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Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Conversation With Quentin S. Crisp

Justin Isis has interviewed Quentin S. Crisp before, and that interview is probably the best place to start for general information on Crisp's writing and clothing style. The purpose of the following interview is to whore out Shrike, Crisp's soon to be released novella from PS Publishing. Before reading this you should order Shrike, especially the jacketed hardcover version. Shrike is one of Quentin S. Crisp's most exciting works to date, and by 'exciting' I mean 'tenser than injecting Red Bull directly into your blood stream'. Brief responses to Crisp's statements are given in [ ] brackets.

1) Several people have called you the greatest British prose stylist of your generation. Is there any way of understanding why your prose has a better flow and contains more lyricism than most other writers' prose? Is this something that can be learned, or does it depend entirely on expression of a personal nature that can't be transmitted?

I haven’t met these people (actually, I think I’ve met one of them), but, you know, several people can’t be wrong. I wouldn’t be so foolish as to dispute this, actually. I think there are a number of factors at work, one of which is clearly destiny. Another possible factor is that I actually like language. Now, one possible danger of this is that you get a bit too bloviated, but, so many people these days fear the bloviation that a kind of Puritanism of prose has set in. It’s capitalist and joyless and full of ‘work ethic’. The peculiar thing is that, in being anti-language, most of these writers have a kind of blind faith in the ability of language to transmit some objective truth, as if there were no problems in the relation between signifier and signified. It’s the old idea about prose as a ‘window on the world’, which is just about the ugliest and most simple-minded idea ever to blight literature. Words should not – and cannot – be a ‘window on the world’. They are a filter, and if you’re a writer you should specialise in the art of filters. Also, in terms of prose style, I’m not really trying to be anyone else. I think that helps, too.

Also, a bonus tip here, and one that hardly any contemporary writers seem to understand – rhythm. When I read much modern prose, I think, Christ, it’s a good job this guy’s not a musician, he’s cutting right across the rhythm of his own language. It’s like a chef who has no sense of taste or something.

2) How exactly is it possible to "win at life" ?

Life presents us with a game that we can’t win. Let’s say it’s Monopoly. Life already has hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane (I think that’s Boardwalk and Park Place on the U.S. version). You’re fucked, basically. So, the only way you can win is to invent your own system of scoring. Whoever has the biggest debts, or whoever own the waterworks, or whoever has the little Scottish terrier game piece, is the winner – of course, you choose whatever it is that applies to you.

In a way, I feel like I’ve already won at life. The problem is that no one else seems to realise this yet, so they keep requiring me to go on playing the game. “Don’t you see, I’ve already won?” I protest, “It is time for us to put the game to one side and turn to some kind of social grooming instead.” But no one seems to understand me. Perhaps I should explain. The way I have won is this: At the apex of curved space there is an angry void-shaped man who demands that we become enlightened by admitting he’s better than all of us, so that we then ‘cash in our chips’ in the game, and return those chips to him, the great game master. I have won simply by being unenlightened and perverse and not seeing my chips as a form of spiritual currency, but as something with which to make pretty patterns on the carpet. The void-shaped man shakes his fist and says, “Grrrr! You’ll never prevail against me.” And I say, “Since I’m going to lose anyway, because it’s your game, I’ve already won, because I’m not going to play, and yet, here I am, because you’ve felt the need to make me, to have someone to lose to you, you cad.”

3) Brett Stokes in Shrike lacks legal training and stock market skills, and rarely seems to attain a high level of job satisfaction. Have you ever considered writing a story or novel with a proactive protagonist with legal and/or financial skills who looks down on people like Brett because of their unhelpful 'negative aura' and lack of a 'can-do' attitude? And did you ever consider resolving Brett's internal paralysis by giving him some kind of 'business skills epiphany' in which he realizes he has had business skills all along, and it was only necessary to apply to the right graduate program?

Well, the whole ‘business skills epiphany’ thing was actually my original game-plan for Shrike, but in the end I thought it might be instructive to young people today to be given a negative example in terms of business skills. I know that the kind of negative example provided by Brett is a bit extreme, and we’re not seeing quite that level of negativity and lack-of-business skills these days, but, then again, perhaps this is a timely warning, with many people losing their faith in business skills, of the dangers of going down the treacherous path of neglecting one’s business skills.

I do have plans to return to the theme of developing one’s business skills soon, though, and am hoping to write a novel about a man who conquers the world by starting up his own brewery from scratch, and wins many awards for his business skills along the way. The idea is that he loses the girl he loves at the start, because she’s disappointed with his lack of business skills, and he gets thrown out of his family home, because his parents are disgusted with his lack of business skills, and so he goes on a drinking binge, and tries to drown himself in alcohol, but has the business skills epiphany that he could actually make his own alcohol and sell it to others. Eventually, of course, his business skills allow him to win back the heart of the girl he loves and the respect of his family, and they all tell him, “We knew you had it in you. You just needed some tough loving to bring it out. You were the only one who didn’t have faith in you.” And then his girlfriend says, “Never mind the tough love, here’s the soft love.” And they kiss, and she says, “That’s for being the best brewer and businessman in the world.” But I think I’m giving the plot away. Anyway, with the money he earns with his business skills, he builds up a private stock of nuclear warheads, holds the world to ransom, and eventually becomes the ruler of the entire world – all through business skills – with his own private fleet of genetically engineered chinchillas and a harem of cosplay girls.

I’m also thinking of writing a trilogy about one girl and her quest for the ultimate dancing skills.

[Most of my recent fiction also revolves around dancing skills, more or less...either that or idol music...probably because everything else is boring and not worth writing about. I should point out that you are going to have an article about Annette Funicello up on PP soon]

4) If you were a teenage girl and a vampire was trying to take your virginity, what would you do? Is life as an undead parasite justified by being in a loving relationship, or is 'love' only a social construct or pretext used to justify a kind of cliched 'transgressive' sanguivorous lifestyle by disguising its own dependency? I think what I'm asking here is why do you think there are no vampires in Ayn Rand novels? I feel this is because vampires need to suck the blood of others to survive, whereas Ayn Rand protagonists rely only on their own merit and the ownership of their own labour, so the idea of parasitism, blood-based or otherwise, never enters their minds. In short, have you ever considered writing about a vampire so self-reliant that he only drinks his own blood, possibly through some kind of combined IV/Beer Helmet device which recirculates his fluids, a kind of Ayn Rand/Nietzsche vampire who doesn't depend on anyone but himself? I feel like in real life this vampire would probably be a total asshole, but still possibly worth writing about.

If I were a teenage girl, I think I’d want to be Hayden Panettiere, because I like her name, partly because the second bit of it is like a collision between ‘panty’ and ‘pannier’ (although I believe she turns twenty this year and so will no longer qualify for this fantasy).

[Every time I hear 'Hayden Panettiere' I think of some kind of delicious French sandwich, or a really elegant pastry with marzipan in it. I feel like saying "I'll have a Turkish coffee with my hayden panettiere." In contrast, 'quentin crisps' seem to me like a brand of upmarket potato chips, possibly ones flavored with lime and black pepper. For example when you're coming back from your nationally-televised highschool baseball game, your mom is like "I thought you'd be hungry after the big game, so I bought you a pack of quentin crisps."]

Now, the question becomes, what would Hayden Panetierre do if I were her and a vampire was trying to take her virginity? I’m not sure, but after some research into the matter, I think what I’d do as Hayden Panettiere is promise that I’d give up my virginity to the vampire only after s/he had sucked out the blood of various dolphin-killers and then injected it into the bodies of children with leukemia in order to cure them. In fact, I would only give up my virginity after s/he had wiped leukemia from the face of the Earth. But, if s/he decided to try and ravish me against my will… I think I need to do more research on this question. Perhaps someone could give me Hayden Panettierre’s phone number, and I could answer the rest of this question with her help.

I think we really have to work out some kind of symbiosis with hematophagous creatures and beings of all kinds. It’s no use Nietzsche and Rand spurning the crypto-sentimentalism of the vampire, because the auto-hematophagy that results from this attitude is really just crypto-crypto-sentimentalism. We have to embrace the sentimentalism of hematophagy by sucking each other’s blood. Or, if someone doesn’t like the taste of blood, there could be some sort of bartering that takes place, so that someone gets to leech off a certain amount of blood from you each week, say, and, in return, he or she performs various tasks about the house, such as unblocking the drains, watering the plants, painting the spare room, and so on.

Quentin S. Crisp

5) Do you think it is important for writers to have good abdominal definition or to otherwise be in good physical shape to produce quality writing, since writing is accomplished not just with the mind, but arises in some part from the body as well?

My own physical fitness routine has been sadly neglected for the past twenty years or so, and I have to fall back on flaneurism for the physical aspect of my writing. I realise that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but I can work up a bit of a sweat if I go uphill and so on. I’ve been meaning to take up Tai Chi for some time, but, since I move around so much – not having found a particularly fixed abode in which to settle – it’s hard to join any clubs, gyms or evening classes.

One thing I try to do, however, in order to make up for my lack of abdominal definition, is to write with pen and paper, thereby concentrating the physical aspect of the writing as much as possible in my handwriting on the page.

6) If you were a teenage girl, exactly how deeply would you be into nail art? I think some of the nail art coming out now is dauntingly beautiful, but others find it excessive or even impractical - for example, if you're working an office job and are trying to type really quickly, the heavy nail art will fuck up your typing and your boss will be like "WTF why is your nail art soooo impractical?!" while demoting you. At the same time almost everyone agrees that boring or undecorated nails won't draw attention at all. Is there any way to resolve this dilemma?

nail artAh, I’m so glad you asked this question. Nail art alone would make being a teenage girl worthwhile, quite apart from the other benefits, and despite the need to menstruate and so on. I realise that there is some clash between nail art and business skills, but here’s where I’ve resolved that dilemma – I mainly work from home. Also, although it is, admittedly, sometimes necessary to use a keyboard, if you try to maximise writing with a pen, you’ll find that this method is less likely to interfere with your nail art. Another handy tip – geddit? – is to use a whole platoon of false nails, which you apply, as the occasion demands, with blu-tack and so on. This is not ideal, of course, but there will always come those times in life when you know very well that you won’t be using a keyboard for a day or two, and then you can go all out with some kind of pearly queen nail art project, which you flaunt as much as possible in cafes and bars over the weekend.

7) Tell us more about your upcoming short story collection All God's Angels, Beware! and why it and Shrike are qualitatively 'better' (or for people who don't believe in qualitative distinctions, 'broader') than everything written by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy combined, as well as most of the 'canon' of English literature. I think this is fairly obvious, in that the latter three authors lived in and wrote about incredibly limited contexts, whereas Shrike and All God's Angels, Beware! contains stories set in Wales, Japan, and other dimensions of consciousness, all portrayed with a much broader view of human nature than the earlier authors' historical circumstances permitted. I'm aware of possibly sounding exaggerated here, but I think most reviews and interviews are castratedly mild in tone, and there doesn't seem to be any other way to move units other than to insist that the book is FUCKING BETTER than pretty much all other fiction out there. If I just say "this is a great story" or "read this exciting new book," these terms are applied to more or less everything that gets published, so I feel it is necessary to explain specifically why Shrike and All God's Angel's, Beware! are 'better' than the work of other authors. For me, this seems to manifest in your writing as a relentless focus on the personal, in that you refuse to maintain any kind of ironic distance from your material - which itself seems to arise from your own dreams. Have you always written in this intensely personal manner or was it something you had to struggle to pull off?

This question reminds me of something Ramsey Campbell wrote in his introduction to The Collected Strange Stories of Robert Aickman. This is a little convoluted, but bear with me. Apparently Roger Johnson wrote, “What a self-important, self-regarding so-and-so Aickman was!” Why? Because he wrote in a letter to someone, “I… cannot pretend that I do not know what you mean when you say that the range of both Henry James and M.R. James is smaller than mine.” Which is, I suppose, something I might say here, preliminary to attempts at explanation, but changing the two ‘James’ authors for Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, etc.

[I feel like this just means that Aickbon, M.R. James, Henry James, William James, P.D. James and James St. James at one point had a literal pissing contest, and Aickbon ended up having the longest 'range'. Then James St. James was like 'Aickbon your dick is huge, let's go to a club' and Aickbon refused, and James St. James was like 'Isn't anyone else here gay?' and everyone sort of looked at Henry James out of the corners of their eyes and didn't say anything]

Now, as to the explanation, this is very difficult, but perhaps the best and simplest way I can explain this is that the authors you list are all Earthlings, whereas I’ve always felt that I come from somewhere else. I’m really not sure how else to explain it.

Probably the ‘intensely personal’ feeling that you mention is due to something that happened as I grew up. I was already writing when I was a child, and, since I was fairly happy when I started writing, I feel like this gives the lie to the notion that creativity is only ever born out of unhappiness. Anyway, first of all, I basically wrote in order to record… not even necessarily to record, but to explore my dream-world. By stages, of course, this world – the world of Earthlings – intruded upon that activity in an attempt to separate me forever from the world where I belong. Then, quite simply, my writing partly remained what it had always been, but also ‘matured’, by becoming about the struggle between the ‘real world’ of Earthlings, and the world that they wished to remove from me by social lobotomy.

I was intrigued reading Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter recently, to find this struggle of mine paralleled by the struggles of Mick Kelly, the teenage girl hero of that novel, who privately divided all existence into what she called ‘the inside room’ (if I remember correctly) and ‘the outside room’. In these terms, where I belong is ‘the inside room’, and what I write about is the way that the outside room tries to crowd the inside room out of existence.

I think I’ve always known what I wanted to express. That’s never been the problem. What has been difficult is finding the techniques to express it. The perfection of those techniques has, indeed, been a struggle.

Perhaps that’s a good way to lead into some kind of disclaimer humility. I think that people like Jane Austen were probably very much of ‘the outside room’. The outside room is really all about this thing called ‘realism’, and that’s what many people tend to find impressive. Writing skills are based usually on one’s knowledge of ‘the outside room’. Unfortunately, in my opinion, anyway, this tends to produce literature that is boring and shallow. So, yeah, just to forestall any righteous anger that people might feel that I’ve dared not to contradict you in your assertions about my writing, those writers are probably much more skilled in the kind of self-congratulatory celebration (often disguised as satire) of society than I am. At this point, I’d like to state my own case by borrowing a quote that I believe to be from the works of Oscar Wilde, or from his conversation, that goes something like, “There are only two important things in life. The first is that everyone should act as superficially as possible. And the second… no one has yet discovered.” I think realistic writers content themselves exclusively with the first important thing. I’m more interested in the second, although, in order to try and communicate it, or explore it, I need to develop the skills of the first, it seems. I think, to some extent, I now have.

8) I think maybe three people other than us read Chomu. Do you think this is because we at one point posted a story where Thomas Ligotti tries to pick up Korean women, and Ligotti and/or Min Jin Lee used magick to organize a boycott against us? Or is the general public just not interested in anti-realist fiction?

I actually think that story should be reinstated. There clearly is some kind of limited-readership curse that has been placed on Chomu, but I’m not sure of its source. I think it might help break the curse if we get to work on the next section of the Hannah Montana serial, Who Would Have Thought That a Girl Like Me Would Double as a Superstar? And also if we get to work on actually writing the 33 Ways To Win at Life and so on. Perhaps I’m wrong there, though.

I’ll tell you what I think it really is, though. It’s like this, see. Only about 23 people actually bought the first Velvet Underground record when it came out, and of those, about 19 of them immediately stamped it into smithereens beneath their feet and burnt the smithereens. And yet now, everybody on the entire planet is influenced by the Velvet Underground whether they realise it or not. It’s like that with Chomu. Everyone actually is a Chomu reader, without yet even knowing it. In one of his books somewhere Burroughs recounts some old samurai chestnut. There’s a duel between two swordsmen. One of them swings his blade. The other says, “Ha. You missed.” And the first says, “You think I’ve missed, but try nodding your head in three hundred years’ time.”

Do you think it’s necessary to explain that we’re Ligotti fans? Ligotti has yuugen.

9) If you were a teenage girl, would you ever want to buy any science fiction or fantasy books based on their covers alone, or would you be like "These covers are really gross and have boring colors and no design sense at all!!!!!!!!" I feel like almost every book in these genres fails on the basis of its cover (although the Shrike cover is awesome). What can you do to ensure that the cover of All God's Angels, Beware! doesn't suck?

If I were a teenage girl, I would buy science fiction and fantasy books – hardback or paperback – almost exclusively based on their covers. I think this probably means I’d mainly be buying cyberpunk, to be honest. Or anything that looked like the work of Mizuno Junko. Also, anything in which women are wearing silvery bikini things, like Adam Warren’s version of The Dirty Pair. Oh, or anything illustrated by Jim Silke. Come to think of it, if I were a teenage girl, I would only read comics and graphic novels. Particularly the works of Manabe Johji.

I think the cover of All God’s Angels, Beware! will be okay, actually, as the publisher’s suggestions have so far been better than mine. Xul Solar was discussed. I thought his work would be a good choice, but I think there might have been copyright issues or something. Not sure. But what I’d really like is for Mark Ryden to do the cover. But I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening. Apart from anything else, I think it’s too late.

Despite this fact, I think teenage girls should be encouraged to buy and read All God’s Angels, Beware! and they should make sure to have a copy of it peeping out of their funky patchwork or Jesus Diamante handbags at all times, as a fashion accessory. It goes without saying that teenage girls are my ideal audience.

[I feel like everything I write is aimed at a teenage girl demographic, or at least a teenage boy-with-good-taste-in-nail-art-and-marzipan-based-pastries demographic. I think a lot of 'young adult' or 'YA' fiction seems to presume that teenagers are interested in coming-of-age themes, whereas in my experience they are more interested in pastries and nail art. I arrived at this empirical data mostly by talking to strangers who looked like teenagers and asking them "Think fast: which is better, coming-of-age epiphanies or delicious pastries and super-cute nail art?" and they were all like "The pastries and nail art are better, ESPECIALLY in young adult fiction."]

Buy Jesus!

10) What is your favourite colour?


Thank you Quentin for this interview. Remember: Shrike...buy it.

Quentin's blog.

Justin's blog.


Thank you.