Interviews

July 15, 2011      

An Interview With Steve Finbow by Lee Klein

Steve Finbow

I’m gonna die in the next 60+ years, possibly before the weekend. Why should I (or anyone) run my (their) eyes across your story’s texty thighs?

Well, let’s hope you’ve not been snatched away by a randy eagle before I get to answer. The texty thighs, taut and shining with extra-virgin olive oil, throb with an infant excitement about what goes on in the world, how we cope with things, how we cope with ‘things’, & how we represent the separation between experience & language. How do you feel about putting a word onto the screen & knowing that, not only is it inadequate in revealing what you want it to signify, but that it will add to that separation? The stories are attempts to understand themselves.

“Der Fuhrer had squab for dinner and his nocturnal emissions are totally malodorous.” What’s a reader to make of this sentence? Hitler baby night spooge is well and good, but squab? What the fig you thinkin’, Finbow?

Hitler’s doctors enforced his vegetarianism because of severe and chronic constipation. Stuffed squab was one of Hitler’s favourite meals. I wanted to reinvent the myths around this man, how people reacted to him as a human being, how insecure he was, how controlled his surroundings. I wanted to re-imagine him living today, listening to the Ramones, lusting over Sheryl Lee, to mash up history & the clichéd view of historical figures, squab being a good word – squab: squib, squabble, scribe. Do you use historical figures in your work? I think I got it from Robert Coover.

I remember when I was eleven telling my mom I wanted to write books about going back in time to the American Revolution but with modern weapons. I liked the idea of fighter jets massacring Redcoats, of massive modern power obliterating the past. Robert Coover had little to do with it. Preadolescent formication preferred the future.
     “Army ants, like a delta of cherry liquorice, tickle the inscribed thoroughfares of the bark. Red colobus monkeys scurry to the topmost branches, panting and chattering.”
     What’s honed mean to you? How much perception transference is enough? How much is too much? What about Salter, Brothers Grimm, BEE — the dudes who wrote the lines you pulled for your epigrams — are they models?

Yeah, I used to create huge battlefields with all kinds of historical mash-ups – Romans versus the Eighth Army, Confederates versus Robin Hood, French Resistance versus Arab Tribesman – all Airfix 1/72 scale. Honed I like. Heft I like. I like the physicality of the words. The grate & teeth-aching act of honing. I suppose I am an impressionist when it comes to writing – describing (however impossible it is to do so) something that I imagine. I don’t think similes or metaphors are a sign of weakness as long as they are used sparingly. I use research & my imagination in equal measure to form an impression of a topography I have never experienced. That’s where the fun is in writing – to world build or world manipulate. I stood on the banks of the Limpopo – I smelled the air, I watched mongooses tackle a snake – but I have a phobia about chimpanzees – seed, man, seed. James Salter – definitely an influence – rigour, precision, sexy as hell. The Grimm Bros – part of the “unthought known” that bubbles away at the back of the mind. BEE – again, yes, American Psycho (just re-read & realized how like Amis’s Money it is – and funny; Glamorama – best sex writing I’ve read.) I’m open with my influences – I’m not afraid to say I enjoy reading Martin Amis, Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos. I could just keep saying, ‘Oh, yes, Thomas Bernhard, Jacques Roubaud, Pierre Guyotat – all of whom I do like – but, you know, wank, wank, wank, wank… What about you? Is it a case of the anxiety of influence or the influence of anxiety?

Writing and reading are my anti-anxiety medication. Maybe if you read enough you wind up realizing you’ve gotta write like yourself because it’s too tough to sort out the influences?
     Not to imply that you don’t write like yourself – you do, that’s clear after a story or two – but what are you trying to do to a reader when you drop this playful Pynchonism: “The rabbit’s ears of my outstretched fingers cast no shadow bunnies, they are inverted Vs, victory signs, and my face resembles the rubber mask it would become for bank robbers, did my head always look too big for my body, superimposed, hydrocephalic, my suits always that shiny, have I always worn the demeanour of a robot-bulldog puppy locked in a telepod transportation with an ageing dance-class gigolo of an orang-utan driving trucks, riding bicycles, on a trail through Laos and Cambodia, while under their noses and over our heads the frowning moustachioed silhouettes of the B52s – Stratosfortresses – shed their eyelashes that grow and grow until they became chess pieces become canoes become bombs carpeting the forests, the roads, and the towns with piles of twisted metal, limbs, minds – from arc light to whispering death to rolling thunder, and I open the bottomless pit; and there arises a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air are darkened by reason.”

Don’t you think that all writing is a kind of time travel? We enter a text, we close the door, we press the buttons & are transported to another time and place, always ALWAYS slightly different from what we know. All writing is uncanny. If I broke this down, it’s simple: it’s Richard Nixon, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Book of Revelations – three views of horror in the changing world of 1968. I want the reader to be zipped along with me, wiping bugs from their face while enjoying the speed and the thrill. Don’t you enjoy the rush of reading? Do you read to relax or to rave?

I think I read at this point because it’s what I do. I once tried to read things other than fiction but realized I need to read fiction or else there’s a negative affect effect. The closest I come to raving is reading at a bar at happy hour after work, something I think we both do, since you sometimes upload to Facebook pics of what you’re reading and the beer you’re drinking. In “Spook City Double” the narrator reads Less Than Zero over a beer at a bar. What tasty beery concoction would you pair your collection with? I’d say something a bit hoppy, dark, maybe with a hint of licorice or something sweet in the center of it? Not a high-APV porter, not a session beer, not a creamy good-natured low-cal/APV stout. There’s some effervescence but it’s not as crisp/golden as a Stella Artois. Definitely something served in an 8 oz. goblet, a bit costlier, worth savoring, not so easy to see through?

My favourite time to read and drink – after work in a good pub or bar, always contemplating the next pint. Yes… Maybe a Belgian beer. A Maredsous 8, a Scotch de Silly, or – my favourite – a Delirium Norcturnum. Can you think of anything more pleasurable (as a solo, fully clothed, non-sexual pursuit) than reading with a good glass of beer close to hand? Do you drink alcohol while you write? Or use any other kind of drug? I can’t. A good cup of English tea and a bacon sandwich is about as rock ‘n’ roll as I get.

I never drink and write because I tend to write in the morning before work. Not the best time for anything more than tons of coffee.
     Did you write “firstmarshsecondmarsh” on a bit of cush or deeze? It’s presented in a seriously uncompromising patois. Which is really hard to pull off because it’s almost totally impossible for the language not to get in the way of the story, the images, the characters, the creation of a world etc etc etc. Fun to write, sure, but hard to read. Agree?

Agree. But not fun to write. I wanted to push myself language-wise, to outdo Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, William T. Vollmann… I’ve been trying to write a story in Cockney dialect for some years without succeeding. This voice is based on someone I knew when I was young, and the geography is from my pre-teen years. My dreams are set in a post-war world – I have no idea why – where things are reverting to the rural, the city a distant mirage. I wanted a pre-experiential language, a sort of perception = thought = description – not sure if I pulled it off but the effort I thought worth showing for what it is. I haven’t been near cush or deeze since it was called marijuana. I can’t smoke it. Asthmatic. But I have had some memorable experiences eating hashish brownies. I was more into cocaine, speed – black and whites, blues… Don’t you think all novels, stories, poems are iterations of small failures, the state you would like to achieve on drugs, alcohol, adrenaline, but never quite get there?

Insert Beckett quote re: improved failure, followed by stock conversation re: reality not living up to ideals.
     When you encounter Genghis Khan as the father of a son familiar with Gnarls Barkley and the adjective “rad,” you expect familiar father-son stuff to come off in a semi-unfamiliar way, but what else might happen? How much do you plan in advance — ie, set yourself restrictions/parameters/fences — and how much are things produced sans overt pre-compositional intention?

I suppose it’s a variation on the lines, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, those who do expect…” I start with a line, a vision, an overheard conversation, a wrestling match between two opposed and contradictory forces, in “Empire” – Genghis Khan & skate culture – and run with it. Sometimes it’s serious, other times – I hope – humorous. I rarely plan short stories in advance, they come out and carry on and then stop. I might see a symmetry, or a paragraph structure early on and stick to that to shape the fiction; I sometimes set myself rigorous word counts in paragraphs and work within that – 250 words per para. I never EVER set restrictions on content but I am anal about form. How about you? Your stories flow like lubed honey but might be as tightly laced as an extreme bondage queen’s bodice.

Thanks. I really just to try to find some time to write, that’s the first priority. After which I try to clearly see through my pen, get out of the way, make a mess, and remember that I’ll revise forever after. Otherwise, I try not to think about this sort of thing too much. Maybe pretty thoughts about writing dissolve when you’re deeply imaging what you’re writing?
     London, Japan, even a mention of Steve David Finbow. Autobiographical content approximates what percentage exactly of each? Many stories focus on a dude named “He.” Granted, one story also involves Babel and repeatedly reveals his middle name. But how personal would you say these stories are, and does it matter? Is the dark figure waving at the end something like your shadow?

Difficult. I fall between two camps. One – that all autobiography is fictional. Two – that all fiction is autobiographical. London is the city I enjoy writing about the most, my hometown – I love walking and talking it; exploring the unknown places and enjoying the known. I love going to London pubs with a few mates and chatting over pints of Stella. Japan is my second home and a place that intrigues me – it is an alien culture in every way no matter how long one lives here. The “he” is, I suppose, all the Steve Finbows that I am not. In the introduction to my biography of Allen Ginsberg, I state that Roland Barthes was really fucking wrong about the death of the author – that was a neat con trick to make us not think about ‘being’, but to think of the waste product of being, the trickle of watery shit on the page that someone’s sat over and squeezed out, eyes bulging, sphincter bursting – I love Barthes when he’s writing about his mum, haircuts, love, Balzac (who seemed very much alive in the analysis in S/Z) but I believe the author – and the author’s autobiography – is bound up in the writing. Even extreme writers like Céline, Acker, Genet, Stein, Guyotat, Ballard, Quin, Burroughs, Kavan included elements of their individual life stories in their fiction. The portion of “Spook City Double” set in the ‘80s in Liverpool is a true story, the title story is based on an actual event in my life, as are “The Boy at the Beau Rivage,” “Mosquito,” and some of “Soho Spleen” – the rest are mostly imagination sprinkled with memories. I reject the maxim “Write what you know” – how can you write what you don’t know? Sometimes, when I read through a story after finishing it and leaving it for a month or so – I can’t remember writing it. It’s like “Woah! Where did that come from? Who wrote that? Was that me?” So, yeah, that dark figure is my writerly double, the one always disappearing around the corner or slipping off to the toilet when it’s his round. Is there a third that walks beside you?

The figure that walks behind us is death. Luckily, your book makes even the grimiest of Grim Reapers as fresh and as clean as a soap commercial whistle. The manta ray-ish shadow that’s always hovered above me, after reading your book, I now use as a domesticated dish towel. Not bad. Thanks! You have some other books coming out soon, too – right? – just in case the dish towel revolts?

I love manta rays, and glyptodons, and jaguarundis. Thanks for asking. Yes, I have a critical biography of Allen Ginsberg coming out soon as part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives Series. And I have a cultural history of necrophilia focusing on the 19th century necrophile Sergeant Bertrand – including everything from Herodotus to Deleuze to Death metal to True Blood and back to Homer – which I’m planning to finish while I’m in London (I can fact check at the British Library), and then it’s off to James Williamson at Creation Books. What about you? After you’ve wrassled the manta-ray dish towel to the floor, where does your magic pen travel next? Do you realize it’s seven years since we’ve cyber-connected? Jeez…

If someone gets caught trying to have sex with Ginsberg’s remains, you and your publishers will really be in luck! Anyway, excellent news about the books. I have nothing to report other than regular reading and writing. Seven years . . . . Jeez oh man indeed. Let’s get a Delirium Norcturnum before seven more years go by!

Lee Klein is sometimes all things Eyeshot.

Steve Finbow’s Tougher Than Anything in The Animal Kingdom is available now from Grievous Jones Press.

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