Sunday, June 29, 2014
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Philippe Blenkiron
1. When/why did you decide to become a writer?
I've written poetry on-and-off since I was a kid. The earliest literary achievement I can remember is getting a Headteacher's award when I was seven for my relatively morbid poem 'Black and White'. I wrote the odd bit as I was growing up, but I didn't start writing 'properly' until I went to university.
As for why, I think writers have an innate disposition for making strange connections between events and/or subjects--for seeing the world slightly off-kilter or as an outside observer--and subsequently there's a compulsion to simultaneously explore these ideas and expel them onto an external surface, otherwise they just follow you around being weird.
I often see something happening or hear someone saying something, and I involuntarily think, "There's a poem in that." I don't think I have much choice in the matter.
2. What authors inspired you when you were younger? What books do you enjoy reading today?
As a teenager, I was pretty absorbed in the worlds of Tolkien and Anne Rice. I think growing up in Shropshire lends itself to enjoying Tolkien--my best friend and I thought of ourselves as basically Hobbits living in The Shire. I think moving to Stoke and living for a time in Greater Manchester helped to awaken my appreciation for the more industrial, dystopian and post-apocalyptic themes.
I love Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Orwell's Animal Farm, but the epic fantasist in me can't help but be pulled towards George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.
I didn't read much poetry when I was younger. I had some poets and poems I liked from school: Sassoon's 'Base Details', Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est', Poe's 'The Raven', Auden's 'Funeral Blues', some Yeats, Larkin and Dylan Thomas--the usual suspects. I always thought Wordsworth was pretty God-awful though.
At uni I went through the inevitable Bukowski phase, and I still enjoy a lot of his stuff, but I reckon Jacob Polley is the best all-round poet these days. He has a great way of mixing the sublime and the urban; it's all moons, owls and concrete - I'd like to see him play around with space a bit more though. I also enjoy the work of Michael Donaghy and ee cummings, but on a day to day basis, I tend to get the majority of my poetry from online webzines.
3. What was the inspiration behind your epic poem novel The Pustoy?
There's a thought experiment in Philosophy of Mind known as philosophical zombies or p-zombies, which involves the existence of people who are physically and neurologically no different from anyone else but lack consciousness--they appear to be and act like you or I, but there's absolutely nothing going on upstairs. That's where the main theme came from--I studied the mind-body problem in my undergrad and I remember wondering, aside from the dualist-monist debate, what the political/sociological implications would be if p-zombies actually existed. If we had a way of telling, how would we treat them?
4. Why decide to write it as poetry?
Because poetry is the best. I've always specialised in poetry, I don't think I ever really learned to write prose properly. But I wanted to write a story and thought, 'why not write it poetically?'. Besides, poetry's less restrictive and spoonfeedy, you can play with space and line-breaks, create double-meanings and put words in their proper place. Generally it provokes a greater variety of thoughts and ideas in the reader, and I think those extra angles help invoke the required slanted mindset for a work like The Pustoy.
5. Will you write more in that particular style in the future?
I think so. It's nice to have a bit of a niche, and I find it an effective and fun way of writing. It would be nice to write a sequel as well--I do have a few ideas brewing, I'm certainly not finished with this world or its characters yet.
6. What is it about extreme politics that made you want to write about them?
I think because it's universally relevant. To paraphrase Pericles: whether you're interested in politics or not, politics will be interested in you. It's not something you can escape, even more so when in its extreme form. It's scary because it's real. Things like this can happen, do happen, have happened and will happen. I don't want to say that The Pustoy is supposed to serve as some kind of "warning" necessarily, but it is meant to show that the greatest power a government can hold is the unquestioning complicity of the people. The book never explicitly decides whether the Pustoy truly exist or not, or if all accusations are legitimate, and I guess it's because no-one really asks hard enough. Hardly anyone ever does. People often confuse the way things are for the way things ought to be.
7. Do you think it is possible for the things you wrote about to come to pass in real life?
It already has. It's essentially a story about scapegoatism. Hitler chose the Jews and other historically oppressed groups, Stalin chose "enemies of the people". The difference with Solokov is that his genocide is apparently scientifically, metaphysically and economically justified, and is otherwise indiscriminate. Killing people who cannot feel pain or emotions also deals with the awkward situation of empathising with the victims - I think someone who hasn't been declared a Pustoy would only protest the policy because they would rather remain ignorant (See 'Peter Mason' and 'Unwound') or don't believe the government.
It would be very farfetched to claim that the specific political movements in The Pustoy will come to pass (most British politicians lack the charisma to pull it off for a start) but I do think it's very possible for something comparably outrageous to occur, no doubt under our very noses. I mean, the current government seems to be systematically demonising the working class, the unemployed and the disabled community. Let's see where that leads.
8. Are you working on anything that you'd like to share with KSR readers?
As I said before, I have a few ideas brewing, but I'm not currently working on another project. The Pustoy was actually accepted for publication before I'd finished writing it, so I haven't not been writing for very long at all.
9. Where do you see yourself and your career in the next ten years?
Who knows? I would hope to have a few more books out, to have a doctorate and hold a post in a university. I also like the idea of writing for the stage or the screen. So if any or all of that could happen, that'd be great.
10. With political shows and films all over, would you like to see a live version of The Pustoy one day?
Definitely, as long as it wasn't completely butchered. I'm currently seeing about trying to get it onto the stage. With all the dialogue and monologue-type poems, I think it would translate into a play almost as is. But I could equally see it being adapted into a film, or TV series, or even anime. Obviously its heart will always lie on the page, but I won't pretend to be some literary elitist, I'd love to see it brought to life through other mediums. Writing shouldn't be left to stagnate.
11. What other genres would you like to try your hand at?
I would really like to give medieval or high-fantasy a go, but it's so hard to strike without hitting clichés. I'm not sure what I could bring to the table that Tolkien and Martin haven't already covered. I'll be brave and tackle it one day, but I feel I have to earn my salt in other genres first. Maybe I'll try my hand at erotic fiction...
12. Would you like to see more poetry making it big in the literary market? Do you, personally, think it could happen?
Of course, people are missing out. But it's not a case of getting poets to relate more to "ordinary people" (whoever they are) as Paxman suggests. I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about poetry, they learn from school that it's something to be studied and only exists in some high-literature form. So most avoid it like the plague and never realise how much they, as "ordinary people", could relate to it, how much it could enrich their lives--and, on the flip side, how much they could learn from seeing an "un-ordinary" perspective on things. The problem is with how it's portrayed in schools and the media. I think it could become bigger if it were portrayed in a more realistic and less stuffy light.
13. When you were writing The Pustoy did you think that it would end up the way it did?
The story and the world developed as I was writing it, I never planned it from start to finish. I just wrote as ideas came to me, and one piece would inspire another.
If you mean, 'Did I know it would end up as a fifty-something page book in its own right?' When I first started writing it, no. But I thought I might be able to get a couple of pieces into a magazine or anthology, which is why I submitted three of the pieces to Dagda. When the editor got back to me asking for more, I had a bit of a better idea of how it might end up...
14. Were you to be an elected leader, what would you do first?
I'm not sure I'd really want the job, but if it were thrust upon me, I would reform the democratic process. The system we have at the moment is a mockery of the concept. Practicality speaking we have a choice of three parties, each as nauseating as the last, and people feel they have to vote tactically rather than for who they might actually want (thanks to AV losing out in the last referendum). There's hardly ever any referendums and the party in power can basically go back on its words and ignore the will of the people it serves (why the hell is Gove still minister of education after a vote of no confidence?!)
I'm a die-hard socialist. A living wage needs to be paid to all citizens, more money needs to be put into nationalised services, and a red flag flown from every rooftop...
15. Thank you for participating in the interview. Can you please leave the readers with three things that may surprise them about you?
i) Blenkiron is pronounced Blenk-iron (like the metal).
ii) I'm the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in a rock/metal band 'Skybald'.
iii) I'm a complete short-arse at 5'6", and I have a special affection for oak and beech trees.
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