A Kind of Personal Apocalypse — An Interview with Will Wiles by Thom Cuell

Will Wiles’ third novel, Plume, is a tense account of alcoholism, literary fraud and property development. The book follows journalist Jack Bick, as his life collapses around him due to alcohol, housing and the precarious economy. Fearing redundancy at work, he is given a lifeline in the form of interviews with a reclusive novelist, Oliver Pierce, and a real estate star, Alexander de Chauncey. There follows a chaotic account of deception, muggings, and blackmail. Wiles’ novel is a tense and intelligent account of modern urban life, which raises questions about the role of social media and artificial intelligence in our society whilst also telling a deeply tragic human story.


Firstly, can you give us a brief introduction to your novel, and what drew you to this subject matter at this time?

The core idea was to portray the few days in which an addict, an alcoholic, goes from being what they call “high functioning” – has job, pays bills, and so on – to being, I suppose, non-functioning or dysfunctioning. This is the moment a vast pyramids of lies, cut corners, delusions and exploited goodwill collapses, and it’s a kind of personal apocalypse. That fundamental idea, and the prevailing image of the menacing column of smoke which follows the protagonist around, have been in my mind more than a decade, since not long after my own recovery from addiction began in 2006.

Addiction also corrupts the addict’s relationship with truth, because it can’t take hold unless you’re lying to yourself all the time, and naturally enough you eventually start lying to other people, and soon you can’t stop. That supplied the idea of literary fraud, which gives Plume its story. Beyond that, my intention was to do as much as I can to describe the experience of mental illness as experience rather than as pathology. When the protagonist has a panic attack, he does not think “I am having a panic attack”, the psychological effect manifests in his surroundings. Ditto with his depression-induced paranoia.

So it has been around for a while, the idea. In 2011, when I finished my first novel, I already had a clear outline of Plume in my head, but I decided to work on The Way Inn instead. The thing about novels is that the ideas that make them are rarely singular. When I think about it, I think of those giant American switching yards for rail freight. Ideas, images, fragments of novels sitting around on sidings, all of them insufficient to be called a book, while the Smokey of the subconscious shunts them about, coupling them together, uncoupling them, combining and recombining. Eventually you’ve got a line of them that work together, and the locomotive turns up and takes them onto the main line. That’s when the writing begins.

In Plume, we see the protagonist Jack Bick’s life slide into chaos; partly this is down to his alcoholism (The Need), but equally he is manipulated by the operators of Tamesis, an emerging social media network, and by the likes of Alexander de Chauncey, a property developer who holds enormous power over the lives of renters. Was that a parallel that you set out to draw? And do you see this lack of agency as an important issue for modern society?

Yes, although I’m not sure it really can be called a parallel because it’s all more or less exactly the same thing. More and more, fundamental life and death decisions are being made by machines, by software, without human intervention. Since Plume went to press, I’ve read that Amazon has an algorithm that can automatically terminate warehouse workers based on their performance.

The most startling and dystopian bit of invention I put into the book has already been equaled by reality.

And behind these machines, far behind them, opaque monoliths of capital, vast and cold and unsympathetic. We were promised that the network would sweep away middlemen, but instead we have algorithmic middlemen that can quite literally kill us. The future is going to be insanely bureaucratic – it will be, it already is, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, lives destroyed by typos, but rather than a fly getting caught in a teletype machine it’ll be your insulin getting cut off by a wafer of silicon because you accidentally put two spaces in the middle of your name.

We’ll be spending our time second-guessing whether we’re speaking to a machine, and having to watch what we say. Experientially it’ll be identical to living in a police state and having to guess if you’re talking to an informer. Anyway, faced with that, paranoia is the only sensible response. Where the parallels come in is the similarities between Bick’s collapse into paranoia and persecution complexes, and what these emerging structures are doing to all of us.

Recently, we have seen politicians and commentators looking back to the 2012 Olympics as a time of great unity and happiness; in Plume, you stress the impacts of 7/7 and the London Riots as being arguably more significant in the recent history of the capital. Was there are deliberate effort to challenge that view of 2012 on your part?

Baffling, isn’t it. The widespread flight into delusion, nostalgia and outright fantasy is completely terrifying. I enjoyed the 2012 Olympics very much, it was a lovely time to be in London – we went to see the torch jog past at the bottom of our road, we watched the opening ceremony on TV, we enjoyed the pageantry and the sense of occasion. But even at the time it was clearly a relic. The aesthetic – the fuschia colour scheme, the jaunty MTV logo, the Blair-in-Pyongyang Believe, Inspire sloganeering – was already like a pre-2008 time capsule, completely at odds with the broader mood. And I think this was much clearer at the time, which is precisely why people seized on the dancing NHS nurses and so on, because it read like a protest against the moment. Which is why everyone booed Osborne when he showed up at the stadium.

The idea that everything went wrong after that moment is quite fantastical. We were already deep in austerity, supported by all three main parties and a press consensus. This same political and media consensus had already been scapegoating migrants and “scroungers” for years, since before the crisis. The year before the Olympics there were the London riots, the student protests and the TUC march against the cuts, which attracted up to half a million people. Those events are widely forgotten, at least as far as the media is concerned. Yeah, the Red Arrows! Also HMS Ocean, sitting in the Thames ready to launch attack helicopters. Surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of tower blocks in east London. Honesty I sometimes think that what the Olympics achieved was to send a large part of the public back to sleep. They were reassured that the pre-2008 liberal consensus was more or less in place and that austerity wouldn’t affect them personally and they hit snooze. In broader terms, I loved Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony as much as anyone, but people should have paid more attention to the shitty closing ceremony, which was all Winston Churchill and Del and Rodney. That was what was coming down the line, conformist cargo-cult nostalgia.

So, yes, my intention was – in retrospect at least – to evoke some of that tension, between the national rejoicing and the private hell of the protagonist. But the book is also about the difficulty that comes when we try to trace the origins of failure and disaster – there’s always something further back.

will wiles

Throughout Plume, you look at the link between art and commerce, particularly during the Alexander de Chauncey narrative, which describes artists as the ‘shock troops’ of gentrification. In the novel, this primarily applies to artists and film-makers, but how do you see authors fitting into this dynamic?

This is what Pierce, the cult novelist in Plume, fears – it’s the basis of his professional malaise. He’s written a couple of “urban” novels, and a lot of “psychogeographical” essays, which he previously imagined to be a kind of revolt against the sanitisation and hyper-gentrification of the city. But he has come to realise that he is in fact partly complicit: in stoking London’s grittiness and “realness” and mysteries, even its violence and horror, he has only been adding to its allure. Its mystique. That stuff is all part of the appeal. So what can he do? The Big Money has gotten very skilled at recuperating anything that whiffs of authenticity. For my Masters degree I made a survey of the show apartments that are used to sell luxury flats. On their shelves they have White Teeth and Monica Ali and so on. Maybe next year they will have Plume. What can be done? Pierce’s solution is a rather extreme one.

I enjoyed the way you satirised psychogeography throughout Plume, for example the characters hanging around East London trying to get mugged, so that they could have an ‘authentic urban experience’. Do you think psychogeography has outgrown its uses? Or does it still have a function?

It has outgrown its uses, and even its chief practitioners seem to have realised that and wandered away. The younger writers who might have been doing psychogeography ten or twenty years ago are all in the countryside, weirdly, doing landscape and nature writing. My attack on psychogeography comes from a position of apostasy. I loved that stuff, and I was an avid consumer for close to 20 years. That was want I wanted to write when I thought about becoming a “serious” novelist: Downriver and Hawksmoor and all that. Those are both still excellent books. It’s an interesting paradox that the whole project seemed to run out of steam at exactly the moment keeping a clear memory became politically important. The tools – walking, free association, a certain permissive compact between writer and reader as to the nature of what is being read – are still useful, but the output has to be reinvented. I’m afraid I don’t have a grand design to redeem it myself, and I’m probably not the right person anyway – it has never been a very inclusive field, it’s very white and male, and increasingly grey-haired, and if it has a future it needs to escape that.

Plume seems to stand alongside a number of other recent books, such as Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion and Ruby Cowling’s This Paradise, which create near-dystopian scenarios from minor developments of existing technology. Do you see the impact of what has been called ‘surveillance capitalism’ as a key theme for literature now? And what sort of influence do you think publishers and authors can have on the dominant narratives of society today? 

Literature certainly has a role to play in gaming out potential scenarios for these technologies, as the architecture of novels – and let’s not forget that scifi writers put in most of the work there, often the best work too, and rarely get credit for it outside of their field – but it can help us navigate this new terrain in a lot of other, smaller ways as well. The everyday is changing, and very fast, and literature helps us put names to things, it helps our nameless questions and concerns to cohere. The proliferation of credit-rating ads on television disturbs me, and that concern might be nebulous and repressed had I not read Gary Shteyngart’s wonderful Super Sad True Love Story, which has given it a name and a face. I remember reading a line in a long review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland – possibly in Zadie Smith’s famous essay about that and Remainder – which mentions a scene in which O’Neill’s protagonist twitches the scroll-wheel of a mouse to zoom out on Google Maps. It called this “new territory conquered for the novel”, or similar. It’s that kind of action, that kind of space, that novelists can explore and animate. Simply seeing something like that described in a novel for the first time is charging and enlivening, it animates your own mental experience of something. You recognise yourself and your world on the page. The short sacred minutes of penumbra while a CFL lightbulb warms up. When you in a messaging app with someone and it says, briefly, “X is typing”, and then nothing happens. When you get served a curiously specific advert, and you wonder if it’s just a coincidence or an occult piece of data-harvesting. This is the atmosphere and texture of life and it’s what novelists can and must explore and exploit. There’s nothing new in that, it’s what novels have always done. It’s what novels do.

A lot of novelists are professional paranoids as well, and that’s useful. It’s a good time to be a professional paranoid. A real bull market.

In answer to the second part of your question – it’s tricky. It’s commonplace among novelists to downplay, or even deny, the kind of influence that novelists wield in the wider culture. This denial shades from reasonable professional modesty into doom-laden cultural pessimism, an extension of the fact that the reading public has shrunk somewhat in recent decades, especially for literary novels. As a matter of fact, I think novelists have more influence than they believe. Perfidious Albion has been a good – perhaps extreme – example of this, because it broke free of the review pages and was being cited in the opinion pages, it was informing debate. It’s an exceptional book, but this kind of breakthrough happens surprisingly often. Hillary Mantel managed it more than once, with her thoughts on Royal princesses and on killing Margaret Thatcher. The prime minister intervened! To comment on an essay in the LRB! Always in circumstances like that there’s a rush among  pigshit MPs and tabloid columnists to belittle the writer in question, to portray them as powerless, mewling elitists. And always those denunciations have the unmistakable odour of fear. They’re not an accurate description of literature, because if Mantel really was no more than an out-of-touch hack writing for a tiny audience on the LRB, there’d be no need for Rt Hons to involve themselves, would there? Instead they’re an attempt to discipline writers, and they wouldn’t attempt it if there wasn’t some power there.

One of the interesting issues raised by Oliver Pierce’s storyline is the question of whether readers should trust authors who appear to write from experience, and whether the author has any responsibility to readers who might identify with their work. Your recent Guardian piece draws some parallels between your own life and that of Jack Bick: has that had any impact on the way you’ve approached Plume, compared to your previous novels? Do you feel a responsibility to discuss your experience in a particular way?

All authors weave their own experiences into their books, all the time, of course they do, but I was somewhat more conscious of it with Plume than I have been with other books. Not because it’s memoir, because it isn’t, not in the way that memoir is memoir. No one seeking to know the facts of my life will get anything of value, really, from Plume, apart from in the most general impressionistic terms. But I did want to accurately convey the experience of addiction. As I said above, I wanted to make the experience of panic attacks and so on as vivid as possible, but I also wanted to convey the quite mundane aspects of it. The facts of my own experience can be gleaned from that 2,000 word Guardian piece – in Plume I wanted to capture the feel of it. This was partly because – I’m happy to say – my own experience is receding into the past, it’s slipping from my memory, and I wanted to document how it felt to get up at 7am and open a can of lager before even putting on socks while I still could.

However the whole business of deriving some aspects of Plume from experience led to me continually weighing questions of what it means to tell the truth about a life, and whether it’s even possible, questions that absolutely pervade the text. Bick, the protagonist, is a profile journalist, and he knows how quotes and facts can be deployed to create wildly diverging impressions of a person, never actually straying into untruth. Meanwhile Pierce, the novelist, has become famous for a memoir that is held up as the gritty unvarnished horrifying truth, and it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that.

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?

Lego. I don’t think I could ever be bored with Lego. And maps. And the means to paint.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

The lines I am always quoting to myself mostly come from Larkin, in particular “The Whitsun Weddings” or “An Arundel Tomb”: “Our almost-instinct almost true / What will survive of us is love.” I suppose those must be my favourites.

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

I have a small painting of my son that I love. It’s a very lively likeness, by an artists called Marina Berbeshina. And my mother has a wonderful painting of her mother, as a small girl, sitting on a beach. She has her back to the canvas, preoccupied in play. It’s a delight.

Will Wiles was born in India in 1978. He lives in London and writes about architecture and design for a variety of magazines. He is the author of three novels, Care of Wooden Floors, The Way Inn,  and Plume, all published by 4th Estate. The Way Inn was shortlisted for The Encore Award and Care of Wooden Floors won a Betty Trask Award.