Rob True: “I often stand straddled across realities” — Sean Preston

Rob True is a writer straight out of nowhere. Late to writing and delivered from an underworld, he insists that “nothing matters”, but his debut book Gospel of Aberration is already marking True out as a beacon for the lost and disturbed. It seems to matter.

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Sean Preston: Gospel of Aberration is brilliant. I know it’s brilliant because I kept taking photos of its pages and sending them to friends. I guess that’s piracy. Sorry. But it’s a good sign right? How did this collection come to be so brilliant?

Rob True: I started writing the stories in Gospel of Aberration with no knowledge of how to write. I’ve got no qualifications and I’ve never done a creative writing workshop. I never read any writers advice books, how to write a book. Nothing. Writing this book is how I learnt to write. I wrote from instinct and my wife taught me punctuation. When you first published one of my stories, I was surprised. I had no idea anyone would see any worth in it. 

SP: Oh yeah. I should’ve mentioned that at the start, we (Open Pen) published “Up The Silver Cord” a few years ago. That story appears in Gospel of Aberration.  

RT: Yeah, at the same time as that, Miggy Angel of Burning House Press published a few of my stories too. He asked me if I had more. I told him I got bundles. He asked if he could have a look, so I sent them all to him. He said, You’ve got a book here. Again, I was surprised. He suggested we make a book from a collection of stories that had the same themes and protagonist, which a lot of them did. It was something I’d wanted to do, but never thought anyone would be keen to publish it. It was more than just a collection of short stories, as they all connected. We knew that it was almost a novel, but each story was standalone, like a clip, a vignette in the life of the character. I wrote these stories as fiction, but I took them from my own experiences.

Writing this book is how I learnt to write. I wrote from instinct and my wife taught me punctuation. When you first published one of my stories, I was surprised. I had no idea anyone would see any worth in it. 

SP: The book’s narrator often seems halfway from or halfway to madness. You’re a bit like that, aren’t you?

RT: This question amuses me. I never know how I come over to other people. 

SP: I’m just putting my hand in the fire.

RT: Everyone else seems odd to me. I often feel like I don’t get the norms, the unwritten rules, the taboos and conventions. I’m accused of being horrible when I’m honest, dead inside when I’m non-responsive. Weird when I’m animated. People always think I’m strange and I never fitted anywhere. All my friends that were criminals, builders, the people I mostly knocked about with, thought I was strange. When I met educated people, students and the like, they were scared of me and thought I was a yob. I tried to act normal in certain situations, but I always got found out. The more normal I try to act, the more strange I seem to appear. So I don’t bother too much.

I’m schizophrenic apparently. I don’t like that diagnosis, but there it is. What can you do? I’m lucky in that I have psychotic episodes that are usually quite short. Most of the time, I’m alright. But I’m never completely normal, whatever that is. My brain chemistry is a bit different. So I often stand straddled across realities, which is like a strange altered state for most, I suppose. For me, it’s normal. That might be why I seem halfway to or from madness. My wife sometimes says I’m not looking at her, but through her, into another world. I’ve tried to convey this atmosphere around the protagonist of Gospel of Aberration. Although I lived from nothing but crime for many years, I’ve always felt I’m more of a clown than a criminal. A lost clown from another planet. I’ve tried to show that in the book. That even in an underworld of a subculture, I don’t really belong. I visited a hippy commune in the nineties with some alternative types. They had all sorts of unusual things going on. They asked the people I was with if they could remove me. They felt my behaviour was frightening and odd. I don’t remember what I was doing that scared them.

I often stand straddled across realities, which is like a strange altered state for most, I suppose. For me, it’s normal

SP: Maybe they felt there was a threat of violence? It reminds me of “mouthy” cyclists getting punched by van drivers. The working class view violence in a different way, I think. The cyclist calling the van driver a cunt is the initial violent act. The punch is a violent response to a violent act. In that way, violence and physicality create a cultural barrier between the luvvies and the scumbags like you. Reckon it’s that? And by the way, I know you’re not a scumbag. I love you like a luvvie loves intersectional poi. You’re a clown though. Me too. Maybe that’s what we have in common and why I like your writing: we grew up as working class clowns. Although obviously now I’m middle class.

RT: Haha, I never heard of a poy before. 

SP: It’s P O I: poi. It’s a shit juggling thing that free spirits and Bristolians are into.

RT: Oh, thought it was POY. Thought you were making up a new category, like Person Of Yobishness, or something. But I’m definitely scum. Or at least I have been at times, certainly in the opinions of some. A scumbag-clown. I think you’re right though, about that middle class misunderstanding of working class violence. Punch-ups and such violence is part of everyday life for a lot of working class. Amongst their friends, enemies, at work, even at home from childhood. So it’s nothing to them and any confrontation might be a physical threat. You quickly learn that the best way to meet a physical threat is by destroying it before it has a chance to hurt you. I know I feel more chilled in pubs in classy areas, than the some of the dives I used to drink in. Full of city boys and hipsters. I look round and think, I can kick the shit out of everyone in here and no one’s gonna give me no fuss. But yeah, coming back to the original point, I’m sure there could have quite possibly been an element of that fear in the hippy commune. When I’m ill, I can get paranoid, which could result in erratic and aggressive behaviour, possibly some form of aberration. But I’m usually very peaceful. Anyway, I’m on medication again, so alright now. “Aberration” means strange in a bad way. Everyone else probably knew that before I did, but I think it’s a perfect title. Gospel of Aberration: the truth of dark strangeness.

I visited a hippy commune in the nineties with some alternative types. They had all sorts of unusual things going on. They asked the people I was with if they could remove me. They felt my behaviour was frightening and odd. I don’t remember what I was doing that scared them.

SP: There are sections to the collection that are high fiction, they have to be. There are insidious presences, there are plainly painted family members and friends. Those characters are drawn from your own life. How do you approach writing real people into this collection of short stories with its constant threat of horror and otherworldliness. 

RT: This book is intended to be read as fiction. I’ve taken much of it from my life. I’ve said that. The funny thing is, the more far-fetched and strange bits are often the material I’ve taken directly from reality, my reality. The lurking evil presences and horror aspects were easy for me to write. They’re my own illusion and lifted from being in and out of a state of a hallucinatory nightmare, seeing visions and hearing voices. When I was ten, I thought I was being filmed everywhere I went. Of course, we are being filmed everywhere now, but this was in the seventies and eighties, and the monitoring was specifically of me. When I get ill, I’m haunted by supernatural entities. It seems real to me at the time. So I wrote the stories like that, as though it’s really happening, to get across this feeling of horror and paranoia. So horror permeates the book.

The actual people are all based on real people that I knew, as you say. These characters are there as a grounding. They drag the protagonist back to earth. They anchor him in crime, or fighting, or family life. I find it easy to write other characters, whether they’re fictional or based on real people. I can visualise people and picture their movements and manner. This makes it easier to write dialogue. A lot of people say they find that difficult to do, but I find the dialogue I write easy. 

SP: The dialogue in the book certainly flows realistically. I got a feel for who everyone is. Even the characters that appear from nowhere.

RT: Well, when I write characters, I don’t get too hung up on detailed descriptions of appearance or whatever. I prefer to colour the aura of a character through their dialogue and actions. This way, I can throw a feeling into someone’s mind, and allow them to imagine how that looks. I do the same with a room or environment. I describe its atmosphere instead of the wallpaper. I couldn’t care less about the wallpaper, unless it contributes to the atmosphere somehow.

SP: There’s a trickery to your writing, I think. A duality of meaning. You play with words like orcas toy with baby sea-lions in front of their helpless parents. This collection, out with the excellent Burning House Press, was edited by Miggy Angel, the magnetic and discordant poet. What did that mean for your mischievous approach to writing?

RT: I do this in my normal life. I find duality in everything. Things are rarely as they seem. Also, because of my often psychotic perception, I drift between realities that have a singular meanings to another but maintain the same object, person, or situation.

When I met Miggy, I heard his poetry and was mesmerised. I’m not a big fan of poetry and haven’t read much, but when I heard and read his, I was transported. It was like a kind of magic spell. I felt like what he did with words, although different in style, was what I was trying to achieve in my stories. When we started to put the book together, I knew he had a strong understanding of what I was doing. He got the poetry in the words, he understood the spectral aspect of the stories. He was a perfect match as an editor and publisher.

When he had all the stories, he told me to re-write them to my best ability. 

SP: This was some time after?

RT: Yeah, so hopefully my current best ability is better than it was when I first started. They’d been written over years, so the first ones were not as well written as the last. He felt they were good stories and wanted me to write them to the standard of the stories written most recently before he edited them. He said he wouldn’t do a hatchet job on it, I think there are a lot of stylistic choices that a different editor would have carved up. We talked through this with reasons for and against leaving in and cutting out. I think we got it just right. Miggy had a good insight for what I was doing. I think that shows in the design of the book, the cover, all of it.

SP: Back before all this, before publishing with Burning House Press, and all the other pieces we’ve seen about, writing was unthinkable right?

RT: Like I said, I couldn’t write properly. My wife taught me when I was forty. I know people say they don’t get punctuation, but I’m talking about having no concept of the mechanics at all. If I wrote without support, it would be unintelligible. When I first started, I wrote a story for an online forum where people sent stories in and others commented on them. I got trashed. Someone was quite rude and I thought, I’d like to see you say that to my face. They’d suggested I was a moron. I took some heart from a comment that said, It’s actually very creative if you put the punctuation in for him. My wife was very amused by somebody defending me by saying, Leave him alone, I don’t think his first language is English. That’s when she started to teach me.

SP: But you’ve always been a storyteller?

RT: I’d always been a good verbal storyteller. After hearing my stories, people often said I should write a book. When I was younger, we’d sit about smoking hashish and the more intelligent and creative among us would tell tales of violence and crime and various escapades and adventures. Not just about ourselves, but about our friends and associates. It was a form of entertainment. None of us were educated. All of us were up to no good in some way. Our days were loaded with stories. How one of us had escaped arrest, some fantastic theft, some mad bastard losing it, somebody getting knocked unconscious and then bitten all over by their attacker. It was an endless resource of stories. I reckon if I just told true stories from my past and stories that I heard back then, I’d have unending books of it to tell. It was a strong oral tradition of storytelling that runs through working class communities. Obviously, if you have a lot of adventures, it is a rich mine. But you had to have a skill in the telling. It took a creative intelligence and a bit of swagger to tell them in an entertaining manner. Otherwise you’d just be listing events.

When I write characters, I don’t get too hung up on detailed descriptions of appearance or whatever. I prefer to colour the aura of a character through their dialogue and actions. 

SP: I understand you’ve lost a cat. I found a dead one in my garden. Can you come and collect it? 

RT: Yeah. I’ll bring a rubble sack, put it in the van and drive round with it for a few days. 

SP: I should explain that this is a reference to something in the book, but I’m not going to explain more than that, but I love that the part in question stayed in. I think it shows that you might be halfway from/to madness, but you’ve got your head screwed on properly.

RT: I think when they screwed my head on, they sealed it shut with puncture repair glue. You ever sniffed that shit? Crazy in the coconut. When I was eleven, I joined a skinhead gang. Didn’t get much say in it. I headbutted a wall till blood ran down my face in front of some other kids and one of my mates told some older boys his sister knocked about with. They had proper skinhead names like Stetson and Dopper. They must have been about fifteen or sixteen, but they seemed like men to me then. One of them came up to me and said, Oi, I heard you’ve got a hard head. Yeah, I said. He headbutted me and staggered back, holding his forehead. Fuckinell, you have n all. And that was it. I was in. Shortly after that time the local shops stopped selling us glue, but my old man was a tyre fitter. I used to go down the depot with him on Saturdays. I became the glue supply. That stuff is strong. But when I take anti-psychotic meds, I can’t think. That’s why I don’t like them. I feel like I’ve been switched off. I’ve got a different kind of perception that’s not appreciated by society, all the illusions, reality, all the morals or moral justifications. No one likes it when you’ve got your head screwed on like that. They think it’s cross threaded.

Gospel of Aberration is out now with Burning House Press and will be launched tomorrow (25.04.2019) at Brick Lane Bookshop.

Sean Preston is a writer and founding editor of Open Pen.