Thursday, 15 March 2012

A conversation with Mark Howard Jones

It’s a fortunate day when you find out your boss shares your regard for the weird fiction of HP Lovecraft. Back in the late 1990s, that’s what happened to me when I was working at the Western Mail and Echo in Cardiff.

Mark Howard Jones, who was my chief sub-editor, has since become a full-time writer, with his most recent book, Songs From Spider Street coming highly recommended by no less an authority than Ray Bradbury. I talked to him about his work…

I wanted to start by asking how you go about getting short stories, and especially ‘genre’ short stories (we'll get on to my problems with that label later) published? From the outside, I get the impression that there are even fewer outlets for short stories than for poems.

Getting short stories into print is inevitably an uphill struggle because Britain is such a small place with so few magazines that publish fiction. The outlets that do exist often seem to favour their friends so, if you haven't fallen down in a drunken heap with the editor at some stage, it's highly unlikely you'll be published by them.
But persistence and the discovery of the odd discerning editor are the keys to publication, I think. I'm getting more and more work published in America, where there are a greater number of outlets of course.
Incidentally, I don't see myself as writing ‘genre’ stories. I think genres are useful only to publishers, booksellers and librarians, to be honest. But if you steer clear of using different genre ideas in your writing (for whatever reason) it’s like only ever cooking with one or two ingredients; you won’t’ll just wish you had.

I agree about that term ‘genre’, or at least the way it’s used to try to separate so-called literary fiction from everything else. I can remember the first time I ever read a piece of writing and enjoyed it for the quality of the writing itself – it was a short story by Ray Bradbury, in the Readers’ Digest, when I was about 11. It was only years later that I realised he tended to get sidelined by critics as a sci-fi writer. Does that sort of separation in fiction still go on as much as it appears from the outside?

I think it does but the edges are finally beginning to blur, thankfully. I’ve been published in ‘genre’ magazines and anthologies simply because they were willing to publish my work. But there are other facets of my work that they wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole.
While I admit I admire writers such as Machen, Lovecraft, Dino Buzzati, Ballard, and Bradbury, I've also absorbed a lot of influences from surrealism, magic realism, expression and other literary movements.
And 'literary fiction' (an absurd label!) has now fallen into its own trap and become a genre itself, of course.

So can you recommend some good eclectic, open-minded mags and webzines for writers and readers? Short stories seem to be skimming even lower under the radar than poems, these days.

Haha. That's asking me to cut my throat really, isn't it? Rather than play favourites I'll tell you which magazines I enjoy personally at the moment.
In this country I always try and read Dream Catcher, Midnight Street, Estronomicon, Sein und Werden, Triquorum (though I think that might sadly be dead now), 3 AM, Black Static, Theaker's Fiction Quarterly, Polluto and Wordland. My favorites across the Atlantic are Weird Tales (still going after all these years!), Medulla Review, Weird Fiction Review, Bare Bone, The Dream People, and Night Train.
There are probably a lot more I should be reading but until they add another two hours to each day, I’ll stick with the ones I’ve listed.

Following on from that answer of yours, I’d like to ask more about writing processes. How do you work, typically? I’m very conscious of the fact that, although I try not to have any little rituals or anything that I follow, I nearly always end up writing in the same place, at the same time, etc.

I don’t have any method or rituals. Other than scribbling things down on pieces of paper that are too small.
I can’t sit in front of a blank page and I’m a little suspicious of those writers who claim to write every single day; if they really did write as much as they say they do, then they’d have around 9 novels by the end of the year!
No, I just write where and when I need to. I generally let things ferment in the back of my brain until they’re ready to be written. Having said that, I’ve noticed that I do respond well to deadlines. Maybe that’s my journalistic background coming out.

And what about revision? I find that I leave poems longer and longer before going back to them these days, but is that easy to do with short stories? I’d be terrified that the longer I left it the harder I’d find it to pick up the threads...

Generally, I try to do any revision within a few days. But the longest period I’ve left between writing (most of) a story and revising it is five years. The story ended up being very different to the one I began writing and has proved to be one of the most popular in my collection Songs From Spider Street. So maybe that should tell me something.
It wouldn’t be practical to leave all my revision that long, of course. I’m slow enough finishing stories as it is and, unless I discover the secret of immortality, one collection every 50 years just isn't practical.

What about that moment of inspiration? Do you scribble ideas down on the backs of beer mats, or do you trust them to stay with you?
I owe everything to small bits of paper torn off the edges of forms, letters, magazines and so on, which I place on my chair so that I won’t miss them the next time I sit at my computer to write.
But I do carry ideas and the shapes of stories in my head for a long time – sometimes a year or two – before I get around to actually writing them down. I seem to have a good memory for that sort of thing but often forget to put on my shoes before leaving the house.

And if it doesn’t sound too obvious, where do you get your ideas from? Obviously influences come into that a bit, but there’s a lot in your stories that has no obvious point of origin.

That's difficult to say. And I'll take your second comment as a compliment, by the way!
I seem to have lost a lot of people in my life, so I write about that, one way or another. I just write what I feel needs to be written. It’s not about stories (although there’s always a story there because people need to be engaged and entertained) but it is about things that can’t always be spoken of directly – things that are only seen out of the corner of the mind’s eye. If I can capture some of those things on the page, I’m happy.

What about those influences? Have you been compared to any writers in particular? (I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t like being compared to others at least sometimes).

Yes, I’ve been compared to quite a few other writers, though I take that all with a pinch of salt, to be honest.
One story of mine that people mention a lot is The Ice Horse. Most of that was written in the same room in Portmeirion where Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, so maybe I was channelling him when I wrote it. Though nobody’s ever compared me to him – yet!

I wondered too about how you first started writing? I think I started writing poetry by writing lyrics for bands that didn’t exist, but writing prose fiction seems to me to demand a more deliberate and definite starting point.

Well I was often ill as a child so I spent a lot of time on my own, reading. I loved science fiction in particular. You could say my ABC was Aldiss, Ballard and Clarke.
At the age of 9 I decided I wanted to be a writer. So I tried and tried until finally, at about the age of 39, I succeeded in putting something on paper that had a beginning, middle and end that made some sort of sense. Learning the actual mechanics of writing was simply trial and error, you could say.
Incidentally, I agree with Jim Thompson who said there are many ways to write a story but only one plot – things are not as they seem.

I thought that one of the strengths of Songs From Spider Street was that you have some great opening sentences, opening paragraphs, often – “I’ve been blackmailing myself for years”, “There he is again; the twin that I’m not one half of”, for example. Are lines like that ever the kindling point of the whole story? I’ve had poems grow out of opening lines like that, but I’m also always very conscious that you can get a bit too enamoured of a particular line, as a writer. Is it the same with short story writing?

Sometimes it works that way. But I often add the first line of a story when I’m halfway through writing it, or even once I’ve finished the rest of it. I don’t think either of those examples were the starting point of the stories, in fact.
And, yes, I’ve come up with a ‘good line’ that I simply had to change later because it no longer fitted the story. To be honest, it’s often more to do with mental images with me – only later do I ‘translate’ those images into words. I went to art college straight after school, so I’ve always found the visual arts quite inspiring.
The second of those openers you quoted makes no sense at all, of course. But that was in fitting with the narrator’s mental state.

Another great strength, I thought, was that there’s a very European feel to a lot of the book – the likes of Kafka seem as much an influence on it as the American influences that seem to dominate a lot of fiction of this sort. Would that be fair?

It’s really good to hear someone pick up on that. A lot of editors I’ve dealt with seem to have only read literature by British or American authors. And then, only relatively recent ones.
I’ve read a lot of European authors, thanks initially to the wonderful library in the town where I grew up (the librarian was the poet Harri Webb). I suppose that’s bound to leak out in my writing. Two particular favorites of mine are De Maupassant and Dino Buzatti, though there are many, many more inspiring authors from Europe.
Farther afield, I’ve found Borges, Bioy Casares and Mishima to be among my favourites.

A couple of questions about particular favourite stories, firstly Heart Is Where The Home Is. I think this was probably the standout story for me – could you tell me a bit about its genesis?
That was written to some guidelines issued by a magazine. They gave you a title – A Steampunk Orange – and wanted your take on that.
In 1923 the Swiss architect Le Corbusier came up with the slogan ‘A house is a machine for living in’. I decided to take him literally. The mechanical girl has appeared in lots of places, of course, but most memorably for me in ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 tale The Sandman. In fact, that may have been where she cropped up first.
So, the idea for the story simply came out of the collision of those two ideas.

And then The Condition. I love the little prose poem-like passages that bookend it, and I like how much is compressed into that story. That economic, taut style is there in a lot of your writing – do you hone it back to that, or is it how it’s written in the first place?
That’s just how it comes out. In fact, I’ve sometimes had complaints from editors that my stuff is too short.
I’ve always admired and read writers who can say a lot with very little. Angela Carter’s stories were an early influence and later I discovered Alice Munro, who can say more in one story than most other authors do in five novels.
I also love the work of VS Pritchett. And I think I learned something from Richard Brautigan’s brilliant Revenge Of The Lawn - his one paragraph story The Scarlatti Tilt is a masterclass in storytelling brevity!

Finally, the structure of the whole book is great. Again I like the way the Spider Street stories bookend it, but I also like the fact that there are lots of threads running from story to story without the themes becoming too overpowering. Was the book conceived that way, or was it more a case of it coalescing around some of the key stories.
No it didn’t spring to life fully formed, I’m afraid, though I did think carefully about the sequence of the stories (which are drawn from a period of about five or six years). It can be read as a portmanteau novel by starting at Page One and working straight through it, or you can ignore the ‘bookend’ stories and just dip into it as a short story collection.
I’ve been told by several people that if you adopt the former approach it has a lot more power. Stupidly, I’ve not learned that lesson and my next book will be a collection of stories with just the covers to hold them together.

The Condition, by Steve Upham

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