Interview / KS Silkwood
Friday May 25 2018
KS Silkwood discusses the dangers and pleasures of writing an anti-novel, not relying on plot, and how life drawing inspires his working methods.
King of the Bored Frontier is set in 1997 – described in our promo material as at the fag end of Britpop and Britart – but it doesn’t really go on about it, does it?
No, it doesn’t. And that’s deliberate.
Yes, they’re both in the background of the novel – a fork-tongued undercurrent – but you know, it was just what was going on at the time, and while there are mild references to some of the music and art, none of it is rammed down your throat.
And that's because I wanted it to be subtle, and not overpower the novel. Britpop, our fading memories only reinforcing the nostalgia of it all, gets bigger and better with Every. Passing. Year… Was it a great time to be alive? Well… in a way. But it’s important to remember that not everyone loved Britpop, just as it wasn’t necessarily anticipated that some of the Young British Artists would go on to become national treasures either.
At my art college [in the 90s], there was still decent opposition to both. Some people still wanted to paint [snorts] so ready-mades and installations were reviled or laughed at just as much as they were celebrated, while the North versus South Battle of Britpop quickly pantomimed everything that was exciting about its proto incarnation – the breaking of the dance/grunge/American invasion/Euro-pop stranglehold.
It might have been more attractive [for readers] if I’d written a celebration of that era, a mutually masturbatory account, but for every ‘Babies’ there were some shitty, weedy, shoe-horned music press endorsed top ten one hit wonders wearing mod suits and drinking in Camden that, other than qualifying through quick-hit force-fed association, were barely or never heard of again.
But, yes, okay, was it an interesting time? Was it...? Well, nostalgia pokes me in the eye, because as it happens, it was interesting enough. The music scene may not have been as brilliant as people remember, but it was our music scene, indifferent or opposed to it or not, you were part of it.
And the art? Hated the tent? Loved the tent? Didn't care less? Well, fine, because that's what it was all about.
So, while the novel is set in that time, it’s not explicitly about it. It's about a variety of things like misplaced creativity, artistic disaffection, growing up, not growing up, being serious, being pretentious, being absurd, arrogant, stupid, self-obsessed…
My, how we’ve changed…
You’ve referred to this book as an “anti-novel”. What do you mean by that?
No deviously twisty-turny plot. No murders. No wizards, no witches, no vampires. No holiday romance. No road trip. No twins swapping lives. No one’s in a coma. No no no no no…
That’s already quite a list of what it’s not. There are a lot of those type of novels already out there, certainly in the mainstream, perhaps even the indie scene… [sniffs] So yeah, what is it then?
It comes down to what sort of a writer do you want to be? Or, more pertinently, what sort of a writer are you? It chooses you, doesn’t it, apparently (not sure that's true), but in my case I wrote King of the Bored Frontier with “anti” in mind – it ended up that way because that's how I designed it. Of course, you can still apply formula to it, at its simplest it’s a hero’s journey, but how it gets there is what interested me.
King of the Bored Frontier follows a term-time structure and loosely adheres to what happens in a third year of an art degree (20 years ago, admittedly), but there's no page-turning plot-bait revelations, it's more subtle than that, more introspective. It's character driven. And thematically driven.
It’s not really a story, it’s snapshots, episodes, a year in the life of a young artist-type. And that’s how I wrote it. You can read it linearly – and that’s probably the least interesting aspect of it – or you can read it and look for, and recognise, the intellectual architecture of the novel, the metaphorical and the symbolic devices, the interactive experience of reading a novel that isn't just about entertainment but challenges the reader to love, hate, be bored, be interested, be jealous, be sympathetic, be incredulous...
And there's no rule that says you have to like the characters in a novel all of the time. But, as we get to know them, we either warm to them or we don't.
A bit like real life then.
If you just want casual passing-minutes-until-it's-time-to-check-your-phone entertainment, then I'm not the novelist for you.
What sort of novelist are you then?
It's a good question. As King of the Bored Frontier took shape, and with it my writing style and language, certainly for this trilogy, it became clear to me that I didn't write like a writer. I write like an artist, or at least with an artist's approach – which is really pretty versatile – and so in this case I suppose it was like… using problem-solving to understand my story rather than using post-it notes and reheated narrative/plot plans.
So, I wrote this novel with that mentality – words as brushstrokes [laughs]. No, really, I did, but not expressive mark-making, more exploratory, of a deliberate, objective exercise-style process. Like an Euan Uglow painting. Or like life drawing. Or at least, how I life draw.
When I life draw, the drawings are exercise, not statements. The objective over the subjective. It's only ever about the pursuit of truth, the ability to draw the figure as accurately as possible, and not relying on stylisation to disguise the flaws in your technique. So for example, for every stylised, beautiful, expressive, aesthetically pleasing line and mark-making extravaganza of a drawing, the same, for me, in writing terms, are adjectives. I'm not an adjective junkie of a writer. I'm on Hemingway's team. Lean.
When writing this novel I was very aware that I didn't want it to sound writery, and it was quite easy to avoid because writing in the first person means that Every. Word. You. Read. Are. The. Character's words, not the authorial voice, and not necessarily always grammatically accurate. Lines can be killed, just as easily as saved, by grammatical accuracy…
… Anyway, I like to use the aural rhythm of the read word, not always the written word. Sometimes it's a complex melody, sometimes simple, sometimes unorthodox. [shrugs] Like punk or Ron Geesin.
That's not to say I'm a particularly experimental writer, because I'm not, nothing like Joyce or Beckett or Bernhard or or or… take your pick... but loosening that noose of plot-iness, of writery-ness, means that as a reader, we journey with my narrators, rather than observe and anticipate the next plot twist that they can't or don't see coming. Aren't you clever, reader? Pat yourself on the back [laughs]. Characters don't ask, "I wonder what's going to happen next?" So why should readers?
So if your novels aren't plot driven or writery, what are they? And why bother writing novels like that?
Ouch, that hurt. Tough questions.
My novels do have a tricksy-ness about them that I enjoy, playing with the reader, asking them direct questions that they don't have to answer (but I'd like to think they might).
Early in my other novel, King of the Jungle, the narrator asks the reader if they've ever done anything brilliant, like Nureyev brilliant or Picasso brilliant. Perhaps anyone who read it just powered through that chapter on to the next, not really thinking about it from their own perspective.
But that question was important, because it's not a dialogue between the novelist and the reader, it's a dialogue between the narrator and the reader, creating a link between the two that should feel private and personal, leading to an element of introspection. Reader pauses, thinks, "I'm being asked if I've ever done anything brilliant. No. I haven't. I hate this novel. Why's it asking me questions? Why's it making me think about my banal life?"
And, certainly in the case of that novel, through that reaction the reader should become more empathetic to the narrator's motives. Umberto Eco once said, "The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them... to produce the kind of reader you want for each story."
That's the sort of novelist I try to be. Win, lose, or draw.
What next for KS Silkwood?
Deciding between a couple of ideas for a fourth novel, unrelated to the King of... trilogy, something completely different, more mainstream, something that might win an award or be critically feted on Goodreads and made into a film directed by Ang Lee or Ron Howard.
Failing that, I don't think there are enough almost impenetrable TV programmes around these days, so I might write an adaptation for the BBC or Netflix of John Fowles' A Maggot, just for fun.
[Laughs, nodding] Yep, that's right. For fun.
KS Silkwood's latest novel, King of the Bored Frontier, is available from the Foe shop, or from amazon (who don't need the money, unlike small independent publishers).