“Vivid gossip was the style I was going for” — Mazin Saleem talks to Eli Lee

As soon as I read Mazin Saleem’s work, I became a fan. He was an exceptional, original film critic and essayist and – as I discovered soon after – fiction writer. His work is dense, smart and very funny. As part of its new series of ‘novelettes’, Open Pen has just published The Prick, Mazin’s great satire on prickishness. You can read a bit here and buy it here from Open Pen.

Eli Lee: The idea of a ‘prick’ is very different from, say, an asshole or a dickhead or a cunt (or anything else). Why did you decide to write Roland as a prick, and how is that different to any other variety of terrible, shitty human? Also, why the prick, as opposed to just any old prick?

Mazin Saleem: Will (the protagonist) and Roland came out of the premise, which itself began as a sort of joke: a man has his life saved by someone who turns out to be his worst nightmare. So when Roland is the antagonist, he has to be just that – antagonising. Which, to keep things dramatic, means Roland doing things on purpose. Which in turn suggests where Roland would sit on the terrible person spectrum. For me, the key to that is how oblivious or wilful the person’s being, or as the book puts it “how liable”. Roland’s not a super-villain, but he knows what he’s doing. And he has Will’s number and acts accordingly.

The use of the definite article: first there’s the not-too-serious implication that The Prick is a definitive analysis, an archetypal story. In reality, I wanted to avoid writing one of those ‘type’ screeds. You know, ‘On [a type of person I don’t like…]’, with a sardonic list of typical attributes. Writing from a place of pure contempt can work sometimes in shorter forms, but across book length it seems inimical to the strengths of fiction, and would probably be tedious for the reader. Most of all, Roland and Will should be enjoyable to read.

This approach to creating ‘bad’ characters isn’t an original idea, especially with comic characters. I think as a culture we’re moving past the ‘likeable characters’ cliché. Hopefully we’re moving past the anti-hero cliché as well. Hence why Roland isn’t one of those ‘enviable sociopathic badass’ characters either. He’s too much of a wally for that. The trick with Roland, and Will, is to satirise them without them being caricatures, and at the same time, without having to flesh them out in the standard liberal-humanist way, without us having to ‘know their story’. Part of the frustration for Will – and part of the fun in writing Roland – is that there’s no one thing, or even class of things, you can blame him on or excuse him with.

Plus it made me laugh when so many novels are called The [Insert Noun] – e.g. The Trial, The Tunnel, The Sea – for us to have our stupid version in there. Also it keeps things open as to whom, or what, the title refers to.

Finally, there’s Acts 9:5: “And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

EL: It’s such a perfectly satirical book – the details are so smart and on point. Like, Roland’s vocabulary is such a giveaway as to who he is, calling money ‘lucre’, calling things like ketchup bottles ‘big boy’, the fact he always calls Will ‘Bill’. Also, things like his online presence show you exactly who he is – he’s the kind of guy who ‘mainly reposts his bros’ marathon JustGiving pages’ on Facebook, and as Will says, “I’ve gone through his profile. Favourite film, Shawshank. Favourite bands, Beatles, Spice Girls – but then Public Enemy. What’re you even meant to do with that?” As readers, there’s a lot of comedy to be had from siding with characters like Will who see how basic or what an idiot Roland is. Was that the easiest way for you to approach it and to bring the satire out of the story, or was it hard work to realise that was the best way of developing both Will and Roland’s characters?

MS: Roland’s basic in the sense that he’s not as sophisticated a thinker compared to Will and his friends – at one point Will calls him a “half-smart moron”. But he’s regularly outfoxing the people around him. It’s not so much that they underestimate Roland, but they overly focus on who he is and what he says over what he does, until it’s too late.

Will keeps on masochistically, with morbid curiosity, even enviously inviting Roland, like a vampire, deeper into his life. It’s almost a love story.

It was the easiest way to approach the story in that it’s what sprung most naturally to my mind, especially having begun with the way Will and Roland were going to meet. Their story is a comedy of humiliation. When Roland rescues Will from drowning, he un-mans him, shows him up. Then on properly meeting Roland, Will finds in him someone who’s taller, more masculine, more confident with women, into more extreme sports – all those markers by which Will had previously projected his own laddishness through the surrounding middle class life that he otherwise leads.

Will and Roland are developed with this kind of counterpoint: there’s the simple contrast of their respective personality traits, then there’s the structure that this gives to the story: for the first half of the book, Will keeps on masochistically, with morbid curiosity, even enviously inviting Roland, like a vampire, deeper into his life. It’s almost a love story. Then we switch, and now it’s Roland cashing in on Will’s debt to him, subtly reminding him of that time he saved his life to get him to do what he wants.

In doing and getting what he wants, Roland has what most people lack, at least in certain demographics or generations, which is shame or anxiety about himself. “A man with a plan, a happening man,” one character calls him. Which in a weird sort of way, though some people can find this appealing, many resent it. Roland’s not ‘everything Will wants to be’ – he’s too dorky and déclassé for that – but he does have what Will lacks, and Will knows it all too well. In that sense, Will and Roland are like the narrator and Tyler Durden in Fight Club but played for laughs, instead of adolescent adulation or whatever.

EL: Your writing style is remarkable. It’s always dense, funny, loads of stuff packed into a single sentence. It’s also beautiful, too – like this bit: “The top of his hand on the skin between her crop shirt and trousers moved up and down, light and silent as fingers on a touchscreen,” and one of my favourites, “Roland watched him back through the patio…bafflingly invulnerable, like someone you fight in a dream.” I think it must be hard both to be funny and write prose that’s allusive, dense and multi-layered like that. Can you tell me about the tone and atmosphere of the book, how you decided what it should be, and how you kept up this balance of dense allusions and detail with light comedy?

MS: Tone and atmosphere have a lot to do with the length of the story. Once I knew the length Open Pen were looking for, I planned the book around that restriction, which was more useful than trying to beef up short stories or beef down novels had been. For instance, with 128 pages, I could better maintain a single gossipy, you-wouldn’t-believe-what-I-heard tone.

The book is meant to sound like an anecdote that you’ve heard, but by that same token is as winding and musical as a spoken anecdote can be

Since the book is seven set-pieces, or thereabouts, the other question is how to sustain a tone within a scene. Generally speaking, a scene covers a shorter amount of in-story time, and so it might not have the weaving of different tonal effects you can get in a more laidback, drawn-out, narrated summary type of story. So one solution was to create an atmosphere of tension. Whether the stakes are low – some awkwardness the characters are trying to avoid or get through – or high (literally), having a through-line of tension hopefully makes each of the seven longish scenes compelling. And that atmosphere creates a positive feedback loop as well: how do you escalate the tension, which combinations of characters are going to rub one and another up the wrong way this time, with their added baggage?

The atmosphere depends too on the British 20-30-something social settings. Hanging out with random British people you meet on holiday, or going to a joint picnic party where you have fewer friends there than your co-host, or being by yourself at a house party. Those fine-grained, tediously complicated social situations, which ultimately are no big deal, but we spend the majority of our waking lives navigating. Relatedly, there’s the class element, or more specifically class trajectory, that’s important for the tension: Roland is a lad on the make, whereas Will is generationally middle-class but one of his family’s dead-ends, at least economically speaking. 

As to comedy and prose style, I think it comes down to an old-fashioned idea like sensibility: what you’re sensitive to, what you notice, what you’re good at representing. It’s also the creative challenge: how to construct a joke, or a funny set-piece, or use call-back humour, things we’re all pretty TV-literate with. Whereas, and I’m banging an old drum here, novels are Serious. Often, literary comedy is just an ironic voice or dry tone, a sort of over-the-glasses perspective on things. I wanted to combine a prose style that’s ironic and fun to read – the book is meant to sound like an anecdote that you’ve heard, but by that same token is as winding and musical as a spoken anecdote can be. However, anecdotes aren’t traditionally detailed: it’s always, ‘I went into a shop and a guy came up to me and he was all like’. So how do you synthesise the anecdotal with other literary devices to make the story bear re-reading, give it enough detail and complexity to make the whole thing worth it? Vivid gossip is the style I was going for.

EL: I think this is a good point – “The trick with Roland, and Will, is to satirise them without them being caricatures, and at the same time, without having to flesh them out in the standard liberal-humanist way, without us having to ‘know their story’.” They’re definitely not caricatures and Roland is purely a wally – I agree, he’s certainly not a suave anti-hero. If, though, he had been more of an asshole or a dickhead, what might you have had him do? 

MS: Roland would have done more blatantly malicious stuff early on – but then you run in to the problem of the reader’s sympathy being too definitively weighed against him. As made-up characters, they can do whatever you want them to do – but if Roland starts extreme, then you need to come up with other reasons for why the story goes on for as long that it does, both in the world of his and Will’s story and the book-length. It’d take on a more sinister turn, for example, with Roland a more clear-cut villain and Will the hero or least the tormented victim. When, really, Roland is more what – or who – offers Will a look into his own soul. After all, no-one in the book comes out smelling of roses, and, depending on whose version of the final chapter you believe, Roland’s maybe not even behaved the worst. On the other hand, if you believe the other version, he’s lived up to everyone’s worst expectations.

It’s the Wills of the world who are the trickier, more insidious problem.

EL: I agree there’s a ‘Fight Club’ quality to the novel; the man who unmans you and makes you more self-conscious and aware of your failings than ever before; and then the fact Will can’t leave Roland alone, despite how unsettling he is. It’s interesting, though – usually this situation is played differently, so, like, in The Great Gatsby or The Go-Between, the narrator is the mere mortal, observing the gods in their new social world (and our sympathies are with them). Here, though, Roland has more capital than Will in a very specific way, but Will can also look down on him. His need for Roland is therefore partly the need to feel superior and also, partly, a masochistic need to feel bad. One of the reasons I think Roland does have more capital than Will, though, is that he sort of effortlessly performs a confident masculinity. Do you think there are a lot of men like this, and do you think equally there are a lot of men like Will, who partly hate these guys but partly hate themselves, too, because they’re not like them?

MS: There are definitely more Wills in the world than Roland. In fact, I imagine resentment is going to be the keyword of this century. The easier thing with Roland would’ve been to portray his masculinity as so fragile, to use the parlance of our time. Which itself can be a kind of sentimental story, not too far off the one we like to tell about school bullies ‘really being afraid of you’. Roland isn’t a sad clown or secretly insecure or hiding some great flaw or trauma. In the book’s words, “Roland is Roland.” It’s the Wills of the world who are the trickier, more insidious problem.

EL: It works as vivid gossip. I was pleased when I read it that it was so gossipy; I think it takes confidence not to be Serious and instead actually funny. Which other authors do you think achieve this? 

MS: Nabokov from Pale Fire backwards. Jen George and her story ‘Guidance / The Party’. I must’ve bought Fran Ross’s Oreo half a dozen times as a present. Martin ‘mud’ Amis, when he’s trying to be funny and not blurting out ‘the Muslims are coming!’. Melville’s shorter stuff. But also, specially in regards to The Prick, is stuff like Peep Show, and reality comedy My New Best FriendThe Cable Guy!

EL: The final part of The Prick turns epic – the stakes get insanely high all of a sudden. Why did you put Will and Roland together in this extreme situation? I was also wondering if it was a reference at all to that long sequence in The Left Hand of Darkness when Genly and Estraven are stuck in close, relentless proximity on the ice together…

MS: Not a direct reference, but yeah, Le Guin is a great dramatiser of her themes. Not in a glib, acting-out-a-thought-experiment way, but something that comes from a deep belief of hers, that the enacted and embodied are way more important for us than the abstract. (With the added twist that depicting the embodiment of a theme in a text is itself disembodied…). Whereas for me, the climax of the book actually goes the other way, towards the stranger, the dreamier, if we’re talking bad dreams. I also like the pattern of it, an active, physical scene, focusing on Will and Roland, then two social embarrassment set-pieces, then back to the active and physical. Repeat. And you set patterns to make it more stark when you break them.

“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

EL: I’ve edited some of your non-fiction at Strange Horizons, and it’s been great (Mazin’s essay on Le Guin’s Always Coming Home here and our joint piece on Blade Runner 2049 and Philip K. Dick here). What are the main differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, and are they equally enjoyable?

MS: These days, the first draft of fiction is usually the most enjoyable writing. I say these days since, when I was younger, I made the mistake a lot of us do – of not realising that the first draft was your chance to be free and be rubbish and for that not to matter because it’s the first layer and no one’s going to see it. The final drafts of fiction are some of the more enjoyable too, usually – the bonsai pruning. I actually dread almost all of the process of writing non-fiction; the idea and notes stage are fine, but most of the time it’s like homework, just gruelling, until, after days of avoidance punctuated with these reluctant, self-disgusted bursts of writing, you find that something not too terrible has coagulated on your desk, and you can, after all, prod it into something publishable.

Mazin Saleem has written short stories for the Mays Anthology, Litro Magazine, Literateur, Open Pen and more. You can read his other short stories for Minor Literature[s] here and here.

Eli Lee is fiction editor at Minor Literature[s]