An interview with the author and experimental writer, Marc Nash — Cult Fiction
About Marc Nash
Nash is a novelist and flash fiction extraordinaire, living and working in London, with a strong devotion to the experimental. His latest novel, Three Dreams In The Key Of G, was published by Dead Ink Books and shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2018. His first novel, , was published in 2009. You can find a full list of his flash fiction collections and novels here. He also has a Youtube channel and a website that are definitely worth checking out and can be found on twitter here.
As an experimental writer, how would you describe your preferred ‘genre’ to someone that is unfamiliar with the term?
I find this question hard as I’m not sure many authors would say their book was experimental if it was also another genre, so an experimental SciFi book would be shelved under SciFi (probably much to the author’s relief), as there is no category ‘Experimental’ in the bookshops.
There are many elements that can make a novel experimental, such as stream of consciousness, fragmented or fractured narrative, non-linearity of both time and language, through to Jennifer Egan’s writing a chapter in “ A Visit From The Goon Squad” in the style of a Powerpoint presentation, or Martin Amis’s book “ Time’s Arrow “, where time runs backwards, so people jump back inside their mother’s womb instead of being born. But I wouldn’t offer either of these novels as experimental. I think we confuse ‘experimental’ with unconventional. The elements I’ve listed here were all used by modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in the early decades of the twentieth century, so much, so they now appear regularly in quite mainstream fiction.
But fumbling a way towards trying to define some of the elements of it now, I think experimental means it is not a standard narrative form; now whether that’s just in the breaking up of monolithic blocks of print, or bringing in other elements such as visual representations, or a more overall radical presentation of narrative, to even just doing things with the language. An experimental book would be hell to format on an e-reader, where the reader can get to choose the font size which probably plays merry hell with the author’s layout where it’s not just blocks of print.
I think experimental fiction definitely considers the three-way relationship of book, reader and author and what that means for the way the writing is presented to the reader. It can simply be the author putting themselves in the narrative (metafiction), or it can be the author asking the reader to consider language in a whole new way. Experimental fiction definitely rejects realism. But there again, so does Fantasy!
I spend my whole time thinking about what it is I write and yet I still can’t come up with a pithy way of defining it.
What drew you to this style of writing as opposed to more ‘conventional’ forms?
The books I read just didn’t do it for me. Stories that faithfully plodded along from beginnings, through middles and on to the ends. Characters going on journeys, achieving redemption or insight at the end, that’s not how human beings tend to be. Human speech and in particular thought, is not formal and orderly and linear. Yet language inevitably has to be, seeing as it follows rules of grammar and syntax in order to communicate. I like exploring the slippage between how we think and how we write. I am more interested in writing human beings than characters. That’s why I think in terms of ‘voice’ rather than ‘character’. So I just started thinking about different approaches to constructing a story and have done so ever since.
For somebody interested in reading or writing experimental fiction, what books and authors would you recommend as a good place to start?
Mark Danielewski “ House Of Leaves “ — has the advantage that many people read this and just see it as a Horror/Supernatural work, which when I read it, never crossed my mind at all so taken was I with what he was doing with the text! So it definitely has crossover appeal. It’s a book about an ever-mutating house and he arranges some of his pages in architectural fashion so that the words, or the negative space in between, form architectural shapes. He does a lot more than that, but this just gives you an idea.
Georges Perec — “ Avoid “ — A lipogram novel, that is a conventional element is deliberately omitted; in this case the book is written without a single letter ‘E’ in it. Hard in the original French, with words like ‘le’, ‘elle’, ‘est’, etc, but think about the poor English translator with no recourse to he/she/they/her. But they both pulled it off magnificently!
BS Johnson — “ The Unfortunates “ — a book that comes in a box that looks like a book! Inside are stapled chapters that look like pamphlets and apart from two marked ‘First’ & “last’ chapter, you’re free to read them in any order you choose. These days we have lots of ‘choose your way through’ reads, particularly in digital form, but BS Johnson beat them to the punch by about 40 years. It’s quite possible of course that someone beat him to it and I just haven’t read it. That’s the thing about experimental writing, only the first author to do something new can be considered experimental. the rest are imitators!
David Markson — “ This Is Not A Novel “ — My favourite book of all time, but it is quite hard to recommend. Not because it’s a hard read, far from it, but it makes you question just what a novel is. You will either totally submit to its spell, or throw it across the room and shout ‘what the hell is this?’
Ben Marcus — “ The Age Of Wire & String “ — this one is all about language. It’s English Captain, but not as we know it. It’s left open to you to decide what the perspective or reality of the narrator is, and that will entirely determine the meaning of the words for you. While you’re coming to your own conclusions, the strangest of strange word combinations achieve a startling poetic beauty. Again though, it’s quite possible you’ll hurl the book across the room!
Jeff Noon — “ Cobralingus “ — Cutting up other people’s texts, reworking them and forging new, beautiful ones. What William Burroughs did in the 1960s, but where his texts remain opaque, Noon shows you all the stages of transformation/mutation so you can follow it all the way through. The only problem with this book is that it is out of print and you may well not be able to get hold of it at a reasonable price.
Which of your books and stories did you have the most fun writing and which did you find the most difficult?
I honestly have fun writing each and every one, from the smallest 1000 word flash fiction to full novels. The fun comes in both playing with form and language, but also the satisfaction of solving the artistic and intellectual challenges each story throws your way. Having said that, my current work in progress, a novella, is proving challenging. Enough so that I’ve had to work in a wholly different way, editing as I go along, rather than completing a draft and then editing subsequent drafts.
If you could choose only one of your own novels as a must read, which one would it be and why?
Depends if you’re in the mood for short or long fiction. The short gives you a range of stories with a wide array of experimental narratives. The novels of course sustain the narrative conceits throughout. I think it’s generally true that much experimental fiction could only work in short fiction, because sustained over the course of a novel would probably drive the reader mad! But with the right choices, novels displaying narrative conceits can be much more satisfying because they sustain the form over a greater length.
Short Fiction — “ Extra-Curricular “ (flash fiction)
Longer Fiction — “ Three Dreams In The Key of G “ (novel)
Do you have a set goal or message that you wish to convey when you write each piece or do you follow your instincts and let the story build itself?
The novels tend to have a message, but the shorter work is very much see where this goes. Usually in the shorter pieces the message is the form of the story, or at least is conveyed by the form. I have written several stories around the concept of sound, not so much the sound of the words inside your head as you read, rather the quality of sound in everyday life; one story was about a character trying to recapture the quality of hearing sounds as experienced when she was in the womb; another the image of a foetus created by the sound waves on a sonogram; a third trying to imagine the house sounds in the aftermath of a suicide, before the body is discovered.
As an often political writer, do you attempt to guide people’s eyes towards the truth or do you prefer them to draw their own conclusions from your work?
Ha, I’d like to answer this at a bit of an oblique angle. I’m not sure there is any single objective truth and that the product of what we see as reality I think is a construction of our minds. My fiction looks to probe the fictions from which our world is constructed, be they scientific, political, moral, or even just the common data of our sense. Fiction cannot represent or reproduce truth, but it can guide us into spotting the fictions mistaken for truth in the everyday world. That’s why in my work, rather than asking the reader to suspend their belief, the work reminds them throughout that it is a work of fiction and then maybe that has an application to the everyday world they find themselves in.
What advice would you give to those interested in writing experimental fiction?
- Just have a play and see where it leads you.
- Throw off every preconception you have about what a story should be
iii. Anything goes. there are no rules and no restrictions
- Start small, as in flash fiction or short story, rather than jump into a novel (unless you have a fairly well developed novel idea already).
- As an exercise, find a prompt in the everyday world. It can be a painting, someone wearing something odd, some strange detritus in the street, absolutely anything. Some prompts I’ve used; standing behind a woman in a supermarket and in her trolley are just two items; a man on a tube train with two scabs on his bald pate; a discarded shoe on the grass verge of a road; the line of dirt on a bath tub. You can also just riff off a single word, maybe it has several shades of meaning, some of which contradict each other, or like a gemstone, explore every facet of that word and see the different angles that light shine off those facets. I’ve done one for example, about the word ‘drone’. I once wrote a piece about the Twin towers, prompted by attending a friend’s poetry recital and hearing her use the word ‘fuselage’, one of the few words in the English language that really only has one meaning. I missed the rest of her poetry as I started formulating my story in my mind, still sat there in the audience.
If you are interested in purchasing any of Marc Nash’s work, you can find it all here.
Originally published at https://www.cult-fiction.net on April 22, 2019.