“It seemed necessary to take aim within the writing of fiction at some of the securities, the commonplaces, and the conceits, that lie behind literary culture”: An Interview with Ansgar Allen — Unsound Methods

Co-producers and hosts of the Unsound Methods podcast, Lochlan Bloom and Jaimie Batchan, recently sat down with Ansgar Allen to discuss his fiction, the processes behind it, and the creative and critical power of irreverence.

Unsound Methods: What was the impetus for you to first start writing fiction?

Ansgar Allen: I am not sure there was a ready answer to the question at the time, and now, looking back, I find myself making things up. Sometimes I say that I just stumbled into writing fiction, which isn’t quite fair. In any case, I’ve never seen a hard border between what I was doing before I wrote Wretch, or The Sick List (I wrote the latter first), and the fictions that followed.

If cornered, I might say that I turned to fiction in order to continue to explore ideas and do a kind of research that the university disregards. Writing fiction allows modes of investigation that are rendered impossible in more ‘serious’ contexts. It can perform arguments and broaden terms, so that ‘research activity’ might now include making irreverent gestures, for instance.

It would be amusing to claim that each work of fiction I subsequently produced was another investigation in the making of such gestures, exploring the problem of irreverence, as a deliberate, targeted practice. That is to say, irreverence before the claims made on behalf of university culture and educated culture more broadly (including its great works of fiction), that it offers enrichment, or betterment.

UM: How successful do you feel writing fiction has been as a method of investigating ‘the problem of irreverence’? And has it highlighted further problems in what you’ve called educated culture that are ripe for the same approach or opened further avenues for exploration (via other forms, artistic or otherwise)? – I’m wary of how loaded the word ‘successful’ is here, but I’m interested in whether you think it holds water as a method of investigation, rather than the idea of success in assessing the finished work as a piece of art.

AA: The problem of irreverence arose from my work on ancient Cynicism and its legacies. In the context of the first Cynics, irreverent gestures, even obscene ones, might be considered to be intellectual exercises in their own right – even if, or precisely because, they do much damage to what we think the intellect is, what we think it should be capable of, and what we are determined it isn’t.

I was doubtful that Cynicism, that the Cynic tradition such as it was, could maintain its radicalism when its more literal gestures became literary devices. This is because literature, in order to be appreciated as such, needs some kind of consent, some agreement from the reader that what is being read is worth reading. That setup is very different from the situation of the Cynic who confronts an audience in the street.

It seemed to me somehow necessary, then, to take aim within the writing of fiction at some of the securities, the commonplaces, and the conceits, that lie behind literary culture too. This can be done by direct argument, by pointing out some of those conceits, or by dramatizing them. But I felt it also needed to be enacted, by constructing the text itself so that it is self-undermining, so that it places itself in doubt. In this respect, an irreverent text cannot succeed and could only hope to fail.

UM: I think the point about the need for consent is really interesting in that there clearly needs to be some agreement by the reader that they are engaging in something ‘made up’ and that seems to imply the expectation that it is in some way a worthwhile use of their time. On the other hand, once the writer or reader has entered the space of ‘literature’ or ‘made up’ things, it seems to me that something like irreverence is vital. I’m not sure that is necessarily the only word for it but it feels that something like playfulness, openness, tongue-in-cheekness, mischievousness needs to be there in some form to make good literature work. At least when its doing what it does best – and what can’t be achieved by other forms of enquiry – then that should be there. That self-undermining element is a sort of unique thread that doesn’t really exist in other forms? I’m not sure if that sort of contrasts with the idea that an irreverent text can only hope to fail but it maybe we are talking about different types of success or failure.

AA: Yes, irreverence might have a role to play in the way you describe, as a necessary ingredient for what you call good literature. A degree of playfulness might be needed to keep a text alive, or make it feel so, with the lightness (or the techniques delivered to conjure the effect of lightness), offering the reader some kind of simulation of vivacity, of existence in its still unfinished condition. This would be a space where things appear open to the improvisations that playfulness might need if it is to survive, even if the space of the text remains itself a fully contrived space, a finally printed space, this might be the effect. The display of mischief, of writerly irreverence, might even facilitate a ‘healthier’ relationship to a given text for the reader. Its lightness might allow the reader to inhabit the text, and somehow remain pleasurably removed from it, from the constraints of its form that might otherwise feel stifling.

But an irreverent text might also seek to mess with some of these formulations too, and take the book, or the book-appreciating experience, as its object of investigation. I am taken, I suppose, by the productive absurdity of a situation where a book makes claims against books, where a book takes aim at some of the ideas that make book writing possible, and then undermines those claims by encasing them within another such object. This is a type of criticism that is aware of its limits, and knows that it has nothing else to do, because there is nothing else it can do but exist within the frameworks it is seeking to perturb and question, within structures, then, that must render criticism itself doubtful. This seems to me the only way to gnaw at some of the self-regarding notions and the promises that are made on behalf of educated culture, promises that act as a kind of supple buffer, a border zone of changeling ideas surrounding and soothing educated people away from some sort of abject realisation not only of the coming end, but so to the culpability of the reasonable, sensible, generally law-abiding culture they inhabit in that end.

UM: There’s definitely something appealing about that ouroboros-esque absurdity of using a book to undermine the idea of a book. I guess in that sense it is doomed to fail, in that I can imagine using a bricklayer’s trowel to demolish a building (although it might be laborious) but it seems impossible to ‘demolish’ books through writing. In fact if anything it’s actually adding to the totality of books. Is your sense that there are any foundations or building blocks that are untouchable? Also on a practical level, in your writing does the overarching concept come first? or do you write individual scenes/ notes/ observations and then let the story emerge? 

AA: Yes, I agree, and in this sense the kind of criticism I am describing suffers from its own incontinence. And there might indeed be aspects of the book that remain untouched, as you say, simply out of necessity. The project I describe is not about demolishing books, however, even if this kind of criticism, this critical practice, holds nothing sacred, and shrinks from the widespread sentiment which treats books as if they were sacred objects.

On a practical level, sometimes I write in order to discover the problem, or the set of issues that the text will address. At other times the problem comes first and is clearly defined as an issue I would like to write about and investigate, I just don’t yet know how. This approach, where the problem comes first, is easier to describe. So, with Black Vellum, for instance, I wanted to write about Nietzschean arguments concerning the priesthood and incorporate them within a work of fiction. And yes, here I began with a scene (a rock, a tree) and worked from there. The same goes for Plague Theatre, which is an engagement with Artaud’s claim that the pathogenic cause of each plague is secondary before the more fundamental calamity which is social. In each case I employ fiction to allow the ideas themselves, those ideas that intrigue me, to develop and multiply, to run amok to some extent, and to do so without the usual scholarly restraint. From here the text emerges, and accumulates other ideas, and other problems, as it is written. The point is to open out a range of ideas I find interesting, refuse to adjudicate on them, and keep them, as far as is possible, in an unresolved state. I never write notes and do not plan what I am going to do. The writing itself is productive of the thinking it enables, and so it is not possible to plan for where it will go.

UM: So would you tend to have a single file for a project and then work from beginning to end? Or do you find various documents / scenes multiplying as you focus on a subject? For instance with Black Vellum and that initial scene with a rock/ tree did you write that long hand? On computer? Phone? And once you had a draft of that scene, did you then proceed to flesh out that single document or did you create new documents for each new scene that occurred to you and only later stitch them all together?

AA: Mostly a single file, and sometimes in that order, from beginning to end, or to what was once the beginning, and across to what was the first end, which then all changes as sections are cut, or revised. A lot of writing is inevitably deletion, and that is simply easier (and easier to persuade yourself of) on a computer. I recall writing some chunks of The Sick List on a typewriter to experiment with rhythm – with a brute percussion unique to an old machine – and also experiment with propulsion, and so avoid the compulsion to immediately return to what has just been bashed out to edit and re-write. When I write in longhand this tends to be only short sections, and when I am out and about, and if something comes to mind (it could only be a phrase) that I want to get down before I lose it. I have tried dictation for the same purpose, but again only for tiny segments (this I find unpleasant because the inner voice always sounds better, had phrased everything better, and thought better, than the one I end up recording). And there was a time before I had email installed on my phone (I can now email myself a note) and had not yet found a ‘notes’ app (even though there was one in there), and so used WhatsApp to compose sections before I forgot them (always with apologies to my recipient). There is a long section of The Wake and the Manuscript that was written in this way, with one of the children asleep in the sling, and with me circling a large pond, lamenting the fact that I’d just had the first sentence of an idea that grew and developed and which I had to keep recording before it was lost. I am a touch typist and so particularly loathe writing with my thumbs.

UM: That’s interesting with The Sick List. Do you think there was a difference in the final form of writing that came out from using the typewriter? Or any difference in the concepts/ exploration of ideas that took place? Also, in terms of moving from notes to the text itself is there any process? Would you take the Whatsapp notes for instance and copy them into the doc, then edit? or simply reread the next day and begin rewriting them into the doc? or just hope that the process of taking the note itself was enough and never refer back to it directly?

AA: I am not sure what difference it made to The Sick List, although experiments with the typewriter did coincide with my first attempts at monologue, and so using a device that produces irreversible script may have been useful there, at least to get me going. The next book, Wretch, is all about a copyist trapped in a cell with no furniture, only a machine, probably a typewriter – so perhaps there was an influence between books too. Who knows.

When it comes to transcribing notes, written, dictated, or typed, this would be done by (re)typing them rather than transferring them any other way, and then there would be a process of editing, which already happens at the transcription stage, and continues after that. Sometimes, however, I’ll look at a note, which I thought was great at the time, and wonder why I ever bothered. So there are things that are never transcribed, or reworked, and are left alone, and then finally lost when a phone finally submits to its built-in obsolescence.

UM: Going back to the start of a piece of writing.  Do you tend to have multiple notes/ ideas bubbling under at the same time? and is there normally a moment or point that you can recognise as the ‘start’ of a new project? What does this look like/ feel like?

AA: I often have an idea, a vague intuition, but it doesn’t really start until I open a new file and begin writing, and even that moment isn’t really a beginning yet. Once the text has gathered some kind of generative momentum, once it begins to produce itself and take a form that feels worth inhabiting, then I know (after the fact) that it has begun.

Or, to put it differently, I can only begin a project by writing something that I know cannot survive, by producing text that will, by a single hit of a button, or through gradual attrition by editing and rewording slowly migrate to something else. Which brings us back to your first question. There are no real beginnings happening here. Writing seems to me, in practice, to be more heavily weighted towards deletion, sometimes of entire passages, but mostly of things that were only ever half-formed. Most ideas are terminated, axed, or fizzle out before they have the opportunity to become something. This is largely what I do.

You can read an excerpt of Ansgar Allen’s Black Vellum, out now with Schism 2, here.

Unsound Methods is a podcast featuring conversations with writers of innovative fictions about their craft, approach and technique. Since its first episode in 2018, the pod has included a diverse range of authors, from Nobel prize and Prix Goncourt winners to debut novelists and short story writers, as it delves into the nitty-gritty of the writing process, what makes fiction ‘real’ and the motivation to sit down in front of an empty page and make things up. For more information, visit their website: unsoundmethods.co.uk Twitter: @UnsoundMethods

Lochlan Bloom is a Scottish writer, based in London. He is the author of the novel The Wave, and the novellas The Open Cage and Trade. Twitter: @LochlanBloom

Jaimie Batchan is a London-based fiction writer and podcast producer. He is the author of the novel Siphonophore. Twitter: @JaimieBatchan

Ansgar Allen is the author of books including a short history of Cynicism, and the novels, Black Vellum, Plague Theatre, Wretch, The Wake and the Manuscript, and The Sick List. Twitter: @AnsgarAllen