Would you introduce your debut novel, Muscle, for us, please.
Muscle is the story of Box, a hired thug slightly too sharp for his own good, who drifts at the outskirts of other people’s plots (I mean ‘plots’ in the sense of schemes and also in the sense of stories that he’s doomed to play a minor part in). He commits acts of violence, but he also plays cards, and reads science fiction magazines, and experiences a dispersed anxiety he can’t shake, and which only gets worse when a detective (called Mike Swagger) appears and starts pushing him around, from corpse to corpse.
Reading Muscle, I could feel the influence of Crime Noir, but also some pretty high level, philosophical science fiction. Would you agree?
Yes! It’s a book that was immediately greedy for influence, as soon as I started writing it. I read a lot of detective fiction because it plays with these hardboiled tropes. But Box also starts to read – and then become obsessed by – time travel stories, which became another way to think about determinism, and the limits on our free will, and all these things the book was about.
I hadn’t actually read very much crime fiction when I started writing Muscle (ten years later, when I finished it, I’d read a lot) but I knew science fiction, books and films, better, and it is a genre that bristles with these punchy idea-rich stories and novels, from Ted Chiang to Robert Heinlein.
Have you read many pulp magazines and what are your favourites?
The three authors who most directly influenced the book are probably Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane. Chandler I like, but he retreads his own safe ground quite often. Hammett I love.
Spillane is detective fiction already turned to self-caricature, everything is over-heightened and ridiculous until his detective, Mike Hammer, is just gleefully machine-gunning a room full of commies. Spillane is shameless in his misogyny, his machismo, he writes ridiculous, bad schlock, and in his prime he was one of the best-selling writers of all time. Reading him you’re very aware of the proto-fascist heart that’s either more- or less-artfully hidden in these stories of lone men dispensing justice as they see fit.
If you’re looking for a good pulp collection, there’s The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, edited by Joseph T. Shaw, who was editor of Black Mask magazine in its prime.
Where there also specific movies that inspired your writing?
A lot! My introduction to the tone and voice of hardboiled detective fiction was probably when I saw Blade Runner (the cut with the voiceover) when I was about 10 years old. It was one of those personally-epochal cultural experiences you have a lot less once you’re into adulthood (although the ones you do get are even more thrilling and profound for their rareness).
And then there were was a lot of film noir crime stories (Double Indemnity, The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle…) and time travel films too. The writer-director Rian Johnson gets a film in both categories, because I loved Brick which is a tough-edged gumshoe story set in an American highschool – and also Looper, which is a time travel film but with a lot of the same noir inflections.
Did you have a particular city in mind when you were writing Muscle?
I didn’t want it to evoke any too-particular place or time: you get the sense of an early twentieth century America, but beyond that, I didn’t want to be specific. There are a lot of detectives that you immediately associate with their stomping ground (like Philip Marlowe and California) – I wanted, greedily, to grab hold of all of them at the same time, rather than pick.
What kind of research did you do for Muscle, and did you go on any research trips for your writing?
(It’s probably pretty clear that) I read a lot, as research and procrastination both.
Part of the book was written in Washington D.C. – I flew in (coincidentally) the day the 2013 government shutdown began to start a fellowship at the Library of Congress. I was there researching fiction that makes unusual use of form – like, the typesetting is strange, or the pages come unbound in a box, or whatever it might be – and also working on Muscle.
It was nice to be in America writing the book, and once the government reopened I got to sit in a cubicle at the Library with a desk and some shelves, ordering up books from one of the largest collections in the world. It was a pretty wonderful setup.
(I owe a lot of thanks to the AHRC, who funded me, as well as to the Library of Congress: I hope America continues to have libraries six years from now, and also a Congress.)
One of your main characters is known as “________” throughout the novel. Do you know his name, and what was your reasoning behind this?
I’m happy for people to christen him as they read, but he doesn’t have a name for me. The character is, like Box, someone who is marginal and dismissed – he’s also a deeply unlikeable and antagonistic figure, hard to get along with, and the underscore seemed to suggest all of that. (And there’s a payoff for it in the book, too, which I won’t spoil.)
What is your favourite book no one has ever heard of?
I could have thought about just this question for a really long time, possibly forever. There is a book that I don’t think is well known called Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier (translated into English by Paul Vincent).
It’s a memoir and a novel about the loss of Mortier’s mother to Alzheimer’s, and it’s very beautifully written and moving. There is one specific passage in it that I think about all of the time, and have ever since I read the book about four years ago. Part of the passage says that “love is attention …. they are two words for the same thing” and that “a human being is difficult poetry, which you must be able to listen to without demanding clarification.”