STEVE AYLETT interviewed by FIEND magazine (Australia) early 2005

Q: What bought on the shift from the very urban Beerlight to the more pastoral Accomplice? Was it a change you saw in the real world, or just a new set of literary conventions you wanted to play with? Do you think that the world’s newfound, obsessive interest in fantasy like Tolkien was wanting a retreat to an (ahem) ‘simpler time’?

A: I guess I wanted a break from guns, for a start - even living, philosophical ones. And I wanted to use a different set of colours like you get in the furthest suburbs and on the scrappy edges of the country. Accomplice was partly born out of a beautifully stupid non-satirical book I wrote called The Inflatable Volunteer, alot of the colours are similar to that, and there are core creatures and underground ghost channels and so on, which also went into Accomplice. In the Accomplice books I wanted to make a world from below the ground up, completely my own; rather than taking an existing genre world and just Aylettising it as I did with the Beerlight books. Accomplice touched on some existing genre stuff, but it was grown out of a completely different heart. As for Tolkien, I think those movies came along at a time when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on, and it was good homogenous escapism. I liked Liv Tyler’s mouth, and I think all three movies should have been just a close-up of that.

Q: While drawing on some of the ‘fantasy’ tradition, Accomplice is mostly a place of nightmares: scary clowns, and dolls, and statues. Is this the imagery that genuinely scares you, or just what you know might freak out others? Are these private or public nightmares?

A: Some of the things in there are childhood things - I can’t remember, now, whether I actually thought I saw those neon skeleton skybikes at night when I was young, or if I just dreamt them, but there they are. And there is something strange about a thing that looks human but isn’t, like a mannikin, or that’s human but has deliberately stepped down from full humanhood, like a cop or other bureacratic official. There’s the matter of being treated as an object, being told what you think, feel and want, which people or official bodies will always do if they can get away with it. The most frightening thing, for me, is being absorbed into the stupid incoherency of a crowd. This is what happens to Barny at the end of Accomplice, basically.

Q: Your writing is astonishingly dense. Almost every line reads as an epigram and their pace never lets up. Could you ever see yourself slowing your style to write an enormous, David Foster Wallacesque 1000 page novel?

A: No.

Q: Does the more-is-more theory of ideas per page mean you sometimes wish you’d given more time and weight to something before you’d moved on?

A: I give plenty of time to it. The weight which people give to it upon reading it depends on their recognition of the idea and its value or otherwise. But it’s all there. There are a couple of things in the new book LINT which talk about this. One is the notion of loading even the smallest bits of text with massive amounts of retrievable information - a bit like the exponential miniaturisiation that’s occurring in computer chips. I show in the book that Lint managed this to a spectacular degree toward the end of his life. Another idea in LINT is the ‘claymore principal of creation’, which is something to do with packing in so many ideas that even if the whole thing flies apart at speed, people will still get hit by dozens of ideas on the fly.

Q: No matter how surreal these stories get, there’s a real logic to Accomplice. I’m reminded of the scene in David Lynch’s “Fire Walk With Me” where the dwarf announces that he’s actually the missing arm of Mike, the One-Armed Man… a moment that wasn’t rational but made perfect sense. Do you have a set notion of the rules of your worlds, or is it a more dreamlike and intuitive process of writing?

A: Everything in Accomplice is there for a reason. The rules are odd but there are rules. The images come of intuition but most are surreal equivalent of real-life set-ups. If you know about the way court law operates, the court scene in Dummyland should make perfect sense. It’s interesting to be very specific, down to the very molecules, but make it all look kind of loose. I did that with Atom too - that book looks looser and more knockabout than Slaughtermatic but is actually way more complex and honeycombed up.

Q: I was looking at the Accomplice trading cards on your website, and that everyone has a ‘bastard rating’… even if it’s only ‘inadvertent.’ But more than in Beerlight, Accomplice seems to breed sympathy for your monsters. Was the innocence of Barny designed to let us see the best in
the town… or was it more willful ignorance of the horrors around him?

A: The monsters are finally seen as being less evil than the human beings, because that’s generally how it is in life. But people like an easy villain - the Tolkien thing again. Evil has to be a huge screaming fiery eye commanding demons and dragons, rather than a drab unimaginative bloke drafting a memo in an office. The fiery dramatic evil is glamorous to fight and fantasise about; real evil is human and therefore bloody dull, and that’s one way it gets away with things. The fighting of real evil isn’t very interesting as a spectacle, there’s rarely any spectacle atall, and it also takes absolutely ages. So no-one’s into that stuff.

Q: Your books take the comedy of slapstick to painful and violent places and back again … is there anything you think that can’t be a source of satire? And did the seeming lack of appreciation for Shamanspace – your book with the least comedy – make you think twice writing another one?
(It’s actually a book I read in a single sitting and, I must admit, one of the only things I’ve ever read that made me feel kinda… altered.)

A: I suppose anything can be a source of satire but I wouldn’t necessarily do it, and there are some subjects that are so dull and depressing I can’t even bear to touch them - the royal family, for instance. Their existence is simultaneously insulting and boring, I just wouldn’t want to stoop to that subject. As for Shamanspace, I just thought it would be good to do a little book without any of the comedy fireworks which some people can’t see past - though it turns out some people still couldn’t see what was very straightforwardly explained on the page. The book was about suicide, self-injury, depression, powerlessness and a sort of cosmic resentment against god, which everyone in the book is agreed should be assassinated, if It exists. Very straightforward stuff , and no irony intended.

Q: You say that you believe satire never really changes anything. I thought that some of the satire in Karloff’s Circus was becoming more overt and pointed, especially about politics. Is this a sign of even a self-contained place like Accomplice getting a little closer to the real world? Is that the final sign that the series is over?

A: The political satire has always been there, though it wasn’t until after Toxicology that I realised most people just weren’t picking up on it, because of the funny and weird fireworks and the other stuff I chuck around to stop from getting bored. Same as they don’t pick up on the near suicidal despair which I think is perfectly evident in the books. Some people don’t ‘extrapolate’ from the stuff I’m describing to what it’s about. Often I think it’s obvious but apparently not. Or maybe it’s just the old notion that ‘if it’s funny, it can’t be serious’. All my stuff is about power manipulations. If the politics does get clearer at the end of the Accomplice books it’s because by that point in the story all the wiring under the boards is fully exposed. And yes, Karloff’s Circus was the last in that series. But I’m not going to change my writing to make it all totally simple - I feel like if I make it any more clear and obvious it’ll be at the level of a cave painting. To me it’s practically there already. I’d prefer to credit the readers with some intelligence, and continue being creative with it.
When you write about politics, when you get to the heart of it, you’ll find that you’re writing about crime. It’s just a strangely dismal kind, the worst kind, where the crime is being committed by the people who make the laws. I’ve said somewhere before that ‘Everyone knows what's a real crime’, everyone understands what’s unjust, irrespective of legislation. But few people have the courage or energy to do anything about it, because the worst criminals have such massive power. They have armies, and they have the law. I don’t have the courage or sustained energy to do anything about it either, but facing the truth of the situation is an honest start. Nothing can happen before that.
I write about it in ways that keep me interested and alive - an alternative would be to write the whole litany in a journalistic way, Chomsky style, but he’s doing that better than I ever could.

Q: Finally: in the spirit of obscurity, who is your favourite writer that no one seems to be reading?

A: At the moment I’m into Thomas Ligotti, again. Just finally got hold of a copy of The Sinai Tapestry by the buried and nearly forgotten Edward Whittemore, but not sure about it yet. Also reading Razor Wire Pubic Hair by Carlton Mellick III which takes the Burroughs mutant sex thing to the extreme, while being a thing of its own. Voltaire is always an old favourite. Nonconformity by Nelson Algren is good. I read an unpublished book called Purgatory Theory by an unkown author called Colette Phair, which I liked. But it’s a shame that at the moment I can’t think of any amazing writer who really does that main thing for me - it’s really sad but I’m probably the nearest thing to that writer I can think of at the moment. Pathetic isn’t it.

Interview by Martyn Pedler

Aylett interviews