‘Community is a Narrative’ — an Interview with Glen James Brown

Glen James Brown’s debut novel Ironopolis explores the history of a housing estate in the industrial north through multiple generations and narrative viewpoints. Blending together key cultural moments, such as the impact of rave, along with more secret local legends, the novel is a well-observed account of a way of life which finds its own narratives contested by politicians and columnists in the post-Brexit media. Here, the author talks to Minor Literature[s] about the issues raised by Ironopolis Thom Cuell

Ironopolis has a complex structure, with multiple voices, and shifts between narrative viewpoints (ie epistolary, interview transcriptions, traditional narrative) – how did the structure develop, and what was your goal in presenting the novel in that form?

The plot and structure developed haphazardly, with a fair amount of dead ends and frustration. I’ve never been much of a planner — I sort of inched my way forward with insectoid feelers until I hit something I can sink the mandibles into. The downside of this approach was that I had all these different elements, and only the dimmest sense of how it all tied up. I just had to trust that I’d be able to bring it together — there’s an element of brinksmanship in that which is attractive to me. The narrative experiments were another thing that came about through trial and error. For example, I initially wrote the transcript section as a straight 3rd person narrative, and even as I was writing it I knew it sucked and the reason was I hadn’t thought sufficiently about whose perspective I wanted it to be from. And when I figured out whose lens I wanted those events to be filtered through, it set of a chain of connections across all the other narratives until, almost instantaneously, it was all there: the structure, the perspective and narrative arc of the novel, sparkling in my mind like some unearthed Roman coin hoard. There is a narrator of Ironopolis, but it isn’t me. And once I’d figured out who it was — and why — then the forms of the stories should take were self-evident.

All the really big decisions and editorial changes were made in some dark corner of my brain, seemingly without my input, and sort of just bobbed up to the surface when they were ready. I don’t think I’m anyway special in this…its just a very interesting process.

Ironopolis uses multiple, interlocking narrative perspectives, like a state of the nation novel, but its events are primarily situated in the past; what was it that drew you particularly to the time and place in which Ironopolis is set, and what does the novel gain from this, rather than a modern day setting?

I wanted to write about the lives of three generations of people that live — that are increasingly marooned — on an isolated housing estate. For good or ill, I think places like estates are inherently communal, so the multiple perspectives made sense. Personal histories tangle together over time and influence the trajectories of future generations who live there. Histories overlaying. There’s so much you can do with that as a writer. In many ways, it’s a massive soap opera.

The time frame also granted me scope to track the rise and fall of social housing in the UK. Fifty years ago, council houses were the norm — literally half the country lived in one — and then it imploded. From the 1980s onwards, councils started selling off homes and not building more. Housing associations have taken over, but in many cases, they don’t cater for the people who need housing most. ‘Council Estate’ now means poor; it means that if you live on one, you have somehow failed as a person. I kept thinking: What happens to the stable, working class communities when successive governments seem bent on eradicating social housing altogether? The same goes for jobs — Ironopolis takes its name from Middlesbrough’s nickname during it’s iron and steel-making prime. The industry is almost entirely gone now. History, culture — it all depends on the stability of place and jobs in order to take root.

So by tracking the estate from its auspicious beginnings to its part-razed present, I wanted to show all how these lives that have snaked in and out of each other for generations are now at risk of being wiped out. I believe community is, in effect, a narrative: people tell stories about each other and their place in the world, and this becomes not only a means of identity, but is a political tool of comparison: is the present better than the past? If it isn’t, what can we do about? But smash the community, and it gets a lot harder to do that.

There is a tendency for the media to present the working class as a monoculture, particularly regarding issues like Brexit and immigration; do you think that authors and independent publishers can help to challenge this narrative, and demonstrate the diversity of voices and experiences that exists within working class culture?

I don’t think this is at all a new thing, but regarding Brexit my personal view is that there are a lot of working class people who are really, really angry at being very methodically and dispassionately fucked by the powers that be. The Bedroom Tax is still going strong, the swingeing cuts to welfare, the DWP pimping out its incapacity benefit assessments to the likes of “hi-tech transactional services, unified communications, cloud, big data and cybersecurity services” Atos. The constant threat of unemployment, the zero hours piecemeal graft. When you go to sign on, they treat you like shit. I was in the town I grew up in the other week — a market town that traditionally served the many pit-villages surrounding it — and the shops that weren’t empty were selling vapes. My whole town is basically a gigantic vape shop. And that’s about it. For many, I think there’s just this inescapable sense of ire that eats away, so they look for someone — something — to lash out at. Brexit was a very big target, so you have this media narrative of working-class people being mindless racists, when in fact they are angry and afraid and tired of being ignored.

I think independent publishers — all publishers — have a part to play in reversing the wider idea of the working-class as some sort of EDL clone army. There isn’t one truth for some sort of ‘working-class experience’, it is multifaceted and impossible to encapsulate in a handful of voices, so by writing books about the richness of working-class life we can, bit by bit, change perceptions. The same goes for other under-represented groups.

Indies have scalped two of the biggest prizes going this year — Benjamin Myers won the Walter Scott Prize for The Gallows Pole, Preti Taneja the Desmond Elliot with We That Are Young, on Bluemoose and Galley Beggar respectively. These are books and authors which, apparently, the mainstream repeatedly passed on for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with quality, because the books are fantastic. With luck the big publishers will realise that readers have appetites for fiction about new people and places, and start following suit.

There is currently a debate in the publishing world about the representation of working class people within the industry. How easy do you think it is to find accurate representations of working class life in modern fiction? And what challenges (if any) did you face in bringing Ironopolis to publication?

It’s so, so important that the industry genuinely commits to publishing a wide array of voices, and not just working-class people – BAME and LGBTQ communities need more exposure too — and allow for the fact that these groups overlap, each experience unique. This is not ‘box ticking’ or whatever sombrero-wearing goon Lionel Shriver is banging on about — in fact, the nightmarish hypothetical ‘box-ticking’ future she fears is actually the current reality in publishing: there exist quotas for fiction that strays from the norms, the rationale running along the lines of ‘ah, we can’t publish this amazing debut Nigerian author because we’ve already “done” an “African” book this year.’ As my partner recently put it — what would happen if they extended such tokenism to novels about London people having affairs? There’d be nowt on the shelves.

Diversity in publishing is about recognizing the validity of personal experience that falls outside the white, middle class one, as well as doing justice to the expression of talent. Because that talent is out there. But I also agree with the argument that true diversity means total freedom to not write about working-class experience, just as, say, a gay person need not feel pressured to only write about what it means to live in heteronormative society. Instead, if they wanted, they can write about 43rd Century beekeepers — I’d read it.

That said, there’s already such a richness of working-class fiction out there, stretching back to Robert Tressell, Alan Sillitoe and, a little later, people like Billy Childish. Today, off the top of my head, there’s Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile — this incredibly vivid portrait of Rita, Sue and Bob Too playwright Andrea Dunbar — Zero Hours by Neil Campbell, Iron Towns by Anthony Cartwright, Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, and My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal — to name but a few big and small press books reflecting the myriad experience of working class life. There is no rose-tinted sentiment in them, rather honest explorations of the good and bad, written warmth and candour. Their power derives from this.

Ironopolis was a battle to get published. It got rejected by a lot of big publishers — some of them with an apparently heavy hearts, others with an offhand ‘thanks but no thanks’. This was, of course, really demoralizing…I tried telling myself that it was because they didn’t know what to do with my pretty long, somewhat structurally experimental novel. Set on a council estate. In Middlesbrough. But as time went on and the rejections stacked up, I thought: maybe it’s me? Am I just shit? I’m beyond grateful to my agent and publisher Parthian for seeing potential in the book and sticking their necks out.

What was the inspiration behind the character of Peg?

In the book, Peg Powler is this ageless entity — a river witch — who stalks the characters across the generations. She drowns people in the River Tees and has, it is implied, been around for hundreds of years. Peg is a real bit of the Teesside landscape that I discovered in a dusty book of English Folklore I was flicking through during a library tea-break, and something about her stuck with me. The juxtaposition of this supernatural element running amok on northern council estate was cool; she has motives which are gradually revealed as the story goes on, and which — I hope — makes her more than just some incongruous bit of horror I’ve shoehorned in.

It goes back to what I was saying about the communal nature of working-class communities. They traditionally stayed put in the places they were born — communities going back generations, passing down their oral histories and folklore. Peg Powler was part of this. In the book, young characters hear her legend and pass it down to their children, and in this way, Peg can continue to draw power. But with the demise of social housing and industry — with these long-standing working-class communities being split up and moved along by housing associations and government policy — I thought, what happens to Peg? How would she feel if the only people who know who she is are scattered forever? She becomes a forgotten totem and metaphor for the destruction of working class narratives, history, culture, identity. For example, the Housing Association in the book that is knocking down the estate is called Rowan Tree. In folklore, people would plant Rowan Trees to ward off witches from their homes and villages. There’s a lot of stuff like that layered into the book for people to find if they want to.

And also, I like writing spooky stuff. The first ‘grown up’ books I read were by Stephen King — I still love getting creeped out, and this was my chance to do the creeping.

The rise of casuals, and slightly later, the rave scene, are important markers within the timeframe of Ironopolis; what sort of impact do you think these scenes had on areas like the one described in your novel? And how do you feel they have been represented in literature previously?

Having a book that’s set over 60-70 years was license to write about all the fashion and music trends that have came and went, and it was a blast to get to grips with them. I wanted to write about acid house because I love that music. I was unfortunately too young to have experienced it first hand, so this was my way of paying homage. It was inescapable too, in a way. The rave scene was all about reclaiming the abandoned spaces left by industrial decline, of which there was a fair amount come the late 1980s.

There were roughly two kinds of ravers – the ‘Balearic Elite’ curators of the scene, with their connections to Ibiza etc. and the working-class ‘acid ted’ kids in their bandanas and smiley-face t-shirts. ‘Acid ted’ was the derisive nickname given to those kids by the scene’s gatekeepers, who thought they were mindless thugs and pillheads with zero appreciation of the culture — better off dead than an acid ted as the saying went — but these kids loved the music just as much as they did. They were just trying to escape their dead-end, suffocating lives for a bit. I was more interested in the acid teds.

Same with the casual culture — it was another way for people to self-identify. When talking about these cultural scenes, a character in the book says “in five year’s time people will be laughing at this shit” but I don’t think that’s true. People built these cultures into the core of their lives. They want to belong to something bigger than them, and this is no bad thing.

I did a lot of research into both scenes, read stacks of non-fiction, but to be honest I didn’t read the fiction about them. I know that there’s The Football Factory, but I wasn’t really interested in that side of the casual scene. I haven’t read The Acid House either, but I think that’s about something else anyway.

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

Maybe one of those universal plug adaptors. But then again, its always easier to just get one when you’re there.

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

Egon Schiele stops my heart. Sensual weirdness baking off every canvas.

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.

I dunno…I’m pretty sure even the most exemplary person is, inside, the same fragmentary rush of impulse and doubt. Recently, for the sake of my anxiety levels, I’ve been trying to shift my perspective to stop negativity from gaining ground. But it’s tough. The one rule I try to live by is: don’t be a dick. If I keep that in mind, I’m generally good.

Least like? Maybe I’m just another media-sucker, but I can’t help feeling like the world is capsizing — this explosion of hate and divisiveness. Trump embodies that, gorges on it like the world’s largest Deer Tick. But then again, I get the feeling that even if he wasn’t the president in the centre of this toxic vortex — even if he was just sitting on his own somewhere, watching the kettle boil — he’d still be unbearable. And sure, he won’t be around forever, but we all need to be worried at the worst kind of precedents he’s setting.

Glen James Brown is from the north-east of England. He studied English at Leeds Beckett University. He is a winner of the Kate Bates Memorial Award. He lives in Manchester. Ironopolis is his first novel.