Andrew interviewed Steve Aylett twice in the last five years, this second interview appeared in 2008. ‘I admire Steve’s work,’ says Andrew, ‘Interviewing him though is a strange experience because you can never predict what Steve is going to do next. I love that about him’.
From Pulp to Aylett. Interview by Andrew Oldham
Certainly in the design and content of your new book, Lint, there is a feel that Pulp Fiction of the 20th Century has had an imposing effect on your work. But what does Pulp mean to you as a reader and a writer?
‘The colourful and kitsch presentation is definitely there. But in terms of pulp writing I tend to think of it as writing quite quickly and disposably, neither of which are me. And a concentration on narrative rather than ideas, maybe. Again, not like my writing – there’ll be a lot of story in my books but it’s mainly something for the ideas and gags to live in. LINT was a great housing for thousands of ideas because it contains hundreds of books in summary plus what was said about them, and the stupid things the author got up to. So there are several juicy idea-shapes on every page. It’s interesting to start with a familiar-looking genre and take it somewhere else immediately. A lot of people have done their own take on the hardboiled detective genre, for instance, and used it for their own various purposes. Even Bukowski did it, with PULP. SF pulp stories were a bit more idea-oriented than the crime stuff but would tend to have only one idea per story, and they were still written at quite a rush – and, as I said in LINT, many of them really were written to fit an already-painted cover image. So it would be, ‘We’ve got a cover picture of a green kangaroo emerging from a storm drain holding some sort of thermos – write a story for it.’ Then – as writing teacher Natalie Goldberg would say – go! But that’s not how I do it’.
Which writers did you admire when you first set out to write your first novel?
‘JP Donleavy, Voltaire, Kerouac, Greg Egan, Dostoevsky, Brautigan, Raymond Chandler, Robert Crais, Billy Childish, Ray Bradbury, Walt Whitman, Kurt Vonnegut, Rudy Rucker, John Wyndham, Bruno Schultz. There’s nothing wrong with writing just for expression or therapy rather than real creativity, but it’ll almost certainly have been said before by someone, so it’s like inadvertent duplication. And that stuff does get published by the bucket load, unfortunately’.
What piece of advice would you give someone who wanted to write a novel?
‘I’d suggest that they write something original, but that would be a cruel thing to tell them if they’re hoping to get published. Publishers tend to publish the sort of thing that’s been published before, unless someone gets in by fluke or masquerade, as I’ve done. Real creativity is originality. By definition creativity is the making of something which didn’t exist before you produced it. There’s nothing wrong with writing just for expression or therapy rather than real creativity, but it’ll almost certainly have been said before by someone, so it’s like inadvertent duplication. And that stuff does get published by the bucket load, unfortunately. Originality, though, is gold dust. I’m sure I can’t be the only person in the world who’s into it. I’m still clinging to the hope that there are enough people into genuine originality to make a market for it’.
LINT is your present novel, concerning Jeff Lint, ‘author of some of the strangest and most inventive satirical SF of the twentieth century’. Where did this character come from and what does SF mean to Steve Aylett and why did you choose to create a character akin to Phillip K. Dick?
‘Jeff Lint more or less arrived fully-formed, as this obliviously creative character. He’s the sort of vividly rampaging author I wished existed. I could put hundreds of book and story ideas into the book. In the other Lint book I did, “And Your Point Is?” I finally wrote a story that had been in a holding pattern for a long time, called “The Retrial”. It was done as a critical review of Jeff Lint’s story ‘The Retrial’, which we get to see through my ‘essay’. The same thing with ‘Rise of the Swans’. They’re beautiful Voltairian satire, really juicy with controlled, justified resentment. Books and stories want to be a certain way, and it’s good to be patient until you see what that is, so that you can make them that way. Sometimes it’s even a case of waiting until you’re a better writer. Speaking of which, Alan Moore wrote a blurby thing for the back of LINT and mentioned a writer called Harry Stephen Keeler, who I hadn’t heard of. I asked him who this was and he told me about Keeler. It turns out he was a prolific pulp author in the 20s-50s, and very like Jeff Lint, though a worse writer I had portrayed Lint to be. Keeler actually had brilliant ideas for stories, but his execution was usually terrible. He didn’t know what to leave out, so he just included everything. He was obsessed with skulls, clowns and midgets. One of his books was called ‘The Skull of the Waltzing Clown’. Another was ‘The Riddle of the Travelling Skull.’ Loads of these things got published somehow, and he kept writing them even when the publishers stopped publishing him. I can’t read Keeler’s stuff, but I like the idea that he existed, as a figure. The New York Times said about him: “We are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” That’s beautiful isn’t it? That oblivious, unstoppable quality’.
The worlds you create in your books are often alternative and I’m thinking of David Barett’s early quote on your work in the New Statesman, that, “Steve Aylett’s distorting lenses are crueller than most”. How much do you feel this is true of you now and why do you think your books often look at the surreal, cruel side of life?
‘I don’t think I ‘distort’ at all. But I don’t see the point of writing something that just ‘blends in’ with life either, because that’s like doing nothing at all. I’ll tend to enhance and heighten things, exaggerate and take things to their natural conclusion. It’s easy to see the hole in an argument and then use that hole to worry it in half – but satire will tend to use a mechanism of sort of disingenuously taking the argument seriously and running it to its conclusion, leading to surreal absurdities. It’s extreme stress-testing of the position. Also when presented with a justification you can reverse the equation and see if you wind up at the first cause that people claim. Most often you’ll either arrive at a different origin of motivation or go down a false trail that doesn’t honestly reconnect. I write a lot about power manipulation, right up to’Rebel at the End of Time’ which I finished recently. If you’re good at pattern recognition as regards power and powerlessness, it’s like watching people going around with unencrypted motivations. Especially people who are powerless, and the amazing contortions they go through to avoid admitting they’ve been screwed over. The tendency to deny the reality of victimhood is a widespread coping mechanism, and it prevents real justice. I said somewhere that ‘You should be careful when asking people to repay their debt to society: you invite revenge’. Culture usually levels out at fairly dull and mediocre but especially so at times like this ‘1980s Part 2’ period that we’re living in at the moment, and it’s good to make something that’s its opposite. A sort of gleeful density like a drug’.
What draws you to writing this kind of material?
‘I’m writing the sort of books I want to read but couldn’t find anywhere’.
How do your ideas start?
‘They show up whole & entire, the whole book, as a sort of colourful mind sculpture with a particular feeling and flavour, which can be used as a schematic for the book. I then create the book that has that shape when extruded up into 3D or 4D. It may take time for the detail to gather that will make that shape. I think this is the way most writers get their ideas, but because I’m a bit synaesthetic I’m probably a bit more conscious of the strange mechanism of it’.
Where do you see yourself in the tradition of English Literature or do you feel yourself to be something new? A new kind of writer and if so, how and why?
‘The main tradition would be as a real old-time satirist, sneaking little mind-bombs into people the way Voltaire did. That alone would make something like Casey Maddox’s brilliant “The Day Philosophy Dies”. But I also have a tendency toward a very concentrated colourfulness, a specific-rich thing, which comes from not wanting to waste people’s time for even a moment and also to provide an antidote to the general vacuum of the times. Culture usually levels out at fairly dull and mediocre but especially so at times like this ‘1980s Part 2’ period that we’re living in at the moment, and it’s good to make something that’s its opposite. A sort of gleeful density like a drug. Also as you go through the book the pages previously read don’t rot down and so the effect is cumulative. Because my writing is a lot more than just narrative and description it’s more or less the opposite of pulp, in fact. But it’s fun to use pulp fixtures and fittings. I don’t know what category this kind of writing will be called when people work it out but so far it’s been called Slipstream, Offbeat, Chemical Gen, Bizarro, and so on’.
You seem to be a prolific writer but what drives you to write?
‘See above, and writing the kind of books I’d like to find in bookshops etc. But I don’t think I’m prolific. I’m a very slow writer’.
Where will Steve Aylett be in another ten years?
‘I will have finished the four books I’ve decided to focus on next – the first couple won’t be so difficult, but then there’s two difficult ones that really challenge what I can do, what I’m able to do – that’s why I’m allowing them time to pull together. I’m not a good enough writer to do them yet. So anyway, that’ll be 20 or so books out there, finally, and I’ll either withdraw and basically disappear at that point or, depending on the way the world goes, become more visible but in a different capacity. And hopefully I would have got the hell out of England, obviously. This is all assuming I’m still alive and haven’t done myself in or died in a dismal fireball with the rest of the human race’.
What does Steve Aylett the writer mean to you, Steve Aylett, the average man in the street?
‘Steve Aylett the man in the street is just this thing that walks around like a wishbone in a coat, looking gormless. You wouldn’t think it was a genius, and you’d be right’.
In the tradition of Pulp lazy assed journalism that frequented many of the magazines in the 80s and 90s. If I would only allow you to have five things on a desert island, what would they be?
‘I’d probably be hysterical with happiness at the absence of people. Then lonely at the absence of female people. I’d only need a few basics though, plus maybe some music. I probably wouldn’t last long but I’d die fairly happy’.
Now, what would they be if you were in a housing estate in 2011, Boris Johnson has just banned all participants of the Olympics and London had been overrun by cats with bad attitude?
‘In the long run I try not to be swerved too much by arbitrary circumstance – meaning circumstance decided by other people – so I’d be doing what I’d already planned to do at that point – writing, resenting, weeping, eating, sleeping. So, again, I’d need just a few basics’.
What’s your favourite pulp?
‘I don’t know whether he qualifies as pulp except in regard to his publishing history, but the SF/fantasy writer Jack Vance is an amazing thing. There’s a very particular flavour to his books, and people who are into him will know what I mean. There’s a humour and intelligence there, a sort of sensible individuality, and amazing worlds he describes. His aliens are, for the most part, genuinely alien and unknowable. Most of his books – including some of the best ones – are out of print, and there are seemingly hundreds of the damn things’.
There is no one else in UK Literature who blends the cyber-surreal with a distinctly British humour. What the hell did this to you?
‘It was probably growing up in that vacuum I mentioned, and wanting to generate an antidote to it for myself to feed on, because that vacuum is just nightmarish. So, richness in the face of vacuity, meaning in the face of incoherence, honesty in the face of wall-to-wall lies and evasion, real humour in the face of crap jokes. The result, when it works, is this rich surreal satire. And it’s nice to do something really stupid occasionally, too, so long as it’s still colourful and interesting. I once wrote a book that didn’t mean anything, ‘The Inflatable Volunteer’, which I think is hilarious. And I recently made a comic called ‘Get That Thing Away From Me’, about a pig who feels generally overwhelmed. Also it’s great to do stuff in the wrong order, disengaged from time and fashion. Why wait until a world event happens before writing about it? These things are pretty obvious several years ahead, so long as you don’t have any motivation not to see them, such as optimism’.