As part of Memories of the Future we’re selling a range of books by the Manchester based Dog Horn Publishing (one of our favourite indies). One of their authors Douglas Thompson chats to us about the book he has published with them Mechagnosis.
How long have you been a writer & how did you get started?
Ever since I could lift a pen is one answer, but I won a national short story competition back in 1989, during the same summer in which I was kicked out of university and went busking on Tottenham Court Road underground. I was 22 years old, and like a total idiot thought winning a prize was about to change my life. What I think of as the first phase of my writing crashed out about 6 years after that, after publishing five other short stories and receiving numerous discouraging rejections. I almost stopped writing for the next 5 years, then my second phase began, probably spurred on by the events of 11th September 2001 (perhaps I saw in that instant how lost our civilisation was, the urgent need for new ideas). In this second phase I have published a lot more short stories and poems and five novels (two more due next year), and learned not to be discouraged, by the simple trick of embracing despair and keeping going anyway.
Mechagnosis sounds like a very unusual novel, can you tell us a bit about what it’s about?
At one level, it’s about a man who builds an enormous time machine inside his own house. At another level, that machine is just a metaphor for human memory and the sentimental power of objects to transport us through their associations. At another level it is an essay on the impersonal mechanisation of modern society and the search to reclaim an individual’s meaning from that dehumanising environment. At another level it is a detective story, a science fiction story, a horror story, the story of a murderer who kills in order to immortalise what he loves. In some ways, all writers are murderers in the way that they exploit their experiences.
Do you enjoy messing around with the form of different ‘genres’? E.g crime thriller/science fiction/metaphysical – would you even say that Mechagnosis is any of these?
I’ve developed a stock answer (or question, in fact) to that question over the last few years, it’s this: What genre is your life? Horror in the morning traffic jam, supernatural when a relative dies, hard core porn once in a while if you’re really lucky? Life is every genre and no genre, therefore so should writing be. Genres are invented by publishing marketers and critics and other unelected ‘gate keepers’. They probably mean to be helpful, but what they are really doing is demeaning the breadth of human imagination by seeking to channel it within safe narrow boundaries. I would suggest that every writer of integrity should be on a mission to smash all genre boundaries.
It seems to tackle the idea that Time Travel is something that happens through accessing the human subconscious, or an emotional hinterland of memories & meaningful objects. What was your inspiration for this? (It reminds me of Chris Marker’s film Le Jetee, later manifested as Twelve Monkeys) And who or what are your influences in general?
Some months after my father’s death a few years back I found a toy yacht he had carved for me as a boy, lying on a shelf in the garage of my old family home, covered in cobwebs. I was struck by the way that objects, especially those invested with love, have the power to speak to us across time. Mechagnosis makes use of that particular memory, but it also suggests that human beings are time machines, who can travel backwards by remembering and forward simply by living. That might seem a banal thing to say, but only if you don’t consider it deeply enough. I have experienced memory flashbacks under stress that were completely immersive, by which I mean that they felt literally like I was back in time. I believe that our current understanding of our relationship to time is heavily flawed, as is our fear of our last taboo in the western world: death. The two are closely interconnected of course, and a revised view of them is what our currently sick society needs if it is to find a workable way forward. Capitalism denies the existence of death… which is why it is ultimately an absurd system. It also wrongly presupposes that we are only individuals, when in fact we are partially a group consciousness, or so I have come to believe.
Influences? A great many. Eudora Welty, Ray Bradbury, Wolfgang Borchert in fiction, TS Eliot in poetry, Max Ernst, Georgio de Chirico, Yves Tanguy in painting, Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Barber, The Divine Comedy, Dead Can Dance, John Foxx in music…. But these are just off the top of my head.
What was it like to work with Dog Horn Publishing?
Pretty excellent. Maybe I struck it lucky with Adam Lowe and Chris Kelso and this book, but I don’t think I’ve ever had less amendments suggested by any publisher. We basically just fixed a few typos and did the book. That isn’t always the way, nor always the best way, but this book was a breeze, for whatever reason.
Do you think the world of publishing takes enough risks even within the independent sector? Does progressive fiction have room to breathe?
The major publishing houses are bloated monsters, dying of complacency and boredom, dinosaurs expiring on the beach while little rodents nibble at their scaly sides. Independent Presses are the new world order in waiting, the little furry mammals destined to win in the end. The internet, Amazon, and e-books represent a democratic paradigm shift. Don’t even start me on literary agents. Down with the unelected arbiters of taste.
We’re stocking Mechagnosis with a selection of other Dog Horn books at Memories of the Future, which is a celebration of analogue & digital formats in writing, music & so on. Do you have a preference for traditional formats like real books?
I am on record as predicting that e-books, after a boom, will go back to comprising no more than one third of total books sales. I stick by that. Great paper books are a joy to touch and own and come back to, and bad ones can be pulped. That’s a pretty sustainable model. Science is our current religion, so we worship by buying gadgets and upgrades, but not all inventions are automatically superlative. Taste and restraint must be exercised. Quality wins out in the end. E-books are a useful augmentation of the reading experience, an extra means of dissemination, that’s all.
Are you interested in using new digital media, like web platforms to do something different with fiction?
There was talk a while back of hypertext novels coming, but I’m not sure if such ideas hold much weight now that we can all Google anything in a jiffy from our gadgets. The most successful web novel I’ve ever read is Geoff Ryman’s superb ‘253’, but tellingly: I read it as a paperback. I suspect that the physical object of a book, even including illustrations, will always be more satisfying than another format which carries with it the fear that we might not have explored every page yet and might have missed something. Moving images are something else. Then you’re getting into film-making, which I am certainly interested in. My novels ‘Apoidea’ (from Exaggerated Press) and ‘Freasdal’ (out next year from Acair) are both what I call “scrovels” or script-novels, i.e: conceived and executed in filmic terms.
Many thanks to Douglas for answering our questions, you may find out more about him on the links below. Or buy Mechagnosis in paperback or ebook in our online shop.