Tony White is known in Russia for such novels as Foxy-T, Satan Satan Satan and Road Rage. The writer told Young Space Magazine about his new trilogy, Oulipian methods of his work and collaborations with the Science Museum.
The Fountain in the Forest is your first novel of a trilogy. How did the idea for the book come to you ?
The Fountain in the Forest is a detective story set in London now, on the French Riviera in the 1980s, and at the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge on 1 June 1985 – supposedly the largest civilian mass arrest in British history outside of the Second World War. Well, that’s an interesting event in its own right. Yes, it’s the first part of a trilogy. For a long time I had been looking for a way to write about this period, to capture the political volatility and complexities of the time, and its legacy now. Well I was thinking about these stories, joining the dots and working out how it all connected, but I didn’t have a place to start. Then I happened to visit the author, publisher, artist and ’Pataphysician Alastair Brotchie in his studio, which is a ‘paint frame’ (an old theatrical scene-painting workshop) backstage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where theatrical gauzes and backdrops have been painted for maybe a couple of centuries. It is an amazing space. I was struck by the contrast between the fleeting theatrical illusions that are created there, and the clunking great machinery of it: these huge wooden frames that can be lifted then dropped like enormous wooden guillotines. Looking around this historic yet hidden space in the middle of London, I realised it would make an excellent crime scene. But who would be killed here and why?
Can you describe your main character, Rex King? Has he got a prototype in real life ?
Well, every crime scene needs an investigator, so Detective Sergeant Rex King had to be invented. Rex King is an entirely fictional policeman, but he is based at a real police station in Holborn, central London, and he lives in a real apartment block just around the corner. Rex is an adopted Londoner and a policeman for thirty-years, a career that has included working for some controversial undercover units. He’s still a bit of a Mod, in his Harrington jacket and Fred Perry, and keeps fit by walking everywhere and always taking the stairs, never the lift. London is important to Rex and he’s proud of his local knowledge and local friends – all the best little pubs and eateries – so he’s the kind of person who minds how much and how quickly his little corner of the city is changing around him. He’s been single since his former girlfriend ran off with a fellow detective, but that’s now ancient history. Rex’s motivations might be more complex than they seem, but policing to him is more than just a job. He’s more interested in his work than in the suburban bourgeois family life that most of his colleagues aspire to. Well, maybe he would say that. But as Rex investigates this particular murder, he becomes obsessed with the case, and as the mystery deepens, he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead.
Much of the book tells us about a period in 1985, between the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield, when you were 21. What was your attitude to those events when you were young? Had it changed by the time ?
Two big historical events, ninety days apart: that kind of situation is a gift to a novelist. Just in case readers don’t know, the Battle of the Beanfield was when hundreds of people in a convoy of vehicles on their way to set up the Stonehenge free music festival in 1985 were effectively ambushed: brutalised and arrested by more than 1,300 police who had blocked the road. The first reports called it ‘The Battle of Stonehenge’, but a lot of the worst violence took place in a field where beans were growing, so the ‘Beanfield’ name stuck. At the time I remember noting that policing techniques which had been developed and used against striking miners (‘who Margaret Thatcher famously called ‘the enemy within’), were now being targeted at another section of the civilian population – a new ‘enemy’ had been identified. I felt that there was a story to be told about this. When you see historical events at close hand you might well realise that something important is happening, and have some idea of what is at stake. Maybe you see some immediate impacts or ripple effects in your own life, or if you’re too close you maybe have the wit to get out of the area fast. But the real actions and motivations of the machinery of the state in such events might be secret, and the consequences can take years to play out. So the longer-term perspective is important too. An interesting thing for me as a novelist writing about this now is that when the state keeps things secret it creates a gap that can be filled – thoughtfully – with fiction or allegory.
In The Fountain in the Forest you used Oulipian mandated vocabulary, certain words from Guardian. Was it the first time you used this method? What was the aim in doing that ?
The aim was first of all to surprise and delight the reader with a novel that was out of the ordinary, to broaden the range of the book, to supercharge the reading experience. I found that the technique added another layer and an additional kind of richness and velocity to the storytelling. Fundamentally it also offered a new way to write about the past authentically. In The Fountain in the Forest the story moves backwards and forwards in time, but overall the trilogy uses (day-by-day) the calendar from 4 March to 1 June 1985 as a frame. So, 90 days = 90 chapters across the trilogy. And each chapter must be written using all of the crossword solutions from the Guardian newspaper of that day in 1985. Readers may be familiar with Oulipo – the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle – a group of experimental writers who from the 1960s onwards explored the use of mathematical and other ‘constraints’ to create new literary works. Best-known is Georges Perec, who is famous for writing an entire novel – La Disparition – without using the letter ‘e’. Oulipo also propose many other constraints, but yes one constraint that I felt had not yet been explored fully at the level of the novel is the ‘mandated vocabulary’, where a text is written using words that have been predetermined in some way. Before I started writing the novel, I was researching the mid-1980s in the British Library newspaper collection, and I found myself drawn to the crosswords. Mainly because in 1985 I used to do the crossword in the Guardian newspaper every day. On a whim I printed off and re-did one of those crosswords that I’d first completed thirty years earlier, and it unlocked a kind of Proustian rush of memories and associations. This seemed like an important discovery and – remembering that Perec himself was a crossword compiler – I wondered if I these particular crossword solutions from 1985 could be used as a ‘mandated vocabulary’ to create a work of fiction larger than a short story. But importantly, I wasn’t interested in using the constraint to produce nonsense. Could it be used to write something that was 100% a page-turning thriller, of political and historical relevance, while simultaneously being 100% an avant garde experimental work? I tested out the technique in a novella called Dicky Star and the Garden Rule that was commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 – and which told the story of the disaster that was unfolding in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine from the perspective of a young couple here in the UK. Well, it did work. But what I also found was that this sample of words from the past seemed to open a window into a collective unconscious: revealing trends, pre-occupations, and cultural and historical figures of the time. So here was the way in to writing about 1985 that I had been looking for. Now I just had to re-do all ninety crosswords!
Can you tell us about the impossible task of constraints to writing that you’d never choose in your work ?
You know that there is an expression in English, ‘Never say never’, so I should be careful. But when I started to write The Fountain in the Forest it was clear that the ‘mandated vocabulary’ constraint had not yet been fully explored, so there was room for me to do something new, to push the form of the novel in a way that was also completely integral to, and in keeping with, my project. But many other Oulipian experiments have already been exhausted. I mean, after La Disparition by Georges Perec there’s no point in someone else writing a novel without the letter ‘e’ – what can you add? Nothing. Move on.
Do you have any writer’s routines ?
The main routine is to get up early – around 5.45 or 6 am – make coffee and start work right away. It’s not possible all the time. But for me, doing that most days is how novels get written. I finish when I finish – then maybe go for a long walk along the river (we live near the Thames in London). When I’m nearing the end of a novel I’ll then work until the evening, around the clock, otherwise maybe I’ll spend the afternoon catching up on admin and emails. I think my early starts are something I got from art school, where if you wanted to get a decent amount of time on the equipment or in the studio you needed to arrive as soon as the cleaners opened the building (and actually for a time I was one of those cleaners too). And I also worked as a postman here in London for few years, and grew to know and love being up and about in the city at dawn. It’s a good time for me.
What are the most important advantages for you to be a writer ?
That’s a tough question, and I’m aware that it is a great privilege simply to be a published author. But writing is a fact of life for me by now – it is deeply ingrained as a way of being, and looking, and doing – creating new things and maybe contributing something of value, contributing to a larger conversation, and getting a response: hearing back from readers and other writers. People getting in touch and asking me to write things. But if you keep doing it for long enough, writing becomes both an ongoing creative practice (combining let’s say the development of a craft, and the development of ideas and critical understanding) and a métier, a professional occupation, and I enjoy the professional aspects of it too. You learn as you go along, which is another way of saying that as a writer you grow up in public. I’m conscious that I’m now a ‘better’ writer than I was when I started out: I couldn’t have written The Fountain in the Forest twenty years ago. Advantages include the opportunities to keep learning and keep researching, the chance to meet and work with some incredible people, and (pre-Covid-19 anyway) getting to travel to places I’d never go otherwise, and meeting readers, writers, and publishers around the world of course. Some writers hate doing public appearances and giving live readings, but that side of things is central to my work as a writer too. When I perform my writing, I feel I’m also continuing and drawing on other literary and avant garde traditions. I like going to see other writers reading and talking about their work too – whether that is in a bookshop, on stage in a huge theatre, or in the upstairs room of a tiny pub. I really miss that live scene right now.
You did a foundation course in Farnham and a Fine Art degree at Sheffield City Polytechnic. Does art inspire you as a writer ?
Yes, in many ways. I occasionally write about art. I used to regularly review exhibitions and performances, but I decided quite a few years ago that if I’m asked to write about an artist’s work – e.g. for publication in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition – I’ll always try to use fiction to do so, rather than criticism. There’s lots of badly-written or ‘so-so’ art criticism, but not much well-written fiction about art. So that’s something different I can offer. And it has led to some interesting collaborations. I wrote a short story inspired by the work of the Irish artist Alan Phelan for the catalogue of his exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. And Phelan then adapted my story into a short film, ‘Include Me Out of the Partisans Manifesto’. Maybe going to art school also made me more open to collaboration. I’ve learned a lot from collaborating with musicians and composers, too: the way that they sense stories. I’ve been lucky to work with some great musicians. I’ve performed with Jamie Telford, former keyboard player to The Jam, Richard Norris of The Grid (and ex-Acid-House-era Psychic TV), bass player Simon Edwards (Talk Talk/Fairground Attraction/Billy Bragg), and New Pope a.k.a. the musician and songwriter David Boland in Galway, Ireland who I performed with for a festival there. Each of them brought different things to the work, but a musician can read the flow and the structure of a piece of fiction completely differently than a writer. They’ll notice the different movements, rhythms, and themes, and where they shift; whatever it is that’s propelling the reader through the experience of reading or hearing a story. Even the BPM you read at. Visual art and artists have had a direct influence on my writing too. The Fountain in the Forest owes a lot to a collaboration with the UK artists Jane and Louise Wilson. My Chernobyl novella Dicky Star and the Garden Rule (where I tested out using the crosswords as mandated vocabulary) was commissioned and published as part of an exhibition of their photographs of Pripyat. Also ‘a loose collaboration’ (his words) that I conducted with the performance artist Stuart Brisley, to explore a particular series of ten-day performances by him that had referenced the French Republican Calendar (a secular, non-hierarchical calendar with ten-day weeks developed at the time of the French Revolution). That might seem like nothing, like a small idea – a mandated vocabulary, and an artist using a revolutionary ten-day week – but for me as a novelist that was enough. I had the historical events, a huge amount of research, and my own lived experience of that period, but in terms of turning that into a novel (or three novels) those two ideas drawn from collaborations with artists were the key: they gave me a method, a voice, and a frame. If the conditions are right, the collision of two or three simple ideas like that can be enough to spark the fire that ignites a new novel.
You worked in Science Museum and Resonance FM. What was the most exciting in this work ?
These are two different kinds of work with two great but very different organisations. At the Science Museum I was writer in residence – and it was really exciting having a temporary ‘backstage pass’ to this great institution, seeing behind the scenes. Then in 2013 as a result of that, my novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South was published by the Museum, the first novel they’d ever published. This was a chance to experiment, and to look for ways to reach readers – Museum visitors – directly. But where the Science Museum is a huge organisation, Resonance 104.4fm is a tiny radio station. It’s a truly great and innovative arts project, run on a shoe-string, yet reaching huge audiences and benefiting many, many people. And really it’s Resonance itself that’s exciting: the composers, artists, musicians, writers who broadcast and make the station what it is. I chaired the board of directors for nearly a decade, so my contribution was all the boring stuff behind the scenes: board meetings, fundraising, governance, compliance, and other obligations. But I love Resonance and what it does, so I was pleased to be able to give my time and expertise to help such an important art project keep going and stay on air.
Are you working on any other literary projects at the present time ?
Yes, always. Generally, how writing goes is that whatever project (novel, short story, review, script, whatever) you’re working on at any given time, you’re usually also talking about the last book that came out, and maybe thinking, too, about the next thing on the horizon – even if you don’t realise it yet. As well as hustling for shorter bits of work, pitching articles and reviews. Right now, and for the next couple of months, I’ll be working hard to finish the final part of the
Fountain trilogy. It’s good to be back in ‘Rex King country’, and I’m really excited about where the trilogy is taking us. So, if you or your readers are ever up and writing and starting work at 6:00 am, you can be sure that over here in London I will be doing the same. Like thousands of other writers around the world, I suppose! Making coffee, putting the light on, sitting down to write, and picking up where we left off yesterday.
Red the opening chapter of Tony White’s «The Fountain In The Forest»