The Momus questionnaire — RJ Barker

RJ Barker’s debut novel Age of Assassins is an epic fantasy following the story of Girton Club-Foot, apprentice to a master assassin. Darkly humorous, sharp and stylish, the novel is the first instalment of a trilogy, and will be published by Orbit in the UK and US on August 3rd.

The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.

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Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?

I come from a pretty working class background, so there was always an expectation I’d grow up to do what my parents did, in some way: go to work, look like everyone else, that type of thing. And I think when I started growing my hair and wearing make-up and generally being a bit odder than they expected it was presumed it was a phase. And although I was always surrounded by art and words growing up it was never really even considered that life might take me that way, I just think it was seen as so utterly unlikely, it didn’t happen to suburban families from Leeds. In a way they were right: as I did not become a huge rock star which I was quite sure I was going to be. But I did become an author, eventually, so it worked out and my Mum and Dad are hugely proud, as they should be. They may not of always approved of what I was doing but they gave me room to do it and make my own mistakes[1] so I kind of owe it to them.

That wasn’t massively rebellious was it? But my entire life has been an act of rebellion, even when I didn’t know it. I don’t think anyone who knew me would ever describe me as a rebel but that’s because I’m not the shouting and screaming obvious rebel type. I’m very quiet in my rebellion, I don’t really make a fuss about it, I stubbornly do what I am going to do and it doesn’t really matter what anyone says. I am going where I am going. It’s a slow rebellion[2].

I am the coastal erosion version of screaming and shouting to get your own way.

What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?

EVERYTHING. I am back to the slow rebellion and, horribly, this is going to sound a bit you-don’t-have-to-be-mad-to-work-here-but-it-helps but I’ve always been a bit odd. Obviously, I wouldn’t stand out among the Minor Lits crew who are, quite frankly, worrying, but the general consensus is that I’m very much me. You get a lot of people talking as if it’s somehow cool to be ‘individual'[3] but it’s not really. It’s like you’re walking out of step with most of the world and you never quite fit in: there’s never quite the thing you want, the world doesn’t work in quite the way it seems it should. But to go back to your question; all the time, I am doing it my way all the time, but it’s a bit of cheat to call it rebellion. I suppose. Because the truth is I just don’t know any other way to be.

What creative achievements are you most proud of?

Obviously, I have a novel coming out on the 1st of August called Age of Assassins through Orbit which is the thrilling tale of a disabled assassin caught up in a murder-mystery within a fantasy world while exploring the bonds and influences of a parent/child relationship[4]. BUT that was relatively easy to write, in the great scheme of things. I’m probably most proud of the piece I did for you, Minor Lits, with the artist Paul Watson as it explores my own experiences of being chronically ill and I’m not generally the sort of person that looks inward, I prefer to carry on regardless. So let’s go for that, because it was outside of my usual milieu.

If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?

Most people would probably say here ‘oh that time I was really ill and nearly died’ and then go on about all that nonsense about it being ‘life changing’ and ‘taking stock’ and maybe yoga or something else awful. I don’t know. But I did get really ill and I did nearly die and it didn’t really change me at all.

I was going to put meeting my wife here. But then I thought loads of people probably put something like that too. So I asked her about it and she pointed out that as I never dwell on anything I don’t have massive life changing moments and anyway she thought I should put her as she is great. So yes, meeting her. Lindy is a graphic designer and an artist and, also, someone very committed to being who she is. Being with her just works, and because she is creative and understands that drive she’s given me huge amounts of space and encouragement to do what I want to do. And people with that amount of utter trust and confidence in you are rare. They should be celebrated. So let’s celebrate her.

If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?

Okay, Minor Lits, lay down a beat.

Now this is the story all about how
My life got flipped, turned upside down
And I’d like to take a minute just sit write here
I’ll tell you how I became the prince of writers with big hair

In West Yorkshire born and raised
On the nightclubs where I spent most of my days
Gothing out, sulking, mysterious and cool
And spending too much money on Italian shoes
When a couple of animals up to no good
Ended up stuffed my neighbourhood
They were added to the rest on the walls over there
Cos I’m all about taxidermy, shoes and big hair.

Eagle eyed readers may notice I stole the rhythm and cadence from Mr William Smith’s and Mr D.J. Jazzy Jeff’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air track. That is because I am street.

Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?

Up until about a year ago I think that was all I ever did. Though again, not sure integrity is the right word. ‘Inability’ might be better.

Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.

Gosh, this is a very hard question. Part two is easy, there’s loads of people I am very glad I am not but I shall go for the obvious one of Nigel Farage who seems to exemplify that awful English stereotype of the braying, haw-hawing, I’m-all-right-Jack, rich, never-had-to-worry-about-paying-for-anything, I-like-what-I-know-and-I-know-what-I-like, get-out-Johnny-Foreigner, wasn’t-the-Empire-great, person who British people still inexplicably listen to[5] even though somewhere, deep down, they must know the only person Nigel cares about is Nigel. Fuck him.

But not literally.

Oh, I feel a bit sick now.

Not sure about anyone I would want to be. Maybe if you’d asked me this ten years ago I’d have an answer but not now. I think the more people you meet the more you learn how flawed we all are, and I’ve spent my life wanting to be me and to definitely not be anyone else. So the idea of picking someone to be is a bit of an anathema[6]. If forced I think I’d go for David Attenborough or Iain Banks, both of whom seem to have/had a tremendous amount of love for humanity as a whole. (Though there is a book called The Boy who Sprouted Antlers and I LOVE antlers so maybe I would be him.)

If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

I wouldn’t bother. It’s all just stuff and I don’t really need any of it.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

When I was growing up there was a proverb stuck to the fridge in the kitchen. It said ‘this too will pass.’ As I was very young the larger meaning of it really passed me by and I took it to mean that bad things aren’t forever, it will always get better. That’s sort of become part of me and may account for my generally positive attitude to life[7].

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

I have struggled with this. I don’t really like pictures of people, I like landscapes or pictures of things. I’m tempted to go for The Fighting Temeraire as I love ships and I love pictures that are loaded with meaning and that has so much. BUT, in the end I think I am going to go for a song and it’s ‘My Curse’ from Gentlemen by the Afghan Whigs. The whole album is a snapshot of a dysfunctional and disintegrating relationship and it could be an exercise in misogyny, but this song flips the whole record on its head by bringing in Marcy Mays to sing it and her voice is beautiful and fractured and it leaves you in no doubt that these two people are, in many ways, suited, as they’re just as bad as each other. And it’s very, very sad. I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to sad or angry music, because I am neither of those things. In fact, I might take the album as a whole. I got so excited I think I forgot about punctuation so just add your own. Pretend I am James Joyce or something.

  1. So. Many. Mistakes.
  2. Just saying now, I am having ‘Slow Rebels’ as a name for an SF book so don’t get ideas.
  3. Scare quotes as this isn’t the right word but it’s the best I can think of at the moment.
  4. It is the slick marketing.
  5. See also: Boris Johnson.
  6. ‘an anathema.’ I hate writing that, the double ‘an’ upsets me tremendously. And I think it should correctly, be is ‘a bit of anathema’ but every time I’ve written that an editor has added the ‘an’ which is ugly, in my opinion. But so is the word ‘lain’, such is life.
  7. That too will pass? I hope not. I quite like this as it is now so it can stick around a bit.