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Author David Rose interviews Nicholas Royle about ‘In Camera’

Nicholas Royle by Roelof Bakker

Nicholas Royle by Roelof Bakker

NEGATIVE TALK. Acclaimed author and art and book lover David Rose (Vault, Posthumous Stories) asks some sprightly questions to Manchester-based author, editor and lecturer Nicholas Royle about In Camera, his collaboration with artist David Gledhill.

In Camera is a beautifully realized project, and raises a number of intriguing questions. But first, when did you first discover David Gledhill’s work, and what do you respond to in it?

I was introduced to David’s work by my colleague, the writer Andrew Biswell, who had a painting of David’s in his office at MMU. I loved it at first sight. It was a painting of a house, in monochrome, but red, rather than black and white. It turned out to be one in a series of similar paintings of houses, shops, industrial units – urban scenes generally – but what they had in common, as well as being monochrome (while using different colours in different paintings) was the absence of human figures. The artist had created a particular atmosphere that was pregnant with something almost like foreboding, but not quite. Something just short of foreboding. It was almost like someone had pressed the pause button on reality, but, crucially, at a moment when there was no one around.

Coming on to the textual side of the project, at what point and why did you decide on a single narrator, and to make that narrative voice female? Was it governed by the logic of the photographic personnel, or was it tactical narratively or thematically?

I decided at an early stage that there would be a single narrator and that it would be the doctor’s daughter. I must stress here that while this decision seemed to be made easily, almost naturally, the writing process was accompanied by a certain unease and tension. David’s paintings are supersize renderings – transcriptions, if you like – of photographs of real people. It would be a reasonable assumption to make that I am writing a fictional story about real people, which maybe I have no right to do, but I felt that David’s rendering of the images in his paintings, while technically superb paintings, in which anyone pictured would recognise themselves, somehow created a distancing effect from the real subjects, which allowed me to write fiction about invented characters who were inspired by the images. I realise that this might sound like very long-winded self-justification, but there you go.

It took me a while to work out who all the characters were, or could be, and if tactics played a part, that would have had more to do with narrative than themes, I think. There was the owner of the doll on the bed and the young woman leaning against the car. I decided these could be the same person at different times in her life.

Why the use throughout of initials instead of names for the characters?

That’s a good question. (They’re all good questions.) I think this goes back to the answer to the previous question. It has something to do with the unease I felt writing about invented characters whose likenesses David created from photographs. It’s a device I’ve never used before, I don’t think, and I felt if I was ever going to make use of it, this would be the time.

The process of converting photographic images into large-scale sepia-toned oil paintings – a form of hyperrealism – is a fascinating one, reminiscent of some of Sickert’s late work using newspaper photographs. In this project, the paintings, in reproduction in the book, almost revert to photographic images again. To what extent did you respond to that circularity? Did it influence your approach to the narrative? Or was it purely the potency of the images of a lost world?

I do love the way, as you say, that the design has allowed the paintings to revert to, at least, the size of the photographs on which they were based. I suppose since the writing obviously happened a long time before the design of the book, I was not responding to the apparent circularity, for which credit should go to Roelof Bakker, the publisher, also the book’s designer. I became very interested in Sickert in the 1990s, in particular his Camden Town nudes. I remember standing outside his former address in Mornington Crescent gawping up at his blue plaque and wondering why I’d just spent more on a monograph on him than I would be likely to receive for the article about the artist I had been commissioned to write for an art magazine or the short story I was writing for an anthology. Shortly afterwards, US crime writer Patricia Cornwell bought a Sickert painting and tore it apart in an attempt to prove a theory that he was Jack the Ripper. It was a bad time to indulge in conjecture about Sickert and the Ripper because it looked like you were just copying Cornwell.

At what point did you decide to add narrative captions to the illustrations, replacing David’s titles, which are given at the end of the book? There does seem to be a fashion now, post-Sebald, to have uncaptioned photographs, often marooned in the text. Were you anxious to counter that trend?

Funnily enough the pictures were free floating to begin with, and then Roelof suggested we caption them. David agreed, and I was also happy to agree. I didn’t have a strong feeling, although I had quite liked their being uncaptioned. I like Sebald, of course (who doesn’t?), but I hadn’t had his books in mind.

There was a discipline to the writing. I set Word to 12pt courier, double spaced, and did not allow myself to bust the page on one piece. If it did, I cut it back.

The narrative sections were clearly inspired by individual paintings, and presumably written discretely, but cumulatively they form a tightly integrated, faceted story. How far did you feel in control of the overall narrative arc? I’m thinking of the small details that are later picked up and clarified or narratively expanded.

When I started, I conceived of the text as comprising a number of very short discrete stories, as you suggest. I will not use the term ‘flash fiction’ because I strongly dislike it, with its implications of pyrotechnics and ephemerality, even conjuring up geezer culture, 1970s-style perverts in dirty macs and anything that might be described as a ‘flash in the pan’. Is that a set of associations you’d particularly want hanging around your work? I soon found that two or three strands emerged, relating to different periods in the narrator’s life. I suppose in the end the text adds up to one story, multi-faceted as you say, but I still think of it as 18 short pieces, as that’s how they were written. There was a discipline to the writing. I set Word to 12pt courier, double spaced, and did not allow myself to bust the page on one piece. If it did, I cut it back. Part of the pleasure for me lay in picking up details from one text – or painting – and using them in another.

Given that historians have pointed out that both Nazi and Communist state control depended far more on individual denunciations by neighbours – informers – than on physical surveillance, do you regard this story as historical, or do you believe there are parallels with today’s surveillance by the state?

I was really struck by this culture of informing. It added texture and colour to the only visit I ever made to East Germany, at Easter 1986. I spent a long weekend in West Berlin, crossing over to the East for a day. Without that single day spent in East Berlin I wouldn’t have written my first novel, Counterparts, and I wouldn’t have felt able to write In Camera. I don’t get as exercised about surveillance in the twenty-first century as I feel I ought to. Edward Snowden, blanket CCTV coverage, hacking terrorists’ iPhones – I’m not that bothered, to be honest. I can think of more sinister aspects of modern life. They can monitor my communications all they like. They won’t find anything very interesting. I do appreciate, however, that while I personally might feel safer living in a surveillance society, there’s always a danger that innocent citizens might be targeted or that data could end up in the wrong hands.

Can we look forward to further collaborations between you and David?

We have talked about collaborating again and I very much hope we do so.

In Camera is available from the Negative Press online shop, Foyles (107 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DT), Burley Fisher Books (400 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AA) and London Review of Books (14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL).

In Camera David Gledhill Nicholas Royle

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‘Still’ | Shortlisted for Saboteur Indy Lit Award

Still is shortlisted in the Saboteur Indy Lit Awards for Best Mixed Anthology. Congratulations to all the talented Still writers and many thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of the book.

Readers are invited to vote for the book, details at Saboteur Shortlist

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David Hebblethwaite’s story-by-story review of ‘Still’

DAVID HEBBLETHEWAITE is a renowned book blogger from Yorkshire, who reviews both novels and short fiction on his blog Follow the Thread. He also writes reviews for The Huffington PostStrange HorizonsWe Love This Book and Fiction Uncovered. He’s a big supporter of the short story format and since the end of September, he has reviewed every story that appears in Still – in chronological order. We’ve listed a brief excerpt from each individual review below, or you can read the full reviews here.

Foyles, Charing Cross Road, Still in Anthologies

‘Still’ on sale at Foyles

And the ending is a real shock to the system. ‘Midnight Hollow’ – Mark Piggott

But, for those four pages, the author convinces you it’s all true. ‘My Wife, The Hyena’ – Nina Killham

I also love the way Blackman transforms the imagery of dirt trailing down a wall; the ending of ‘Sanctuary’ becomes as much a tableau as one of Bakker’s photographs. ‘Sanctuary’ – Andrew Blackman

Wyld  keeps the atmosphere suitably unsettling, and any hope she offers comes with its own nagging doubt. ‘Corridor’ – Evie Wyld

There’s a neat reversal in this story, and I like Frey’s use of the staircase as an image and venue. ‘The Staircase Treatment’ – Myriam Frey

The choppy rhythms of van Mersbergen’s prose underline the sense of unease, up to a rather chilling end. ‘Pa-Dang’ – Jan van Mersbergen

The titular rose acts a symbol of the family’s hope – something to keep growing in the garden, and not to remove, for fear of angering the landlord. ‘A Rose For Raha’ – Ava Homa

Royle tops it off with a dark twist at the end. ‘The Blind Man’ – Nicholas Royle

It’’s amusing to read, but also leaves one with the nagging thought of just how easily that sort of thing could happen… ‘From the Archive’ – James Miller

Details of ‘real’ life are heightened through their transformation into Hershman’s science-fiction idiom, and the ending is especially poignant. ‘Switchgirls’ – Tania Hershman

Rechner makes good use of sensory detail to convey the stuffy and intense atmosphere of the theatre. ‘The Playwright Sits Next to Her Sister’ – Mary Rechner

Hussein reveals the full possibilities only gradually, and even then keeps the truth ambiguous. ‘The Tree at the Limit’ – Aamer Hussein

Just as Beard’s piece blurs the line between fact and fiction, so it effectively portrays lifts as simultaneously useful and threatening spaces. ‘Life Under Inspection, Do Not Touch’ – Richard Beard

This is a nicely paced story, with an effective sting in its ending. ‘Odd Job’ – Preeta Samarasan

What follows is a snappy, rhythmic jaunt through the cacophony of modern life. ‘Noise’ – James Higgerson

 ‘A Job Worth Doing’ is more a celebration of what has passed. ‘A Job Worth Doing’ – SJ Butler

Rose captures a certain stiff formality in the voice of his protagonist; and the range of details focused on creates an effective sense of diffuseness. ‘Sere’ – David Rose

This piece is both a portrait of the emotional value that books can have to someone; but it’s also a poignant tale of loss… ‘Morayo’ – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

A well-constructed mosaic of events from Justin Hill’s life, with recurring themes of memory and going through doors. ‘Waiting’ – Justin Hill

What gives this story its edge is a clear sense that this is a false hope, and that the protagonist can’t move on in life because she won’t let go of the idea. ‘Ten A Day’ – Jan Woolf

‘Opportunity’ provides an elegant and broad examination of its issues. ‘Opportunity’ – Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Its supernatural twist gives this tale a very effective chill. ‘In the Dressing Room Mirror’ – Claire Massey

I like the ambiguity in the ending of this piece, and especially how it illuminates the narrator’s character. ‘The Owl at the Gate’ – Nicholas Hogg

Definitely a story that carries greater force than its length might suggest. ‘Still’ – SL Grey

This absorbing read takes a shocking turn. ‘How to Make a Zombie’ – Deborah Klaassen

A fine note on which to end the anthology. ‘Winter Moon’ – Xu Xi

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Q&A | David Rose

David RoseDAVID ROSE LIVES IN ASHFORD. He was forty when his debut story was published in the Literary Review. He has since had around three dozen stories published in literary magazines and anthologies, as well as a mini-collection, Stripe. His first novel, Vault, was published in 2011 (Salt Publishing) and a new story, ‘Puck’ has just been published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press. The story he’s contributed to Still is about the ongoing decay of language expressed in three pages of pure bliss.

Has writing always been a part of your life?
In my teens and twenties I wrote sporadic poetry, as many do, but with no serious intention of being published. Much later, in my mid-thirties, I suddenly had an idea for a short story. I had never written fiction before, so I wrote it more from curiosity.

At the time, I was working with a woman whose daughter worked with Graham Swift’s wife, and recommended his work; it was around the time he was writing Waterland, an extract from which had been published in Granta. I then read his first novel, The Sweetshop Owner, which I admired. Through that tenuous connection with him, I wrote to him, enclosing the story. He was diplomatically encouraging, and I decided to take it a little further.

I joined a Creative Writing workshop in Staines, an evening class, which continued for some years with a nucleus of writers re-enrolling year to year, giving them/us the confidence to be objective in our criticisms of each other’s work. I enjoyed it very much.

It was at that time that I had my first story published, in The Literary Review, which had then recently come under the editorship of Auberon Waugh (I still have his hand-written letter – in blue fountain pen ink – accepting the story, after an eighteen month wait).

Sadly, I had less time to attend, and the nucleus was breaking up, so it all came to an end. I carried on writing on my own; there is no writing community I’m aware of in Ashford – it is quite small.

In a workshop/evening class, naturally the emphasis is on brevity, to give everyone a fair hearing, hence poetry and short stories were the staple (and I think the discipline of poetry is one most novelists would benefit from). But I think that the short story is the form that most suited me anyway; you can take far more risks.

So the short story was my natural form, and I had around four dozen published over the years in magazines here and in Canada. But when one attempts to interest publishers/agents in a collection, the question is always: are you working on a novel? I became so fed up with this that I started writing a novel just in order to say, yes, I’m working on one, here in the meantime is my story collection.

Needless to say, it never worked; I finished the novel, Vault, and after showing it to a couple of publishers, put it in the drawer. It was Nick Royle who, in a casual conversation which touched on novels, asked to read it, and passed it on to his agent before then taking on the role himself.

While we were still attempting to place it, he suggested writing a longer novel, which might be easier to place, since publishers buy fiction by the yard in Britain. I started one, carried on, finished it, and that now is in the drawer, where it will remain.

Vault David Rose Salt Publishing 2011Vault was written in the Staines branch of Pizza Express, do you still go there to write?
As Vault was a new genre, I needed a new writing discipline, which is where Pizza Express came in. I worked close by and went there for lunchtime coffee, with free biscuits, courtesy of a plump waitress who felt – maybe out of annoyance – that I needed fattening up. I would use that break to read, but decided to write instead, every workday writing something, however unusable, then revising and planning in the evenings. The discipline of regularity helped; it’s like riding a fixed-wheel bike – the momentum keeps you going.

I no longer work in Staines, and am no longer writing.

Do you spend a lot of time perfecting a story? When do you decide you’ve finished and you’re happy?
All my work was done initially in long hand, in pencil, to keep the draft as fluid as possible for as long as possible (it hardens once it is typed), and would be revised, then left for a few weeks, then revised again, until I became fed up with tinkering and would type it up, correct it and send it out. There is never a point where you feel satisfied with a story, only bored.

Assembly Hall Staircase (Flyer)

Assembly Hall Staircase (Flyer) © 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
I chose the OkeyKokey photograph immediately because it struck a nostalgic chord with me. Whole worlds, epochs, are summoned up in such phrases, and are lost with the loss of those phrases. I find myself at an age where remarks, words, allusions – to such things as threepenny bits or Blakeys – are met with blank stares. So I find the whole issue of language decay melancholic. And having to master computer skills made me feel even more alienated by the jargon.

This is, I think, at the root of the problem of old age: not physical age but cultural alienation, and the fact that the elderly, being no longer thought of as useful, are no longer thought of; they become invisible.

Do you often work with artists and/or use visual materials as inspiration?
‘Sere’ is the first story to be commissioned as a response to a photograph, but many stories have begun as responses to paintings, or in one case an African sculpture. The first, The Literary Review story, was the result of visiting the exhibition of Picasso’s sketchbooks; more specifically, from the catalogue introduction by Claude Picasso, expressing his feelings at seeing in galleries things he had grown up with as a child – including his toys, turned into sculptures by his father.

Other stories had similar genesis, in one case, a series of Munch paintings arranged at random, as a way of breaking the habit of plot. A more recent example, to appear in Unthology 3 in November, describes a guided tour of an art gallery for the blind, again based on a series of paintings (on postcards) arranged to form ostensibly a history of art.

And the new Nightjar Press story, which I at first refused to do, as I don’t usually write in the macabre, came from another Picasso painting, the composition of which was based on a visual pun, that of a jar as a memorial of a friend of Picasso’s of that name (Jarra).

Music too has sometimes been the starting point, and a second story in Unthology 3, probably my last, concerns the real-life case of Joyce Hatto, the pianist whose husband plagiarized other recordings on her behalf. It is a poignant story (the real one), and the fictional version has an appropriate valedictory feel.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am no longer writing.

David Rose Puck Nightjar Press

DAVID ROSE BLOG

NIGHTJAR PRESS

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Photographs from ‘Still’ launch event, 26 September 2012 at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London

THANK YOU! Negative Press London says a BIG thanks to all the writers (reading/non-reading) who were at the Still launch event in the Gallery at Foyles, as well to all the people who came for what was a very lively entertaining literary evening.

The readings went down a storm and the audience really enjoyed the mix of writing and related photography. It was a special treat to hear the stories read out with such passion and panache. Q&As, discussions and mingling followed!

Thanks to the writers who were there: SJ Butler, Myriam Frey, Tania Hersham, James Higgerson, Justin Hill, Nicholas Hogg, Aamer Hussein, Nina Killham, Deborah Klaassen (thanks for setting up Facebook event), Claire Massey, James Miller, Jan Woolf and Evie Wyld.

And thanks to the writers who were there in spirit: Richard Beard, Andrew Blackman, SL Grey, Ava Homa, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Jan van Mersbergen, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, Mark Piggott, Mary Rechner, David Rose, Nicholas Royle, Preeta Samarasan and Xu Xi.

A big cheers to Paul Savage for a fantastic bar service and to David Owen at Foyles for five star help and organisation.

All photographs by Roman Skyva, www.romanskyva.com

If anyone has any photographs they want to share, email to info@neg-press.com (max file width 1000px at 72dpi, if possible)

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