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).