Photo: Robert Cross
Interviewed by Raqi Syed
Carl Shuker is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. Carl graduated from the IIML in 2001, where he took the course under the guidance of Bill Manhire. During his MA year, Carl worked on a novel that went on to be published in 2005 as The Method Actors. It was awarded the Prize in Modern Letters the following year. Since then, Carl has published three additional novels: The Lazy Boys, Three Novellas for a Novel, and most recently, Anti Lebanon.
Carl’s work does not present itself in a singular genre or style. Instead, each novel emerges as a fresh opportunity for reinvention, moving easily from Timaru, New Zealand, to Tokyo to Lebanon. This kind of global hopscotching reflects not only his own time living and working abroad, but also a commitment to the idea that the novel is a continually changing form which still holds relevancy for both readers and writers. If there is a consistency to be found, it is in the larger themes such as the construction of personal mythologies, the nature of horror, and shifting notions of history.
The questions in this interview arose out of many conversations had between March and October of 2013, during which time Carl was the advisor on my MA thesis. We would sit in his office in the Glenn Schaeffer House with its sprawling view of Wellington Harbour. Most of the time a weathered paperback of Infinite Jest sat on a table between us. Occasionally it was accompanied by an equally well-used copy of DeLillo’s Underworld. The interview was conducted over email.
1. Your office at the IIML has a fantastic view of Wellington. Do you find the view distracting or conducive to writing? What is your ideal writing space?
My ideal space is a quiet desk with a window and some natural light just over there. It is just about perfect for any writer here. Not only the office but the entire ambience and the pervading sense in the house of encouragement, taste and quiet striving. I tried to convince the brilliant Geoff Cochrane to apply for the writer in residence position. He asked me how to spell Semtex.
2. What kinds of things did you read when you were young, before you began thinking of The Lazy Boys and perhaps reading more seriously?
We had a laugh about Dean R Koontz. But those early pulpy reading experiences are really valuable. Horror and thrillers are great gateway drugs. After the wonderlands of Seuss I wandered confusedly though a typical 80s childhood in the south: the bookshelves filled with Stephen King and Wilbur Smith and Alistair MacLean and National Geographics, and at the borrowed baches we holidayed at I’d find Sven Hassel and his ultraviolent and softporny World War II novels. (Sample title: The Bloody Road to [cough] Death.)
I look back now and feel how poignant it is – the owners (and very often the builders) of these southern baches were old bachelors. Possibly old enough to have some WWII experience. There was a pair of old twins who had built places alongside each other high up on the hill. I imagine them fishing out on the lake in their paired boats, rowing home to their paired baches, saying their good nights and retiring home to read alone in bed their – who knows, perhaps paired – brutal, erotic novels of doomed, lusty Nazis.
3. At the IIML this year there has been an ongoing discussion about the role of the author, now and through history. What about the role of the novel; what purpose do you think the novel serves?
4. With The Method Actors and then again with Anti Lebanon, you have been described as a post-modern writer. How do you see yourself? Are these categories still useful?
I think by shoehorning yourself into an epoch you’re already limiting your own project. Or looking for a pre-existing scaffold to support you in the building of something the shape of which you’re unsure. Once an epoch or a movement has been defined or largely described such that you’re comfortable with all its denotations and connotations, then surely it’s the next thing you ought to be thinking about. These are critical categories, and a concern for critics; helpful in your education as a writer and your understanding of your contexts but unhelpful in your project of getting a thing written. That sounds very neat.
Perhaps it’s more true that these categories are in some way decided by the literature the writer reads, or has already read, within. So the kind of writer you are on a given book is in large part determined by the books you’ve read right up until this moment. The soil in which you grew. Transitioning literary epochs is an enormous thing to do and very rare. The equivalent of hoisting oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Allen Curnow seemed to do it but was very anxious about the process. In sum, when I am called a postmodern writer I feel one of two things – the caller is lazy and using postmodern as a shorthand for something they don’t quite recognise or as a loose synonym for ‘experimental’, which in itself is a loose synonym. The other thing is concern that damn, maybe I am, and I’m writing thirty-plus years too late.
5. Is the term post-modernism still relevant, or are we in a post post-modern moment?
I think it’s clearly the latter. I think I’d say, were I put in a position of duress, each of my books has been characterised by a reaching from a postmodern, contingent position that is unsatisfactory in some way, toward some kind of preModern, presymbolic, almost Romantic transcendence. There’s always a mourning offset by comedy, and a yearning and a reaching for something extra-literary, extra-written.
6. What about theory, criticism and philosophy. Do you think theory and creative writing function in distinct ways or is there overlap? Does theory figure into your own work?
Oh very definitely. I think, however, that early on I was aware of the dangers theory presents to beginning writers, who can interpret and provide complex and intelligent and scathing exegeses upon any given text from Tristram Shandy to the back of a cereal box, but can’t write a simple scene involving their own experience without freaking out about what their parents will say. So there’s a lot of catching up to do, for a young graduate with some theory under his or her belt, in terms of composing fiction that works and has a headbeat and a heartbeat and that isn’t solely engaged in defending itself in a high theoretical debate at the expense of deploying skills and verities that have not yet been understood.
Each of my books has had a project that’s in part theoretical, in that the status of the text was always at the forefront of my mind, and in combat/arm wrestle with the material of the text. Which sounds abstruse, but what I mean is that with The Lazy Boys, for example, I had to justify to myself how and why the text came into being, why it begins and ends as it does. Now, for example, I don’t feel the same kind of intense pressure to have a hermetically sealed text to kind of resist a poststructuralist pointing out leakages. At the time I was really concerned with that. At the time I didn’t believe I could “allow” myself the third person. It was, like, a decadent mode. So trauma sparked my character speaking, his narration, and trauma ends it, and the narration presented is exactly what’s elided from cultural discourse in that place and time in New Zealand (hence and you can see the yearning for the extra-written, and how I always believe in a real in my books. I’m so very much not postmodern). The culture’s “rejected thoughts … come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
So I have a largely mute character who steadily increasingly speaks aloud in the inherited language of his milieu, but who has an intense internal life I felt was not ‘mirrored’ by the culture in that time and place but is expressed via this book. This was the book’s project or justification. By the end of the novel—bar one late attempt at a confession in his truest voice (in which he is mistaken for another, so it’s, by then, too late)—he is supposed to be speaking almost entirely in the overheard, the inherited, and this erases him. The novel begins with the word “man” and a story delivered in an inherited, borrowed voice: ‘That is how my story will be told, that’s how they are always told, and that’s how I will tell it. But that story is not real.’ The novel ends with him mistaken for another and this line: he glimpses himself in a mirror as ’just a pallid oval with no eyes and a gaping maw for a mouth’.
So each novel has a little theoretical system and context it’s working within and that works within the novel. For the current book, I started off with the Malthusian problem—working in healthcare to prolong human life while human life and population growth is destroying the planet. But once you seek it out you find this debate is alive and well and growing in the medicophilosophical literature and now in the more general discourse as well. So I started to move toward something different, an idea I’ve been skirting around and failing at since I got started.
It’s a narrative mode that says something directly on the one hand, and implies a whole other narrative on the other. It’s really hard to express it, but something like this: the digression in the narrative presented reveals the path obscured or beneath; the expression on the face reveals the violence seen; the action on the wings reveals the stage. From high above the forest not the road but the line of dark shadow where there are no trees reveals the road. The extant prose enacts the mind, the consciousness; what the mind evades or hides (story/prose not present but implied and gradually revealed) reveals the truer story inside. By which I mean disassociation (the narrator or curator’s digression) acts as suspense vis-a-vis the event or situation disassociated from. (God, sorry. I’m still working at this and the book itself will be the ultimate expression of it.)
I want it to work like this: on top of the windy hill the dance of the holders of the ropes of the fighting kites is weird and beautiful to watch in and of itself, but it also reveals, in detail, the progress and the reversals and the stoops and swoops of the fight of the kites they fly. Except they have no ropes and there are no kites.
David Foster Wallace is really helpful here and he has this thing I’ve been struggling to articulate to myself for a long time:
‘You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—“re-mediated,” since this is probably where poststructuralism rears its head for me—by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedying.’
7. You’ve mentioned you prefer initially to write in longhand. Can you speak a little about your process?
I aim to write between 500 to 1500 words a day longhand, pen and paper. But in longhand it’s not scrawl: I paragraph and lay out–I bend words over for italics. I number the pages. Then I stand the pages up on a little easel and I type up into a Word document in Garamond, fifteen point. Each novel has its own font. I’ve only ever used Word and despite their best efforts to alienate me I can’t seem to get rid of Microsoft. In this second run I gain a little more clarity and insight into the scene. It’s the first of several hundred thousand edits, which virtually all subsequently take place on screen. But the most fun, the most pure moment is filling pages and pages with black ink. Getting glasses made this even more beautiful, sometimes lurid: I could see the grain of the paper again….
8. We’ve talked a little about day jobs, how work and our ideas about work translate into literature. For example in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the Inland Revenue Service as a sort of Office Space. How do you see your work functioning in your writing?
It’s a really pertinent question in two ways: the first in that it’s a huge part of this current novel I’m working on, which is about editing as a job, and the second in that we have to structure our lives around some kind of accommodation between work and Work. Work being what we want to do; work being what we have to do.
All the writers I know, bar a couple, have to work day jobs, and what’s really intimidating and remarkable is that they’re all for the large part really good at them. They’re also tortured and frustrated and ever-grumpy and resentful about not having time to write.
My old shtick on this in my twenties was that I would take a year or two to write a novel, then a year or two working at something, a job-type-job, somewhere, to pay off the debts and get head above water, and plus get back in the trenches, learning something new, and not disappear into some abstract space in my head (ass) where I might start writing novel-length works about a young man’s journey through memory and desire from his bed to the window of his bedroom. So I’d phrase it that I was choosing to live like this in order to keep it real and grow as a person and a writer and expand the parameters of what I would write about and of. The reality is this is true but also completely imposed on us and also has a fairly sort of desperate edge: the writers I know work their asses off for their Work and their families and their jobs, and each cannibalises the other. The Work is the one which usually gets clubbed and offered up to the others, it seems.
But more pertinent to your question: jobs and work for me right now are perhaps the biggest part of the concerns of the current novel I’ve been working on this remarkable year: relationships in an office, and what is hidden behind codes of professional behaviour. How what is hidden leaks out over time even from the most stultified, determined compartmentaliser of their work and private lives. How in order to deal with the rage and funk of monotonous work – or work of any kind – we pick apart and dissect and investigate and hate and love and lust after the people that are around us eight hours a day. That these totally unprofessional emotions that sometimes bleed over into dangerous actions are, like, vital to the even keel required of professional behaviour.
JG Ballard does the obvious thing with this idea in Super-Cannes, where for high-level professionals accommodated very comfortably on-site at a massive commercio-industrio-business park, the resident psychiatrist advises and arranges ‘ratissages’: the professionals suit up every so often and go human hunting down in town (usually Arab immigrants, this being the south of France) to cathartically vent those dark emotions. Being a bid to maintain the balance between Apollo and Dionysus in the Nietzschean sense. In most offices, these competing urges are kept in constant balance through more everyday and constant adjustments: conversation, gossip, small campaigns of hatred, smears, petty revenges, flirtations, ill-advised affairs. I find this stuff absolutely fascinating and it forms the large part of the new book.
9. As a writer, do you think you are rooted in a certain idiom, whether it be regional to New Zealand or contemporary to a particular moment? I’m wondering how you see your narrative voice, given the many cities you’ve lived in, and also how you see the relationship between place and voice in a novel.
Each book has its own font and each has its own voice, with an obvious umbrella over them all. This is the goal, at least. As well as each book having its own soundtrack, season, colour palette, its emotional lodestone, or set of them. So in terms of idiom, I try to be true to a surrounding ambient that hopefully becomes distinct to that novel. In one book it would be unthinkable for a character to ‘rise’ instead of ‘stand up’; in another, ‘he rose’ is absolutely right and the other option would be bathetic. It would be wrong for a character to shriek in a particular book, for example, or if he did it would be ironic. But in another that’s exactly the right verb for some terrifying effect. It’s all carefully curated from a particular culture anyway.
In Anti Lebanon one of the challenges was to find an English that was plausibly a rendition of the Lebanese Arabic my characters speak, yet was in keeping with the narrative voice of the book. This was really hard. Rawi Hage, for example, is a Lebanese writer writing in English and his characters are very slangy and colloquial and bubbling over with that Lebanese effervescence and exaggeration. But that kind of voice would be totally at odds with the world of my novel (though really helpful in building the individual voice of Abu Keiko). I had to, over the course of years, slowly massage it into a shape that worked. Despite the break in verisimilitude—and a point a close reader of the text would be right in making—I occasionally used an Arabic word in dialogue, like ‘yalla’, whereas whole sayings and figures of speech rendered in English worked perfectly for my particular voice. As well as pieces of French. Lebanese Arabic is a salad of their particular dialect, French, and a smattering of English, mostly nouns and compound nouns and exclamations. More French generally implying a certain religious and socioeconomic background. So the voice I generate is trying to evoke that, not perhaps represent that. In the same way, the translation in ‘AO Hills Park’ from Three Novellas for a Novel is not a true translation but a possible one, that is beautiful and seamless and true to itself, but not, perhaps, semiotically pure. A close reader, a postmodernist or poststructuralist, is perhaps right to take issue with that. But any translation, in the case of those saltings of Arabic, would be so wrong: a character saying ‘Hurry up!’ Or ‘Come on!’ It would have been garish.
'"A dog, ah, yalla - " He sighed and he rose to his feet, his thoughts visibly moving to other matters, and he patted his pockets. "A dog will always be a dog, even if raised by lions. Get out."'
These and the other solutions came to me with the slow accretion of certainty that comes with spending quality time with your manuscript. Immersing yourself in the phenomenology of your novel, as Will Self puts it.
Another e.g.: an early draft of The Lazy Boys was filled with ‘guys’. So this guy is standing over there and he says to this guy, who is standing with this chick, and etc. I was unhappy with it for all its verisimilitude to a real at which I was a witness (true postmodernists are all holding their heads and moaning softly: ‘What real? Dude, your witness is contingent and created that reality,’ and etc.). Anyway, Richey’s voice evolved such that in his peer group there were ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ and that was how his narration referred to them. It had the right hint of naiveté, Richey’s ingenuous, often shimmering view of the world going dark around him, and reinforced the obvious about these eighteen-year-olds, as well as having a lit pedigree straight out of early Bret Easton Ellis. Yet people said they found the voice was unmistakably New Zealand, despite these and other glaring differences. The beautiful contrivance of the whole in the art subsumes and swamps the particular choices no matter how idiosyncratic and if the whole is working we immerse completely and forget some spurious actual. That’s another cool way novels can work.
10. Do you find discussions about a national literature in New Zealand or abroad meaningful or problematic?
Definitely both. It’s problematic in a smaller country when discussion of certain works gets separated off from the work’s context as decided and pursued by the writer, and embedded in a different context – that of a comparison and discussion of works united by the origins of their authors. That being said, there’s the round robin of popular reviewing in New Zealand in the various broadsheets, where a constantly refreshing cycle of new names appear to byline 800 words on someone’s ninth novel and then there’s serious, wide, and excellent academic reading being done at Vic, Canterbury, Otago and Auckland, by some of the best minds we have in the humanities, building a story of our literature and keeping it alive in the national memory.
11. You seem dedicated to the novel. Do you have any interest in writing poetry or short stories or working in other forms?
I am excited by the idea of writing poetry, but the way my head works it would always be as part of a novel. Like, the novel eats everything…
12. Who are you reading? Do you tend to return to certain writers again and again?
Right now, after years away, via poet Alfred Corn doing a read-along, I’ve returned to Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse. I wasn’t sure how I would find it. Then, I read the early scene where Mrs Ramsay extends a hand to ‘the atheist Charles Tansley’ (whom the children hate for his severity and awkwardness, and with whom I totally helplessly identified, to my own mortification, as a young man: ‘Oh my God, I am that horrible man’, etc.). She invites him to town. And he suddenly softens, finds himself helplessly telling her all about his family, as if to explain himself: ‘He felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman for the first time in his life. He had hold of her bag’. He is ravished, and I am ravished once more.
And I’ve also returned to Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon after a decade. A superb, merciless thriller, so full of stuff, so impeccably researched, the plot so relentless and hyperconfident. It’s smart and human and really written. And if the material seems a cliché, remember: it came out in 1981. I wish I’d found it up in one of those baches.