Writer and journalist Fiona Dodwell talks about her ongoing career as a working writer, mother and wife, what draws her to horror as a genre, and her (metaphoric) love affair with Morrissey.
Do you have an optimistic view of the world?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because I’d say that my outlook can change often, depending on my frame of mind, and what’s going on in the world at any specific time. There are certainly moments, in recent years, where I feel deflated when I contemplate the state of our world, and I can’t see much going on to improve that in the near future.
How long have you been writing?
I have loved creative writing for as long as I can remember. I used to write poetry and short stories when I was a teenager and would often bring in my latest creations to my favourite English teacher – who would in turn give me feedback. In terms of when I began taking the pursuit more seriously/professionally, I’d say it was around 10 years ago when I wrote my first full-length novel.
What are your main motivations to write?
There is more than one answer to this. I write both fiction and also write freelance articles/features for various websites and magazines – and there are different motivations for both. For my fiction, it is purely a love of being creative and exploring the art of storytelling. I get a lot from that – to me it’s the nearest thing we have to magic, alongside music. I love getting lost in a new world, and letting my imagination take me to new places. In terms of the articles I write, and the interview features I put together, it’s simply my attempt to put forward open-minded, frank and interesting content that often the mainstream media won’t do. I wanted to work independently, so that I could create something I could be proud of. I wanted to get people thinking a different way and I try to use my articles and interview features to achieve this.
I think the last part of that answer basically summed up the reasons for Felten Ink.
How did your early surroundings and your upbringing influence you as a writer?
I grew up in Milton Keynes, which is about an hour’s drive from central London. I haven’t lived there for many years now, but I still have good memories of my upbringing there. I don’t feel my surroundings had any impact on my writing, because to be quite honest with you, I was always a bit of a loner. Whilst friends were hanging out and socialising, I was always opting to stay at home, with my nose in a book, or a pen in my hand. I could have literally been doing that anywhere in the world – I actually loved being a private and solitary person… that probably helped sharpen my imagination and love of reading far more than my physical surroundings.
What kind of more normal jobs have you had to do besides the not-so one of writing?
I’ve had jobs in the past that didn’t feel right for me. Many years ago I studied Psychology and worked in an acute mental health practise – that was a fascinating career path, and I learned a lot, but it wasn’t something I wanted to remain in long-term. I found it hard to separate myself from what was going on around me and hard to “switch off” when it was time to go home.
Your books tend to come under the horror genre – what is it that draws you there?
Horror is my favourite genre. It has been since I was a child – when I started reading R.L Stine’s Point Horror books – and it remains to be so now. It’s hard to put into words but I just enjoy exploring the dark, mysterious and creepy side of life. I love getting lost in a scary story, it just gives me a buzz. The same goes for horror films, too. I don’t have any interest in literary romance or thrillers or feel-good tales… give me the dark, gritty stuff any day of the week and I’ll be happy.
On horror movies, which of your own works would you most like to see given a visual on screen treatment…
One of my books has been optioned for film in the past, but unfortunately it never came to be. Perhaps it will happen one day – I have had interest from a producer/director that I very much admire so you never know. If I had to pick, I’d say Nails, Juniper’s Shadow or The Given.
Are your books or writing based on your own experiences and how much do you take from real-life and place?
None of my fictional writing is based on true-life. As most of my stories tend to be strange tales of ghosts, demons and all sorts of mythical beings, it all comes from my imagination. Having said that, I have had weird experiences in life – inexplicable events – that have probably planted little seeds of inspiration. As for my articles and freelance work, that’s rarely about me, I often explore subjects (and people) I admire or want to learn more about and go from there.
How does being a mother and a wife impact the ability to sit down and be alone with your ideas you want to write?
My husband is greatly supportive of my writing and to be honest, he gave me the initial momentum for my writing by inspiring me and encouraging me to carve out time to do it. It might be because he is a creative soul himself – he plays piano and guitar and is in love with music. He said he saw potential and told me to go for it – so I did. As for being a mother, of course it definitely has an impact on my time (and energy levels) however I’ve still managed to maintain a healthy dose of independent time to be creative. If something is important, you’ll always find a way.
I have to ask you about Morrissey, after all, you drew my attention with your interviews and I’ve been following you on social media ever since. What do you think that’s so divisive about him among people?
I think Morrissey is seen by some as a “divisive” figure because there simply is no one else out there like him, being so truthful, so open, so willing to discuss things that others won’t. He doesn’t pander to the press, he doesn’t bind himself to the apparent “boundaries” that other artists apply themselves to (out of fear of being controversial or opinionated). He is a rarity, a non-conformist, and because of that, people are sometimes shocked. Wow – a singer with an opinion? Aren’t they just supposed to stand there and inoffensively nod along? No, Morrissey has never been like that and it’s one of the reasons I admire him. There are few like him out there, we should treasure the braver souls amongst us.
What was the initial attraction for you?
First and foremost it’s about the music. That’s the main thing. He is an absolutely outstanding artist, entirely in a league of his own. I know I have spent many years with his music as the “backdrop” to my daily life and so his lyrics, his albums, are very special to me. Then, as we discussed above, there is his confidence and willingness to be bold and strong in the face of some really bad treatment from the mainstream media. That’s something I admire, more than I can express. I get bored of people who try to blend in, or who baulk at the idea of standing-out. It excites me when I see somebody who is willing to go against the grain, and let’s face it, Morrissey does this often. Alongside all of this, I’ve always admired his stance on animal rights.
Why do you think certain elements of the press now take such an unfavourable stance towards him?
I think it’s a combination of lazy journalism, lazy thinking and the hunger to be seen as “politically correct” in a climate where being offended is the fashion. Rarely does the mainstream press actually stop and examine why Morrissey says what he says, they just seem to take a line or two and then run away with their own story.
I find myself agreeing with him more than anything else, but I’d be appalled to be labelled ‘far right’…
It’s the names and labels that do the most damage. If you call somebody “far right” or “racist” then you have blocked the debate at hand, and stopped people examining the specific issues that are being discussed. Plenty of times, Morrissey has made valid points or issues that are relevant, yet what he says isn’t dissected, it’s people’s opinions about what he says that are instead dissected. Why are the mainstream so afraid of actually discussing what he says with level-headedness? Why does everything have to come down to name-calling, immature headlines and mud-slinging? Nobody needs to agree with what another says to at least respectfully hear them out.
Back to your own work…What’s going on for you right now?
I finished a book called The Risen last year (you guessed it – another horror) and Arcanum Press have signed a publishing deal with me for that title. It will be published in a few months… probably September 2020, if all goes to plan. I will continue writing my articles and putting together interesting interviews/features. My work will often pop up on Made in Shoreditch Magazine, Tremr, Music-News, Kendall Reviews, and various others. I also run my own blog, but this has been neglected lately. My fiction writing has taken a back-seat in the last couple of years. I think this is because I have really become passionate about writing my articles and topical features for the websites I contribute to. I think the internet has put a stop to the mainstream press being the only voice out there – people can now carve out their own voice/style/message and communicate it to an audience. At last there is competition to the stale narrative of the mainstream press. I haven’t given up on my fictional writing, though. After The Risen is out there, I hope to write another full-length story, and will probably be publishing some short stories too.
Fiona Dodwell can be found on Twitter @Angel_Devil982 or Facebook …
And Fiona’s books are available to purchase on Amazon
Writer Will Self’s periods of drug addiction are well documented for anyone keen enough to use Google. And anyone familiar with the author should know the best and most public anecdote.
That’s the one about getting caught taking smack on John Major’s private jet.
His ‘official’, as I’ll call it, ‘addiction’ memoir only came out at the back end of 2019. ‘Will’, while explicit in it’s account of the writers early life as a heroin addict, is also as darkly comic as the aforementioned incident regarding the then leader of the Tories.
‘Gallows humour’ only ever really works when the subject fights back with guns blazing, which, as the conversation below demonstrates, is certainly the case for the ‘Will’ the modern day Self details so brilliantly within his memoir.
In a lengthy conversation, we discuss the young, educated, pretentious bohemian he ‘lets loose’ in this book, the nature of addiction and recovery, rehab, the recent general election, as well as many other less spoon burning issues. Even our dogs get a mention.
We’re now entering a new year with another Conservative Government. Were you surprised Labour weren’t able to ‘get in’?
No, not at all. I’ve been out and about in the country. I went through some of the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies when I was writing my diary piece on Brexit for the New European in March. I could tell the mood then was inclined to get behind anyone who’d ‘get Brexit done’, while the Bojo brand remained a vote-winner. His psychic profile perfectly conforms to what the English like to believe about themselves: that they’re insouciant superficially, but contain an inner core of patriotic steel. Also, people really do hate being patronised by a hypocritical metropolitan liberal elite, for whom the downside of globalisation is too much choice at the cheese counter.
Are Labour fucked?
I think liberalism is fucked – and the Labour Party is only the outlier of a much more comprehensive ideological collapse as the climate emergency begins to bite, and the internal contradictions of liberalism. How can you have a viable culture if all sub-cultures, and their values are equally ‘valid’ – become more salient.
Am I right in thinking you didn’t vote?
No – it’s true, I didn’t vote in the general election, the first time I haven’t in forty years. I’m in a safe seat, so my vote really wouldn’t count in a meaningful way. Moreover, I found that when I came to consider not voting, and so stopped having to suspend disbelief in the capacity of our electoral system to factor an myriad little autonomies into one big people’s will, I discovered that I was able to see far more clearly the real limits of my autonomy. In a nutshell: I felt freer.
On writing your memoir – ‘Will’ – where did the need to do so come from?
Well, I’m not saying I did it for the money, but I was conscious when working on my ‘Umbrella’ trilogy of novels, that it was proving difficult to retain readers in this age of almost criminal distraction. I thought the events of my young life, between 17 and 26, actually made a paradoxically gripping – if not ripping – yarn. So I offered the prospect of the memoir to my publishers, who were beginning to look a little askance at the great cascade of fiction emerging from my pen. [So] I was contractually obliged. I’ve been a professional writer, full time, since my late twenties. I’m disciplined, innit.
The book focuses on your early years as an addict. How did you gather material (presumably it wasn’t left to pure memory) to help you write about that time?
I’m a paper maven, and had saved a lot of diaries and correspondence. Coincidentally, I sold all my papers – MSs, letters, notebooks – to the British Library, who kindly indexed them. So had I wanted, I could’ve obtained a wealth of the actualité. In practice, I knew this wouldn’t get me closer to the emotional reality of my life at this time – only estrange me further, hiding it all behind internal arguments about what was verifiable. So I stuck to the feelings and built the scenes around them. My ex-girlfriend, who was with me throughout this period, and who’s also a sort of ‘super-rememberer’, read the text first in typescript, and pronounced herself satisfied with its truth quotient. That was good enough for me.
Did you ever consider writing as a more standard format, more of a ’confessional’, rather than in the third person?
Well, I don’t feel I have anything much to ‘confess’. It was all mostly in the public domain already, and besides, a confessional implies [there’s] someone to confess to. Those who believe they should shrive themselves in front of the reading public are almost as misguided – in my view – as those who believe the entire universe to be a sort of giant real-time moral computer game, in which a bizarre entity creates myriad avatars to see if they can fulfil his creepy ethical programme. As to objectivity – every piece of writing requires a healthy dose, if it’s available. I feared that if I identified too strongly with my young self, I would be dragged into the same pathological mind sets as characterised that lethal period of addiction.
As you say, you ’created this character’ and ‘set him running’. What did writing like this bring to what you were trying to say?
A different kind of sympathy, actually, more empathy: an ability to intellectually appreciate the sate this young man was in. I hope that high-toned realism has translated to the page, and the readers do, paradoxically, experience this memoir as being more real than those written using more conventional structures and stratagems.
I would say, for any writer, there are no places you shouldn’t try to go to. Is that fair for you?
Absolutely. Like the Beast himself, do what you will has to be the law of the serious writer.
On revisiting the darkest moments in ‘Will’ – did going through this process have any effect on you or at least take you back to places you’d rather bury?
I think it’s always a mistake to write with any kind of catharsis in view and I certainly didn’t sit down to write this book believing it would make me feel any better about anything. In truth, I’ve been reconciled to my addictive illness for years now and yes, as I’ve said elsewhere, there may not be anything funny about heroin addiction, but quite a lot of the things junkies get up to are funny, albeit in a very dark way.
Back to ‘The Beast’. You start ‘Will’ with a quote from Aleistar Crowley. He’s someone who I’ve always regarded as a dull, spoiled, and generally overrated so-called poet. You were reading about smack addiction before you lifted a needle. Presumably as an impressionable, young, pretentious type as you admit you were, this was a guy who you wanted to emulate? or William Burroughs…
Not Crowley in particular – much more Burroughs. The episode in the memoir is intended to underscore the strange feeling we had in the early 1980s that this heroin culture pre-existed us by a long time. In fact, I rather agree with you about Crowley – who was faintly ridiculous, as much as anything else. I’ve never actually read the whole of his ‘Diary of a Drug Fiend’. From what I have, on sag-bags in squats, over the years, it’s deadly boring. But I did read his ‘Autohagiography’ and found that rather amusing. He’s really a heterodox late Romantic like Augustus John or Eric Gill, rather than some great necromancer. But apropos the latter: addicts, since they feel themselves to be the puppets of numinous forces, often indulge in a great deal of magical thought, so it’s Crowley the magician they reverence, quite as much as Crowley the junky.
“Self is a perpetually rewritten story”. Is it fair to say that, more or less, it’s impossible to really recall one’s own earlier moments, that writing about the past is just the current ‘self’s’ own version? I suppose I’m thinking about Milan Kundera’s own writing.
Kundera certainly says something like this and it also seems confirmed by recent studies in neuroscience, that appears to show the human mind/brain as being equivalent to Theseus’s proverbial ship. I’m sure I haven’t really managed to avoid this problem – how could I? But I do feel my monoperspectival narration of ‘Will’ may have allowed me to sidestep the more egregious examples of this – simply by not basing the memoir on incidents that I believe I recall, but rather on the emotional atmosphere surrounding my quotidian life during this period.
My greatest vice is a liking for alcohol rather than the full ‘ism’ (others may disagree). What does an addict do to prevent relapse and has this changed from when you first quit to getting older?
It’s hard to say. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. Certainly, the underlying assumption found in the 12 Step Anonymous fellowships, and which also lies behind the Hazelden school of rehabilitation that was practiced at Broadway Lodge in Weston-Super-Mare (where Will attends rehab), has it’s core the idea that complete recovery is never possible. That’s why the denizens of ‘the programme’ as it’s known, always refer to themselves as ‘recovering addicts’ and ‘recovering alcoholics’. They also – apropos your own issues – make no distinction between any form of chemical dependency – booze, smack, it’s all the same: their credo is that the addiction resides in the individual, not the substance. I think things are a little more complex, and that neither a reduction to the chemistry, or an elevation to some medicalised psychiatric model will suffice. Nor again, do I find the 12 Step programmes’ characterisation of addiction or alcoholism as a ‘spiritual’ malaise altogether satisfying. Rather, it seems to me that lasting recovery, just like not falling into addiction or alcoholism in the first place, probably rests on a sort of tripartite relationship between social, psychological and existential forms of security. Some of this – for addicts who’ve fallen right through the nets of society – can be reconfigured in the fellowships, but ultimately long term recovery rests on a new calibration of self and society.
I wasn’t around in the 1970s, for only a few years in the 80s, in oblivious infancy, and I was alarmed to find out about the existence of a group such as the Paedophile Information Exchange. Tell me about them and the overall ethics of that time.
The 1970s were a wild and woolly time in terms of public ethics and private morality. The cultural revolutions of the 1960s seemed to many to’ve torn up the rule book (and arguably, behind this lies the reevaluation of all values implied in the Holocaust and the atom bombing of Japan – something I’ve explored extensively in my fiction). There wasn’t just that ‘goggle-eyed loom’ Jimmy Savile hiding in plain site on Top of the Pops, there were also, at left wing fringe meetings, the Paedophile Information Exchange, who’d set up their trestle table like the vegans and the hunt saboteurs, and lay out their leaflets. These had titles like ‘The Case for Man-Boy Love’. We did at least consider it potentially that people should be allowed to have sex with children, but then we were children! What the adults were up to in all of this is neglect. My brother and I ran wild in childhood and adolescence and we certainly weren’t the only ones. It’s out there in the wilds that the noncing takes place.
How much did that time generally influence your path?
I certainly think the great brown wave of smack that engulfed our island nation was understandably congenial to psyches already strung out on the great glaucous wave of amphetamines (yellow sulphate mixed with blues) that preceded it. But I suspect there was a great capacity for self-destructive behaviour in me already. Will, in the memoir, is self-harming by slashing his arms with razors by the time he’s ten, and graduates to burning himself with cigarette ends as soon as he starts smoking, around twelve.
Am I correct in detecting your distain for the ‘Will’ character? (descriptions like ‘snivelling smackhead’)
I think you’re committing one of the fundamental misreading of my book – in line with those critics who sought to conflate me, now, with a third person impersonal narrator that doesn’t really exist within the text. It’s ‘Will’ who labels ‘Will’ a ‘snivelling smackhead’. What I wanted to try and do with the book was express the sheer amount of self-hatred the very average addict experiences in any given day. I was – relatively speaking – well brought up, and had a decent conscience. Inasmuch as I embraced the junky life, I was equally repelled by my own deformations of character.
Apologies if I’m way off the mark, but to me, the character ‘Will’ come across to be something of a Cunt.
Again, I strongly dispute the idea that the Will described in the text is a cunt. Unless you subscribe to the idea of original sin, what you’re looking at here is a child – yes, at seventeen you’re still a child – falling victim to mental illness. What does he do that’s so cuntish? Two time a girlfriend? Drive dangerously? Deal drugs a bit? Have envious thoughts? I suggest you examine your own conscience and behaviour a little more strenuously before you chuck such aspersions about so liberally. Freud observes that everyone feels OK about having done bad things they’ve got away with – perhaps my real crime here is not to let my younger self get away with it?
In the spirit of ‘What would you say to young Willy should you meet him now’ – Does being lecturer go any way in helping others avoid the mistakes you’ve made?
I’ve lectured at Brunel University for the past decade – but it’s also bringing up four children that hopefully might help me to be a steady, consistent and emotionally intuitive enough presence in young people’s lives to help them avoid the very real pitfalls of drug use. However, I wouldn’t bet on it. Some young people are so lost, so unhappy – I was one – that short of physically interposing yourself between them and the substances they’re abusing, there’s little you can do. Of course, I used to wish my own parents had done just this – rather than being so dégagée.
And the ‘seamless and Sisyphean go around’ of addiction. Is addiction itself a mental illness which one must ‘break out of’?
Again – it’s the Will in the book who describes it as a ‘Sisyphean go round’, but I’d agree with him. There’s a certain point in true drug addiction when you cannot break the cycle, and that is the true point of madness, after which recovery becomes a slow and elusive business.
You’ve spoken about your obsession over sanity. Do you think sanity is subjective?
‘Subjective’ is a lazy ascription in this context but I’m enough of a Laingian, still, to believe that the line between sanity and insanity is defined by social convention as much as objective reality. Nonetheless, as someone who’s shared houses with flamboyant schizophrenics, I can tell you that madness does very much exist. I certainly feel myself to be someone who’s recovered – to some extent – from quite severe mental health problems, but as I’ve intimated above, there’s no simple way of explaining how to do this.
In ‘Will’ you talk about yourself being a ‘A badly designed robot’, ‘On the job’ as a working junkie at IBM. It’s not in keeping with the typical view of junkies being permanently ‘on the dole’…
I came from a family with a strong work ethic. I only signed on for about a month during my first period of active heroin addiction – and during my second (1989-99) I wrote and published ten books. Not all addicts are unproductive, and in my second phase of addiction, writing definitely became my drug of choice!
Talk a little about the criticism or praise as you’ve had a lot of both through your years as a writer.
Praise and criticism are always about the ego – inflating it, deflating it, paradoxically inflating again (for those of us who’re masochists); none of this is of any use to a writer who aims to be original – and, to perform acts of creation akin to parthenogenesis. In all honesty, I’ve never read a single thing in a review of one of my books that told me either how to write better, or how to be a better person.
I thought I’d lost something as I listened to this book rather than reading but in truth, I would have lost something by reading it. Mainly, the comic theatrics in your voice on the audio is very funny throughout…
The comedy is intentional – and I’ve always ‘done the police in different voices’. I’m glad you enjoyed the audiobook version – as people read less and less, it’s back to the oral in order to reach any kind of future for the novel.
Can you speak more about your time in rehab?
It was the car crash described in the memoir that got me into rehab. I’d literally as well as metaphorically hit the buffers, with too many debts and no means of paying them. I had no great hopes for recovery at the time and I felt completely eaten up by my addiction and hollowed out. But I also loved my mother and I could see that my addiction was killing her. I went to rehab for her, really.
And on the subject of extreme onanism? 17 times in one day is remarkable.
Yes, well, people wank… people over-work… people get fat… people smoke too many cigarettes… people become addicts of just about everything once their drug of choice is denied to them, but they haven’t managed to resolve the issues that made them compulsively use in the first place. I certainly fell victim to all of these secondary addictions and more during the two years I stayed clean in my late twenties. When I got clean again in my late thirties, things were different.
Were you always against the notion to write a ‘Cukoos Nest’ type novel about your time in the rehab? But then you don’t have much time for the autobiographical novel?
Yes, I never wanted to write a rehab’ book like that – and I didn’t have much time for an autobiographical novel; I think there’s something disingenuous about not admitting to being your own protagonist. Anyway, no one needs to write an autobiographical novel if they’re true to their own psychic experience – because that’s where the truth is, not in mere facticity.
‘Will’ ends when you’re still in your mid 20s. Presumably there will be a part 2, ‘Self’?
I have a couple of other books I want to write just now, but who knows.
You end the book with: “The Will of the future is a ghost… and you can see right through him.”
It was partly a joke about the fact that the text is very obviously written by me but yet I’m absent from it. Really it built off the serious point about my relationship to my dead friend, Hughie. The world – as Wittgenstein said – is ‘everything that is the case’; and it’s certainly the case that I’ve thought about poor dead Hughie far more and for far longer than he ever thought about me, and I do think this makes him – in an objective sense – realer than I am.
What was Christmas look like for you – you don’t strike me as a man who would be festive?
As the father of four recently bereaved young adults, it was never going to be a great one this year and I’ve never held a candle (!) for the festival overall, but nonetheless, as a family minded man, I can see both the virtue of the occasion – and it’s horrors. I’m not too bothered by material gifts. If the entire British population could promise not to make mobile phone calls on public transport for a year that would be… nice.
I don’t have kids, only an eight-month-old King Charles Spaniel who does require walks and cuddles, that was Christmas for me..
I, too, have a dog… but an elderly and cantankerous Jack Russell. Curiously, though, he also requires cuddles, although not as many walks as formerly due to bad arthritis.
For a writer, I’ve heard you say there needs to be a level of anonymity. How is that possible in a world like today, the constant presence of the internet, being online etc.
You can still sit a café and eavesdrop on the conversations of people sitting behind you – this is an exercise I always encourage tyro writers to undertake. It puts them back in touch with the immediacy of reportage (which good fiction always is), and with the incredible disjunction that occurs when people try and turn ordinary speech into ‘dialogue’; of course, an analogous process occurs with descriptive prose. All of which is by way of saying: the art of writing is unaffected by the internet – it’s the novel and the novelist as cultural institutions that have inevitably lost their centrality.
Will the internet destroy us eventually?
In a sense, it already has. It’s inverted human social formations more than ever heretofore has been done by exiting mass pressures. It’s created Marshall McLuhan’s global village, but it’s turned out to be a village of the damned. It’s allowing for classical liberalism to accelerate to it’s logical end point of full contradiction between individual autonomy, and the rights of others, and of course the infrastructure alone is estimated to account for 6% of current global heating – with no obvious dividend in terms of greater production. But then again, for our current perilous situation, we could just as well blame cars or trains or planes or coal fires.
Which brings us to the real ‘unbearable lightness’ of being a prawn cracker. What is your immediate memories of being on Shooting Stars?
I enjoyed doing the show a lot. It was amazing to work with proper comedians, especially physical ones like Jim Moir and Bob Mortimer. I learned a lot from them, not least that if you want to look brilliantly on television, make sure your fellow performers’ best bits end up on the cutting room floor. I also enjoyed working with Matt Lucas and Johnny Vegas – both lovely men, and brilliant performers who’d start riffing off the studio audience long before the cameras rolled. And as I’m sure you realise: inside the breast of every true Englishman beats the heart of someone who rejects the crude equation between sex and gender – so I hugely enjoyed dressing up as Britney Spears.
I first became interested by yourself in an old documentary called ‘The Importance of Being Morrissey’. As someone who has been subject to unfavourable criticism, how do you feel about the levels of vitriol thrown Morrissey’s way in the press?
Well, he has gone quite hard to the right – and he doesn’t seem to feel the need to modulate his remarks in anyway. While I don’t really agree with much of what he says – I do have a grudging admiration for anyone prepared to outrage public opinion in these conformist-populist times.
Finally… Franz Kafka, with whom I share a long standing admiration. What maintains your own interest?
He’s one of the greats – no question. And as with the true greats, I find I discover more and more in him the more I reread. Recently, on a train ride, I began rereading the Zurau aphorisms, and found myself laughing out loud. For years I struggled to find the humour in Kafka at all – but now I see it: it’s a kind of sublime comedy of psychic slapstick. As Michael Hofmann puts it in his brilliant ‘Introduction to The Metamorphosis’, Kafka specialises in identifying the calibration of events, and displaying the almost infinitely infinitesimal rates of change that typify the involutions of human thought and being. As Kafka puts it ‘the decisive moment for all humanity is always to hand…’. Which is tragic – but also… ridiculous!
Peter Singer is a philosopher, professor and pioneer on issues like animal welfare, poverty, and most controversially, euthanasia and abortion. He has, or surely must have somewhere, been described as the ‘Godfather’ of the animal rights movement. I’ll be shocked if it’s taken this long for such a lazy and obvious phrase to be coined.
Regardless, for over 50 years he’s been one of if not the leading moral philosopher on the subject of ‘non human’ animal welfare and first introduced the term ‘Speciesism’ (the idea that one species i.e. humans hold absolute rights over their non human animal counterparts) in 1975 with his, in vegetarian terms, revolutionary book ‘Animal Liberation’.
Here, we talk initially talk to promote ‘The Life You Can Save’, a book first published in 1999 which focuses on how individuals can help tackle world poverty (how we can ‘do our part’), now updated for current times with a celeb cast in support. We discuss the book’s rerelease, it’s key themes, and also squeeze in some chat on Religion’s influence on animal cruelty, overpopulation and GOD himself.
Interview with Peter Singer
It’s been 10 years since you released ‘The Life You Can Save’ – what impact do you think that book has had since you wrote it?
It’s had a very significant impact on many people. Among them is Charles Bresler, who read it and it changed his life. He left a very successful career in the retail industry to become the (unpaid) executive director of The Life You Can Save, an organization that really existed in name only when he came to it. Now it is spreading the ideas of my book, and channeling millions of dollars to the non-profits that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.
The 2019 edition is fully revised and updated, but best of all, the rights are now held by that organization, and so it is distributing the new edition free, as an eBook and as a celebrity-read audiobook [Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry and Paul Simon are among the narrators].
Don’t Governments hold the ‘responsibility’ to be active on issues like mass poverty, rather than their citizens?
I wish governments would address it adequately, but they don’t. By all means, be an active citizen and encourage your government to bring about a more just world. But in the meantime, when governments are so plainly failing to do what they ought to be doing, you have the power to make a life-changing improvement in the lives of people living in extreme poverty. So don’t just sit back – do it!
And why is it important in 2019?
There are some changes [to it now] to bring it up to date [in the context of today], but of course, I stand by everything that is in the new edition.
Politics plays such a big part in shaping these things and politics in 2019 is quite morbid – where do you sit?
I’m a green social democrat, that is I favour a society with a liberal democratic government, a regulated, environmentally sustainable market economy, and comprehensive social welfare provision for those who do not do well in that economy. But I agree that it is hard to take comfort in politics today.
Is there a book of yours you think has made a bigger difference than any other you’ve written?
I do think that Animal Liberaiton has made the most difference so far, but The Life You Can Save is a close second, and if the new edition gets the readership that we are hoping we will achieve, because of the free distribution of the eBook an audiobook, then perhaps its impact that will pass that of Animal Liberation.
Is poverty a result of a world so overpopulated?
I am concerned about the rapidly rising populations in some of the world’s poorest countries, but at the same time we have seen dramatic reductions in poverty in China and India, despite their very large populations. So obviously population is not the whole story.
And your next project tackles the theme of overpopulation…
I’m currently discussing, with two possible co-authors, a plan for a book that will ask whether the growing world population is a problem, and if it is, what might be ethical ways of responding to it. But for various reasons, these plans had to be put on hold during 2019, and we have not made a lot of progress yet. I’m hoping that will change next year.
What do you see as the solutions to such an issue?
I’m not ready to answer that question yet.
Like many others I stopped eating meat after repeatedly listening and thinking about the song ‘Meat is Murder’. Why do you think popular culture is effective at shifting the mindset?
Is it really so effective? Most people still eat meat, despite the overwhelming argument against doing so. I wish popular culture were more effective in bringing people to live a sustainable lifestyle that eliminates our complicity in the horror of industrial animal raising.
Do you think there will be an age where animals are not bred, raised and killed for food and is there any Darwinian element in this evolution ?
I certainly hope that there will be, but I don’t think it is going to have much to do with Darwinian evolution. If it happens, it will be a result of our reasoning ability, which enables us to reach across the species barrier and see that animals suffer as we do, and the fact that sentient beings are not of our species is no reason for ignoring or discounting their suffering.
I was shocked to read that you confessed to not being an ‘animal lover’?
I was just making the point that you don’t have to love animals to think that it is wrong to treat them as we are currently treating them, incarcerating them by the tens of billions in factory farms that give them miserable lives.
As an animal lover, there’s a level of outrage and even depression when I see what happens in the name of ‘dinner’ or ‘fashion’…
I am certainly outraged, as you are, but I don’t let it depress me, instead it motivates me to try to get more people to see it the same way, so that they will stop being complicit in this atrocity by consuming its products.
In interviews you’ve across as a logic, reasonable and perfectly well mannered man – yet some of the things you talk about, such as infanticide, are seen as controversial and you’ve had some awful things said and written about you – How do you react to nasty criticism?
It’s very important to me that people understand my views and the reasons why I hold them. If people are willing to take the trouble to do that, and then provide reasons why they think I am wrong, that’s fine, it’s what philosophy is all about. But when people try to shut down debate, or simply become abusive or even violent, I deplore that. It’s taking us in the wrong direction.
How does your own atheism influence your thinking in seeing animals and humans as being ‘equal’ in their suffering? I’m thinking here about ‘saint’ Thomas Aquinas and his outlook.
Aquinas certainly had horrible views about animals, saying that nothing we do to them is a sin, unless it happens also to be a sin against humans. But I recognize that not all theists, and not all Christians, have views that harm animals. Take my friend Charles Camosy, a Roman Catholic but also a vegetarian and the author of a fine book, For Love of Animals. And there are many others like him. So for the sake of animals, we need to work together with religious people who understand the wrongness of our treatment of animals.
‘God’ may be ‘not’ so to speak, but would such a being appeal to you even if you cant believe?
I don’t think about that much, because I can’t conceive how a God with the Christian attributes could be compatible with the world as we see it, with all its gratuitous suffering, experienced both by humans and animals.
Peter Singer’s ‘The Life You Can Save’ eBook and audiobook can now be downloaded, free, from www.thelifeyoucansave.org.
Michel Houellebecq is an author who masters the art of decline, as well as the art of writing unspeakable and often unlikable truths in a world which is increasingly unwilling to accept such talk.
In print he’s been convicted of misogyny, sexism, casual-homophobia, racism and in real life, a charge of hate crime regarding comments about Islam which took him all the way to court. In his own defence of such crimes, he says, “You need more motivation than that to write a novel.”
Regardless of these misdemeanours and his own motivations, he remains France’s main literary export. Every new writing demands, almost certainly gets, wide spread attention. Indeed, there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Regular readers of Houellebecq won’t be surprised to find that in Serotonin, we’re presented with a narrator much like those of old. Florent-Claude Labrouste is middle aged, tremendously well off and openly miserable on the subject of human as well as his own existence. Only a writer like Houellebecq could fend off the violins.
Florent-Claude mediates on typical and almost always interesting, even captivating, Houellebecqian philosophies such as men and women, sex, existence and love, done so as our main character concludes that his only solution to his current situation is change. Labrouste proceeds to leave his current lover, his job, even his own home, and takes us on a journey through hotels with no smoking (hell on earth) and a future he seems confident on negotiating. Even the small problem a no-longer functioning phallus, brought by the effects of taking ‘massive doses’ of Captorix, his antidepressant, has a bright side.
“I took off my trousers.. to make it easier for her to take me in her mouth, but in truth I had already had a disturbing premonition, and when she chewed away on my inert organ for three minutes with no result, I felt the situation risked degenerating, and I confessed to her that I was taking antidepressants… the effect of those few words was magical.”
“Life is always bitter and disappointing”
Early on, our protagonist looks through his soon-to-be ex Japanese swinger-friendly girlfriend’s laptop only to find footage of her engaged in a session of pornographic activity with a posse of dogs. Dear reader, as is no doubt standard reaction in these situations, Florent-Claude’s initial impulse is to throw her out the window from their high storey penthouse apartment in a moment of comedy few depressives in their most manic of states could create. It’s one of many scenes in this novel which, despite the apparent melancholy, is as hilarious as anything Houellebecq has written. For all the bad mouthing over his alleged prejudices, he is not given nearly enough credit for just how fucking hilarious he can be.
It’s true that in some of Houellebecq there is an increasing aspect of self parody, particularly in his detailing on a woman’s sexual abilities; yes, this is a writer who really appreciates a mind-altering blow-job. And it’s true that at times he does manage to sound like Schopenhaur selling whores on the telemarketing channel. However such descriptions are always presented and contained within a much deeper (excuse the expression) combination of meaning and overall importance to the work on display. His latest novel does things most of us have marvelled at previously, but as the writer evolves in his own state, for better or worse, and so does the prose he presents.
A much needed dramatic and violent third act which evokes and pre-dates the Yellow Vest uprising brings Serotonin back to the realms of novel, as well as reminding us that we’re dealing with an author with a strange ability to gauge modern movements in a political as well as cultural landscape.
Watch a recent interview with the man himself for more context: