‘A whole new layer of human awfulnesses and joy’ — An Interview with Ruby Cowling, by Thom Cuell

One of the launch releases from UEA-based publisher Boiler House Press, Ruby Cowling’s collection This Paradise is inventive in style and content. Blending elements of satire, speculative and dystopian fiction, Cowling investigates the way that modern relationships are mediated by technology, on a social and a societal level. Her work has won numerous awards, including The White Review Short Story Prize, the London Short Story Prize and a Bridport Prize.

this paradise

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When you were putting together the stories which make up This Paradise, did you have a theme in mind which you wanted to run through the collection?

Not so consciously. In fact it took quite a while for me and my editor from Boiler House Press, Philip Langeskov, to settle on the final contents, and that’s probably because it’s not explicitly themed. We had to work from “feel”. Stories got cut which were perhaps less unconventional, or didn’t gesture as strongly to the wider world as some of the others, but there was never a true sense of “this doesn’t fit the theme”. Interestingly, it’s only now the book’s become a thing in its own right that some of the themes have decided to show their faces. Like Frankenstein’s monster: disparate parts until they were animated into a single living organism…

One of the interesting things about This Paradise is that you couldn’t label it as dystopian, or magic realism, or sci-fi, but it draws in elements from all those styles. There’s a sense of enhanced reality – technological changes, not far ahead of what exists now, simultaneously enhancing reality and working against the common good. How would you describe your style?

This has been a question in my own mind for years, because people ask “what kind of thing do you write?” surprisingly often (although it usually turns out they’re asking whether I’m a journalist or work in advertising, rather than the fine grain of my fiction genre…). I’ve semi-settled on “speculative”, but in a really broad sense of that word. That is, I always seem to be doing what-ifs, but sometimes they’re “what if the world were slightly different in this particular way?” and sometimes they’re “what if this is actually exactly how things are right now, only they’re too uncomfortable to look at directly so let’s try this squinted take instead?” Sometimes it goes right into allegory. Allegory isn’t a particularly cool and modern thing to be doing – it feels sort of John Bunyan-esque – but I can’t really deny it.

Throughout the collection, we see characters struggling to gain a sense of themselves in relation to others. In some cases, you look at this through quite traditional scenarios – feminist retreats focused on celebrating fecundity and ‘talk not chat’, or a teenager trying to hold his family together – and more modern ones. In each case, social media adds a layer of complexity to the process, allowing for anonymous commentary and isolation. What draws you back to the subject?

You’ve already identified it: it’s the complexity that social media and electronic forms of communication are adding to our (already complex) experience of being alive. A whole new layer of human awfulnesses and joys on top of what we already had – that’s really exciting. Not that I think social media is an exciting topic (it’s really boring hearing about other people’s social media experiences, like hearing about their dreams, and it can be truly deadly on the page), but the new complexities it brings to our communication with others and our sense of ourselves – those ARE exciting.

ruby cowling

I liked that in several stories, you experiment with the way text is laid out, having narratives running concurrently on the page, or else being annotated by tweets or text messages. What prompted you to start playing with form like this?

I’ve really been influenced by great reading. When I first tried writing short stories – about 2011 – I quickly realised I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, so I started reading as many short stories as I could find, to try and teach myself. There’s so much available online, and plenty of cheap editions around of classic Chekhov/du Maurier/de Maupassant etc etc. I subscribed to what literary magazines I could afford, and gradually bought more and more contemporary collections. I read many hundreds, probably thousands, of stories over the next couple of years, including Jon McGregor’s collection This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, which was probably the first time my eyes were opened to what you were “allowed” to do on the page – that is, actually, anything you bloody want.

Suddenly there were all these new dimensions to the flat white page – so much fun that could be had. And that kind of play, those new angles to putting words on a page, help you avoid the traps of cliché, and of stale subject matter. They force you to be fresh.

In Biophile, I enjoyed the idea of classic books being reinvented as apps or games, which is exactly the sort of thing that would have Will Self writing furious articles about the Death of the Novel. But how do you see literature developing alongside technological advances? And how does it affect you as a writer?

The physical book doesn’t seem to be going away, thankfully. I think we still recognise that we need tangible objects, and that the experience of reading doesn’t start and end with words entering the brain via the eyes or ears. We are “consuming narratives” in many other forms, though, like sophisticated long-form games, good TV, etc, and as time goes on we’ll probably do more with mixed and virtual reality – once they sort out the embarrassing headsets and get rid of all the wires. The actual concerns of literature probably won’t change so much, though. Even though the way we live and communicate is changing, that in itself is nothing new – it’s always been changing – and once you get down to it we’ll still be interested in the same things our species always has been, i.e. ourselves. In that sense, I’m not worried.

In Flamingo Land, you imagine government agencies forcing unemployed families to attend weekly weigh-ins, placing them in ‘special arrangements’ unless they consistently meet targets. Do you consider yourself a political writer? And how do you think writing can affect the dominant narratives of society?

To the first question: well, yes, although I’m trying to raise questions rather than offering answers. And there’s nothing party-political about it; you could take that particular story as being quite right-wing (railing against the interference of government in our private lives) or quite left-wing (defending the rights of the family involved to receive benefits in the face of hardship – and spend those benefits how they choose without judgement). But I find it really interesting, or bothersome, when a government and/or its corporate partners tries to solve some societal problem and ends up creating a ridiculous mess that’s impossible to administrate or live up to. The one-size-fits-nobody solution. The human fall-out of those things really interests me. (I mean, Kafka did it better, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a go.)

As for the second question: if you’re asking about how fiction can do that, well, I’m not sure whether it can. Not in this country at this time; this phase of anti-intellectualism we seem to be going through. Not all that many people read books, and not all that many of them read fiction, and even fewer of them read the kind of fiction that might be thinking about the dominant narratives of society, so it’s a tough ask for fiction to have much of an impact right now. But if it’s part of some other kind of rumbling – like Naomi Alderman’s The Power, that came at the right time, had a wide crossover appeal, and got a lot of people talking – then it can contribute to a groundswell of change.

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?

Hmm… Not enough information about the next world – what if it only has two dimensions, or we’re all jelly-like creatures blindly moving through an unending mist? A new pair of socks isn’t going to be much use to me there.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

I’m afraid I like that joke about the Buddhist hot dog vendor. The two-part version: Make me one with everything, and Change must come from within. Of course, it’s ruined, seeing it written down, but everything about that joke pleases me.

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

First to mind is the Lars von Trier film Melancholia (2011), which is the best portrait of depression I know of. A film about the end of the world which is both allegorical and not. (Runner-up in “portraits of depression”: the painting Head VI by Francis Bacon. Not something I want to look at much, but it really matters that it exists).