In his website, the “About” section has the following information: “Stephen J. Clark has been active within the International Surrealist Movement for over fifteen years, appearing in numerous surrealist publications and has most recently participated in exhibitions with the Czech and Slovak Group. (...) Returning to writing fiction in 2008, Clark's story ‘The House of Sleep' was published by Ex Occidente Press in the Gustav Meyrink homage anthology Cinnabar's Gnosis. Work has since appeared in various publications by Side Real Press, Supernatural Tales, Fulgur Limited, Talking Pen Press and Skrev Press among others. (...) The author's debut novel In Delirium's Circle was published by Egaeus Press in 2012. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.” (saw at http://www.thesinginggarden.co.uk/about.html).
In your last book, In Delirium's Circle, a complex and discontinuous flow and relationship between Image (there are the illustrations but also many descriptions: photos, objects, places, etc.) and Plot. Are there any planning or method in this disposition or the automatism used by the characters influenced the narrative structure? And, in this sense, are there any past experience (in Narrative form) that influenced your vision here?
With my writing I try to develop a dynamic between planning and spontaneity. I approach it as a form of play; a game allowing space for the subconscious to speak. Rather than seeing the subconscious only as a reservoir of suppressed images I view it almost as an active, volatile agent too that transforms what it comes into contact with. It lies in wait, latent or dormant in our relationship with the world as we experience it. It is not just situated deep within us but deep outside us too.
I try to keep the story as open as possible to suggestion and change right into its later stages. Stories and images I think can have a life of their own and their development can be compared to alchemical distillation. My aim is focused on developing an approach to writing and storytelling as a hermetic method for myself, so the exploration of drawing in relation to writing is part of this experiment. I’m wary of anything described as ‘experimental’ these days, yet by experimental I simply mean play; creativity that includes chance and accident and openness to interpretation. I’m cautious too about describing what I do as having anything to do with occultism, in the sense that I don’t think one has to be steeped or versed in specialised or dogmatic knowledge to do what I do, or gain insight through such methods. For me commitment to one’s own imaginative creativity and intuitive understanding of experience and the subconscious can be a form of initiation and exploration in itself. I think there’s a danger in identifying with something in a dogmatic and formulaic way that closes down the free play of critical interpretation and creative experience, I think that can be just as true of surrealism as it is with magical traditions. I’m thinking of writers such Gustav Meyrink and Alfred Jarry, writers who I appreciate and admire for their knowledge and experience in hermetic ideas and practices, yet also for the wit and inventiveness of their individual approaches. The same can be said of Austin Osman Spare as an artist I think, for example in the way that he incorporated his experiences of cinema into his work in the form of his ‘sidereal’ methods. There’s a sense of invention and irreverence in all their work that keeps it volatile and alive to this day.
I’m interested in the experience of imagining: for example the psychological and symbolic significance that the emergence and development of narrative events and characters could have for the writer’s inner life. I see the process of writing a story as a form of personal exploration, an act of gnosis, of self-knowledge. The story is a microcosm, a theatre where the inner life’s dramas are played out. I’m inspired more by ideas from hermetic philosophy than literary theory. A great many if not all academic observations about narrative theory can be recognised and contemplated intuitively anyway, without the need to identify them with specialist literary terminology. What matters is the individual’s experience of these forms. Somewhere within my method there are ideas concerning the use of what could be thought of as “discontinuous” forms, alternating between prose and visual image, to cause subconscious ruptures in the linear, discursive flow of words and suggest that another way of engaging with the narrative must be sought by the reader, yet I have to say that I don’t allow myself to scrutinise and dissect that too closely in the process of developing the story. I think to focus too much on that would divest the story of its rawness and frayed edges.
I think it’s vital to my creativity to be attentive to what might arise from the subconscious; mapping and developing a story from the primal matter of the subconscious yet refining it, distilling it through methods of interpretation and imagination. I think writing can be compared to a waking dream where the writer and the reader alike are enticed as if by seduction, as if under the influence of an enchantment, seduced by the incantation of words into dreaming together. I see the story as being the residue of a dream; dream and the waking world meeting in the form of words and creating an artefact.
To paraphrase Jacques Lacan; the Unconscious is structured like a language. I think my experience of structure in my writing at least in part emerges from a kind of meditative dream, following another kind of logic; a logic close to dreaming. I don’t simply mean that a story only emerges from a method like automatic writing. Images and ideas arise from the subconscious as if they’d offered themselves seductively, returning to your thoughts to show you another facet. My process is more to do with interpreting and exploring these images and ideas imaginatively to see where analogical thinking might take me. The visual images rupture the flow of words. There are many phantoms in the novel. The visual images haunt the prose, they intervene rather than illustrate; they interfere with what’s being said. And they suggest that another approach must be found because another kind of understanding is required.
As dreams have their own logic and momentum so too do stories, at least the kind of writing I’m mainly interested in. Writing and reading can act as a bridge, a space where dreaming enters waking life. I see what I do as tapping into a rich source or stratum of language, imagery and culture that one could call mythology. I believe Apollinaire and Andre Breton said of De Chirico’s paintings, that they represented or embodied a kind of modern mythology; charting the undercurrents, the nightmares and the enigmas of his own time.
In terms of past experience of narrative structure, if I understand you correctly you are talking about ‘literary influences’. I think there are writers that I’d previously read that must have formally influenced how I write, such as William Faulkner, whom I single out especially because of the obvious characteristics of form he used in many of his books, yet I must emphasise that it is the experience of writing as a form of meditative play and dreaming that drives me; writing as personal revelation. Much of the structure can be found as I write and respond to accommodate and explore what arises. I don’t think it would help to list writers that I appreciate here. I used to have certain favourite writers but currently I can’t say that I do.
The structure I find effective reflects how I understand experience; the interplay of multiple perspectives and the elliptical, discontinuous nature and enigmas of communication, the enigmas of intimacy, the intimacy too between the reader and the story they engage with. I prefer such a structure as I feel it reflects the hidden polysemous nature of reality and experience. I know that runs the risk of sounding grandiose but ultimately it comes down to empathy. I’m not interested in writing or reading something purely as a piece of entertainment. When the old cliché “Write about what you know” is wheeled out I’d have to say that there are many ways of knowing what’s there in front of you, there are many ways of imagining the real other than so-called realist representations. “Write about what you know”? What do I know today? I know that my day began with a dream.
In your novellas (narratives more lengthy in extension, in this case), The Satyr and In Delirium's Circle, there are some kind of tendency related to the narrative disintegration: from a more or less stabilized starting point to a more subjective and abstract universe, commanded by some visionary State. Is this a influence of the powerful Image and Vision (including illustrations and design with a high and unique meaning in the both of books) in this novellas? Or it's a poetical direction assumed to the plot?
I see it as a matter of transformation which involves the disintegration of what went before, the disintegration of the habitual; the disintegration and dissolving of the conscious in the subconscious perhaps. The stable is made volatile and vice versa. The world is turned on its head. Out of the chaos of madness another form of understanding arises. I think of the old maxim from alchemy, no generation without corruption, or in other words: new forms arise out of decay and destruction. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I do express a personal “worldview” or philosophy in my stories, so to speak, not in any didactic way but simply because I’m passionate about exploring those ideas for myself to see where they will take me. I think it’s inseparable from how I write. It informs the language and form of what I do. It informs the tone and atmosphere of what and how I write and draw. I prefer writers and artists who do have a “vision” of their own that can be explored over time. I find that a rewarding and enriching experience and I think it relates back to the idea of mythology, the development of a writer’s personal symbolism over time, the way an individual engages with the world through their imagination, through their subconscious mind as if they are consulting an oracle and acquiring insight.
There are some claims, for one side to another, about the powers of suggestion in Literature and the Visual Arts: sometimes one side is on top of another and vice-versa. It's not impossible to saw that your narrative work follow a borderline between these two fields. So, for you, the suggestiveness in Literature and Visual Arts follows a equal pathway or it is not the case and one outdo the other. Is it possible a medium resolution?
Rather than involving an aesthetic or theoretical opposition between Literature and the Visual Arts I see it more in experiential terms; in the sense of how one experiences visual images and words, how they attract and repel each other. Especially with In Delirium’s Circle, I am playing more with those ideas and attempting to explore the elliptical nature and enigmas of how we experience images and words, of how we communicate and how we understand our senses, memory, community and history. The fabric of the perceivable world and the world of human exchanges consists of experiential, sensory, epistemological and existential uncertainties. Everyday life is made of numerous flaws and fissures in our understanding, of strange inexplicable moments and chance events that we learn to repress and forget. Often what we consider a social or even scientific certainty will be at least in part a construction of habitual consensus. So I’m trying to convey these ideas through the structure, for example in the way I use the epistolary form with In Delirium’s Circle. I felt that form was effective as it allowed me to play with the ambiguities of identity and communication; to accentuate the absences and silences and mysteries of human life that are commonly disregarded. I like to take common experiences, something like mistaken recognition, of thinking you know someone when you don’t, and playing with the mysteries of that enigma. I’m interested in what I’d call enigmas of intimacy. I think the experience of reading and writing is an area rich with such enigmas of intimacy.
I’m thinking of the term intimacy as Georges Bataille might define it, as involving risk and vulnerability. Of course that dynamic is charged with inherent longing and promise, the longing for empathy and transference … the dissolving of individual identity in words and silence. It involves the significance and ambiguities of silence - of using form and language in such a way as to express something that is beyond words, or that slips between words. It involves the use of language and silence, or image and absence to evoke something that’s Other, to summon something from the subconscious. I think my use of the interplay of words and visual images in this way is an attempt to reach this intimacy. With In Delirium’s Circle I’m engaging with ideas about what role mythology has in society, what power it had in that post-war era, partly in the form of propaganda, but in other ways too, and what power it still has and how mythology is used to coerce and influence others - mythology as an inner war. Yet also the reclaiming of mythology as an intimate thing, how it can be claimed back and explored subjectively and inter-subjectively by individuals.
So I’m not interested in the current status of Art or Literature in aesthetic or theoretical terms, nor feel the need to comment on that status critically. Nor am I experimenting with form in that context. I don’t think what I do is anything new or different from what has gone before, or is an attempt at a resolution or middle way between Art and Literature as your question seems to infer. I just know I have to be as true to the story as I imagine it and true to my own imagination. I just think you have to be true to yourself and follow that obsessively. I like to think of In Delirium’s Circle as a fugitive artefact, an anthropologist’s field report, or a grimoire from a dream. The decision to include drawings in the fabric of the story wasn’t something that I approached as an experiment with form. The desire to explore that dynamic came out of ideas for the story itself.
In the novel In Delirium's Circle, there are a kind of sect that is, at same time, a avant-gardist group, art community and even more, as the plot develops its layers. That's an amazing creation, so fascinating to the protagonist as to reader. What about the sources for the creation of this group? Are there some model in the distant or close reality?
My understanding of surrealist groups both historical and current definitely partly informed the idea of The Circle in my novel In Delirium’s Circle. Yet I didn’t want to make it specific. I used that idea and those experiences to serve another aim, to convey the mythology of a secret community of outsiders and the mysteries of communication, the ambiguities of desire and sanity, the otherness of other people. I also wanted to draw upon associations of other groups too, not only intellectual and radical groups of recent history but also the myths of hidden or fabricated or lost groups such as the Rosicrucians and other hermetic fraternities that I’ve been interested in reading about for quite some time now, in the historical studies by Frances Yates for instance. Yet I suppose, in keeping with our own times, there are intimations of other kinds of groups, such as terrorist cells, again raising questions regarding the nature of belief and desire.
The important thing for me was to leave it open, to use ambiguity to suggest the other world of this hidden community, that was very real and very human, with its own enigmatic past, existing within the world we think we know and yet involving a perception of life that’s very different from the wider consensus, that involves a way of life that’s at odds with the world of the wider society, a group of misfits brought together in their search for lost intimacy. Again, the idea of the secret group lends itself readily to the other themes of empathy, community, mythology and power.
I’ve been interested for some time in the writings of Georges Bataille and the group known as Acéphale that he played a key part in forming. It was a group formed with the purpose of exploring what it would mean to be part of a secret community in relation to understanding wider society and exploring the nature of intimacy and communication. I’m aware of how that can be misunderstood as being elitist yet I think Bataille saw it as a necessary tool with which to truly explore experiences that would otherwise remain in the realms of intellectual speculation for him. Not only is it a way of demarcating a zone of exploration it’s also an act of resistance against the values of wider established society.
The Circle in my novel is a microcosm of the thematic currents within In Delirium’s Circle. In a way it’s the hub from which everything else radiates or the pool into which everything else is pulled and descends and vanishes. Of course there’s a whole tradition within gothic literature and cinema of people having doomed dealings with hidden orders, cults, secret agents, master criminals and so forth and it’s something I’ve often enjoyed in literature, TV drama and film, so I’m also playing with that idea. I’m playing with those threads of association that already exist for me, not that it’s obvious or necessary for the reader to recognise them, yet in cinematic terms I’m inspired by the imagery say of Fantomas, or Georges Franju’s films Judex and Les Yeux Sans Visage, or Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, or Svankmajer’s Faust and Conspirators of Pleasure. It’s an affinity I have with the currents that run through such work, which leads me to the next que
Your novella The Satyr had some curious aspects related to the 1940s film universe. The name of one of the protagonists for start, but even the structure: some events in the novella brought me to the memory films like Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944), specially the chapter dedicated to the séance. Even Hitchcock's 39 Steps (1935), with the ambiguous feminine persona. Could you tell more about these cinema transnarrative and influences in these novella?
Cinema is so part of the mythology of modern society. People have worshipped at the altars of actors for decades and still do. I don’t consciously allude to specific Forties films or use them to structure narrative yet I do attempt to evoke the noir atmosphere, particularly with In Delirium’s Circle. While working on my novel I would read and watch anything that I thought might inspire me, anything that might by some process of osmosis inform the atmosphere and spirit of the work, so I explored Patrick Hamilton’s novels and read Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man, although I watched the films after I’d read the texts. I’d never seen The Third Man film before that point, although I’d read the novella. And I only watched the film after I’d finished my novel. I wanted to approach it in the field of written prose you see. I didn’t want there to be any obvious allusions to or influences from having watched the film. There are other sources too that haunt the fringes of In Delirium’s Circle, such as the Quatermass screenplays and early adaptations. There’s something about the paranoiac atmosphere of those films, of there being an invasion from within that fascinates me. I think that’s a myth of that era, the myth of invasion, of some unnameable and nebulous threat arising from the commonplace. I wanted to evoke that myth in my novel. There was a film too that I watched just as I was finishing the final draft of my novel, it’s called The Clouded Yellow (1950). A noir thriller with moments that verge on the dreamlike and a chase sequence filmed in Newcastle upon Tyne, so watching it was an experience of synchronicity. I hadn’t known it existed until that point. Actually I find the experience of watching many of these noir films dreamlike, surely seeing the past in this way must be considered a kind of waking dream. So films and old TV dramas are an important part of my creative life and do inform my writing and my visual art.
I’ve strayed from your question there. The Satyr was my way of engaging with Austin Osman Spare’s myth with an emphasis on him being a vulnerable human being rather than a legendary artist and magician. I didn’t explore his ideas in depth in the novella partly because of the emphasis I wanted to give. I think he’s a remarkable artist partly because he was a humble and vulnerable human being and not some god or genius as many believe - at least that’s my view. What keeps me interested in Spare are the anecdotes about his daily life and the encounters he had with the community he was part of.
The imagery of The Satyr undoubtedly draws upon the cinema you refer to in your question yet more in terms of atmosphere. There is an element of noir mythology in the novella. Much of it works in terms of poetic suggestion. For example the use of a name such as Marlene Dietrich, can act as a kind of depth charge and has reverberations evoking all manner of nebulous and perhaps conflicting associations from that era. I used that name to suggest certain tensions in the story.
The Satyr is my first attempt in print to explore the possibilities of combining prose with visual art, where the art isn’t simply a secondary illustrative thing but serves a narrative purpose too and actively contributes to the story, however elliptically. I’d worked on something similar before but with poetry. The poetry collection The Bridge of Shadows a collaboration with my old friend Bill Howe, explores a similar area where Bill’s photographs and my poems exist in a field of analogical and enigmatic associations. The photographs aren’t there as illustrations, they are a visual counterpart to the poems. So the image can act as a counterpoint to the text and vice versa. The title of the book infers this relationship. The image and the text exist in a complex relationship where they might on the one hand attract and on the other repel one another. The visual image might first seem to overpower and silence the poem or the poem might in some subtle way suffuse or question the image. And all the while in the flux of this dynamic interrelationship all manner of other poetic associations might be vying to be heard or imagined. The text and the image might cancel each other out or they might help each other to speak in another unexpected way. It’s a game that emphasises the part played by the reader to find their own associations between poem and photograph.
There were too many external factors and pressures involved in the creation of The Satyr for it to fulfil its potential. It was completed within one month due to the deadline, so it was rushed. It was an opportunity I had to take at that time. As a friend remarked, it was like a concentrated version of a much bigger book waiting to emerge, which I think is a fair point. So I see it as flawed but I’m glad I did it. I’d like to revisit The Satyr but we’ll see. The form of combining image with text however may be rather unattractive to many publishers.
In your work with book illustration – a special and unique work, a imagerie that dialogue with the plot and meaning of the book but preserve your marks and vision – the image creation process needs some narrative treatment, some form to create a visual and synthetical adaptation?
When creating narratives that mix text and image, which one comes first? Tell us a little of his working method.
I’ll answer these questions together if I may, as I think they cover similar ground if I understand them correctly.
So far it’s depended upon the individual book. With In Delirium’s Circle the text came first in the sense that it started out as an unpublished short story. So that kernel of words came first yet as the novel took shape the drawings emerged as part of the momentum of creation. Part of it involved practical and budgetary considerations later, so discussions took place with the editor, Mark Beech at Egaeus Press, but if anything Mark encouraged me and said it wasn’t a problem to include more drawings and just take the time to get it right, to complete it as I’d fully envisaged it. So a few of the drawings came later in the process and were suggested to me from the numerous times I’d reread and redrafted passages of the novel. The Bestiary of Communion differed and is largely a conventional case of illustration. Two of drawings came after the stories were completed. As with The Satyr it was another case where publishing constraints meant a project couldn’t reach its full fruition and the result I think shows that it was quite rushed, at least with the story My Mistress, the Multitude. However with this story the image of the Countess/ Sphinx was developed as a drawing during the process of writing the story.
With the writing of The Satyr it was a matter of sometimes leaving spaces into which the drawing would be later inserted or making a textual reference and then creating the drawing afterwards and leaving the possibility for fluid adaptations of either text or image later, synthesis as you rightly describe it. I often thought about a drawing and developed the idea in my mind while writing the story. So sometimes the order of these things is very difficult to convey. Sometimes the idea of a drawing might suddenly emerge anticipating the later events of the story, taking the story on another trajectory. Ideas for visual images, or actual visual images might come to mind and shape the development of the story. So there have been instances where the image and a textual passage have emerged simultaneously, out of an interrelationship where they mutually transform one another as I develop the story. For me this is partly why I want to explore this method and form further. While I think one could make comparisons with the relationship of script/ dialogue and image in film the use of visual images and prose is of a different order I think. The other obvious comparison of course is the comic book, which was very important to me in my childhood. Yet I also think William Blake’s use of images with words left its mark on me too.
Are you working on some narrative at the moment? Talk about some of your future plans.
Well, I’m rather superstitious about discussing creative plans. I have quite a major project in mind that I’m waiting for the right opportunity to get to grips with, so at the moment I’m working on something more immediately realisable.
Currently I find myself working on many stories simultaneously, mainly short stories but a more substantial tale too concerning the origins of William Fetch, the protagonist of In Delirium’s Circle, yet I’m unable to reach a point where I’m able to look at conclusive drafts. This is entirely to do with personal circumstances that greatly limit the work I’m currently able to do. 2012 was a difficult year, intensely creative in one respect in finishing the work on my novel, yet at the same time terribly traumatic as a close friend of mine committed suicide which had terrible repercussions on my own circumstances too. I have to take courage though in the fact that I was able to deliver my novel under such duress. So I’m slowly working towards a collection of stories that I hope will be out in 2014. It’ll feature previously published stories that I’ve re-worked but also new unpublished work too.
This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.