Mark Thwaite Totes Meer's structure, four (just about) interlocking short stories, suggests a frustration with more linear narratives. Is this true? Do you think much current fiction is very conservative?
Dai Vaughan "There certainly does seem to be a hinterland of rather drab stuff receiving critical commendation. The way to avoid it is to go for books the critics have obvious difficulty writing about, and to steer clear of anything described as 'a skilfully-plotted narrative full of rounded and believable characters.' (I'm presently reading Daithidh MacEochaidh's Islands in Time - prose as raw as a menhir, designed to skin your knuckles.) No, frustration isn't really what it's about. I mean, it's not as if I began each piece as an exercise in linear narrative and then said, 'Sod this, it's getting boring; let's try something more fancy.' Ideas for substance and ideas for structure come together at an early stage and continue to interact until a project is either abandoned or reaches the point where solid writing - as opposed to note-jotting - can begin. No stylistic option is ruled out until I'm convinced it isn't going to work. You came close to the mark, incidentally, with your reference to Contre-Jour. It was actually Josipovici's The Big Glass which encouraged me to believe that the process of making a work of visual art could provide a matrix sufficient to hold a narrative together."
MT Your novel suggests that the rich and powerful never get the comeuppance they fully deserve. Do you think they ever will? Are you politically optimistic or pessimistic?
DV "Think of the twin towers atrocity. One would expect a reaction of sympathy for the victims and outrage against the perpetrators. But, when you look at the media-mediated reaction, there seems to be something else in play, something hard to pin down yet sinister: perhaps no more than a tone, but a tone which wouldn't be present if the thing had happened in India or in Russia. It's as if we were being urged to feel outrage, not because 3000 innocent people had been massacred, but because the Alpha Male Nation had been affronted. The evolutionary psychologists are right: we are still chimpanzees. But do we have to remain chimpanzees? One reason for writing fiction, and this includes fiction without overt political content, is to confront people with such choices. There's a well-worn formulation - Gramsci, isn't it? - 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.' I can subscribe to that."
MT Are you comfortable with Neal Ascherson's assertion that Totes Meer is "a polemic book"?
DV "All fiction is polemical at a bed-rock level, in the sense that its material, its text, purports to offer a valid simulacrum for life as lived, and challenges the reader to deny it. Even the sort of 'conservative' novel you were mentioning before - a place for everything and everything in its place - is saying, 'Life is a pretty miserable affair, and there's nothing we can do about it, so you may as well just go away and top yourself.' The message is in the style. Neal Ascherson obviously meant 'polemic' in a more activist sense; but it's a matter of degree. I just hope Totes Meer measures up to that description."
MT What is your favourite documentary film/non-fiction book/fiction book?
DV "Film is where I've spent most of my life. To ask me to talk about it now is like asking someone to talk about a lover who's suddenly walked out on them after 40 years. Still, I'd like to put in a word for Tacita Dean. Her works, I suppose, would be described as 'art films', or even 'gallery films'; but those are simply commercial categories, sales strategy. What matters is that Dean appears to have gone right back to Lumière and struck off in a new direction, side-stepping everything that has happened in the past 100 years. It's enough to rekindle hope.
"Until very recently I seldom went back to a book I'd already read. The exception has always been Virginia Woolf's The Waves, which I came across at the age of 16, when I'd just left school, and have re-read at intervals of a few years ever since. It's a book about which I feel so possessive that I almost resent anyone else even mentioning it. Only the last time around did it occur to me that my periodic reacquaintance with this now tattered and flaking paperback mirrored the periodic re-unions of its six characters over their own lifetimes. The Waves aside, I think it's the accommodation Woolf finds between the absoluteness of the present instant and time's inexorable process - a subtly distinctive and somehow healing accommodation - that makes her still the outstanding writer of our age. Other books which speak to me on the sort of personal level which seems to transcend criticism are: John Berger's To the Wedding, Rosalind Belben's Choosing Spectacles, Jim Mangnall's The Map Maker, Gabriel Josipovici's The Air We Breathe, Julien Gracq's A Balcony in the Forest, John Cowper Powys's Weymouth Sands, almost anything by Anna Kavan, Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage in its entirety ... Time to stop."
MT How do you write? Longhand, straight onto a computer?
DV "The computer is perfect for me. I was never able to compose on a manual typewriter - too inflexible. By the time I reached the bottom of a page of longhand, it was already reduced to illegibility by alterations. The danger with the computer is that it can make things too easy, can lead to facility. That may be why I never embark on anything longer than about 1000 words without having several pages of notes behind me, sometimes quite detailed as to phrasing and so forth. In fact it's a superstition with me not to begin any book-length fiction until I've clocked up at least 120 pages of notes - because that's what I happened to have for my first novel, The Cloud Chamber, and it seemed to serve me well."
MT What are you working on now? What's coming next?
DV "It's a bad time to ask me that! Since the near-simultaneous publication of Totes Meer and Germs - another quasi-novel, from Y Lolfa - I've completed a collection of stories which have been resisting completion for quite some time. I now have three books fit and ready (in my opinion) for publication - one of which, Non-Return, is scheduled to appear from Seren in October 2005. This leaves me with the unappealing prospect, if I can't come up with anything new, of revisiting some of the old, abandoned hulks and seeing whether I can make them sea-worthy. Of course, common sense tells me that it hardly matters, that I'll be quite lucky to see even three more books into print in what remains of my life. But you don't think like that. You think: just let me have one more really good project to get my teeth into ..."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
DV May Day - actually written by John Sommerfield in 1936."
MT Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
DV "Be sure that a life of humiliation and disappointment is what you really want."
MT Anything else you'd like to say?
DV "Yes. It's all in my unpublished books."
MT Thank you so much for your time Dai. All the best!