Alan Bilton is the author of two novels, The Known and Unknown Sea (2014), variously compared to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1902 movie, A Trip to the Moon, and Dante’s Inferno, and The Sleepwalkers’ Ball (2009) which one critic described as “Franz Kafka meets Mary Poppins”. As a writer, he is obviously a hard man to pin down. He is also the author of books on Silent Film Comedy, Contemporary Fiction, and America in the 1920s. He teaches Creative Writing, Contemporary Literature, and Film at Swansea University in Wales.
AmeriCymru: Hi Alan and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to tell us a little about your latest book:- 'Anywhere Out Of The World'?
Alan: I wanted to come up with a collection of short stories poised somewhere between horror and comedy – odd bedfellows, I know, but that was part of the attraction. Conventional wisdom says that the comic comforts rather than unsettles, and that humour stops dread in its tracks. At the same time though both are linked by a sense of anxiety and surprise: comedy and horror bypass the rational, logical parts of the brain to generate an immediate physical response – whether a laugh or a shudder.
I also wanted to write a series of stories which played with the Surrealist idea of the marvellous. The Surrealists believed – and they’re probably right – that we’re essentially conservative creatures who travel the same paths and perform the same tasks day in, day out – what the Surrealists called ‘the habitual’. Crucially however, they also suggested that reality isn’t as stable or solid as such routines might suggest. One false move, one random slip, and we stumble headfirst into a strange space outside of the familiar – the twilight zone of ‘the marvellous’.
Now the marvellous sounds marvellous, but the experience of the marvellous is profoundly unsettling – Breton called it ‘convulsive’ - in the sense that we’ve fallen through a trap door into a wholly alien realm. Or if not alien, then the familiar rendered strange – as in a dream.
I wanted to write a collection of short stories which functioned as a kind of crooked house with secret passages between stories, mysterious port-holes and hidden staircases and abandoned lift shafts, which take one both from one story to another and from the everyday world to the kingdom of the uncanny. The stories are set in all sorts of places – Wales, Russia, Paris, Venice – but a sense of estrangement is central to all of them – the sense that characters are somehow in the wrong place.
AmeriCymru: One of the stories in this collection is set in Walla Walla, Washington. What inspired this tale?
Alan: Although the story involves the ghost of Princess Diana and a hungry bear, much of it did really happen to me – more or less. I was invited to give a lecture on silent film comedy at Walla Walla while on a University recruitment trip. I really was picked up at the airport by a Native American guy who asked me whether I thought that Princess Di was beautiful, and in the next breath why I (by which I guess he meant, the British) killed her. He really did give me his card and say ‘Wherever you are, I will come and get you” in a strangely menacing tone of voice. And then when I got there, there were posters advertising my talk everywhere – somebody had done a really terrific job in terms of promotion. The night of my lecture, the campus was full of crowds of students and locals, all of them discussing some talk a visiting speaker was due to give. Anyway, I went to the bath room, and when I emerged, everybody was gone: I went to my lecture theatre and there was only one old lady sitting there, waiting rather grumpily. It turned out that all the crowds were heading to a talk on climate change – as if global warming is more important than Buster Keaton, I know! – and I ended up playing my movie clips in a vast darkened auditorium to an audience of one. So there you go, all those bits were true. The bear, I made up.
AmeriCymru: In your first novel 'The Sleepwalkers Ball' we find the following passage:-"Or is it that alongside this track runs other lines - repetitions, variations, contradictions - echoes of all those lives we failed to live and the things we failed to do?" To what extent are the stories in this anthology an exploration of the profound disconnect between peoples real lives and their possibilities and potential.
Alan: Well, the default position for all my writing is the subjunctive – what is wished for, or feared, or what might have been. I’m not a realist. My fiction is all about how the imagination rebels against the real – whether for good or ill. The unspoken question in The Sleepwalkers Ball is whether one’s fantasy life is more meaningful than mundane life, or merely a kind of infantile escape from it. The same notion pops up in several of the stories too. Has the artist in the title story escaped from the everyday through his art, or stumbled into some kind of metaphysical trap? It’s also there in the dual endings of ‘The Honeymoon Suite’ – the notion that the question of what happened is more of a labyrinth than a straight line.
AmeriCymru: In your online interview with Jon Gower re: 'The Known and Unknown Sea' you talk about things being taken in the wrong context and 'fever dreams'. How much of that applies to the stories in this collection? Are there thematic parallells between these stories and your earlier novels?
Alan: I actually don’t have any problem with readers taking things in the wrong context – the beauty of mystery is that you’re free to decide to what extent you want to interpret or ‘solve’ it. Much of what I’ve written so far can be seen as a fever dream or an extended anxiety attack: the short stories perhaps even more so. Short stories often deal with writers’ main concerns in a very direct and undiluted form – which can be good or bad, of course. All my books are slapstick comedies which can be read as uncanny and terrifying or farcical and light hearted – I’m happy for the reader to juggle these two ideas or moods, as they wish. 5. What is your take on the art of short story writing? What, for you, makes a good short story?
There is a school of thought that the short story and the novel are in fact wholly different disciplines, and that the short story is closer to poetry than prose. I’m afraid that in my philistine way I’ve never felt this, though. A story should be as long as it takes the teller to tell it. And for all the experimental aspects of the stories – their absurdism, irreality and sense of crossed paths – each of the stories is intended to work as a well told tale. They’re not slices of life or impressionistic snapshots: they’re complete entities, with a sense of order, meaning and shape we rarely encounter in real life. I tend to like a sense of structure in fiction – it’s a lie, but a necessary lie, something which we turn to fiction to supply because it’s terribly absent from everyday life.
AmeriCymru: You have a keen appreciation of early silent film comedy. Does this inform or influence your writing? To what extent does what you are currently watching or reading influence your prose?
Alan: Yes, I spent nearly ten years writing a book on silent film comedy, and talking about them with students. As a kid I adored Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin and so on – Buster Keaton came later. It’s amazing to think that such antique films were still being shown on TV when I was a kid – although I guess they weren’t so ancient then. I loved their dreamlike sense that anything could happen, that they were a kind of cartoon occupied by real people, a black and white and soundless universe, cut off from real life, from realism. And I liked the idea that this universe was separate, even if, for me, these films were also full of anxiety: I worried about Stan and Ollie when they screwed things up, anxiously worried about what might happen next. They seemed to me to be both a dream and a nightmare – which is what I’ve tried to translate into fiction.
For a long time I was an incredible film buff and pretty much watched a film every day – these days family life isn’t so conducive such idleness, alas. Film – from silent comedy to European New Wave cinema – still influences a lot of what I write though. Anywhere Out of the World – which is a Chagall painting as well as a Baudelaire poem – was also very influenced by early 20 th Century Modern Art. Visual things tend to be easier to import into fiction than music – or at least that’s how I find it. I still try and read a novel every week – and no doubt whatever I’m reading affects the imaginative weather of whatever I’m scribbling away at.
AmeriCymru: Care to tell us something about your first novel 'Sleepwalkers Ball'?
Alan: Sleepwalker is, I guess, my most dreamlike book – in the original draft none of the characters had names, until my editor put me straight – but I never saw it as a difficult or experimental book, still less as some intellectual puzzle to be solved. It’s a love story set in the same black and white, slapstick comedy universe I talked about earlier. The four stories are all versions of the same romance, and inter-connect, or contradict, or question, each other at will. It was also my first stab at creating a world in which the imagination is allowed to wander where it likes – where what might have happened, or what you wanted to happen, or what you were worried about happening, are all given the same narrative weight. I intended it to be sweet and funny, although one reviewer described it as a grotesque horror show and ended the review with the prediction ‘I’m sure there’ll be more of this unreadable rubbish to come’. They were right too…
AmeriCymru: Your second novel 'The Known and Unknown Sea' has been described as "a beautiful and heartbreaking journey through memory, loss and imagination". How would you describe it?
Alan: It was an attempt – just before my first child was born – to write a novel exploring the imaginative world of a child. It’s about how resilient a child’s imagination is, and how flexible too – how they can accept and process impossible or inexplicable things and yet maintain their own internal buoyancy.
So, on the one hand it’s a book about what children fear most, but also a playful, comic adventure – another juxtaposition of contrary ideas, just like Anywhere Out of the World.
It’s also a book made out of materials you might find a school art room – the sets all sticky with glue, the paint applied with a stick. So the houses are very square and blocky, the figures stick men or scribbled beards. The aesthetic or form of the book came out of this basic idea – crooked lines, primary colours, a distorted perspective where the sky is just a thick blue line above the earth. A child’s point of view is very hard to capture via language alone, so I tried to find the right visual match: readers can let me know whether or not I managed it.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Alan Bilton? Any new titles in the pipeline?
Alan: The next book is my big Russian novel – all Russian novels are big, of course, it’s a contractual obligation. My elevator pitch for the book is ‘the bastard child of Agatha Christie and Mikhail Bulgakov’. It’s a murder mystery set during the Russian Civil War, though the atmosphere and setting are not entirely realistic, you’ll be astonish to hear.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Alan: At a time when countries are either building walls or burning bridges, cross-cultural links have never been more important. Exploring different cultures is always a mix of the known and the unknown, the familiar and the foreign – which is to say, part of the adventure of life. We all need to keep our imaginative doors as wide open as we can.