It’s not every day you get the opportunity to interview the author of one of your top 5 novels of all time, is it? But such are the wonders of blogging. I jumped at it!
Those who have read The Sound of My Voice, originally published in 1987, will understand its power. (Kim of Reading Matters declared it a work. of. genius.) Those who haven’t might like to take a look at my review, because I do assume prior knowledge in the following interview..
And so, without further ado, welcome to the blog, Ron.
(Author photo credit: Regi Claire)
Morris Magellan follows in the footsteps of many famous literary alcoholics. What motivated you to add to the cast?
As always, I didn’t know what the book was about until I was quite a way through it. Gradually Morris emerged as an alcoholic. I had a friend who was heading towards full-on alcoholism. He lived an almost double life – emotional chaos in private, status and professional success in public (he had a high post in the civil service). As the novel shaped itself, I realised I was remembering visiting my friend and seeing his chaotic life up close – the wild evenings and the suited-up mornings as he left for the office. But my friend is not the main character, and the story is not his. Nor is it mine. I really enjoy wine, but I’m no alcoholic!As I wrote, the novel and the main character took on a life of its own.
How did you determine the story arc?
Usually the opening few words – whether it’s a poem, story or novel – come to me while out for a walk. I don’t try to think what the words mean. Rather I treat them as sound and hum them to myself, as it were, and listen for more sounds, more words. Only when I’m in danger of forgetting the words do I write them down. Even then I don’t think about them or judge them. Thinking is over-rated. It has its place, but I’ve found that thinking too soon about what I’m trying to create gets in the way of creation. Thinking contributes best only towards the end of the process.
The Sound of My Voice wasn’t written straight through from beginning to the end, but in dozens of separate unrelated sections. Every few days I start a new section. No planning. I don’t do planning! Eventually, when there seemed to be no more new sections demanding to be written, I gathered all the different sections together and began imagining how they might connect to form a coherent narrative. It was like having lots of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, except there was no picture to keep me right!
I explored how the pieces might best fit together, changing details as I reconsidered them. Only when this fitting-together stage was well advanced did I have any real idea what the novel was about. That moment of realisation was truly exciting!
By the way, this novel-writing method is not one I’d necessarily recommend, but it seems to be the only one I know. It’s a lot of work. I trust my imagination. It usually takes me several years to complete a novel, a slow business. Not least, perhaps, because I always write the first draft longhand, with pencil and paper. I wish I could type better, believe me.
Which considerations led to the choice of the 2nd person narrative?
The original opening line of The Sound of My Voice – ‘You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed’ – came to me in the second person, the ‘you’ form. I had no idea why, but just kept the narrative going as best I could, letting the story tell itself. Gradually, and very late on, I discovered why the novel had to be in the second person. The novel is about an alcoholic but, not being an alcoholic myself, I found it a very strange book to write, strange and yet profoundly liberating. This persona allowed me to describe events through image rather than the usual argument of narrative and character, and this ‘image’ form of perception drew on the way I myself tend naturally to experience the world. Also, it allowed me to explore time shifts, false memory and self-deception, and gave me the freedom to play with the sound of words and their rhythms – very like poetry. Poetry moves much faster than prose – a bit like when you’re drunk, perhaps.
Some critics have suggested The Sound of My Voice is a political work, a condemnation of Thatcherism. I think this reading does it a disservice, tying it to the specific time and space of its initial publication. Surely the themes are wider than that?
I hope so. This political reading accords well with the novel, but was complete news to me. In retrospect, though, it’s a fair enough analysis.
Another reading that has come up again and again with critics is that Morris’s inner voice is some kind of internal ‘spirit’ trying to save him. This would certainly make the novel more universal. In fact, I believe that inside each one of us there is something very unique – a sense of our self / our conscience / imagination / God, call it what you will – whose sole concern is our well-being. This inner ‘voice’ is pretty much the only thing in the universe that we can completely rely on to be wholly on our side. Problem is – we don’t often listen to it, or value it. In the course of the novel Morris certainly pays his ‘voice’ no attention, indeed alcohol is one of the several ways he tries to block it out. Things go from bad to worse. Finally, he is shocked at last into hearing it, and then listening to it. Only then can genuine healing begin.
Anti-Thatcher polemic? Spiritual odyssey? I believe that it’s up to each reader to bring their own experience and sensitivity to any novel they read and discover for themselves what is revealed to them.
I love the musical playlist that the publisher has made available. As a poet and librettist, music is an essential part of your own being. What role does it play in Morris Magellan’s existence?
As well as being a writer I am a librettist for several composers and have provided texts for symphonies, song-cycles and seven operas. I regularly give concerts with jazz musicians and enjoy every minute of it. For me, and I suspect, for Morris the structure and harmony within music provide an oasis in a world that otherwise seems increasingly chaotic and self-destructive. Every time I hear yet another scuttleful of politicians and business leaders telling us their plans for a better world, I need to listen to some music – Bach, Scarlatti, Hendrix or whatever – to restore my faith in life.
Have you ever been tempted to write a sequel?
I’ve recently began writing for children – verse for 4 to 7 year-olds and adventure novels (thrillers for kids!) for kids aged 10 to 14 – and I love every minute of it! I published Billionaires’ Banquet – An Immorality Tale for the 21st Century last year and then immediately returned to another kids’ adventure. When it’s finished, I might indeed revisit Morris and see where he is now. Can any of us hear our own ‘voice’ anymore in the deafening din we’re forced to live in? Plenty to write about there. Thanks for the suggestion!
(Ron Butlin will be appearing at the 2018 Edinburgh Book Festival on Thursday 16th August. Tickets available here.)