesive set of stories together, ones that would work as a whole to illustrate some aspects of life in these changing cities. The nit-picking wasn’t that important”.

Anthony, How hard was the editing process?

“It’s great to read some good stories. The surprises are well worth the effort, and seeing the collection come together as a whole is satisfying. The lows, well, reading through a lot of stories can be tiring, but I can’t complain too much. Again, the main thing was getting the stories together, getting them to fit, putting some sort of structure to the book. That’s the thing that took a lot of doing. Mostly, the stories needed minor changes, just some inconsistencies, but there were some which I thought could be made stronger with tightening them up, paring them down. When it comes down to it, you can only make suggestions. Reading a piece of work and seeing where it could be chopped and changed isn’t that hard. I’d pass on suggestions and wait to see what the writers made of them”.

If James and Dee could change anything in the stories, re-edit them, what would they choose to change? James whistles, Dee looks up at the ceiling starts to hum as Anthony sits back relieved of being the editor.

“I might spend more time on the relationship between the narrator and Brendan. It could be part of a much longer piece,” replies James.

Dee is more confident in his response, he knows what he wants and what he wants to write.

“There is nothing I would want to change in this story”.

Anthony, How do you feel the process of editing has helped you as an author?

“I think anything to do with working with writing is a help, whether it’s editing or running workshops or just reading. Anything that makes you think about your own work must be good. I’m very critical of my own material. I’ll write quickly but will chop and change a lot when I’ve pages to work with”.

And, what was the oddest submission you received?

“Nothing specific springs to mind, but there were a couple of stories which were way too long, more like novellas”.

What ‘drew’ you to edit the Naked City collection?

“The initial idea was Ian Daley’s. He’d discussed it with me some time ago and even then I thought it was a good idea. I’ve lived in a fair few cities, Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford, Chester, Bristol… and the rapid and dramatic changes were evident. I’d wanted to be involved, even before reading the stories. When I did get to go through them it was easy to see it would be a very good collection”.

James and Dee, when and how did you first start to write?

“First started to write as child,” says James, “I loved reading, and I used to tell my brother and sister stories while we were lying in bed with our bedroom doors open. Turned to poetry about ten years ago, and from there to short stories”.

And Dee?

“Really, as soon as I learned the alphabet,” he chuckles, “Prior to that, I used to act out elaborate stories with my toys. That said, a good Scottish comprehensive education soon knocked the stuffing out of the creative impulse; and I may never have written again, had it not been for the encouragement my third year English teacher, Maurice Cox. Initially, I wrote only poetry, as it more immediately served my need for instant gratification. I didn’t tackle fiction and its demands until I was in my early thirties”.

The process of writing is often seen as a lonely, isolated occurrence. Can you both take us through, blow by blow, how the story first came to you, how you wrote it and where, how you resolved problems and crafted the final piece? James nods, opens his mouth to reply but Dee starts.

“The story first came to me in a restaurant. It was some time ago now, so I can’t remember the writing process in detail. However I can tell you that, in general, when the ‘muse’ comes to me, I will write the poem or story down without pausing for breath. After that, I’ll read it through, decide it’s ‘crap’ and then put it away in a folder for future revision. These first drafts can languish forgotten for months, years or even decades (I’m not exaggerating). On a semi-regular basis, I will look through all my folders, and re-read these first drafts. Usually, one story or poem will strike me, and I will be able to see the way forward with it. So I’ll work on a second draft, and the piece won’t seem so ‘crap’, but I know it’s still got some way to go, so I put it back in its folder… and so it goes, on and on, until I consider the piece to be finished. If memory serves me right, I wrote the first draft of The Model Woman somewhere between 1995 and 1998”.

James?

“I had an idea about a man, still mourning the death of his son, his marriage collapsed through the strain of mourning for the lost son. I also saw the man as someone who saw images of children and particularly boy children everywhere. He was unconsciously drawn to them. With a surviving younger son, and a demanding job, he takes time out at lunchtime to browse in a junkshop and he finds two Chinese figures, one perfect, the other with subtle internal damage. He meets a charming stranger in the shop who reminds him of his dead son. There follows a strange and uncomfortable ‘flirtation’ which ends in discomfort as he realises that this young man is not his son, and is very damaged. I have the two Chinese figures at home, and built the story around them. There may be something of my broken marriage in the story. But I have never had sons. The problem was all to do with indicating the themes but not shouting them out aloud. I kept removing and removing all the stuff which seemed to be too obvious. I wanted to allude to the issues, not tell my reader what to think”.

Before I can ask Anthony, he moves from his seat and heads for the bar. We all put in order before he’s five yards away and we turn back to the interview in hand, secure in the knowledge that vocal chords and vowels will soon flow easier.

How do you overcome the feeling of isolation as a writer?

“I work as a freelancer in schools, libraries, theatres, writing groups all the time. I wish there was more isolation,” bemoans James.

Dee laughs.

“Is isolation something that should be overcome? There is so much emphasis placed on the gregarious nature of humans and animals, that isolation is seen as a negative state of being. Gregariousness is, I believe, a primitive instinct that belongs to an era when we could only survive in a herd. This herd instinct requires that its members have a common purpose and, by extension, a common thought process (often dictated by the Alpha male). Gregariousness gives birth to monsters, be they crowds of football supporters or xenophobic Nazis. In truth, I believe we are all isolated, but some of us succumb to our loneliness and are willing to sacrifice our individuality for the warm, dangerous arms of the crowd”.

What do you both do for day to day job?

“Teacher, presenter, journalist, facilitator. Completely freelance,” answers James.

“I have done so many different day-to-day jobs I’ve lost count. My last working stint, as a propsman for film and television, came to an abrupt end when I suffered a brain haemorrhage and nearly died, back in 2001. Since then I have been mainly a house-husband and dad (although I do earn some ‘pin money’ through my writing, art, illustration and graphic design). Incidentally, my daughter, Rosie Sunshine, was born only two weeks after I had my brain haemorrhage,” adds Dee.

We watch Anthony at the bar for awhile, a debate has sprung up between the barman and the writer, none of us can make out what the two are arguing about. After much semaphore action by Anthony we move on.

Do you think a writer draws from their experiences or creates fantasy? If so, how do you do this?

“I think writers do both,” starts James, “consciously and unconsciously. I sometimes draw directly from experience or stories people have told me. My second poetry collection seemed to have nothing to do with my own life. I read it now and see the end of my second marriage”.

“Where does experience end and fantasy begin?,” asks Dee, “Everything we experience is registered and processed in the brain, which is a fantastically elaborate organic computer, made up of millions of hard drives, connected together by kazillions of USB cables. No-one knows how this network of mini super-computers is made up, or exactly how it processes information, but one thing I can say, without any hesitation, is that all fiction, even the wildest kind, has its origins in experience. All fiction and all fantasies (even extreme paranoid schizophrenic delusions) are by-products of experiences. Imagine, if our brains were made by Microsoft – we’d be safe from delusions and fantasies. We’d be safe from fiction too!”

If you could have received one piece of advice before you started writing what would it have been?

“Just keep doing it!!” barks James.

“Persevere,” adds Dee.

“Keep it simple,” says Anthony as he returns burgeoned with drinks, trays and a bar towel, “And read it through a number of times before submitting. And then there’s the old chestnut; stick a tenner in to oil the works”.

James and Dee you 20 words, in which to sell your story to potential readers, what would those 20 words be?

James?

“Does a loss or relationship nag at you daily? In this story one man transcends his bereavement through time”.

“‘Whatever you do, do NOT read this story!’ (this tactic always works with my 3 year old daughter). Seriously though, I don’t know what to say in response to this question. I don’t know how to sell a story, in twenty words or a hundred”.

And where next?

“I’m writing a novel. That takes up all my attention,” replies James reaching for his drink.

There is confusion between James and Anthony, something about the towel which is thankfully drowned out by Dee.

“I feel I’m coming to the end of a cycle with my writing. My novel, Stealing Heaven From The Lips Of God has just recently been published, and my third collection of poetry is nearly complete. Where I go after that, I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot of projects bubbling away on the back burner, but I can’t think about them until the poetry collection is under wraps”.

Thanks James, Dee and Anthony, and now to drink and writing.

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