Three dialogues on literature
Number Three: Nigel P. Bird and Pablo D'Stair
This dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style
of "progressive fragments." The exact order of inquiry and response as
presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened
between the two dialogue partners. Therefore, 'Statements' and
'Responses' from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties
until subsequent weeks. It is the hope of both parties that the spaces
between these responses allow readers the time and opportunity to more
fully and experientially engage with the propositions, for themselves,
rather than looking at the dialogue as a closed circuit.
PABLO D'STAIR: As I've said elsewhere, maybe even to other
participants in this series, when I first started writing, every idea
that came to me, it always felt I was thinking up what I termed a
"thriller." Everything originated in that way, all stories and
techniques revolved around it. Yet, nothing I wrote-with the exception
of one thing-read the least bit like a thriller. The first...two dozen
novels I wrote, built though they may have been from a crime/thriller
germ, materialized as genre-less literature.
I couldn't have been happier, though.
It was a very concerted effort toward actually writing things that
"told a story" as in "told a story a reader would be following, would be
reading the things for." And even then, the story was the least
interesting part to me, just a kind of necessity toward "getting an
audience" (because for the majority of my writing life I never sought
one) and I felt, and feel, torn in how I respond.
On the one hand, I dig that people are reading and it's great if they
like it. But I found an enormous gulf in even readers who like my
writing "liking" what is important about it to me. It's disquieting, at
times, and I fear it influences in ways art shouldn't be influenced.
I supposed I bring this up having to do your remarks of your earlier
writing and progression to a sort of comfort with a writing where people
seemed to like it more. I wonder, not as an interrogation just a genuine
wonder, if the understanding you more and more feel of what you are
doing is an understanding of what you, yourself, truly desire to
express, or more an understanding of how to work within a style people
are familiar with and so respond to with more ease? Does that make
sense? Do you see your writing and understand yourself in it more? Or do
you more understand the form and how to express "it" first, "yourself"
NIGEL BIRD: I think that you're right.
My ability to express myself has improved. The more confident I've
become, the less I've been held back by nervous tension.
Learning can't take place under stress. In the classroom, a child who
is in fear will be in a state of 'reptilian brain' to maximise the
'fight or flight' response. I guess that's been the same with my
writing. I know that shyness and lack of self-confidence have held me
back in so many different areas, so to be able to do one thing
unhindered is fantastic.
The confidence involves a couple of factors.
First of all, it means I can trust my sub-conscious to take me to the
right places. I am more relaxed when following a character's desires
than I was in the beginning and I'm happier to let go of the reins.
The other thing is I've progressed in terms of my skills. I'm just a
better writer when it comes down to nuts and bolts such as point of
view, character, sentences I'm happy with, dialogue, flow etc.
I don't think I understand myself in it any better. I'm not sure
where I'd fit in there.
NB: It's a balance. Partly the ideas drive themselves along. When it
comes to thinking about how a sentence works or sounds, then it's about
what I like and what someone else will go with.
There's no point spitting into the wind, you know?
If there's a message in there or simply a story to tell, it must be
Imagine a political message. It's a good message. You want it to be
understood, it needs to be palatable in the first instance so that
people will pay attention. Blow up a school, you're likely to make
people enraged. Write letters and march, Tweet and get yourself on the
news and you'll only annoy the people who always get annoyed by such
things - the rest will at least listen to what you have to say.
Fiction, art, ideas all come within a framework of understanding,
grow from the vocabulary of what came before and what is going on at the
same time. The boundaries within that context can be pushed as far as
anyone wants; break through the elastic band and you'll be out there on
your own on the lunatic fringe (and all power to you).
PD: I hear similar things a lot-this frame work, this knowing what
came before and what's up now.
But, how far truly can this extend?
There's no need, even to have new, exciting, riveting fiction
produced, for writers to study up, right? As though a person with life
experiences, left to their own expressive devices, will be stumped for
what to say or how they want to say it?
And there is such variety in the world, sometimes I think that for
everything that gets a little foothold, so much other stuff is caught in
the wake, knocked out into what you term the "lunatic fringe" without
being lunatic at all.
What is 'what's going on?' What's going on on your block? On your
And as for history: it's boundless and it contains, really, little
readily available record of anything but a slice so thin of who was
writing it's hardly, logically, worth calling History.
This touches on your early statement, which I took to be a kind of
'call for fitting in' (not "conforming" not like that) a kind of "Okay,
first let me see what everyone is up to, then let me assess whether my
ideas gel with them, then let me, so as not to disturb the natives, take
on their affects and ideology' when, logically, shouldn't they be
thinking and trying to do the same with you and your thing? If you're
different from them, it reinforces that for all their study, they
overlooked you and probably a lot more, not that you are "foreign" or
"fringe," don't you think?
NB: History. So, a million people write books this year and in 100
years maybe five will be talked about. In 500 years, maybe a couple of
those will be considered as part of history. That leaves almost the
entirety of other work lost. That's what history is - people living and
dying and things they had dying with them.
The lunatic fringe is defined by the centre. It doesn't mean much
other than to label work that is outside of the mainstream and therefore
unlikely to be well-known. In the end, it will suffer the same fate as
the rest and get lost when those who know it go.
I want my work to be read. It doesn't have to be palatable to all,
but to some. The people I'd like to learn from and who I'd like to
emulate don't have big readerships (which is crazy to my mind,
obviously); they didn't entirely conform and I guess they couldn't,
which is what I like about them.
I'd like my work to be accepted by those I admire. I'd like to take
what's good about their ideas and add my own influences and thoughts to
create something new and mine. It may not shake the world, but it will
be my creation and my art and the world will be a better place for it
Nobody has created anything so amazingly new without standing on
someone else's shoulders that would be worth mentioning. We all build on
what came before - assimilation, digestion and creation.
PD: I really feel that it so goes without saying that nobody can
create without influence that when it is said it seems a sidestep. Ha
ha, not meant in an accusatory way, but it does a bit.
That is, to me, yes the integral parts of what creation
is-assimilation, digestion, expression of self-equals creation,
certainly artistic creation. I've never honestly encountered anyone who
feels they created in a vacuum, so the point that no one can create in a
vacuum is rather moot.
I say this to move to this view of history you express, ticking off
hundreds of years and a concern for posterity. I will not go into
ins-and-outs of case studies-writings and writers that lay unknown or
even detested during their lifetime, now considered eternal, holy,
absolute essential expressions of humanity-but I had to mention it there
It's illusory, isn't it, that any art "shakes the world"-that's just
something we say in admiration. Truly, even more is true than what you
say of the terminal nature of art. I say that even, theoretically, if
one of the authors we hold essential had never written, their entire
body of work had been lost, well...so what? We'd know another author,
know another artist, find one of these infinite meanings and expressions
that are, yes, the ground on which the few things that gain posterity
Because I don't, and know no one else who, truly, in dead earnest,
thinks that posterity exists because of importance or quality. No. It's
And I love your baseline existential bent in art, I feel the same, so
wonder how deep your feelings of wanting to be admired by the folks you
admire go. What I mean is-do you say you want to be admired in the sense
of "I wrote just exactly what I wanted to write and it would be swell if
someone I admired happened to like it" or do you mean more "I want to
write something, based on thoughts about or toward the people I admire
that I feel they will admire because of their views, their opinions?"
In simpler words: is it more important to you, cards on the table,
that you love what you write or that people you admire love what you
write? No dodging around it, saying it has to be one or the other.
NB: I'm in the former camp, the 'I wrote just exactly what I wanted
to write and it would be swell if someone I admired happened to like it'
camp, or at least that would be my perfect resting place.
I'm thinking as I read the question about generations.
We live through cycles quite naturally, it seems. The feeling that as
teens we're at the sharp edge of something new and the sense that it
will change things forever. For those affected, it really does. It's new
because it's the first (the only) time a person can be there. It's going
to change things because it happened.
When I was growing up, punk was in vogue. It shaped my own teenage
years that came beyond 1977. Did I say this already? And now you'll hear
The Clash at a wedding and all the straight folk are dancing to it.
They rarely seem to dance to The Slits or The Birthday Party or the
Swell Maps or Wire or The Membranes or The Jesus And Mary Chain though,
because they don't play it; they don't play it because these bands
didn't make the osmotic journey through the membrane of time into the
solution of mainstream. I'd like my books to be like 'You Trip Me Up',
noise and joy and love and pure as hell.