Interview with Martin Ruf
Since his first publication of a weird story in a prestigious anthology in 2009, Jonathan Wood has developed a highly individual narrative voice. His short stories and novellas are complex, poetic, and of a rich and at times even lush texture.
Apart from about twenty contributions to eminent anthologies by Ex Occidente, Egaeus, Zagava, and Raphus Press, he has published the chapbook The Idyll Is Over, three novellas and four collections, among them The Distant Shorline Beckons Us and Shadows of London. Martin Ruf spoke with him about some of the most characteristic aspects of his work.
When you began to publish weird stories in prestigious anthologies of fantastic literature in 2009, you did this at a rather advanced age. Therefore, it might be interesting to hear in how far experiences in your earlier life had an influence on your writing of this particular kind of literature.
I was 49 in 2009, and to be honest, the previous decades were my apprentice time for distillation, inculcation and observation that led to me being in this position now. I had spent the years 1987 to 2008 in a compulsive and prolific process of self-publishing under a variety of my own imprints, culminating in the extremely rare six volumes of ‘Through the Woods’. I had a veritable compulsion to do it, ignited by the revival in small press publishing, amongst other things. I was courted of course by obscurity, working alone until TTW, but there was nothing quite like ‘I-Was – the journal of arcadian disturbances’. The first manifestation of my approach to writing and to projecting an interior view of the world through symbolic text.
My childhood and formative years laid the groundwork, the foundations for the writing that was to come. Nobody should ever underrate the English Suburban environment for being utterly crucial in helping to develop that sense of ‘otherness’, the ‘what is going on behind the curtains’, the irrational ‘fear of strangers’, the ‘stories behind closed doors’ that leads to the development of characters that have the same shadows, the same blighted moral compasses of respectability, that sense of simple struggle for good or bad or at least acknowledgement through action.
I was an inveterate reader and bookshop haunter at a very early age and would travel into my home town of Bristol from the age of 10 or 11, to purchase economically priced volumes with my pocket money, of Poe, Hugo, Dickens, Hardy and the Gothics. I would become ‘lost’ in the folds of their pages and in the arms of their characters. For some reason, a highly empathic identification with Roderick Usher from a very early age has left its sensitive and tormented mark. I make no bones about it. The ultimate decadent.
The archetypal bookshelves of my maternal grandparents down in the vale of Glamorgan were central to this fixing fascination with literature and the art of the book, along with trips to the theatre with my parents, to witness Shakespeare and the Jacobeans. Down in Wales, the Uniform volumes of the Complete Dickens, the line of Warwick Deeping, the H.de Vere Stacpoole, John Galsworthy, Edgar Wallace and H.G.Wells, led me into the notion of the romance of literature as a doorway out of the ‘day-to-day’, into precious magical places, even if those places were themselves dour, stuffy, dark or reflective; reflective of personal conflict and human interaction. This utter addiction to the works of Poe and Thomas Hardy was probably instrumental in developing a great and grave sense of introspection – very Northern Hemispheric – surely a key characteristic and foundation stone for the writer of weird fiction. The writer travels further and further into the ‘Self’, into expanding vistas of how to understand and create from it and into labyrinthine passages, fecund with secrets; hermetic, alchemical and also in some places, deadly. Simple, ordinary events and relationships laid bare. Folly and fate, eternal bedfellows.
I was fascinated by ruined castles, old houses, country mansions, squat cottages, abandoned old school petrol stations – the countryside of the West Country and South Wales was rich with these. Above all, I found deep resonance and satisfaction in the characteristics and company of older people – at the tender age of 61, I still have an over-arching affinity with those of advanced years. Their sense of stoicism, experience and wisdom, acceptance of suffering and sorrow, the Lens of reflection and reverie in their eyes still lights the fires of my imagination. My maternal grandfather was able to conjure a weird incident or ghostly tale from out of his memory as easy as breathing. The house in South Wales was a wondrous time capsule of fine old furniture and accumulated memory, with an atmosphere that you could cut with a knife.
Recurring supernatural incidents were a theme of his great recall – the murder on the landing in the colliery owner’s great house, complete with re-emerging blood stains; the youthful supernatural memory of my grandfather being woken up at 4am by his mother to rise for his day as a young coal miner, only to find that she was fast asleep in the parental bed, the whole time –with him then returning to his room to find a candle flickering on his chair. The country lanes and hills of Glamorgan and also of the West Country around our family home, were another realm, alive with that ‘otherness’, permanently. Landscape and environment as ‘acute’ conductors of energy; utterly divine through youthful eyes. All of this too, before I was lucky enough to discover the great Arthur Machen in later life. As I compose this answer, I am staring at a Victorian oil portrait of a ‘well-to-do’ gentleman of the era, with fine penetrating eyes – well, as a child, this painting was in the hallway of my maternal grandparents. The eyes would follow one about and the perfectly executed mouth and his superior expression would judge one, in the demi-light. Unforgettable for a child. A house of ghosts, living and dead, for sure. This house was always a charging point for dreaming as well. Long and expansive dreams. The dream-state is central to my work, as it opens up an independent vista from the protagonist to be challenged with.
Much of my childhood and formative years was spent trying to achieve the perfect friendship or friendships with others of my age – an idealised friendship, if you will – with the inevitable disappointment and bitter aftertaste that comes from the travail itself. I think this is reflected in my fiction. I remember starting to read Harold Pinter at age 11 and being remarkably struck by his skilled and dramatic exposure of the frailty of human nature and the doubts and fears that encroach on the everyday, that seemed to say that ‘all is not well’, ‘what you are thinking relates to what is happening’. Pinter’s expertise at developing a non-judgemental sense of cruelty and menace out of the banal was to be a very key ingredient of the weird fiction canon, certainly in my case. A glimpse of what is in all of us, what surrounds us, what is behind us on the White Road. What might be on the other side of the front door to make life just that little less sweet.
My departure to London University to study Eng Lit in the late 1970s was central to the expansion of all of this thinking and experience. Here I was, a sheltered suburban kid, now existing in a place, a citadel that I could only have dreamed of - did dream of – I hungered to go there. My dear father, who worked in London regularly, would bring home regular editions of the London Evening Standard, when it was a mammoth paper, and I would devour every bit of it, including all the great cinema and film adverts and critiques. I was very lucky as a youth to be able to visit the Bristol Arnolfini Centre regularly – Metropolis, Der Golem, Dr Caligari, ‘M’, the introspective philosophical filmic sojourns of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, the great American and European Underground, led me into the richest parallel realm of thought and deed and poetic genius on the screen. The tortured protagonist[s], the landscapes of Nature’s power, the relationship of humanity to the land, the reverie of ancestry, the bleak and bitter stare through broken glass at the self. What a wonderful and very dark paradise, along with literature, for a 13 year-old boy; the film frame as a book page. Film and literature had a transformative effect, imprinting its ‘otherness’, its indelible poetry onto the eye and onto the mind, so it became symbolic, archetypal. Inculcation and distillation, film frame studied in the same way as the printed page.
I’ve lived in London since the late 1970s and I believe that this is very significant, for in London I found every road eventually crossed, every character would appear on time or after a delay, every lonely forest or park clearing eventually teemed with fiery life. The counter-cultural revival of the mid to late 1980s encompassing the new interest in the ‘old’ occult, the neglected authors of the Fin de Siecle and beyond was central to my development as a writer. Arthur Machen, A..E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant. the living occult cultural experimentation of TOPY, Coil and the like. The Samizdat thinking and printing, the battered streets of East London with their manifold secrets in every London brick, the poetry of Machen’s prose in every living breathing thought. I remember the sight of Derek Jarman on the Charing Cross Road was to me like seeing Christ around the corner. London was the place of living light for me and deepest, darkest gloom and introspection – it had to be. Out of this environment came my dark testament called Netherwood [2.1], published in a 100 sigilised copies in 1990. Highly rare and full of Poe. The beginning of an end.
An important aspect of your stories is your attitude towards nature. The best word to describe your images of natural landscapes seems to be “charming” – at least if we keep in mind the three fundamental connotations of this term in this context: lovely; inviting identification; and at the same time hinting at darker powers. An example is your Pan story “The Company of the Lake”.
It is a thorough delight for any writer to describe Nature – the description helps to ‘earth’ and frame the story very often and it becomes idealised and fictionalised in a way that is transcendent, as if one is projecting onto the page something that is above the reality of it, that does not really exist. There is a key constancy in Nature, in its passion and its willing and deceptive passivity, providing the backdrop against which events happen and characters rise and fall in their own struggles and glories. In my own experience of Nature, both in this country and abroad, the detachment that one can achieve within its broad compass is extraordinary and resonant. For instance, the mountain scenes in ‘The Company of the Lake’, with their goat inhabitants and the assemblage of utter human folly and the contrast of the lake as well, provide an environment of natural power; a crucible within which the story can unfold. Likewise, the surrounding incident of ‘the companion of the road’ in the same story attempts to meld folk fear with a seemingly innocent bucolic walk that turns into elemental fear. I wanted to make Nature as unsettling as I could do under a moon ‘crusty with ancient lore’. In ‘The Deepest Furrow , For instance, the forest alongside the railway track’ is designed to be deceptive, to mark time, to move from the majestic to the malign, a transitional trap, as if the touch and presence of the protagonist produces a certain type of fate utterly outside of their control. Nature is central to my work, aloof and judgemental of our human frailty, sheltering our woes before the gales hurl them forth. The concept of Mother Earth is cruel and relentless, almost connected to what is happening in society.
I am always struck by how emotive descriptions of Nature can be, from the brooding intensity of Thomas Hardy to the stark realism of Henry Williamson. For instance, the opening of Williamson’s final Chronicle novel, ‘The Gale of the World’ contains its description of Exmoor as a ‘veritable graveyard of millenia of rooted plants’ – Nature as Time, as recorder of life and death, permanent and unloving. My own experiences of Nature, say in North Devon, with the intense hedgerows, lonely farmsteads, crests of crow-infested trees and buzzards stock-still on the upper breezes, has been a key influence in my work – Poetic Nature encroaching on our sensibilities and our lives, is full of powerful change and deceit; deceitful and ultimately, the landscape and the hinterlands make us pay the price. As a child, I could never view the countryside as simply that; it had its own complexity and power above humanity.
Likewise, in a work such as ‘From whence We Came’, the coastal landscape that merges into the human interaction both past and present, is based on childhood experience in South Wales. I am hooked on the concept of Nature having its own consciousness – the essence of any good folk tale, where one ultimately comes to a fork in the forest path as evening falls, especially apparent perhaps in ‘The Deepest Furrow’. A reflection of life itself with its doubts and mysteries and unexpected interventions. Nature provides the great stimulus for revelatory experience. I remember – a walk in the cliff-edge forests on the southern Adriatic, alive with the sounds of the crickets and the breath of the gentle sea breezes and on closing my eyes and touching the bark of the trees I had the frame of the forest first seen in its friendlier light in ‘The Deepest Furrow’. Nature is a doorway into that which has always been waiting for you, far away from one’s homeland or on one’s doorstep.
When you write about the sea, a slightly different aspect seems to be equally important. A story like “From Whence we Came” is, apart from all other things, a powerful evocation of the individual and collective subconsciousness.
In ‘From Whence We Came’, the concept underlying the sea and the land is indivisible, a haunted twin-boundary of extrasensory experience and sound and colour and texture awaiting the conscious mind and then granting its inevitable fall away into ecstasy beneath the waves. I remember being inspired both by the physical settings that were so familiar to me and also by an oil painting by the deceased 20th century artist Brian Chugg with its utter smash of waves upon the rocks, livid with elemental sound and fury. The concept of the blissful willingness to death and the return to the source is something that has dominated my experiences on that coastline with its blow holes and strange cave cavities. The sea, savage, overwhelming, utterly alien, intimately tactile, as close as one can get to the womb and to the original source; the unshackled body and soul responding to the elemental chaos that rules its surface and its various planes of perception, which is so differently wrought for each of the characters; the reef awaiting the wary and the unwary. The watery bliss of Max, compared to the confusion of the narrator/protagonist unfolds the saturation of the landscape in his actions. The collective subconscious that connects between the two of them is prescient and striking as if the call of the sea is unstoppable; back to the source. The tale seems infested with mad rituals of sea-found relics and legacies of artistic endeavour. The extra dimensional relationship between Max and the narrator/protagonist is strong simply because of the sea, because of its indelible power and recall.
I have lost count of the times that I wished to be brave enough to swim out to the reef in question, sharp and unsparing, visible and invisible. I guess I ‘managed’ it on paper – the confessional result of some abandonment towards the concept of Death and Rebirth. The fictional representation of the sea is very close to the actual mystery of the sea in that it cannot truly be described as it is, to reflect the reality of it; rather it describes the environment for unlocking the ultimate way to achieve some kind of existential freedom from everything; the seepage into the shoreline of the subconscious mind is unstoppable, the sound of the waves unforgiving as is the drag that one experiences as one falls beneath the surface beyond human embrace and into infinite depths of blissful release.
Individual traits of your characters have a lot to do with the denoument of a given story. So we should be careful not to give too much away of these individual aspects of your protagonist in a novella like The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us. There are, however, traits which he shares with almost all of your main characters. They are lonely, melancholic, and often suffer from terrible childhood experiences. Would you like to comment on this aspect?
There is something irresistible about conceiving and laying wide open the psyche of the male protagonist that has the distinct characteristics you describe above. I mentioned introspection in my response to your first question and this element plays a key part in my fiction, although the protagonist in ‘The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us’ was an elusive outlier-outsider. I knew what I wanted to create but almost like tuning into a radio frequency, I had to inculcate, be patient and ultimately channel the right voice and character so that he remained consistent in his inner voice throughout the novella. The work took a year to write, despite being quite short, because each observation, each thought had to be just as this detached character would think himself. He became a regular guest in the boarding house of my mind or perhaps I became his guest, compulsively teasing and drawing me in to bring him to the foreground. His elusive nature kept me searching for his centre.
My work is currently awash with the treads of memory, reflection and personal experience, although I should stress that my own childhood was relatively uneventful, but highly impressionable and fecund with characters. Young, analytical minds pick up on all kinds of things and these things stick in the mind, never to be forgotten. I can remember a whole myriad of incidents and fragments from the slipstream of my youth and these then get transformed into fictional reality – the perfect and detached ‘playful’ environment, drawn from memory. The writer who has experienced these things can detach himself from his experience and live it out again on the page as if it is totally new; story upon story upon story, as if he or she has heard them second-hand. For instance, much of ‘The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us’ is based on real visits to seaside resorts – foreign places in our own country, away from the influence and grip of cities and towns, where all kinds of people migrate to for a fortnight, leaving their daily traces and bringing with them baggage beyond their suitcases. Loneliness and melancholy migrate with us to their coastal holiday prisons and provides the opportunity for conflict. There is a distinct pleasure in the anonymity that a coastal holiday affords. You are not known, you are Mr Nobody. You are free as a bird. You can be who you want to be, you can do what you want to do.
I would not say that I am the most social of animals and consistent interaction and experience does lead to particular modes of thought and representations of Humanity. Loneliness and Melancholy are the ideal components for the literary grey matter to feed on in the background and the foreground. ‘Feeling lonely in a crowd’ is the perfect ingredient for unfolding some kind of narrative that leads one on a journey of no escape. I am currently considering a prequel to ‘The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us’, which would jump way back to the formative years of the protagonist, triggered by an ‘out of the blue’ incident completely independent of the protagonist’s ‘normal’ mode of thinking.
As a writer and as an observer, my mind is never able to switch off from the evaluation and assessment of the ‘day-to-day’, the person I have just walked past, the conversation I had in a shop a month ago or perhaps ten years ago, the loss of friendship from years back and the secret intimate joys that made it all worthwhile. I tend to be mindful of Fate every waking minute and this factor I tend to pull into all my major works – the protagonist in ‘The Deepest Furrow’ is so vulnerable, his loneliness is deafening as is his fate, defined by himself, his environment and by society. Likewise, The character Brian, in ‘The knockings on the Wall’ from ‘Shadows of London’ has his fate following him around like a shadow on the wall, like a malign cartoon, outside of his control, but completely part of his ‘make-up’ in both senses of the word. I write from the point of view of a kind of confessional sadness or candour; not a catharsis, but a desire to lay open that which is left behind in the air when a person leaves the room or passes away – the impression of the body on the bed and the impression of the head on the final pillow. The torture of everyday life. The impressions of the early life of the protagonist are taken from wider life, from settings that one sees in newspapers, when the curtains are pulled back to let in the sun.
I am staring at an empty chair opposite my desk as I compose this response – it becomes symbolic, alive with memories of its occupant and his conversations – still living; an emblem of the passage of time, a face on the underground train, a blinding disappointment that turns into a touchstone for retribution, a secret hand that has to be forced back into the dark by the wrist. This is where it is at – the holiday suitcase packed and ready for the single room occupier to open. Very importantly, I have lived through six decades, each one becoming for me at least, an intense time capsule accumulating and storing incident and change and truths, as it decays into the next decade. The traits of society and all the behavioural changes in people and attitudes are utterly essential to the writer and as a youth, I was very alive and observant of this – the way families and individuals change, the memories of how folk used to be and the tragic trajectory of their lives and the effects on the young – it never ends. Only in later life, did I discover that my paternal grandfather had fought on the Somme and that his brother was ‘missing, presumed dead’.
The heart-breaking reflections and trench memories have now been set down on the printed page by a family member and the suffering and the youthful loss have been characteristics of some of my fiction. It is hard to accept sometimes, this level of acute and systematic struggle and suffering. For the writer, it is imperative to explore deeply in an attempt to make sense of it; perhaps the study of Death is ultimately religious. The wartime emblems of death and suffering found in my fiction, for instance, ‘White Souls that March in the Astral Light’ or ‘The Blissful Tinctures’, very often are sourced from this wellspring of human endeavour and pain. The wartime essence of suffering, far from home, limbs hanging from trench walls, becomes symbolic throughout the human condition. Laughter through tears of Death, bringing it home for good. ‘The Knockings on the Wall’, the central panel of ‘Shadows of London’ is a choreographed cipher for the terrible experiences of childhood, the empty hop-scotched streets of London, the strange man on his bicycle with his camera, beaten up, the echoes of the sounds of children, the random violence of the family, the trans-gendering trap for the protagonist attempting to find his own kind of peace. It was drawn from reality and the difference in values back ‘in the day’. We are all in our prisons.
A more technical question. As far as I can see you prefer metaphors as a path from one ontological state (or plane of reality) to another. These metaphors appear, for example, as echoes of words or verses in dreams, and tend to develop almost musical structures. Your subtle story “Somewhere Snow” is a good example. Do you agreee? Or are there even more important narrative techniques for you?
I certainly do agree and I would suggest that this notion of the metaphorical relates also to the desire for seeding the elusive and fluid poetic element within the work. It tends to be something unconsciously wrought rather than being based on significant or purposeful technical intent. The desire in ‘Somewhere Snow’ was to make the narrative core as elusive as possible, a kind of flickering flame, but to make the ‘otherness’ as tangible as possible in the dream-perception of the boy as if the character himself is not sure of what is happening. When I read the story again and especially when I read it aloud, it is very emotive and emotion for me, almost as if there was someone trapped within the words, freed only by the imaginings as Tarsenkhen. I think your allusion of it being ‘almost musical’ is spot-on in that the emphases and the levels within the story appear to rise and fall [to me at least] like complex notes on a composition scale within a score; they require the continuity of each conceit to make a whole. Again, it is hard for me to pin down this as a technique, just as it is difficult for me sometimes to comprehend what has been written, as if I am just the agent. My narrative method is smitten with concepts and sometimes, I will work from the centre out to the beginning. For me it has been generally important for me to capture the concept and the environment through the metaphorical, before the characters are allowed to emerge, so that there is a symbolic foundation to the story, out of which the characters can emerge. I tried the reverse of this with ‘The Blissful Tinctures’ and with ‘The Knockings on the Wall’, developing the characters first and foremost and perhaps this is a fork in the forest path to my new writings that I must decide upon and necessarily take, because it seems to work.
It cannot come as a surprise that authors of weird fiction write about death. The question is, how do they do it? You seem to be almost as interested in the survivours' feelings of loss, grief and guilt as in the death of your characters itself. Your chapbook The Idyll Is Over is a particularly important example.
It will certainly come as no surprise either to anyone reading this interview that I am obsessed with the concept and culture of Death!! It is the eternal partner to Life and is the one certainty that we have when everything is stripped away. It is generally the first thing that I think about when creating a story, almost a dominating imperative for me. I don’t think there has been an exception. The concept of Death in all its guises, comic, tragic and malevolent and baleful, rooted in all cultures and traditions; the visitor that will always appear to accompany one. The figure of Death in Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ was revelatory in its cunning humanity. In more contemporary terms, I can never forget the first glimpse of the alluring yet frighteningly knowing skull on the TOPY First Transmission testcard, the very painful power and suffering of it; the final acceptance, the detached power of Death to always reflect back onto the living. This was something ‘else’ entirely.
As a child, I was always fascinated by Death; the paintings of hermits and philosophers in their cells; there was always a skull present amongst their relics and paraphernalia – the constant visual representation of human frailty and Mortality and the sense of the individual stripped bare. Holbein’s figures of Death in his woodcuts would resonate with my youthful understanding of the transience of life, that lonely sense that ‘time was up’; that life was bound up with the external materials of fate. The concepts of loss, grief, and guilt that you mention bring forth for me, the extra dimensions of the character or the real person that I am creating or representing. I could experience the vibrations of grief and loss and guilt at an early age through observing the experiences of others close to me, until at a more mature age, the experience directed at oneself becomes almost too much to bear. ‘The Idyll is Over’ is a heartfelt examination of the bitter decay that comes with the maturing process of writing and is also a religious tribute, a gnostic mass for the real and imaginary, for those beloved to me who have gone before – note the references to my South Wales experiences again – and the way that absence becomes a philosophical part of memory and recall, so that the writer can conjure to a literary and visual form, those that have gone before, so that they are alive again, both in the glory and the failure of the human spirit to understand and accept Death.
Bereavement takes one into a static inescapable land that one has to sojourn through in the foothills, the marshes and the snow-blind uplands and bleak downlands, back to the cemetery or crematoria, until one understands and accepts. In ‘The Idyll is Over’, I state that ‘the artist, the writer, the composer are all mediums’……..’to bring to life that which is not of life, but reflects life and the life of others…..’ . Thus, the emotional channels which become opened are the sources of raw experience and our abilities to remember and to compose and to renew. The editor of the online Pan Review has recently described this work as ‘shines with beauty, being one of Jonathan Wood's introspective prose poems’.
In your introduction to Nigel Humphreys's collection of ghost stories, Beyond Dead, a book you also edited, you use the striking comparison “as if the ghost realm is but a 'next room' extension of the eternal human condition.” This seems to be a fundamental concept of your own short stories and novellas as well.
An obsessive affinity with the concept of the transience of life from an early age and also of the closeness of the supernatural fields of experience dictated this philosophical attitude. I perceive the relationship of the living and the dead as twin components of the same condition, interchangeable states of consciousness and skins and states of being. The everyday human consciousness manifests itself in myriad reflections and reveries, peripheral snatches of the old self caught in the mirror or on the air, watching one as we proceed through life into the concept of the next. This concept hangs in the air like an ancient sweet opium in the ghost stories of Nigel Humphreys , because of the humanity that is examined and displayed by the characters on this side and on the other side of the veil. It is the essential empathy of and for the human condition in full play. I found these stories echoed my own viewpoint; in some ways, they reflected things experienced in my own life. The eternal presence.
And in my stories, the human condition exhibits a vast spectrum of experience – joy, suffering, grief, stoicism, realisation and understanding, acceptance and despair – a spectrum that is exhibited in the culture of the departed, where the overriding collective memory allows the dead to continue living in the consciousness of those of us who are left. The empathetic mechanism in my stories propels this notion too in the regularity of ancestral remembrance and reverie in my fiction. I see no distinction between the living and the dead, for the latter live on in our humanity and compassion or in our cruelty and indifference; in legacy which is memory. Their ‘presence’ is always felt. Loss and the rawness of the nerve endings brings with it the creative wellspring to live in a different paradise of recalled bliss. This last eighteen months of Lockdown doom has propelled this notion forward as those who are left remain in some kind of purgatorial state, awaiting the future with trepidation.
I remember reading ‘Free Fall’ by William Golding and being absolutely struck in the face by his ability to articulate consciousness and the sub-atomic field of phenomena and the relationship between the living and the dead. Not a supernatural novel, but a novel which understands the internal and external relationship of the living and the dead beautifully. This novel is a key influence in my thinking and I hope, in my work. A work that is always close at hand. Above all, my affinity for older people and my experiences at my maternal grand-parents especially, have been central in this ‘next room’ notion, where their community was continually afflicted by poverty and a hard life, but which was blessed with spiritual joy, charity, generosity of spirit and with close-knit communities that we can only now dream of, made up of the living and those beloved who had gone before but were ever present in their lives. ‘Household ghosts’, never far from the hearth.
Let's talk about your newest book, Shadows of London. Maybe we should begin with a look at its form. The book consists of three parts. The second part is a short novella; both the first and the third parts are a sequence of poems, prose poems and short short stories. As most of your publications are short stories of middle length and novellas, many readers will be surprised by the intensity and beauty of your poems. Are you a poet in disguise of a prose author? What can a poem achieve, in contrast to other literary forms?
I would have to admit that there is something of the hermetic poet in my writings. I think it evolved specifically at the point at which I was regularly writing prose; almost like a secret stowaway within the form of the texts that I was creating. The experimentation takes place within the cadence of the language and is probably also reflecting the absolute rhythmic joy of writing, albeit that my subjects are generally anything but joyful. I would say humbly that I am a very visual writer and I strive to seed the poetic concept in almost everything I write. A key influence on this was the philosophy and poetry of both Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wilfred Rowland Childe and also the films of the Russian dissident director, Andrei Tarkovsky. His film ‘Mirror’ is a wondrous story, a visual philosophical poem that draws out beauty in every frame like rare butterflies on a leaf. It blew my mind when I saw it. This was the way to write.
Very often, friends and readers alike have commented that my prose style is very poetic, that they can detect waveforms and rhythms of the poetic within the prose; that the lilt and dynamic and imagery of the prose [if it humbly exists outside of my own imagination] is deeply poetic. I could reverse this notion as well, in that the poems within ‘Shadows of London’ could be described as prose wanderings or meditations, that there is a process at play which mirrors my prose work, unfolding a story or an impression or a period of time. A poem requires far more precision in its execution to ensure that it has verisimilitude and credibility and an independent sense of universality. A poem allows the reader to also engage with the gaps between the words, to help create out of the formal structure or the experimental form, a wider notion or picture of what the poet intends. The reader is part of the poem, part of the intent and the journey. The poet wishes to pull the reader in until they can see and touch the opened heart. Poetry is the philosophical opposite of prose, capturing in minute or expansive form truths that emerge from both the poet’s pen and the reader’s mind in response. This was my aim when I composed ‘The Haunted Sleep’ and it became a very precise way of presenting composites and testaments that represented the emotional and romantic form and the snatched moment that becomes profound. I enjoy embedding the loose poetic forms in my prose works as well, as if they were in fact songs or choruses, attempting I suppose to draw something profound out of the ether. A very strange and wonderful alchemy to behold and experience for any writer.
In ‘Shadows of London’, the poetic form assisted me in spreading wide a strange panoply of visual forms and notions, as if London was in total flux, an upheaval emerging, elemental and unstoppable in its deceptive chaos, with something of the fatalistic flow of the Thames/Styx. I feel bound and compelled by the strange relationship that I have had with this Wondrous city to continue to experiment with this form and to merge the waters of prose and poetry where I can. The poetic form in ‘Shadows of London’ was an extension of that first evolved in issue six of ‘Through the Woods’ – the Sunrise Days section – where London is perceived almost as an organism from above, blissful, hateful, devouring, all-powerful. One of those poems also harboured the seeds of ‘The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us’.
A book like this can be read on many different levels. For me, it is – not only in its contents but also in its structure – a sequence of memories and dreams in which minute, hyper-realistic observations (of birds, for example) tend to take on a symbolic and at times almost surrealistic tinge.
‘Shadows of London’ has been in gestation for some years as you can probably detect and probably way back to my youth, in the suburban streets of Bristol, observing people going about their semi-detached lives, building up observations, remembrance of an expression or a conversation or simply silence in the street. The touchstone title suggested by Mark Valentine was the key catalyst for formalising all the impressions and drafts that I had already created and assembled. These drafts were only loosely associated in my mind, but on revisiting them, it was clear that there was a distinct continuity and current, a defining strand perhaps that ran through the three sections. I tend to work in a sealed-off way, studying the texts and recording observations and episodes that appear at first banal, but in the assemblage or perhaps in the reality of them anyway, take on a more distinct and unworldly shade. This goes back to the way that my ‘every day’ mind and memory works, recording as if done independently of my own will, every aspect of an encounter or situation, playing it back in my mind on the mental super 8 spools that always seem to be there. I wanted to draw out these fragments into a ‘whole’, so that each piece seemed to react with one another, like a chemical reaction, like a last journey.
For instance, the incidences and recall regarding the magpies and crows and birds represents something for me that was outside of my control, an incursion into the surreal, as you rightly suggest, alien and unexpected, something of the Magritte effect from real life, if you will. These things actually happened and frequently still do. On re-reading this work, it simply becomes more acure and painful in its recall realism. Nothing ever appears to be ordinary – rather it is clothed with the unseen light, a possibly fatal glow. The entire work has a consciousness that is both acute and pained, where the banal becomes the catalyst for heightened visceral responses. An early childhood fascination with the world of the surrealists and Dada has left its mark upon my way of writing. The train coming through the fireplace to break up the suburban stasis.
The notion of ‘incursion’ by its very nature is unsettling, symbolic and ambiguous and disturbing. ‘Shadows of London’ is full of statements writ large or small awaiting the reader’s fingers to uncover them in the dust and silt. The Backlight photographs section are all drawn from reality. I have the photographs here and only the first one of those is independent of me – published posthumously. I drew out of the photographs – one instant of time – all the sand and wash of the memory of the incident. It was a dubious but pleasurable revelatory challenge to return to the scenes, as all strangers do, eventually. The photographs will reside in my own copy of ‘Shadows’ for the lucky person who finds it in years to come, when I am dust.
And a last question. In a note at the end of Shadows of London you quote a comment of Mark Valentine on this book (which hadn't been written in this form at that point of time). He said it should be on the shortlist of his fictitious Proserpine Prize. To quote Mark Valentine's original definition: The prize is intended “to reward the author of the book that most skilfully went into the dark and emerged with something of the light.” Do you think that this could be a general description of your literary work and not just of Shadows of London?
I guess the success of emerging with ‘something of the light’ is for readers and posterity to judge. However, when I reflect on my work, the dualities of Light and Dark seem to be central to the texts in equal measure, sometimes indistinguishable from each other and always in some kind of duel or challenge both to the mind and environment of the protagonist[s] and in the philosophical notions that are being wrought. The despair that is often central to the conclusion of my work speaks of human struggle, of the frailty of human relationships and of the romantic notion of Fate and Death.
I would say that there is a highly spiritual motivation at work in my texts, which I have tried hard to ensure does not become overly influenced externally. In the environments that I choose to frame my work, as in my life and the way I live it, the atmosphere teems with elemental thoughts and spirits and sensations and incidents ready to record. The backdrop and the foreground is there and some readers may find this hidden, but to hide things in ‘plain sight’ like sigils under stones or behind curtains is what writing is all about. The Light and the Dark is constructed out of the symbolic and the archetypal, the mythic and the fabled and if one is able to extend into the Light, then one becomes closer to the spirits and the gods from down the ages that reside with us always in words and song and canvasses and film and music. I would therefore say that in my work there is the continual struggle for the source of the Light, the closeness to something approaching ‘the Centre’, the mythic home beyond the mountains, out of sight of the gaze of our fellow man, one step ahead of us on the White Road. The challenge of human frailty and suffering. The eternal struggle of laughter and tears; the hour of the wolf.
Writing for me is a form of ecstasy, the precious undertaking and the incredible escape, the automatic process wrestled from my hands by the spirits. It is a form of philosophical freedom where no one can hinder you. So, I would say that there is much of the Light beyond the Dark in the work that I compose. Very often when I come away from my keyboard, it is often the case that I know not where I have been, as if I have awoken from a strange sleeping journey, conscious only of the movement. When I concluded the final draft of ‘The New Fate’, I was utterly shocked by what had finally emerged on the screen in front of me, as if it had been wrought independently of myself. When I composed and drew together ‘Shadows of London’, it was as wonderfully alien as it could be, truculent, cajoling, skeletal, obtuse, hard to control - despite it coming from rich experience - hard to compress into anything else than a shimmering shadow triptych that glints and glowers and remains darkly lit. A drama of dark fragments that became a shadow trinity. The Light of the World.
As I stated in my essay for Booklore, ‘we have come to the secret country’. I hope my responses are in some way useful, but this writer must be ever wary, if they are not! Thank you, Martin, for your great questions.
A very significant and heartfelt thanks is due to Jonas Ploeger - the magician of Zagava and to Martin Ruf for facilitating and developing this interview in such a sensitive and insightful way. I am humbled to be placed in this position. I also send my great thanks to Alcebiades DM, Dan G, Jonas P, Mark B and Mark V for their great support and faith in my work over all these years. They know who they are.
1 Through the Woods - six issues publised by Arbor Vitae Press 2001 to 2008.
2 I-Was, the journal of arcadian disturbances – four issues published by Jonathan Wood. 1987 to 1988 with various imaginary and real imprints. 2.1 Netherwood by Jonathan Wood. Published 1990. Kosmopoli.
3 The Company of the Lake – by Jonathan Wood, publiahed in Soliloquy for Pan by Egaues Press 2015.
4 The Deepest Furrow – by Jonathan Wood, published by Mount Abraxas Press. 2019.
5 The Gale of the World – by Henry Williamson, published by Macdonald and Co [publishers] Ltd. 1969. This was the final volume of the epic 15 volume, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. 1951 to 1969 inc.
6 From Whence we Came – by Jonathan Wood, published in The Book of the Sea by Egaeus Press. 2018.
7 The Deepest Furrow – by Jonathan Wood, published by Mount Abraxas Press. 2019.
9 From Whence we Came – by Jonathan Wood, published in The Book of the Sea by Egaeus Press. 2018.
10 The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2019.
13 The Deepest Furrow – by Jonathan Wood, published by Mount Abraxas Press. 2019.
14 Shadows of London – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2021
15 White Souls that March in The Astral Light – by Jonathan Wood, published in Cinnabar’s Gnosis – A Homage to Gustav Meyrink. Ex Occidente. 2009.
16 The Blissful Tinctures – by Jonathan Wood. Published in Bitter Distillations – an anthology of poisonous tales. Egaeus Press. 2020.
17 Shadows of London – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2021
18 Somewhere Snow – by Jonathan Wood, published in A Midwinter Entertainment by Egaeus Press. 2016.
19 The Blissful Tinctures – by Jonathan Wood. Published in Bitter Distillations – an anthology of poisonous tales. Egaeus Press. 2020.
20 The Knockings on The Wall – from Shadows of London by Jonathan Wood. published by Zagava. 2021
21 The Idyll is Over – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2020.
23 Beyond Dead and other Ghost Stories – by Nigel Humpreys, edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Wood. Published by Zagava. 2020.
24 Free Fall – by William Golding. Published by Faber and Faber Limited. 1959.
25 Shadows of London – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2021
26 The Haunted Sleep – by Jonathan Wood, published by L’Homme Recent. Bucharest. 2016.
27 Shadows of London – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2021
28 Through the Woods – edited by Jonathan Wood, issue six. Published by Arbor Vitae Press. 2008.
29 The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2019.
30 Shadows of London – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2021
32 The New Fate – by Jonathan Wood. Exposition Internationale. 2013
33 Shadows of London – by Jonathan Wood, published by Zagava. 2021
34 from In the Secret Country – by Jonathan Wood, published in Booklore by Zagava. 2016.