An Interview with Howard Male

Or rather, a conversation with the artist Richard Rubbra

 

 

 (Portrait of the author by Richard Rubbra) 

 

 

Talking is sometimes a grood way of find out what one thinks. So during the conversation below, I found out what I thought about Sex, God, Love, Richard Dawkins, cultural snobbery, influencesinventing an alternative religion,  writing a very different kind of love story, the sensitive subject of religion, characters, the novel as the most complete art form, getting feedback, and much else besides.   

 

Richard Rubbra

Sell Etc Etc Amen to me.

Howard Male

What do you mean?

RR

I mean persuade me I have to read it, as if your life depended on it.

HM

My life does depend on it. I've thought about little else for the past five years. But OK, I'll give it a shot. It's a love story, a hate story, a murder mystery, a suicide mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a satire on organised religion, a…

RR

Is that the best you can do?  Can't you give your potential readers something more concrete?

HM

Well, it's a difficult novel to talk about without, firstly, giving stuff away about the plot, and secondly, giving the wrong impression due to preconceived ideas about the genres the novel flirts with. But I can tell you what it's not: it's not sci fi, it's not horror, it's not a rock novel - despite the fact it has elements of all those genres.

RR

You have three strong female characters in this novel. Whereas the men… Was this a deliberate choice?

HM

I just find women more interesting. Their motives always seem more layered, more nuanced. Men can be pitifully two-dimensional in nature, especially in affairs of the heart.

RR

Your men are largely comic, arrogant, evil, power crazed or pathetic…

HM

You're not wrong.

RR

Why?

HM

Because the novel required them to be. But I hope they are credible too.

RR

They are, yes, but why are they such a hopeless bunch?

HM

Because organised religion was my main target, and organised religions are largely the work of men. God is wholly manmade - or at least the gods of the past few thousand years are. So my male characters are contemporary manifestations of the masculine urges to worship, be worshipped, as well as define, label and give a personality to - that which we know nothing off. My female characters become more interesting because they are caught up in this mess that man has made of civilisation.

RR

Don't you think you might potentially put off  your main readership?

HM

Look, men have their faults but they also have a sense of humour, and a sense of perspective. We shrug our shoulders at our flaws. We may even be a little proud of them. What it comes down to is, women grow up, men don't. This is what I am trying to say in the epilogue when the reader finds out what became of Helen. Men may end up good fathers or successful businessmen but they'll still want to make lists of their top ten albums or films, watch the game on a Saturday afternoon, or buy a sports car when the hit middle age.

RR

Does this include you?

HM

As far as the car or any other substitute phallases goes, no. But I'm not averse to list making. Maybe being aware of the innate absurdities of the male psyche has helped me avoid some of this stuff.

RR

Such as?

HM

Tribal-binary thinking, aggression as a knee-jerk response to confrontational situations, sexism, chauvinism, avoiding conversations or a personal nature by telling jokes, or arguing about whether the Stones were better than the Beatles. Should I go on?

RR

You've had some great feedback to the book. How has that made you feel?

HM

Frustrated.

RR

That wasn't the answer I expected.

HM

Obviously I was thrilled initially - I had no idea if I'd produce anything of any worth. I'd never even attempted to write a novel before. And to get such amazing comments from people like Charlie Gillett and Mick Brown - writers I had a huge amount of respect for... But then when I started to use these comments in promotional emails and letters I sent out to agents, I found it didn't make any difference in regard to them showing interest in the book. I was baffled and, yes, frustrated.

RR

So why do you think that was?

HM

Eventually I found out from one agent that it was probably because "they don't like to be told what to think." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I'd spent a year or more pestering complete strangers, through blogs and at book signings, to give Etc Etc Amen a try. And all I'd succeeded in doing was pissing off the very people I was trying to attract or at the very lest, intrigue.

RR

It does seem a bit strange. I always read the back of a book before I buy it. To see what the critics have said.

HM

Yes, me too! But what can you do? This was different apparently. Perhaps it's just an English thing; you're not suppose to blow your own trumpet. Maybe I should try some American publishers. But anyway, all thse comments are on the website and so people can now choose whether or not to look at them.

RR

That's very English of you.

HM

I thought so.

RR

And you've even got a great quote from Patrick Neate.

HM

Well, I did cheat a bit with that one. His long-ish email also included some reservations about what he'd read of the novel: too much description; a prologue which didn't work in his opinion. But these are things I've subsequently acted upon, so I didn't feel too cheeky just picked out the positive bits of his email. In fact his reservations added more weight to the good things he'd said - I felt he was being honest rather than just humouring me.

RR

You must have spent a fortune on books.

HM

It's certainly not cheap to just print a few copies at a time. But on several occasions the book has been passed on by enthusiastic readers to other readers. So I'd find out their email addresses and pester them for a quote too: there's no such thing as a free novel! My landlord sent his copy to a friend in Australia who apparently said "Why can't more novels be like this?" Which I loved as a comment. And you passed on a copy to your picture framer boss who then passed it on to a doctor friend of his...

 

 

 

 

RR

Wasn't he the one who said you were "the thinking man's Nick Hornby?"

HM

Yes, I think that was him. I quipped back, "Or the literate man's Dan Brown," which was funny at the time. But you probably had to be there.

RR

Earlier you mentioned the thorny issue of genre. I didn't really feel that Etc Etc Amen fits into any particular genre. Was this intentional?

HM

My only thought when I began was that I wouldn't have the stamina or will to continue if I thought anyone else had already told this story or tackled these themes in this way. But if pushed I sometimes describe Etc Etc Amen as an airport novel with ideas above its station.

RR

Aren't you being a bit hard on yourself?

HM

No, I don't think so. For one thing, I'm not a cultural snob. The best of what popular culture has to offer can be just as edifying as anything that high culture gives us. And I had to make it entertaining for myself as I wrote it, which meant that it has elements of the genres I loved as I was growing up...

RR

You even seem to have a kind of cliff-hanger moment at the end of many of the scenes…

HM

Some of those stem from the acorn from which my great oak sprung. This was a straight forward who-done-it I wrote for The Asahi Weekly - a Japanese English language weekly newspaper.

RR

When was this?

HM

It was a weekly, 25-part story in 2007. It was also the first time I'd written fiction since school.

RR

And you got the bug?

HM

I loved it. Even though I had been required to write in a pretty simplistic style, the thrill of inventing characters and seeing what they had to say for themselves, and where they were going to lead me, thrilled me no end. I'd not had so much fun since I gave up music.

RR

So were all the elements of Etc Etc Amen already in place with this story?

HM

Not at all. The 1970s part of the novel and its set of characters stemmed from the cardboard cut-outs of the Japanese story. But it took me six months to realise that even when that story and those characters were fleshed out, it was still a million miles from having the resonance to qualify as a novel. Or at least any novel I'd want to read.

RR

So how did you end up with the second story line and the idea of the non-religion?

HM

The KUU Hypothesis goes back further than the 1970s murder mystery. And it came about in much the same way as I have Zachary B describe its invention. I'd been obsessed by the absurdities, contradictions and all-out horrors of the established religious traditions since my early twenties, perhaps even longer. Then around 2001 I was involved in an ongoing discussion on coincidence and synchronicity with an old art school friend and I just found myself calling what others call God; The Knowing Unknowable Universe. I had spontaneously named something I didn't even believe in. This paradox amused me and prompted the whole idea of creating a fully rounded theology which pushed the idea of non-commitment and non-belief as being a far healthier starting point when forging a relationship with a hypothetical higher being.

RR

And yet you give the KUU a pretty hard time in Etc Etc Amen. Did you intend to do this from the start?

HM

Not really. I was pretty evangelical about my non-belief system while writing its manifesto. In fact I was inundated with unlikely and amusing coincidences during the six month period it came together - which only added to the feeling that I was really on to something. It suddenly crossed my mind that my previous position as a hardcore atheist might have been coursed by - ironically - a failure of the imagination.

RR

What do you mean by, ironically a failier of the imagination?

HM

The fact that it takes a serious engagement with one's imagination to losen the grip of our hard-wired rationist mindset. In my early twenties I read almost nothing but Bertrand Russell for a year. It was a wonderful education in how to argue rationally and methodically. But Russell, like Dawkins, shuts out so much in order to appear to be absolutely 100% right, both to himself and us. What we don't know rarely figures, because it muddies the water.

RR

So how did this alternative religion become part of the novel?

HM

I was reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and it reminded me that there was more than one way of writing a novel; that the novel could be whatever you wanted it to be; you could have more than one narrative voice and more than one narrative strand; a first-person narrative along side a third-person narrative. Rather than just one long story in which a few people go through some serious stuff, with some of them come out the other end OK, and some of them not. I've always loved the novel that confounded rather than fed expectations, so I suppose writers like Vonnegut, KunderaAmis, McEwan, Nabokov - even Zadie Smith - were all influences.

 

 

RR

Was it at this point that everything fell into place?

HM

Not at all. All I knew initially was that my rock star, Zachary B, was the creator of KUUism. It suddenly became credible that, in the age of the internet, a famous rock star's stoned ramblings could change the course of history.

RR

In these sensitive times were you concerned about offending anyone?

HM

The artist who tiptoes around is no artist at all - although I also feel that the artist who just sets out to shock is immature and irresponsible. Christianity gets the hardest time in the book, simply because it's my own birth religion so I know a little more about it. But KUUism has a convenient get-out clause in relation to all other religions, in that if you are an entertainer of all possibilities then you are also obliged - or invited - to entertain the possibility that Jesus was the son of God, along with a zillion other theological notion mankind has come up with over millennia. The satirical element of the novel stems from the fact that despite the point being laboured that KUUism is a doctrine of fence-sitting and healthy scepticism, there's still always going to be some idiots who expect definitive answers in a realm where no such answers are possible.

RR

There are many twists in the novel. How many of these were planned in advance?

HM

I couldn't have written the thing if I'd known exactly where it was going from the beginning: I get bored too easily. So there would be some planning but also some moments when I would surprise myself. Let me give you an example. In Chapter Two when August is going up in the KUU Tripod's lift, I had no idea who was going to be reaching out a hand to shake hers, before she'd even stepped out of the lift. It became Barney Merrick only as I typed his name in a moment of  improvisation that morning.

RR

Which given Merrick's central role in the rest of the novel…

HM

Exactly. Suddenly his presence in the Tripod had to be justified and made inevitable. Previously he'd just been a minor character - this long-haired public school hack in the 1970s storyline, who pissed off Paul Coleridge. Now he was pivotal. But I was constantly surprising myself like this. Only a couple of weeks ago I wrote a new prologue which is completely different to the original prologue. It gives the reader more of a shove into the main body of the novel while also setting up certain expectations and questions. And it was fun to introduce a character who you don't meet again until the epilogue.

RR

Zachary C, you mean?

HM

Yes. He's not the sort of character you'd want to spend 400 pages with, yet when the reader meets him again in the closing pages I'd like to think they'd it would tickle them. Especially given all the reader's been through in the intermediate pages. And Fountain Penn too, pops up again very briefly in the Battle of Trafalgar section.

RR

So why this new prologue?

HM

The previous one was quieter, more enigmatic. But it didn't lead the reader into the main body of the narrative with any real force. It just sat there being.. well, quietly enigmatic. I liked it, but I eventually concluded it was a self indulgence that didn't serve the novel well. It put too much faith in a reader to care about what happens next without giving them much of a reason to care what happens next.

RR

And now they know there's going to be a very gruesome murder.

HM

Exactly. It changed the whole dynamic of the novel without me having to change much of the rest of the text. It simply added tension where previously there had just been narrative and then the big shock of the murder. I lost tsome of he power of the 'big shock' moment but I gained a new taughtness in the rest of the book.

RR

I really liked Zachary C. Can you say more about why he's such a bit part player? What was your thinking there?

HM

It just amused me and I therefore hope it amuses readers. Zachary C fronts a Zachary B tribute band. The new prologue in which he stars introduces several of the novel's themes; vanity, mortality, the nature of identity, love, horror, laughter . It gives the reader a sense of the tone of the rest of the book. In fact the last sentence of the prologue in some ways sums up the whole novel :

"Suddenly he remembered the LSD-induced epiphany he'd had at Zachary's 1972 concert at the Rainbow: that just as slack-jawed cavemen had once believed the wind was created by aggitated trees waving their branches about, he  had believed - at least for one vertiginously exciting moment - that it was Zachary B who radiated the light that the greedy spotlights then vacuumed up." 

RR

I see what you mean.

HM

Good. It took me an age to get it right. 


RR

You say that the novel is a love story, but I'm not convinced.

HM

Love, lust, infatuation, adoration, worship - where do you draw the line between all these interchangeable human impulses? There's certainly plenty of unrequited love in there. Which, for me anyway, offers as many opportunites for trying to work out what love is.  Zachary loves Jody, Jody loves Zachary, a hundred-thousand girls and boys love Zachary, Paul loves Helen - although he doesn't know it - and Zachary. How much bloody love do you want before you'll call something a love story?!

RR

Ha ha! OK, fair enough. I suppose what I really meant are there are no love scenes as such.

HM

Well, even there I'd disagree. When Paul is in Helen's room and they are talking about the art of writing. I think that's a beautiful love scene.

RR

Yes, but it's a bit one sided.

HM


Is it? I didn't think so when I wrote it. I actually think that if Paul had followed up with a phone call a few days later, then the whole course of rest of the novel would have been very different. In fact in the very next present-day section we encounter the Paul who didn't make that phone call. I deliberately juxtaposed Paul at his most innocent with Paul at his most corrupt, at the very hub of the novel. What a difference the love of a good woman could have made! Which further supports my argument that this is a love story.

RR

Do you have anything else to say about Paul Coleridge? Is he in any way you?

HM

You mean because I'm also a part-time music journalist? Not really. I only fell into music journalism about seven years ago. I never even really wanted to be a music journalist. I wasn't one of those NME young guns hanging out with the bands. The fact is, to a degree, I am all my characters. I haven't figured out any other way of making them credible. I have Zachary's ego and solipsistic vanity, August's common sense, Damian's callow enthusiasm, Helen's fanaticism and will to tease... Stumbling upon the novel as a medium of expression in middle age means I've got half a lifetime's worth of experiences - and different periods of my life - on which to draw. 

RR

You went to art school - Winchester wsn't it? And then you had your own band, and then you made a living from a word game you invented.

HM

Well, a partial living. But, yes, it's all fuel to the fire. Even if it's a fire I had no idea I'd be needing to stoke.

RR

So you hadn't always had an ambition to write a novel?

HM

Not at all. The novelist was always the artist I was most in awe of. I knew how to make pictures, compose songs - and how hard can it be to make a film if you've got a competent crew and a sack of money? But the novel - how the fuck do you do that? The novel is the most complete art form. It's like the architect actually going and building his state-of-the-art building all by himself or herself. I can say with absolute certainty I wouldn't have even attempted a novel it if I'd not been broken in slowly, one step at a time, in the way that Etc Etc Amen came about. It would have been far too daunting.

RR

There's no sex in the novel. Was this intentional?

HM

Well, there a masturbation scene! I generally feel that sex in a novel or a film just slows everything down and makes you aware of yourself as a voyeur almost.  You might as well have asked me why is there no shitting or pissing in the novel; this is stuff people do, but if it's not furthering the story, or telling you something new about the characters, then it doesn't belong there.

RR

But shitting or pissing is unlikely to be integral to any story, whereas sex often is.

HM

Fair point. But I don't think you should include something as disruptive and emotive as a sexual encounter just for the sake of having a sexual encounter. Readers aren't stupid - they can spot gratuitous sex from a mile away…

RR

Only if they've got a powerful pair of binoculars.

HM

True enough. But I will say one more thing about this. I think there is plenty of sexual tension in this novel.

RR

Oh I agree. You were saying to me earlier that a few readers questioned the wisdom of having The KUU Hypothesis written as separate sections rather than integrated into the narrative.

HM

I did things the way I did them because it solved the problem of lumbering characters with having talk the theology/philosophy of KUUism in their everyday dialogue. If August and Damian had been born-again Christians they wouldn't have been constantly discussing the Bible and its ramifications while walking through the streets of Marrakech, they'd just be talking about the kind of things we all talk about, related to the world they are encountering for the first time. By having all the KUU stuff in little condensed high-fibre chunks between each section of narrative, it freed up my characters to be as naturalistic as possible. I also imagined an ideal reader using the more static KUU Hypothesis sections as a kind of decompression chamber in which to catch their breath before leaping backwards and forwards between 1970s London and present-day Marrakesh.

RR

Have you had any criticism of the overall formal structure of the novel?

HM

No, none at all. Perhaps because once I have introduced the reader to the structure of the book: 1970s London - KUU extract - Present-day Marrakech - KUU extract - 1970s London - KUU extract - Present-day Marrakech - KUU extract - it doesn't change. There are no unnecessary sidesteps or digressions, no deliberate attempts to be overly clever. And both stories have a linear-time forward momentum as they gradually converge towards simultaneous climaxes. In a way this goes back to my early comment that Etc Etc Amen is an airport novel at heart if you just take it at surface level. Interestingly, given that the tripod and the number three are important to KUUism, I only noticed after completing the novel that the structure is essentially tripodic: three strands (1970s London, present-day Marrakech and KUU doctrin) that gradually converge in both time and space to a point - the point being, the double climax of the novel.

RR

And the reader gets given more and more connections between the narratives so that things make more rather than less sense, as the novel progresses.

HM

I hope so. I've also included many little echoes and after-shadows, some more obvious than others, between the two strands.

RR

In the end the novel doesn't offer any easy answers. We don't even really get a sense of whether or not you think your own bespoke religion is a good or a bad thing. Is there a God?

HM

Ha ha! Probably not. Possibly. I think there have been very few good novels that try to make you think a certain way. The novelist's job is just to - ironically in this instance - be as neutral yet all-seeing as the Omniscient Practical Joker his, her or itself is - if indeed they exist - which the probably don't. Only bad novels proselytise, moralise or present a single argument. A good novel should make you think, not tell you what to think. In fact KUUism should really be the religion of choice for all novelists.

RR

But if you personally were to get off the fence for the moment…

HM

But the fence is central to the KUUist's lack of mindset!

RR

Fair enough. But perhaps you could just…

HM

OK, I was a believer for about six months when I was, maybe, ten. During that strange period I did take a certain confort in the ritual of bedtime prayers; the listing of loved ones that I wanted the Big G to keep safe from harm.  And then from around the age of nineteen/twenty I learnt to think in a more disciplined way about such things by reading lots of Bertrand Russell - as I mentioned earlier - and others. So I was in the rabid atheist's camp up until KUUism presented itself to me as a seductive, funny and useful alternative.

RR

What are your thoughts on Richard Dawkins?

HM

I have a great deal of respect for him. I think he gets a lot of unfair and blinkered criticism, much of which is so impassioned that I think he should be flattered. It shows what a nerve he's hit. How do you argue with a man who so incisively delivers the facts, contextualises them, and tells it like it is?

RR

So where do you and he part company then?

HM

Well, I'm 100% behind him on the absurdity, danger and ongoing tragedy of believing in faith-specific deities and their anachronistic, sexist and racist rulebooks. But… and it's quite  a big but - I don't think it's necessarily a logical or rational jump from that position to denying any possibility of a higher intelligence that may be way beyond our comprehension as human beings. At one point in the novel I have a stoned Zachary muse on what a cow or a goldfish makes of our world - how limited their span of understanding is in relation to ours. He then points out that if the goldfish is missing a lot of stuff it's logical to assume we are missing a lot of stuff too. After all, what are the chances that the exact nature of all things be exactly in line with what we are able to sensually perceive and mentally unravel?  Yes we've invented a few tools to expand our perceptual range, but that's just catering for the senses. Telescopes and infra-red cameras are no help in areas we've not even begun to hypothesise about. Dawkins's Achilles heel is that he can only think within the parameters of his own faith; Science. 

RR

But science isn't a faith, it's got rigid rational rules behind it...

HM

Yes, science doesn't get up to the same kinds of tricks as religion - theories have to be proved and are proved by many different scientists in many parts of the world before they are presented as doctrine. And even when the evidence is in, it can still be overturned a few decades later by a new set of facts, without any blood getting spilt. So, don't get me wrong - science is great (laughs)! But if we are in the realm of the vague, the whimsical, the not conceived of - we are outside science's area of expertise. So that when one afternoon I was told by a friend about the alleged existence of Jesus's foreskin and then that same evening found Jesus's foreskin being used as a pivotal plot device in the novel I was reading, I knew that this wasn't a matter for the mighty brain of Richard Dawkins. I doubt that Mr Dawkins would have any truck with my notion that in an infinite universe (or a universe that might as well be infinite) there must be infinite possibilities. But atheism is just another tribal-binary stance, so I'm inclined to be suspicious of it from that perspective. So, yeah. Science is very different and better than any religious faith, but it still puts all its...er... faith in a rigid set of rules applied to a physical, known universe, while conveniently sidestepping and even rallying against, anything it can't contain or analyse.

RR

Tell us what you mean by tribal-binary?

HM

It's what I consider to be the hardwired impulse man has to believe he has to take sides; to be either for or against; to see the middle ground as intrinsically unhealthy and woolly-minded.

RR

Would you say women are less tribal-binary?

HM

Yes, I suppose so.

RR

You don't seem 100% certain on that.

HM

Well, they can be very tribal-binary when they put their mind to it. But, no, they are not nearly as bad as men. But the problem is that women still aren't in charge, however many inroads they may have made. The playground is still dominated by the boys.

So what are you trying to achieve with Etc Etc Amen?

HM

I don't think you try to achieve anything with a novel, anymore than a poet tries to achieve something with a poem. But I do hope I've managed to say one or two important things without actually saying them.

RR

Important how?

HM

Well, now you're going to make me sound pompous.

RR

Do go on.

HM

Ha ha! In for a penny… The human race needs to start growing up.

RR

Nice starting point.

HM

We are light-years ahead intellectually and scientifically in relation to our emotional and spiritual development.

RR

But are you a KUUist?

HM

Look, the thing with KUUism is that you entertain the possibility rather than believe, and thus circumnavigate all the pitfalls and dangers of faith and belief. KUUism is playful, harmless.

RR

It wasn't harmless for some of the characters in Etc Etc Amen.

HM

That's more to do with the nature of human beings than the ideas in KUUism.

RR

Couldn't that be said to be the case with all religions?

HM

Which of course is another theme of the novel.

RR

So are you a KUUist?

HM

Well, being as all that's required of a KUUist is that they entertain the possibility that unlikely coincidences are knowing winks from the Omniscient Practical Joker , I'd have to say, yes. Although being as I'm both the creator of KUUism and currently it's only publicly proclaimed non-believer, KUUism has a long way to go before it catches up with its fictional counterpart.