On lost opportunities to smoke and drink: an interview with Owen Vince, by Paul Jonathan

Owen Vince is done with writing. The post-teen Twitter heartthrob is resolute in his declaration of not wanting to write another book. He increasingly spends more time thinking about architecture on awful mass, a newsletter he started in the summer of 2019. He talks to me about Russian literature, social media and growing up, as well as adopting what I come to describe in this interview as “chaotic whore energy.” He’s firmly anti-introspection and is over books with conventional narrative arcs. An advocate of the significance of film over the written word, he nevertheless, consciously or not, narrates his life mainly through Russian books, in addition to other cultural aspects of Russia, be it films or the symbolism of the Orthodox Church.

I meet him on a cold day at the tail end of January at the ICA and our conversation, which has been scheduled in celebration of the publication of his new book Umber, twists and turns into all sorts of cultural discussions, from adaptations of The Master and Margarita to Red Scare, from Euphoria to Hart Crane.

What’s clear through this interview is that Vince speaks like he tweets: resolutely, passionately and with a speed most would envy, connecting topics most of us would need some time to see the dots between. This goes a long way to describing the peculiar structure of his novel that blends a fictional narrative with intimate memories, taking place both in 1930s Russia and 2010s London, that can be best described as an Adderall descent to artistic insecurity [on the fictional level] and insecure reconciliation with the past [on the personal].

I’ve known Vince for just under three years but have been following his trajectory on Twitter much longer. He’s come to define the London literary avant-garde, a scene populated with a variety of other writers including Bryan Karetnyk, Houman Barekat and Xanthi Baker among others. These modern-day enfant terribles have given me access to new lines of thinking, new ways of writing, and new ways of moving in the city and beyond.

Vince, a writer and visual artist, with a model-like appearance straight out of Gosha Rubchinskiy or Red September, carries himself as an underground socialite. He’s frank and comes stripped of the pretence that can often define writers. On the day we meet he’s slightly hungover, definitely tired. But despite being extremely online, he comes with no filter. In this interview, I try to get under the skin of Umber, a proclaimed “deleted novel”, his method, his inspirations, obsessions and fears.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Owen Vince Umber

The original draft was written roughly ten years ago. Can you tell me what that version was about?

I wasn’t brought up in a bookish, cultural household. I come from a working class family and I didn’t start reading books [outside the scope of school, I assume] until I was 16. I didn’t grow up around books, so I wasn’t interested in them. Then in the space of about two years I read everything, especially Russian literature.

How come? I love Russian literature, but it rarely gets the attention it deserves. Even some of the most bookish people I know haven’t delved deep enough into it.

Russian literature is inherently absurd, it’s based on absurdity and heightened drama. It’s never, ever been about personality or the “personal” in the way other western literature has been. It’s always been about the collective, not necessarily in a communist sense, but about the idea of a progressive society. It’s always quite abstracted, weird and heightened. Even with Pushkin. It’s not really about Eugene Onegin, it’s not about him at all, he’s just a trope. I’m drawn to that idea and especially a lot of writing around the Russian Revolution, like Bulgakov and Platonov, which again was quite absurd, weird and dark.

I thought I could write my own. I was going through a period of intense…what’s the best way to put it so I don’t come across as a wanker?…mental instability. Not bipolar, because I’m not bipolar, but mixes of depressive fugue state and euphoric insanity and productivity. I wrote it in the midst of that, when I was on a euphoric up-kick, but also really depressed at the same time. I started writing this book and I thought it was easy and that maybe I could write this huge novel and prove something to myself. I don’t know what I was trying to prove to myself. I wrote about 40,000 words over the course of a few weeks.

That’s all I was doing at that time. I was staying up really late, which is the genesis of my broken sleep cycle. I was up until 6 or 7 in the morning doing lots of writing. Then I got to a point where I realised I was actually quite depressed. I looked back at the book and realised it was actually really bad, which of course it was. Here’s me trying to pantomime being an author. I felt like I didn’t really have the right to speak about it in a sense. What the fuck do I know about the gulags? What do I know about the experience of political exile, political prison, political murder?

Because you haven’t experienced it yourself?

No, I’m not saying you have to experience something in order to write about it. But to try to bear witness to it. In Umber, a character tries to get sent to the gulag and it felt a bit off-colour and weird. One chapter was entirely written in Wingdings font, so it’s meaningless gibberish. It was a complete pantomime of what a book should be, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So, I deleted it. I don’t know why, I think I realised it was dog shit. But that was quite entertaining. You have that kind of embarrassment or shame about something you’ve written or something you’ve created. So, I just decided to delete it and forget about it. Life carries on and then about four years ago I was having all these dreams when I was living in France about segments of what I thought was from this book. I was rereading a lot of Russian authors like Bulgakov and The Master and Margarita.

It’s one of my favourite books.

It truly is, it’s one of my favourite books too, one of the best books ever written, genuinely incomparable. I was rereading that and I was going through a phase of watching film adaptations of it. Have you seen any of the film adaptations?

I haven’t. I know there’s a few.

There’s about twenty.

I don’t know if you’ve heard but Baz Luhrmann, who helmed the Romeo + Juliet adaptation in the 1990s is adapting it.

Is it in pre-production?

It was announced that he will be doing it, so it will be a few years before we see it, but I’m intrigued to see how he’ll interpret the text.

I was gonna blow my brains out next year but this gives me a reason to continue. I’m just kidding. It’s exciting. Who will play the cat?

I don’t know. Everything he touches, he transforms. It’s always quite different from the source material.

I imagine he won’t set it in 1930s Russia. Maybe he’ll set it in the present day. I was watching all these adaptations and thinking about it and that was retriggering memories of the book in my head. At that time I was really into writing again, because I was in this château in France and had fuck all to do and I quit smoking.

Always a bad idea.

I quit smoking and drinking for six months. If I have any regrets in my life, I’d go back and smoke and drink through that period if only cos it feels like lost opportunities to smoke and drink. I was trying to be healthy. I was writing a lot and I was trying to reconstruct the whole book based on all these weird dreams I was having about these buildings and on my rereading of The Master and Margarita and on rewatching a lot of Tarkovsky.

While I was there I was watching two films a day. I was reading and writing and that’s all I was doing. My head was very full of it. Each text in this book is a scene from the original. That’s the long story of how this came to be and why it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is a reflection of a reflection. But then I deleted large chunks of it again and kept redoing that. I was constantly editing it, remembering shit and adding in scenes from my own life. So it wasn’t only a memory of the original book, it was also kind of a diary of shit I was doing, shit I was going through, people I was talking to, people I was in love with, people I had fallen out of love with. It’s a kind of sorting and clearing out of those ideas fed through the original text.

The original story is still in there. An artist is trying to get sent to the gulag where all his friends are. It’s a dark comedy. He’s trying to get sent there because getting sent there would confirm his own artistic integrity. The fact that he can’t wind up the government enough to get sent to the gulag when everyone else is, is the feeling of being left out, marginalised and sidelined by the state, so he’s probably the only person who’s ever wanted to be purged. So that’s it, a person who wants to get purged.

Do you see a parallel in your own life?

Yeah, I’m incredibly thin-skinned and I am obsessed with getting recognition.

Is that as an artist?

Anything at all. Any part of my life. I’m an absolute narcissist. I’m happy to admit it. I crave attention and acknowledgment, which probably implies I’m quite insecure, so I need these reassurances.

It’s about Russia under Stalinist purges, but it feels like it couldn’t have been written until now. It feels very much a product of, the result of social media. The fractured memory, the recollections.

I think that’s fair actually, cos I use social media a lot.

You’re very extremely online.

I’m extremely online. I keep realising this, I think it’s poisoned my brain but I fucking love it. I had to go to this corporate event recently and there was a motivational speaker there. He’d written a book, you know the way these hollow thinkers do, they write a book, it’s usually quite thin and they simplify human behaviour by going “it’s about how to make the most of your time.” About how to become less of a chaotic, disorganised person, how to be more focused. Empty theories of being more in the moment. They spam all this shit, “How many times have you met a friend and you were on your phone?” I don’t care if my friends are on their phones when I’m with them. He said “Raise your hands if within ten minutes of waking up you look at your phone,” as if it’s a bad thing. I don’t care, I wanna get online as soon as I can, I love it. It’s no sort of shame for being too online.

Everyone looks at their phone upon waking. For most people it’s their alarm clock.

It’s your alarm clock, it’s what you do before you go to bed at night. I have absolutely no shame in my overindulgence and addiction to social media. A lot of the most creative things people are doing right now are on social. Twitter is funnier than any comedian. I don’t find stand up comedy funny. There’s this fractured, fragmented nature to Umber because I’m a child of the internet. I first went online in 1996 or 1997. Reality has since been fractured completely, we’ve collectively entered this hyper-real state of overabundance and oversaturation. It’s terrifying and also very exciting, I feel that writing a fragmented book is the only possible way to write one. Writing a coherent, linear narrative is just dishonest. Or just not interesting. Not interesting to me. I can’t read a book like that. I also have no attention span.

Is that the result of social media?

My childhood overlapped so much with the internet. I can’t separate the two things, so I don’t know maybe it has affected me. Do you ever feel like your attention span has been eroded by social media?

Probably. With Twitter I’m very extremely online in a very big way. But then again, there are times when I will watch a whole TV show from start to finish, ten hours uninterrupted. I don’t know my attention has eroded but at the same time in some ways it’s much stronger in other areas. I watched Euphoria from start to finish in a single day.

I haven’t seen it. Is it good?

It’s hilarious you should.

OK, I’m gonna make a note. I also, and I’m not saying Euphoria is this, but I also really value trash.

It’s hilarious cos it’s a very unrealistic view of being a teenager.

What’s that on?

I just watched it illegally.

I’ll find it. I kind of feel like having a fragmented book is almost a form of realism. For me, this is a realist book, it isn’t a fantastical book, it’s not dream-like, it’s not a hall of mirror. That’s the only way I can possibly write. I can’t really enjoy books, I get really bored when I find a book that follows a strict narrative arc.

Can you give me an example?

Maybe this isn’t even that good of an example but I was reading Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School. It shifts, it has different episodes, but it’s still a story that’s threaded through a particular event. The only part I liked was the first section that has this reality/unreality oddness about it, it’s very fragmented and strange and the rest of the book disappointed me because it didn’t live up to that.

I don’t read many books any more. I don’t find it rewarding or interesting. It sounds really off-ish, I don’t want it to come across as arrogant, but I read more online. Huw Lemmey for example. He has a really good newsletter called Utopian Drivel. I read ten-year-old articles from the LRB and I watch a lot of film. I get a lot more from film.

I had this theory in my head, which is probably complete bullshit, where books are really good when you’re young cos you’re very invested in language as a teenager and young adult. Everyone goes through that phase, where you read loads up until you’re 21 and then you slow down and what everyone seems to do after that age is chastising themselves for not reading enough. People have to make an effort and I have resisted that. I’ve gone through periods where I haven’t read a book for two or three years. I realised that books serve a function when you’re young and they serve a function when you’re dying and in between these the medium you need to concern yourself with is film and music. This is a bullshit theory, it probably won’t hold up under scrutiny.

Language is less important to how we see ourselves and make sense of the world when we’re adults. Books are about what is said. Film studies what isn’t said. Films are about gestures, glances, things people don’t say, things people should say but don’t.

I studied drama so you’re literally recapping one of my classes on subtext.

Exactly. The key things in your life when you’re a child, a teenager or young adult often revolve around text. I was obsessed with how much of our lives revolved around MSN or social media of the time.

Did you have a live journal?

I did. It might still exist somewhere. Did you have one?

I did, but I’ve made sure it’s deleted.

Really? You actually went and deleted it.

Myspace too.

Did you actively go and clear your past? Were you worried someone might find it?

I think so. I deleted Facebook about seven years ago.

I tried to delete it, but it’s quite difficult. I occasionally go back on it and it’s a very strange place.

I’m very extremely online but I very much curate my own life.

You’re very black and white on Instagram. When the Tate incident happened a few months ago, you took a video of it, right? And it was in black and white because everything is. I remember reading a comment from someone that said it is inappropriate to publish this video in black and white. But then someone very fairly jumped to your defence by pointing out all your stuff is in black and white, you didn’t randomly choose to put this in black and white specifically.

Someone else called me a hipster and then another person jumped to my defence and said I can’t be a hipster because I’m wearing socks. I was surprised how much people were willing to dig through my profile to either defend or offend.

It was consistent with how you curate your life. And you need to do that, it’s necessary. I probably come across a lot more depressed and head-fucked and brain-diseased on Twitter than I do in real life, because it’s just a platform. That’s the mode it operates in, posturing slightly depressed anxiety. But this is what I mean about subtext. When you’re an adult, the key dramatic moments of your life revolve around subtext. The things you should have said, the things you didn’t say properly or the way you looked at someone. It changes and that’s why film becomes more important.

And what does that mean for you? Will you move away from writing and into film?

Not so much film. I do visual art. I’m still writing stuff but it’s not gonna be in the context or format of a book. I’m kind of working on a novel but it will fizzle out and I won’t do anything with it. I’m just saying to myself I’m doing it and then I’ll probably tear up the pieces and use them as something else. I’ve been working on making a film version of the Ben Affleck book I did [“Ben” or An Incomplete Biography, Vanguard, 2017]. I’ve been working on it very slowly for three years because again I don’t feel the desire to produce a lot of work. I used to. But just like you said [before the interview], last year you only did one thing and now you want to change that. I’m kind of the reverse. I did loads over the last few years and I’m looking forward to not doing much.

I think I was forcing myself to do things and that’s why I had four of them come out in the space of two years. I move on from things quickly. Apart from obsessing over this ten-year-old novel, if I do something I walk away from it easily which might be a curse in a way. I see people who published a book and that’s all they focused on for a year. Everything they do is about it and they always have this parental attitude to this book and they are really good at promoting and pushing it out there. Once I’ve done something that door is closed for me. It’s unusual for me to revisit and talk about this book because I haven’t really thought about it since it was published. I’m a very chaotic, disorganised thinker and I just float from one thing to another. I can get very obsessed about something and then move away from it and never return to it again for the rest of my life.

Do you know the podcast Red Scare?

I’ve never listened to it, but I know the mythology and extended universe of Red Scare.

So they refer to what you just said as chaotic whore energy.

That’s exactly it. That’s genuinely correct. I fully support that. Can you send me the episode, or is it more like a general musing?

I can’t remember what episode it is, but I’ll see if I can find it.

Anna and Dasha. They have this very apathetic Bushwick vibe. I listen to Chapo Trap House a lot.

I’ve never listened to that.

It’s in the same extended universe of Brooklyn podcasting. And I know what you mean by chaotic whore energy. I think it’s fine. I used to beat myself up about it a little bit, thinking I should be consistent, focus on one thing at a time and I just realised my brain doesn’t function that way, which is why this is a chaotic whore book because I can’t sustain a narrative and I inserted a lot of shit into it once it was done.

Can you explain the structure of the book and how the footnotes play into it?

The footnotes are authorial injections of things I wasn’t quite happy with. I felt uncomfortable when I was talking to friends about it who thought it was poetry. And for me it objectively isn’t because I don’t like poetry.

You don’t like poetry?

No. There are some good poets, but I’m not interested in it. It’s like psychiatry, it’s too introspective and I don’t find introspection useful at all. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy particular poets. I’m a big fan of Chris McCabe, Toby Martinez, Ted Berrigan and Hart Crane, who’s actually one of my favourite writers. They were all in my mind when I was writing this. But I just don’t like it, I don’t think I’ve read a book of poetry in five years. The footnotes were a way for me to insert solid narrative and conversations that happened into the book. There’s this character, Blanche, that’s introduced and there’s just more novelistic elements in there and that’s a way of me fighting against that definition of it being a poetry book, so it’s a kind of jury-rigged way of doing that. I think there’s 35 of them. Sometimes they’re intersections, sometimes I use them to criticise myself. They’re sections that are a bit more novelistic and less abstract and a way of me puncturing some of the self-seriousness. Certain parts were too sentimental and rarified, I wanted to puncture through that because I enjoy puncturing my own ego.

It almost felt like voice-over.

I wanted that voice-over element to be there. Those footnotes were the place where this book and social media rub together. They could easily be tweets. I’m almost tweeting about my book inside the book. I don’t think the register would be any different. There are sections in here that are five years old and other parts that are only a few months old. So they’re the newest parts of it. That and the list of characters in the end, which is another way for me to put a novel structure to it. One thing I really liked about Russian books when I started to read novels, is you’d always get this character list at the start. Like War and Peace.

And you put it in the end.

Should I have put it at the start? In a sense the character list isn’t helpful at all. I actually added characters that weren’t in the book and I had to go back and add them in. Lyubov Popova is a real person. I wrote her in because I liked the idea of her being in it. And then I realised she’s not actually in it at all, so I had to go and insert her back into the book. This is a living edit. Constantly overlapping itself and undoing itself. That’s what I liked about it. It felt natural to me, the obvious way to reflect our world or our mode of thinking. I like fractured stuff.

And you seem to figure in the book. Your own life is stitched into it with references to London.

The modern world. Even though it’s set in the 30s, Dalston Junction and Dalston Kingsland figure in it, because I end up around there a lot. There’s sections where I’m describing who I was when I was living in France. I also lived in Turkey, so there’s sections about that too, along with people from my life like my best friend Harry. There’s sections in there where it is my life. Why the fuck not? I might as well do that. It is full of my own shit as well and happily so cos I quite like my life.

So you see the main character as an extension of you, as a past life?

I’m interested in history and space a lot. One thing I obsess about is in the idea that a place can be a site for immense trauma and horror, specific to that moment in time. Gulags for example or the Ljubljana Prison in the 30s, which was a site of intense horror, tragedy, murder and death. But what if you go there now? The building bears no relation to that trauma at all. The thing that changed isn’t the space but time. It’s moved on.

If you go to Houndsditch or Spitalfields, you can walk through streets that used to be plague graves. You can walk through these plague graves that at some point I imagine were fucking horrible and stunk of high hell, full of bodies. Completely poisoned places that should be avoided. And now they’re streets with nightclubs like XOYO. You can have a perfectly good night out and you can be off your tits walking up that road.

You constantly pass through sites of previous past trauma and probably joy and happiness as well and you have no material connection to it at all. You’re constantly rubbing up these pasts but you have no way of penetrating them. So yeah I’m interested in past lives. I don’t believe in time travel. But I do believe it’s worth thinking about the ways we rub against past traumas and tragedies all the time. Is that person me at all? I don’t know. I can imagine trying to do some bullshit like trying to get arrested in the past cos I’m an idiot. But I don’t know. I don’t believe in reincarnation.

I have no spiritual side. We live, we die. Whatever. And that’s why this book is unusual for me because it did feel like I was touching on religion. The original book had a figure that was a priest. There is a priest in this sometimes. There was a lot of religious imagery in the book I was writing because I got obsessed with the Orthodox Church.

Wow. That’s weird.

I love the ceremony of it.

I say it’s weird because I’m technically a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. I’ve never been religious, but that’s my background. It’s rare to find someone in the UK or Western Europe interested in the Orthodox Church.

I don’t come from that background but I became very obsessed with the symbolism of it. Same for the Catholic Church. I had all these very religious symbols in the original book but I stripped all of it out. I don’t know why I found Orthodox Christianity so interesting at the time. Maybe because it’s so different from the drabness of modern life. I love shiny, almost tacky symbols. I like cheap jewellery. I don’t claim to understand anything about Orthodox faith. My girlfriend is Orthodox. She has that background as well, but like you she isn’t religious. I just got obsessed with it when I was doing it, so it was in there. This book doesn’t have any of that in it, probably because my views changed. Like I said I move from one thing to another.

Same way you moved around countries.

Always running away from something.

It’s interesting you wrote the book here. You went away and then came back and stitched it back together from memory. Especially towards the end when you’re jumping between chapters it feels like it’s two different narrators, almost like two different people narrating.

Again it might just be because I’m a chaotic person. There’s sections where my life overpowers the narrative. It’s also a product of me changing. I changed a lot over the last few years. So maybe it’s the result of writing and editing and chipping away and mixing it up over the past five years. My circumstances changed a lot. I grew up a lot over the last five years. I’m still incredibly impulsive and self-destructive and an idiot but I think I upset people less and burned fewer bridges during this time.

It’s called chaotic whore energy.

Yeah this is it. I still have chaotic whore energy, but I have dampened it slightly. I’m learning behaviours, not burning bridges, not intentionally winding people up, being a bit more stable. I haven’t moved out of London for the last five years, whereas the five years before that I was all over the place, constantly moving. I don’t know if this is growing up.

I don’t know I’m the wrong person to ask.

Why is that cos you got chaotic whore energy too?

Absolutely. I think 2017 was my year of going around London and burning bridges all over the city.

Do you regret that? Do you look back and say I could never do it again?

I don’t know. I did that in 2017. Then 2018 was a complete disaster of a year. And by the end of it there was nothing left standing. So now what?

2019 was a year of rebuilding for you.

Yeah, now I’m in the process of recovering from all the carnage I created.

So maybe that’s why you needed a year of not writing anything. 2020 is a year of relative harmony for you. You go through these phases right? When I was going through the original rewrite of it, that was three years of complete chaos and burning bridges, being really, really irresponsible and stupid and I still am but in a different way. I’m a holy fool. You know the trope from Nikolai Leskov and Dostoevsky, the character of the holy fool?

Oh yeah, The Idiot.

Exactly. I find that much more appealing than being the brass arrogant fuck up child I was five years ago.

It’s interesting you can narrate your whole life through Russian literature.

It’s funny, I guess. All Russian books are funny. I don’t like self-seriousness, even though I come across as self-serious. I struggle with contemporary literature which is very self-referential. I don’t want to shit on anyone, these are good books and good writers but it’s all very self-referential: “this is something I went through personally.” It’s like self-psychotherapy. Russian books are always funnier. Their seriousness comes from a place of horror. Like Bulgakov. The Master and Margarita is really traumatic for the context he’s writing about but the book itself is fucking funny.

I always saw myself as the maid. She becomes a witch after Margarita.

She has chaotic whore energy. If she was written now, she’d have a podcast in Bushwick.

She tells Margarita that if she’s gonna do this, she also wants to join in. She doesn’t want to be left behind. I always saw myself in her.

I liked Behemoth. Satan, Lucifer, or whatever you want to call him is always gonna be more interesting than Jesus for me. He’s a conflicting character, more human. Behemoth is indulgent, a ruinous, alcoholic cat with a gun and I identify with him more than any other character. If your final question is noticing differences in tone, that’s the answer. I’ve changed. I’ve grown up. Not so much that I’ve become a functioning adult.

How far away do you think you are from that?

Hopefully not at all. Hopefully I’ll never become that. What’s the signifier you reckon?

I have no idea, again I’m the wrong person to ask.

We’re the wrong people to have this conversation! I think it’s when you lose your impulse for self-destruction. Maybe that’s when you become an adult. Destroying yourself is too fun.

I’ll ask you again next time I interview you. To close off, other than Bulgakov, what other Russian writers do you return to frequently?

Platonov. Happy Moscow, The Foundation Pit. I’ve been reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting In Time. I come back to that a lot. The observations in it are really good, though they’re often wrong, or arrogant. I went through a phase of rereading Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. It’s a really fragmented book where there is no true self to the hero, he’s slightly different in each chapter. He has chaotic whore energy! It’s funny how you’ve touched on this universal theme that applies to 19th and 20th century literature. Anyway, sorry if I talked shit. I haven’t interacted with another human being since Friday. Do you ever get this weird feeling when you spend 24 hours completely alone?

And you start having whimsical thoughts.

And it’s really hard to reconnect, you dissociate and it’s hard to land back in the world again. I think I had cabin fever.

Umber is out now by HVTN Press.

Paul Jonathan is a writer who lives in London. His work has appeared in Queen Mob’s Tea House, Berfrois and Review 31.