Tagged: alan bilton
NEW! From Alan Bilton - The End of The Yellow House
By , 2020-11-09
Central Russia, 1919, a sanatorium cut off by the chaos of the Russian civil war. The murder of the chief doctor sets in motion a nightmarish series of events involving mysterious experiments, the secret police, the Tsar’s double, an enigmatic ‘visitor’, giant corpses, possessed cats, sorcery, and the overwhelming madness of war, in this fantastical and wildly exuberant historical novel. BUY HERE
A bold and confident n ovel that throws us into the deep end of post-revolutionary Russian life with fervour and wit. There are knowing no ds to Gogol and Bulgakov but the voice is entirely original, with a gem of a phrase on every page. I love the quizzical, querulous, dry voice and it’s a satisfying whilst sometimes disorientating experience... the characters are larger than life, but the mud is real. Alan Bilton has a real talent for the unexpected l eft-ha nd turn, with lines that turn on a sixpence and surreal narrative twists. It reads like a very modern translation of a 19th century Russian classic – if that sounds like your kind of thing, you will lov e this book.
A brutal, but often witty and tender tale, The End of the Yellow House is a twistedly brilliant emotional
rollercoaster. In experiencing its expansive vistas and claustrophobic tunnels, we learn to distrust the vibrant characters here, as well as the very landscape which they inhabit. A delicious mystery on every page –
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism, Surrealism.
'Anywhere Out Of The World' by Alan Bilton - A Review
By , 2016-10-06
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”.
Alan Bilton never disappoints and he never fails to fascinate. His latest work, an anthology of short stories titled 'Anywhere Out Of The World' is no exception. Billed as 'a collection of short stories of the deeply mysterious and the utterly absurd', these grimly comical tales will transport you from Venice to Walla Walla, Washington and simultaneously to places with no known geographical co ordinates.
In 'The Honeymoon Suite' a young couple arrive at a luxury hotel in Venice only to become separated and lost in a labyrinth of twisting corridors and interconnected stairways. In this tale of mystery and alternate endings one of the honeymooners is left musing:-
"Who was to say what was the end and what was the beginning? Perhaps life didn't travel from A to Z but constantly traded and changed; from here it was Venice which seemed like a dream and the island of tombs which chimed the one true hour."
Superbly constructed and broodingly atmospheric throughout, 'The Honeymoon Suite' is one of the longer tales in this collection as is the title story.
Mr Urbino is a postman attempting to deliver a letter to a non existent address. He is also an amateur artist. His attempts to locate the address and its tenant result in a series of bizarre encounters and ultimately to an unexpected journey or 'escape'. His predicament at the end of this tale invites speculation. As the author put it in a recent interview:- "Has the artist in the title story escaped from the everyday through his art, or stumbled into some kind of metaphysical trap?"
Anywhere Out Of The World is also the title of a poem by Charles Baudelaire. It can be read online here and provides considerable insight into the thematic material of this collection.
Many of the shorter stories in this collection are equally intriguing. In 'The Bridge To Mitte Kuskil' a Tsarist auditor makes a journey to inspect progress at a bridge construction site. What he finds is not at all what he expected and the ultimate fate of his 'report' is not at all what the reader might expect.
In 'Flea Theatre' a womans husband disappears and she begins to receive mysterious parcels each one containing a dead stuffed flea dressed in human clothing. Her attempts to locate her missing husband leave her feeling 'lost and uneasy, a trespasser in somebody else's book.'
Literary references/comparisons? In reading this collection I am constantly reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Unconsoled', Steve Erickson and Wales' very own Rhys Hughes. All powerful recommendations in my opinion.
This book is unreservedly recommended to anyone with a taste for the bizarre or an interest in exploring the boundaries (and beyond) of contemporary fiction.
Review by Ceri Shaw
Anywhere Out Of The World - An Interview With Alan Bilton
By , 2016-10-05
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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.
AmeriCymru: What is your take on the art of short story writing? What, for you, makes a good short story?
Alan: 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.
Interview by Ceri Shaw
Dylan Thomas Centre - Breaking News
By , 2014-03-08
Fabulous Cillian Press launch party (The wine! The glamour! The magic!) for Alan Bilton's stunning new novel The Known and Unknown Sea at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea - 7.00pm Thursday March 13th. Don't even think about not being there!
Recorded at the book launch event at the Dylan Thomas Center, Swansea on March 13th 2014.
Author Alan Biltons father worked as a track walker for British Rail. The family managed without a car until he was 17, enjoying as they did free rail travel. His father loved Charlie Chaplin. Obsessions with train journeys and silent film are Alan Biltons childhood legacy, and both are crucial to his first novel, The Sleepwalkers Ball , published next week. The novel was launched in a 1950s restored railway carriage, La Charrette, the smallest cinema in Wales, at the Gower Heritage Centre. Here the author will introduce to a select audience (the cinema seats only 23 people) two screenings of Buster Keaton films, High Sign, and Sherlock Jr, in which Keaton is a projectionist who falls asleep and enters the world of the film he is showing.
Alan Bilton is now an academic specialising in silent film, and has taught literature and film at the universities of Manchester, Liverpool Hope, and currently, Swansea. His official activities range from showing Chaplin movies to undergrads, to taking film clips to graduate classes in Spain and the US, and delivering conference papers on silent film and American Literature in Prague, Mississippi, Zaragoza, Rennes, Nicosia, Seattle and Oslo.
The novel features nightmarish train journeys: the anxiety of lateness; losing or merely lugging around luggage; the pressure of packed stations and waiting for loved ones; carriages which are chopped up and fed to a trains furnace while a bride and groom look on, en route to their honeymoon: all appear or recur in this fantastically surreal and stylish debut. Alan explains,
The idea of a rail journey as a metaphor for life has a long modernist pedigree from Freud, to Russian novels. The journeys in The Sleepwalkers Ball are influenced by war images, or one of my favourite films, Closely Observed Trains, which like my novel, is a slapstick comedy about death, and also juxtaposes the romantic with the sinister. Modelled on silent film, the author chose to cast silent film actress Clara Bow as his leading lady, creating an exaggerated emotional world of slapstick happening and reoccurence, into which the reader could project their longings, fears and fantasies. Set in a fictional (and strangely black and white) Scottish city dominated by a castle, it is based on Alan Biltons experiences as an undergraduate in Stirling, I was there in the Thatcher era: the town was run-down, depressed, violent at the edges... but I had discovered European films, modern art, books, and love too. Stirling was this amazing Kafka-esque Gothic place, all granite blocks, twisting cobblestones and the castle, and then you had the grim reality of most peoples working day. Im aiming for this tension in the novel, between work and play, dreaming and doing, my naive happiness then and the melancholy hopelessness all around. The Sleepwalkers Ball is united by a charismatic tour guide who takes the reader around the city, dipping in and out of the lives of Clara and her would-be suitor Hans Memling as they meet, miss, find and fail to hook up, though finally finding happiness.
Hoping to build on an increasing popular interest in silent comedy, Alan Bilton admits hed like his enthusiasm for this art form to spread beyond academia. Nevertheless, his credentials in the latter regard are impeccable, as he has written two nonfiction books, An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction (New York/Edinburgh, 2002), America in the 1920s (co-ed with Phil Melling, Helm, 2004), and is currently working on a third, Constantly Moving Happiness Machines: New Approaches to American Silent Film Comedy. His forthcoming book on silent film connects slapstick comedy to American culture in the Twenties, especially through themes of consumerism, mass consumption and the ideas of Hollywood as Americas dream factory, themes which also occur in The Sleepwalkers Ball.
As a kid, Alan says, I adored Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. But if Stan Laurel messed up or Charlie Chaplin was trapped, I got so worried. Slapstick comedy is about anxiety as well as wish-fulfilment: a game without consequences and a nightmare version of adult life. In my novel I have created cartoon-like and grotesque characters that we identify with emotionally but who are also apparitions shifting in time and space, in the way that silent film occupies a space between comedy and terror.
Born in York, living in Swansea and passionate about Scotland and early Twentieth-century America, Alan Bilton is one of the few writers who still describe themselves as British.