I did this email interview a few weeks ago for Mondo Sonoro in Spain who mostly cover music but were interested in the translation of my novel Memphis Underground. I figured they’d have had time to run it in Spanish so I might as well run it as I wrote it here now.
Joan Cabot: Memphis underground is the first of your fiction books translated to Spanish, can you tell me more about your previous fictional works and how MU fits into your writing practice?
Stewart Home: My writing generally emerges from my reading, so my earlier novels were a product of my attempts to read in new ways certain strands of British pulp fiction that had interested me when I was 12 or so years old. When I was in my early twenties I started reading through all the books I could lay my hands on by a number of authors as if they constituted a single work. Among the many writers I re-read the one I liked most was Mick Norman (AKA Laurence James), in whose books the the gay hell’s angels were even harder than the straight bikers and whose politics were of the liberal left. The best known of these hacks is James Moffatt AKA Richard Allen who wrote a series of skinhead books.
With this more focused re-reading, what I noticed is that a lot of the authors I’d checked out when I was young repeated plots and sentences and sometimes even paragraphs from one book to the next. So I thought it would be interesting to write fiction about youth cults in which I compressed this process, with every other page being an almost identical sex scene (which made writing the books very easy). I decided to use lots of deliberately repeated words and phrases in a single book.
I was taking different influences and mixing them together. I was aware of the way surrealism and the French nouveau roman had inscribed elements of pulp prose into what were essentially non-linear and highbrow novels. I wanted to take that further and apply Jean Baudrillard’s notions of simulation (it was the eighties) to plot within my books – so they resembled pulp more closely than say the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet but at the same time because they collapsed the repetitious effects of reading a dozen novels by the same pulp author into one book, they effectively deconstructed themselves as fiction and escaped being easily categorised as either art or low brow prose.
Over the course of five very similar novels – Pure Mania, Defiant Pose, Red London, Blow Job and Slow Death – I felt I’d perfected what I wanted to do with this approach to writing. Therefore after completing Slow Death, the last and I’d say my best book using this third person condensed and collapsed pulp style, I wanted to move on. I then decided to do a self-consciously non-linear book about the occult and mind control. My first five books were written in the third person and I wanted to switch to writing in the first person; this really limits what you can do as an author but I figured if the narrator’s personality changed every time he had an orgasm (due to mind control – and there is a lot of sex in the book), then working in the first person wouldn’t be too difficult. Once this book – Come Before Christ and Murder Love – was published, the critics in the UK immediately noticed I’d been influenced by Robbe-Grillet, whereas although he was a major influence in my earlier books the way I worked this through was less obvious and many critics didn’t understand that I was producing a simulacrum of pulp and had no interest in writing pulp books.
Anyway, as I’ve continued to write novels I’ve used different approaches with different books. But until my last anti-novel I stuck with first person narration – in both male and female voices. I’ve tried to structure each book differently. With 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess I set the book in Aberdeenshire (which is a part of the British Isles not much used as a setting for fiction) and incorporated a lot of capsule book reviews. With Cunt I was self-consciously creating a post-modern variant on the picaresque novel. Whips & Furs was a cut and paste novel where I simply altered two nineteenth-century books and spliced them together to make a work with a more contemporary structure. In many ways that was an editing job since I did very little original writing to produce it. In Down & Out In Shoreditch & Hoxton every paragraph was exactly 100 words long. With Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie – my most recently published book and written after Memphis Underground – I wanted to make bigger changes to my writing style so I wrote in the second person (which I hadn’t done before – addressing the reader as ‘you’ rather than referring to the narrator as ‘I’) and I used a lot of sampled penis enlargement spam in the text. With Memphis Underground I wanted to structure a book using a classic science-fiction device but at the same time not write sci-fi. So the first half of the book is the events in the life of the narrator six months apart and cut against each other chapter by chapter, and because the narrator has changed his name the reader may not realise straight away that the alternating chapters are about the same person.
Joan Cabot: In the book you write that MU is a book about how housing projects affect people’s life (sorry, it may not be the exact words, but I have to translate the translation…), but I think you talk about a lot more things in the book…
Stewart Home: Obviously Memphis Underground is also about art and London and celebrity and many other things. It is also concerned with writing and how most so-called contemporary literature is old-fashioned and ill-suited to the times in which we live. Of course the book also deals with sex and the idea of death… But there’s no point providing an exhaustive list of the various subjects it covers, including of course train travel in Germany!
Joan Cabot: I think art is in fact the main subject of the book. How will you define your relation with the art world?
Stewart Home: I think that my relationship to the art world is troubled. But at the same time I’m well connected within it, particularly in London, and could be described as an art world insider. It is part of the nature of the art world that no one thinks they are truly inside it, but of course many are. Where I take a different stand from many others is in being more critical of the commodification of culture and in viewing the role of the artist dialectically. Thus because I know disalienation is integral to the communist project, I also understand that to become truly human we have to realise every aspect of what we are – what is sometimes called our ‘species being’. Aside from being social that also means integrating our physical, emotional and intellectual activity. So rather than one person being a brain worker (white collar) and another performing physical labour (blue collar), in a classless society (which will also be one without money and nation states), we’ll all do a bit of everything and have a lot of variety in our lives. To look at the role of the artist in a positive light, it is a deformed prefiguration of how we’ll all be in post-capitalist society. But the artist is also a specialised non-specialist in a commodified gallery system, so you can also look at that role negatively and stress it’s alienation and disconnection from what it is to be truly human.
Joan Cabot: I always though that art should be indistinguishable from vandalism nowadays…
Stewart Home: There’s not much new in that, it runs through a lot of modernism and post-modernism. Dada was the first worthwhile modernist movement to stress the suppression of art and negation and the negative in general, and I find that preferable to surrealism that mistakenly attempted to realise art rather than treating it as a product of capitalist society. In the second half of the twentieth-century the negative again rose to the surface in art movements ranging from nouveau realisme through Fluxus to auto-destructive art. In the visual arts post-modernism has tended towards a recuperation of this negative attitude and its diversion into commercial ends. Late twentieth-century writers such as William Burroughs and Kathy Acker were on the whole using the negative in more interesting ways than gallery artists.
Joan Cabot: I’m sure you have another idea about the motivations to work against the establishment of modern art, but, isn’t it fun just to piss them off?
Stewart Home: Sure. That’s why I inserted the names of many well-known artists into the penis enlargement spam I appropriated to use in my last book. In New York the piece that got quoted the most was: “7 inches simply isn’t big enough to pleasure the Gorilla Girls.” And while many found that funny, those who make the mistake of taking post-modern art seriously were upset by it.
Joan Cabot: You’ve written books about utopian artistic movements and punk… Which interest came first? How much of the relation between art & music movements are true and how much just a way to legitimate the music that we like?
Stewart Home: One interest doesn’t really come before the other – although I was into pop music first. I have clear memories from when I was two years old. So I remember some sixties music from the time – but what I mostly heard when I was small wasn’t of much interest to me. Too much of The Beatles and not enough of mod and freakbeat bands such as The Small Faces, The Who, The Downliners Sect, The Creation and The Action. I remember one morning when I was taking the bus to school and all the kids were talking about the news that the Beatles were breaking up. Some of the older children were quite upset but I was one of the younger ones and I really didn’t care about The Beatles and the fact they were breaking up didn’t bother me. The first music that got me really excited was glam rock. I liked T. Rex best of all. I liked it most when they were doing tunes like Get It On And Jeepster. I also liked bands like Slade and The Sweet – and from the USA Alice Cooper and Suzi Quatro. But then just silly songs like Me & You & A Dog Named Boo by Lobo also appealed to me. But after 1973 the quality of glam singles started falling away. So by the time I was 12 I was looking back into the history of pop…. That’s when I discovered old soul records like Tainted Love by Gloria Jones, or You Can’t Sit Down by the Phil Upchurch Combo: and at the same time started digging all the London mod and freakbeat groups of the 1960s….
I came across dada and happenings and pop art when I was about 12, in books to start with. I guess I was into music before that but the two interests both kept growing – with music way ahead until I was about 20. The idea of what art is has changed a lot of the last thirty years – so now you have people talking about pop music and football as art, which didn’t happen in the old days. The most over-hyped relationship between music and the kind of anti- art that interests me is found in discourse around punk, which some pundits claim is situationist inspired. Such claims are ridiculous as I demonstrate in my book Cranked Up Really High. It’s just a way for silly American music journalists to pretend they’re art history professors, and for English cultural studies lecturers to pretend they’re hip… Rock and roll is somewhere else entirely!
Joan Cabot: Do you think that your books are understandable and enjoyable for anybody. I mean, what kind of people is interested in your work? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
Stewart Home: My books are written for people with a sense of humour. I really enjoy the way they wind up and upset those who are upright and serious about literature and music and art. I tend to scream along to the sound of my keyboard as I type my novels, and I’m very happy when my readers laugh out loud when looking at my books. Intellectuals are a sorry bunch so I don’t expect them to be grooved by my prose.
Joan Cabot: Some of your former fictional books are not translated in Spanish. Do you know if there are plans to do so?
Stewart Home: I guess if Memphis Underground sells well then more of my novels will be translated into Spanish. But I haven’t signed any contracts for more books yet. It’s curious watching which books get translated into what language. I have books in many languages but it was my two full-length non-fiction books – Assault On Culture and Cranked Up Really High – that appeared first in Spanish. Both those and another non-fiction book came out in Italy before a small publisher did one of my novels there. In French, Russian, Finnish, German, Bulgarian, Greek, Croatian etc. I only have novels published. In languages such as Lithuanian, Portuguese (with a Brazilian publisher) and Polish only my non-fiction books are translated. It is very hard to predict what will happen with translations.
Joan Cabot: What are you working on now?
Stewart Home: I recently finished a novel based on the life of one of my relatives who was a famous cat-burglar and prison escaper – he was originally from south Wales but pursed his life of crime in London from the 1940s to the 1970s. That book’s called The Nine Lives Of Ray The Cat Jones. This week I have to install a solo show in a London gallery. But with the nice coverage I’ve been getting for this new translation of Memphis Underground I think I might well spend the summer getting to know some hot Spanish girls very very well… that’s the kind of ‘work’ I like doing best!
Joan Cabot: In the book, you say that you cannot distinguish between England and any other country, but I think that something like MU is in some sense a very British book…
Stewart Home: There are different cultures around the world and what you’ll write in English is going to be different to what you’d write if you were using – for example – Spanish. That said I’m against national borders, not against regional difference. But London is now a very European city. It is much much cleaner than it was when I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, and with that cleanness it has lost much of its old identity. That said not everything has got worse. The food you can eat in London today is way better than what you got when I was small! The food used to be really terrible but now it’s actually very good if you pick and choose. I’m not sure that Memphis Underground is that British, I think I’m more a product of London, and I find it extremely difficult to identify with the rest of England let alone the rest of the British Isles… My mother was Welsh but came from an Irish family, so we’ve been moving slowly east. I don’t really want to go anywhere, I like London… although it is always nice to have a change and visit somewhere like Barcelona or Bilbao or Valencia or Madrid, or even some of the smaller towns like Burgos or Carmona…
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!