mong the narrative tools universe, the dialogue stands as one of the most complex and fertile: this interaction between the characters through communication devices (immediate or not) allows the oscillation between the said and the unsaid, expressed and hidden, true and false, intentionality and involuntary. At the same time, the dialogue connects the flow of human existence in narrative terms mimicking the numerous discussions that impart (or not) our existence with meaning. The drama, no doubt, places this tool at its center, but it arises in other conceptions of plot; for example, the philosophical dialogue since Plato, who knew how to put the dialogue in the service of philosophical exposition and irony, the element that dialogue facilitates and enhances. In this sense, the playwright, biographer, short story writer and novelist Reggie Oliver captures both the theatrical tradition and the use of dialogue as a tool to improve the irony impact, and it is one of the most skilled contemporary writers using the powerful tool of dialogue in his plots. Accomplished atmosphere builder both in short stories (in collections like The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini or The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler, both by Tartarus Press) and romances (The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar’s Tale by Chômu Press and Virtue in Danger by Ex Occidente and Zagava Press) endow his ghostly plots of fierce urgency and complexity – unfortunately rare in contemporary literature.
The theatrical universe arises in many of your stories, some like elements essential to the atmosphere and ambience. However, there are plots such as, for example, "The Black Cathedral" or "Evil Eye" which, although far of that theatre atmosphere had some theatrical aspects and complex scenes. It seems to me that in this sense, the dialogues appear as the key element in such a process, the dialogue as the way to the revelation small or big details. You could talk about how is the development of dialogues in your plots.
I began my writing career as a playwright, although I was writing prose fiction as well, but my first professionally published works were plays. I have continued to write plays and have had some success also with translations or adaptations of French plays. What I enjoy about the use of dialogue is that it can show or suggest without stating. This sets up a relationship with the reader who can pick up on what is happening without being told. To give a simple example. I could say simply X was very angry but pretended not to be. Or I could suggest it by dialogue by having Y saying: “You’re not angry, are you?” And X saying: “No, I’m not angry! Of course not! I’m not angry at all.” That way, you not only make the scene more alive, you manage to suggest all sorts of things without spelling it out, like X’s irritability, his hypocrisy, his possible self-deception etc. etc. It is a primary principle with me that readers should be given the space to have their own views of events, to work things out for themselves. In “Evil Eye” which, as you perceptively point out has theatrical reverberations, I was concerned with ideas about spectators and participants. A spectator merely by spectating can alter the character of what happens. Perhaps one could go so far as to say that there are no such things as spectators, only active or passive participants.
Also, the theatre universe appear as a backdrop for some of your stories seems so detailed to the reader that suggest a profound experience with such a universe, a deep knowledge about the daily out of scenes dramas and questions. It is a reflection of your personal and professional experiences, or a matter of search/retrieval literary backstage narratives and plots? In any case, what about the maturation process and research in plots like “The Copper Wig” or “The Skins”?
My mother was an actress and I grew up around theatres. I have always loved everything about the theatre, particularly this interplay between illusion of reality. Stories are derived partly from my own experience, partly from stories I have picked up from my mother or old actors and actresses I have worked with. Performers, when not acting, are great story tellers. For example “The Copper Wig” which is set in the 1890s, derives from a number of sources. I talked with various actors who had been in the profession before this first world war and they gave me odd little details which bring the story to life, like the theatrical Sunday trains which were often met by theatrical landladies touting for custom. The detail about lying in bed in the morning and listening to the clatter of clogs on cobble stones as the mill workers went to the factory I got from my mother. On the other hand the copper wig itself I got from my own experience. I once shared a dressing room with a bald old actor who had a variety of wigs which he had neatly arranged on wig blocks, looking, from the back, like a row of neatly severed heads. The one that particularly fascinated me was a bright copper colour which gleamed under the strong dressing room lights. “The Skins” derives partly from playing the “skins” part in pantomime of King Rat in Dick Whittington, partly from the memory of a husband and wife variety act I once worked with. I am interested in the “quiet desperation” of most lives lived in the theatre: not the stars who achieve fame and success but the moderately talented people who just keep going. I am interested in how we bear our own mediocrity.
One of your stories that impressed me most was "The Boy in Green Velvet", because there is in it a universe of suggestions which we have only a vague perception, a human vileness so terrible in which the supernatural element appears only as a catalyst. The same impression astonishing, indeed, I had to read another of your flawless narratives towards construction aspects, "The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini". Both plots, moreover, using unreal objects or almost unreal (paper theatre toy, memories of a lost book) in the construction of the narrative. In your opinion, this suggestive effects would rises from the objects in the scenery? As a note, when I visited the Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop in Covent Garden, his short story "The Boy in Green Velvet" appeared, materialised before my eyes.
The toy theatre – a very English phenomenon, though it has been picked up on the continent – has always fascinated me. I think it was because of the very peculiar and strange world it evoked of 19th century theatre before the advent of “realism”. In “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” I used various manuscripts and documents to give us a glimpse into worlds very different from ours, strange and terrible ones, which throw back a strangely distorted image of our reality. Human beings can be very responsible for the world in which they live: the worlds of Alfred Vilier and Cardinal Vittorini in “The Boy in Green Velvet” and “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” respectively are fearsome and not like our own, I hope, but they have the power to infect our world, and this is interesting to me. A persistent theme in my stories, very much taken from life, is the way people with powerful egos can, if one is not careful, take over another person’s life.
What difference do you feel in terms of building between shorter and longer plots, like the tales of the collections by Tartarus Press and the novels like Virtue in Danger (whose subtitle is quite suggestive, The Metaphysical Romance)? Have you any preference among these formats?
My tendency has been towards the form of the longer short story or the novella in which there are several “acts” but where a single theme or image can be held to without tiring out the reader. In my two novels The Dracula Papers and Virtue in Danger I have created a world, a microcosm, in which the events occur. In the case of Virtue in Danger I have created quite a narrow and circumscribed world – the headquarters in Switzerland of a religious “cult”, but to populate it I have created a large cast of characters and a wide range of action from tragic to farcical. The short story is the most powerful medium for evoking a mood, an atmosphere, a character. In the longer form of the novel that mood or atmosphere becomes dissipated or simply too oppressive for the reader. Chekhov, Maupassant and Walter de la Mare, to name three of the greatest short story writers of all time, are all masters of mood and atmosphere.
You seem comfortable in working with phantasmagorical elements associated with contemporary gadgets, from TVs to video-game consoles, which is curious because many imaginative contemporary authors (as Mark Valentine or D. P. Watt, for example) seem to prefer older gadgets or objects of another nature. How did this your resourcefulness with these new phantasmagoria objects?
I believe in a metaphysical realm. I prefer the word metaphysical to supernatural because I do not see it as somehow “super”, that is above nature, but rather working “meta” alongside the physical world. In my view it is a living reality, and therefore just as likely to emerge from a computer as from an ancient grimoire. Modern technology moreover is constantly trespassing on the ancient world of magic. A few hundred years ago something like a television would have been seen as a “magical” and deeply sinister object. Equally Dr Dee’s “scrying stone” might be looked on by us as a kind of primitive television. All technology, moreover, is a two edged sword. The surveillance equipment, for example, in “Evil Eye” can be used for good or, in the case of the story, utterly malign purposes and can therefore be imbued with the evil of its abusers.
In your most recent novel, Virtue in Danger, there is a quasi-religious movement and a rich row of characters, both seem emerging from a film by Luis Buñuel. Some critics, as D. F. Lewis, speech in some Hitchcockian ambience and complexities in this novel as well. Could you talk about the building of this characters in particular? Is there any cinematographic influences?
Interesting you should say that because I have also written Virtue in Danger as a film script. It’s promising but far too long and I am consulting with people who are more expert in film than I about it. I naturally see story cinematically - in other word in “scenes” with close-ups, wide shots, montages, “dissolves” and the like. When writing for me really works it is often like simply describing and transcribing the dialogue from a film showing in my head. Many of the characters in this book are very loosely derived from actual historical figures most of whom I never met. But I got an impression of them from their writings and anecdotes about them told by people who met them. The key for me with characters is always speech. If I can hear them talking, then I know they have come alive. With the central character of Bayard, for example, it was that weird mixture of public school heartiness and quasi-religious pietism in his speech which unlocked his character and its inherent contradictions. People often inadvertently reveal most about themselves when they are being insincere.
One of the elements that makes your stories remarkably is undoubtedly your work in graphic illustrations that dialogue with the fictional universe of the text. In this sense, moreover, is not just to “enlighten” the text, but use the visual element as a meaning boost to the expressed in the plot. In this sense, how is your illustration construction work? You write the story and then leans over to synthesis it in images or vice versa?
The image is always made afterwards when the story is complete. The business of making illustrations for the story collection is done when all the stories are written and a table of contents drawn up. I enjoy doing the drawings very much because I can listen to music while working on them. I cannot possibly listen to music while writing. I never make the drawings simple illustrations of an event in the story; rather they are an impressionistic rendering of one or more of the story’s images. They therefore provide a reflection on, or an insight into the story. Here is my idea of the story, I am saying. It may give you a further insight, but it is not definitive; it is no more valid than yours, the reader’s. The chief means for understanding the story should be the reader’s imagination; my drawings are simply a little additional spy hole onto it. I have come to value them increasingly as part of the experience over the years, and I am aware that they have helped to distinguish me from others working in the genre!
The irony is an effect that seems to me to arise from varied and complex ways in your short stories and novels. The way it appears, for example, in “The Golden Basilica”, “Lapland Nights” or “The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler” is almost like the philosophical work towards the destruction of apparent meanings towards new possibilities – something close to the idea of irony in Kierkegaard for example, that stated about the “life worthy of man” starting by the irony. The effect of irony in his plots possess an imaginative or philosophical source?
Jules Renard in his journal wrote: “Irony does not dry up the grass. It just burns off the weeds.” I agree. Irony is the conscious expression of a realisation that there exists a gap between human illusion and reality. No truly serious writer can lack a sense of irony, but that should not preclude compassion. We should be aware of the “vanity of human wishes” and the emptiness of most human achievement, but this should not prevent us from feeling sad about it. “Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel,” wrote Horace Walpole. To a writer it should be both tragedy and comedy, and often simultaneously. To put it another way, both detachment and empathy are necessary. My aunt, the novelist and poet Stella Gibbons, would often discuss these ideas with me. She derived this from her reading of the writer she most admired, Marcel Proust.
Is there any interest in you towards the creation of imaginative/strange/weird fiction for theatre or film, for example? How would you believe his plots will work in audio-visual or theatrical fields?
There is. I began life after all as a playwright. It is an area which I hope to explore more fully in the coming years.
This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.