This interview was published in 3:AM Magazine on 7 June 2009:
Middle Beginning End
Chris Killen interviewed by Andrew Gallix.
3:AM: I know that you started writing when you were 18 (you’re now 27) — what attracted you in the first place?
CK: After finding a few writers that I really liked, that I wanted to read everything I could find — J.D. Salinger, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Richard Brautigan, etc. — it seemed natural to also start writing things of my own.
3:AM: I was surprised when I read The Bird Room because I was expecting something far more pared down given some of your influences, but your similes, for instance, are to die for (one of the female characters “has a voice like a nail file, one which smoothes away anything rough or unnecessary”). How many drafts did you go through?
CK: There were three main drafts. There was an original 30,000 word one. Then I edited it down to just under 20,000 words. Then, the final draft, probably where I inserted all those similes and things that you liked, brought it back up to about 35,000 words.
But I also edit as I’m writing. I can’t do that thing where you just write a draft straight through and then go back at the end and clean it up. I do a kind of ‘cyclic’ thing where I loop back and edit after about every six sentences or so.
3:AM: On the subject of influences, are you a fan of Dan Rhodes? I think William — the narrator — embodies a very Rhodesque kind of pessimistic and slightly masochistic masculinity…
CK: I am definitely a fan of Dan Rhodes, the person. I have only met him once and emailed a few times, but he seems very nice and genuine. I wouldn’t say he was an influence on my writing, though, because I’ve only read a couple of his books — Gold and Anthropology — and both well after I’d finished The Bird Room. I do like what I’ve read, though.
3:AM: Could you tell us about the role Steven Hall has played in the publication of The Bird Room?
CK: Steven was instrumental in my deal with Canongate. I met him a couple of times when I was working at Waterstone’s — once at an event for The Raw Shark Texts and once over the counter on a Saturday afternoon. We’d chatted a bit about books we liked, online writing, etc. I mentioned that I had finished a novel (at that point I was on the second draft, the 19,000 word version) and Steven asked if he could read it. He gave me his email address, I sent it to him, and then he passed the first chapter and my email onto his editor, Francis, at Canongate.
3:AM: Gwendoline Riley, Joe Stretch, HP Tinker…there seems to be a thriving literary scene in Manchester — or is this a false impression? Is a scene coalescing around your monthly reading night (No Point in Not Being Friends)?
CK: Both true and false, I think. There are definitely a lot of good, interesting writers in Manchester, but I don’t think they all hang out together all the time. Or if they do, I’m not invited.
I have met lots of nice people through the No Point nights, and there are people who come back again and again and who read regularly. But that’s kind of a worry for me, though, if anything — the idea of a pronounced ‘scene’. To me, that implies that it’s become too cliquey and incestuous to be attractive to nervous outsiders.
3:AM: Do you feel an affinity with other authors writing today?
CK: In terms of other ‘young, British authors’ or something, maybe Richard Milward and Joe Stretch. Not so much in writing style, but in terms of ‘situation’ and meeting them a few times and hanging out and them being nice.
I feel affinity mostly with ‘internet’ writers. I say ‘internet’, but a lot of the people whose blogs I follow — Shane Jones, Sam Pink, Blake Butler, Brandon Scott Gorrell, etc. — are also publishing or have published books this year. Which is great.
I feel a particular affinity with Brandon Scott Gorrell. I have talked to him on gmail chat, corresponded by email, read his blog, his poems, his currently unpublished novel (“My Hair Will Defeat You”), and seen short films he has made. Occasionally I feel like Brandon Scott Gorrell is a more ‘hip’, American version of me or something.
3:AM: You’re going to be the Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester. Are you looking forward to that?
CK: That’s happening right now. I’m here for one semester, until July, I think. It’s really good — I have my own room to sit in and write. I’m on hand to give extra feedback to the MA and Phd writing students. And due to a sequence of unforeseen events, I am also teaching undergraduate creative writing one day a week.
3:AM: Do your musical and film activities tie in with your writing?
CK: I don’t know. Not as much as I’d like. I think of the music and film things I’ve done as just sort of ‘making a mess’. Being silly. And then I think of my writing — or at least The Bird Room and current novel-in-progress — as more ‘serious’ somehow. I would like there to be less distinction between the two. I would like to make films that were slightly more ‘serious’ and also not write thinking, ‘No, that’s too stupid, I can’t write that …’ I admire people with a ‘solid, overall aesthetic’ but don’t think I’ve achieved that, or if I ever will.
3:AM: Moving on to the novel itself… The first paragraph ends with “Oh god, I should start again somewhere else”: had you planned out the structure right from the start?
CK: Not really. The original draft was even more fragmentary. It was just presented as short disconnected scenes, the only real structure or plan being that certain scenes seemed to ‘work’ better next to each other. The idea was that in presenting disconnected scenes it would seem like memories, that when you think about events, you hardly ever do so in a chronological or ‘novelistic’ way. Or at least I don’t.
But that was also pretty impossible to read — I got good early reactions to the writing itself, but no one had a clue what the story was. I settled on a good ‘halfway house’ — the middle/beginning/end structure — by the third big draft.
3:AM: William is a first-person narrator while in the Helen chapters you resort to omniscient, third-person narration. Why the difference between the two? Is it because you can empathise with William and find it more difficult to inhabit a female character’s mind? And is there any significance — a loss of autonomy? — in William’s move from first-person to third-person narration?
CK: That might be true — that I felt less confident in writing a female character first-person. But I also wanted the tone to be different for the Helen sections, and I wasn’t sure that would be as effective with a stylistically different first-person narration, for instance. I don’t tend to like books with lots of different first person voices in them, I don’t know why. Because the William sections are so confined to his viewpoint, somewhat ‘claustrophobic’ I think, it felt good to write the Helen parts third-person — to have more ‘room’ or ‘space’ in them, maybe.
I’m not sure what you mean about William’s shifts into third-person? There’s a moment when he moves into second-person: the ‘wanking scene’. That was supposed to imply a level of ‘removal’; originally a thing I wanted to do with his character was imply a yearning for distance from himself, somehow, and to explore the different ways he tries to achieve this, and how those could be presented. I don’t know.
3:AM: William is a Billy Liar-style character who lives, to a great extent, in his imagination and in many cases it’s difficult to tell for sure whether what he is describing is fact or fiction. The choice of such an unreliable first-person narrator was deliberate, right? Is he a figure of the writer?
CK: People have commented a lot about the ‘unreliability’ of William. I’m not so sure. I mean, yeah, obviously, he is not a ‘normal’ ‘everyday bloke’ — he is very neurotic and … Oh, I don’t know. I can’t answer this question properly for some reason. Sorry.
3:AM: The Mishima epigraph (“At the same time as looking, I must subject myself to being thoroughly looked at”) is key, isn’t it?
One of the reasons why William desperately tries to track down the home porn movie Alice once featured in is directly linked to the epigraph: “I want to see her without her seeing me”. Being watched is either depicted as painful or shameful. When Alice (who works “in eyes” and wears contact lenses not because she needs to but simply because she enjoys “putting things in [her] eyes”) sleeps with William for the first time, her eyes keep widening until her partner becomes “painfully aware” that he is (or thinks he is) being scrutinised. The bartender who watches Alice getting frisky leads William to feel that “everyone in the bar — everyone in the world — is looking”. The same feeling recurs when the taxi driver winks at William in the rear-view mirror as Alice is about to fellate him. When Alice goes off with William’s mate, he immediately imagines them having shameless sex in public: “She’s out with him again. They’re in public somewhere, fucking. Market Square, probably. A crowd has gathered. Someone is handing out balloons and commemorative plates. A group of tourists is clapping and taking photographs”. When Helen (whose new identity involves wearing coloured contacts) feels she is about to throw up at the hairdresser’s, what she fears most is having “to watch herself do it in the mirror”. The most important scene is probably the one in which William objects to the presence of the bathroom mirror: “Pissing and shitting and being an animal should be enough without having to watch yourself as you do it”. He then carries the mirror outside and leans it against a wall: “Let nature have its stupid cock reflected back at it. See how the leaves and slugs and bottle tops like it for a change”.
Could you talk to us about this central theme? How conscious were you of its importance when you were in the process of writing the book?
CK: Yes, the ‘looking vs. being looked at’ theme is very important. I’m glad you picked up on it. It found it strange, when I was reading some of the reviews of The Bird Room, that they damned it as being very ‘lightweight’ and ‘flimsy’, when I was worried initially if I wasn’t being too ‘heavy’ with that theme.
I was very conscious of those elements when writing the novel. I wanted to explore feelings of detachment, and the idea that when someone looks at you, they kind of ‘take you away’ with them — the images of you, that they sort of ‘record’ you. So for someone like William, who is so uncomfortable with himself that he occasionally wishes he didn’t exist, the idea of being ‘recorded’/remembered by others is particularly unattractive. I guess that’s where the porn elements come in — for him, porn (and in particular the clip of Alice) is a way in which he can watch others without them seeing him; he can truly express himself and his ‘desires’.
3:AM: Some of the funniest and saddest scenes in The Bird Room are those in which William is totally ignored by his former girlfriend. Throughout the book he seems torn between the desire to disappear and be visible (“I look at my reflection in the back-door window. I’m still here. I still exist”). Is this correct, and is there a correlation between the two?
CK: Yes there is. The feelings I described above — William’s desires to disappear, be ignored, to not have people looking at him/recording him, to not have to live in the world and make mistakes and hurt or influence others… Those work at odds against his other ‘human’ desires; you know: to be loved, to form a relationship (however idealised he has made it in his head), to be wanted, etc. The tension comes from his swings between the two, I think, and how it is pretty much impossible to reconcile two such polar needs or desires.
3:AM: There are two Williams who seem to embody two radically opposed versions of masculinity. The narrator is described by Helen as William or Will as if they were two different personae. Clair has reinvented herself as Helen (who is officially an actress) and has an imaginary sister. At one point, she impersonates her housemate and ekes out a living by embodying men’s sexual fantasies. The two protagonists are very much divided selves, aren’t they?
CK: Absolutely. I think it’s more pronounced and obvious with William and Will — I mean, personally I think of them as two separate characters, so in the ‘world’ of the novel, they are different people. But the idea, when writing them, was to sort of polarise my own personality — my more ‘outgoing’ gregarious side, and my more insular, neurotic side — and turn them into separate people and really ‘go further’ with them. I guess, meaning, I don’t think in real life I am either quite as insecure and neurotic as William or vacant and twattish as Will. But, you know, I am both of those things a bit, sometimes.
With Helen/Clair, that was more about looking at how someone would reconstruct their own identity, if they had decided that they didn’t like who they were anymore.
But yes, then she sort of ‘bleeds’ into Alice towards the end. I know it doesn’t make complete sense; I didn’t want or intend it to be explained in that way, like there is a ‘secret code’ to work out or anything. I like how in fiction you can do things and those things don’t have to make sense like they would in the real world. I am going to stop trying to explain it now, as I feel like I am doing more damage to it rather than helping/justifying it.
3:AM: In the restaurant scene, William imagines that he is double-clicking on Alice’s head “until she falls in love with [him] again”. He also double-clicks on his rival: “I select and delete him”. In another passage, William imagines Alice with an ex: “Her skin sends something like a text message to her brain…”. Are you highlighting the dangers of living in a kind of virtual reality?
CK: No, I certainly wasn’t setting out to ‘satirise’ the current ‘information age’ or even to say, ‘I think it is dangerous’. I just thought it was a good way to explore those feelings of detachment / ways of becoming a different person / etc. The internet is very much a part of my life and the people I was writing about also use it a lot. William, for instance, uses it so much, as a way of hiding from the real world that it has infiltrated his thought process. That has happened to me in the past. I have thought thoughts with internet words in them, and then gone, ‘Oh’.
3:AM: Please tell us a bit more about the novel’s ornithological theme (not only the title, William’s paintings but also some similes like “Your luck has turned around on itself like an owl’s head”…)
CK: Some of the bird references were just for ‘tone’. But the title, and the main sort of ‘symbolic’ bird episode — Will’s anecdote about biting the head of his sister’s budgie for a dare, and not seeing the influence of that in his own work — that was a possibly heavy-handed way of me saying, ‘There are lots of subconscious factors influencing and determining our lives. Maybe. In my opinion.’