Transcript and excerpted video of “The Beasts of Electra Drive” segment of “Preserving the Unicorn”

 
With a transcription below, the following video-player shows a streamlined morsel from the panel “Preserving the Unicorn”—i.e. just the snippet where my editor Dan Holloway and I got stuck into our main public chit-chat about my upcoming novel The Beasts of Electra Drive. (The un-snipped, one-hour-long loveliness of the complete panel, showing Catriona Troth‘s questions to all three authors and both editors, can be seen on Triskele Books’ site here and also on this site here.) I was honoured to be included in this, which was the Literary Fiction event at the Triskele LitFest, alongside Galley Beggar Press publisher Sam Jordison and novelists Sunny Singh and Alex Pheby.

The below transcription of Dan’s and my witterings, in response to Catriona’s questions, reveals that we veered drunkenly across a fruity range of topics. Most of these were triggered by Dan’s erudite comparisons of different aspects of The Beasts of Electra Drive with a whole bunch of suitably irresponsible things. One such comparison he gave us was Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but re-cast to be played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins mode—this being the impression that my novel’s protagonist Jaymi has made on Dan while he’s been working on the edit through his Rogue Interrobang editorial service. (It’s not a comparison I was expecting, but one to which I’m happy to plead guilty as charged.) Other comparisons and references that we managed to romp through, for various purposes, are Blade Runner, Jeff Koons, Gustav Klimt, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and Genesis (the scripture, not the band).


(This excerpt video of our segment is also on Vimeo and YouTube; and Triskele’s full hour-long master video of the whole panel is on YouTube here.)
 

Transcription of Rohan Quine’s and Dan Holloway’s segment of “Preserving the Unicorn”,
which occurred among segments by Sunny Singh, Sam Jordison and Alex Pheby, chaired by Catriona Troth on 17 September 2016 in London:

Catriona
So Rohan’s latest novel is The Beasts of Electra Drive. What, for you, is the heart and soul of that novel?

Rohan
As with the other titles, I suppose at the very centre of things is the desire to use every second of this very short life that we have, to write something, to do something (in this case write, but for all of us) to do something amazing—something that will challenge, not just get by, not just slip by. And so, I want to interrogate—and if this brings my numerical audience down, I mean if it brings the numbers down, that’s fine—but to interrogate and to love and to slap around the face and to celebrate life, for being so nasty and unfair in so many ways to certain people, causing certain people to fall into chasms of pain and horror, [while] elevating others into magical highlands of sunlight, and a lot of other people in between. It’s all so random. It’s kind of a love-bite to the world. So the very heart: it’s a slap around the face, but it’s also a making-love with the world. So the very very heart of the impetus that is behind ultimately every syllable, is that. Now obviously, that has to be processed, that has to be tamed, it has to be turned into something that people actually want to read; and that involves incursions of technical structural stuff like plot and so forth—of course!—and Dan’s comments have been very helpful in this regard. We’re really only about a third of the way through the process, aren’t we?

Dan
I hope so.

Rohan
I think so, yes. At least.

Dan
I mean I hope we are at most.

Rohan
At most—indeed so, yes. The stage we’ve got to is that, I think within the last week—in fact last night for the first time I read his comments on the entire first draft of the manuscript. So that’s the stage we’re at. It was a very carefully-written first draft; it was created over the course of two years. So although I’m sure it needs a lot of improvement, nonetheless it was if you like perhaps a more decent first draft than some first drafts, because I tend to write slowly and carefully—very slowly and very carefully, and then revise only once or twice and that’s it. It might be more efficient—

Dan
It’s gonna be more times this time.

Rohan
More times than that—yeah you’re right, there you go! So, that’s the stage we’re at. But coming back to your question, that’s the non-negotiable. It’s a flame and a dark pit of horror, and how they can meet and then get translated to everybody on the horizontal axis.

Catriona
Dan, when you first read the manuscript, what was your response and what were the things that you felt were central to it?

Dan
Well, the phrase that comes out is what Rohan says there. There’s this phrase “dusting of horror”—I mean that’s everything about it, because it’s—and it transpired that I had to label up some of these phrases in the book, because he didn’t realise he has this amazing voice that is at once completely hilarious and yet utterly terrifying. I described it, when I was talking to him, as Alex from A Clockwork Orange, as played by Dick Van Dyke, which is just this glorious image that came into my head when I was reading the character of Jaymi. There’s something I absolutely adore more than anything else culturally—the purest form of kitsch that takes itself—the sort of kitsch that takes itself 100% seriously. I would say someone like Klimt.

Rohan
The painter Gustav Klimt?

Dan
Yeah. As opposed to Klimt who makes sandwiches down at Borough Market?

Rohan
Yes exactly!

Dan
And also I absolutely adore Koons, and I know that’s very unpopular, but I love this glossy shiny camp fabulous gloriousness that’s also got teeth that will sink themselves into you, because you just want to look closer and you want to look over the edge, at this beauty—but then as soon as you see the beauty close up, you see that it’s made of these terrifying parts. And that’s the quality in the writing and in the vision that he has of what life should be—this beautiful spectacle compiled of horror.

Catriona
Now, Beasts makes a lot of use of repetition at a structural level. And I think that repetition is something we accept in music, we accept in writing for children, but in writing for adults it’s something that we normally think we need to get rid of, there’s something wrong if you’re having a lot of repetition. So I guess it’s a question for both of you. For Rohan, why are you using that repetition? And Dan, what was your response to that?

Rohan
Yeah, it’s actually only certain phrases that occur each time a Beast is created. There are a total of seven Beasts, and there’s a main sequence of four or five Beasts in the middle, and Jaymi my protagonist goes through a similar, not exactly the same but a similar sequence each time he creates another Beast—which is a person, by the way, these are not animals. They’re sort of like replicants, as you’d see in Blade Runner, but it’s not sci-fi, but just so you know they look like people. And he creates them: he creates them first of all as fictional characters and then they go out into the real world. Every time he does that, there’s sort of a sequence, where he creates their code; he then gives them a soundtrack (bringing in ideas from movies here, obviously)—a soundtrack; he gives them an appearance; they don’t start out with an appearance, you know, as a creator he clothes them in a skin or appearance; and then he test-drives them and then he sends them out, etc.; there’s a whole sequence. So it made sense to unify the sequence of individual components of the novel partly through means of these repeated phrases at exact planned-out junctures during each of those sequences. Secondly, there’s power and magic in incantatory repetition; we see it in music, certainly in pop music and I’m sure in classical music as well (about which I know much less, but I’m sure we see it in all kinds of music). You can lose yourself in music partly because of the incantatory repetition that’s going on. The incantation itself, including its use of repetition, speaks to a kind of direct cell-level thing that’s going on, doesn’t it, that rhythm, that thing that is something you can benefit from in terms of if you’re wanting to harness the power that’s available to you in a story with language. Language is audible; the Irish know this, don’t they, you can tell a story and it’s audible, there’s an oral thing going on; and very many tales and fairy tales and children’s tales use it. As a random example, there’s one of the Just So Stories by Kipling: “Then came dingo, yellow dog dingo, cutting through the salt-pans” etc., and he keeps on repeating it—it’s prose, but there’s this incantatory thing, and you sit there and you’re like this because of the repetition. That’s basically it.

Dan
I have three sort of distinct responses to it. We had some interesting conversations around it when I was asking him, because I asked him, I didn’t want to say what I thought, we had a long conversation. I asked him why he’d done it, and he said some of that; and the rest of that he’s taken from my comments and presented them as his. [Laughter.] Which is exactly how it should be in a relationship between an author and an editor. My first obvious thought was of liturgy and of the days of Creation, and the way that in Genesis each day of Creation ends with the same incantation. And so we’ve literally got—it made perfect sense for a creation cycle to have this pattern to it. The second thing it brings to mind is that repetition we hear most in oral story-telling because it was always used as a marker. And Ginsberg does it in Howl, with the “who … who … who”. And we get it in a lot of myths, because if you lose your place, you go back to this and then you can start again. And it gives it a mythic quality. And so these are both reasons that I want that aspect worked up. And the other thing it reminded me of was the passage that I’m—those of you who know Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part about the Crimes”. There’s—I’m not going to say it because it’s a bit grim, but there’s a very famous use of repetition in “The Part about the Crimes” which is used to dehumanise in order to rehumanise, and it has this effect of turning something utterly horrific into mere words; and as it becomes mere words, so you get the possibility of then transcending those words by injecting content into them. So I love the use of repetition for that sort of—almost a Modernist purpose, that you are able to take the meaning out of the words and then inject your own meaning back into them.

Catriona
Another thing all these books have in common is that they’re intensely visual. Reading your book reminded me of looking at one of those sort of hyper-, hyper-realistic paintings that has a surreal twist in it. How important is that visual element to you, and how do you bring that into your writing? Rohan?

Rohan
Yes, absolutely central, and totally fizzing on the surface as well, this visual stuff. And very much screens as well, that clearly has changed since the screens came along in the twentieth century, it’s clearly changed so much. So, there’s a lot of zooming-in in a way that couldn’t actually happen—you know, across a valley, to see a tiny reflection on someone’s pupil, and that sort of thing. And again, I mean I haven’t read that book, shame on me, Rushdie’s book, but nonetheless yes I absolutely can imagine how exciting that sort of thing can be. And so there’s a huge amount of playing—not at random, but playing in a serious way with framing and point of view and so forth. And there’s a lot of scope for that in creating other creatures and then having them see things, and then—this particular set-up was set up in order partly to explore the visual aspect of people and representations of them, and what they all mean and so forth, yes.

Catriona
Oh, as I say, there is so much more I would like to talk about. But I think, looking at the time, we’re going to have to call a halt, I’m afraid. So thank you very much to all of our guests.

Rohan
And thank you.

Catriona Troth, Rohan Quine & Dan Holloway, 'Preserving the Unicorn' Literary Fiction panel, at Triskele Books' Triskele LitFest 2016, London (photo by Julie Lewis / Triskele Books)
Catriona Troth, Rohan Quine and Dan Holloway, “Preserving the Unicorn” Literary Fiction panel, at Triskele Books’ Triskele LitFest 2016, Angel, London (photo by Julie Lewis / Triskele Books).

 

Rohan Quine and Dan Holloway, “Preserving the Unicorn” Literary Fiction panel, at Triskele Books’ Triskele LitFest 2016, Angel, London
Rohan Quine and Dan Holloway, “Preserving the Unicorn” Literary Fiction panel, at Triskele Books’ Triskele LitFest 2016, Angel, London.