FROM THE CROW’S BILL: CRAIG WOODS IN CONVERSATION WITH CRAIG WOODS

Craig Woods RedshiftCraig Woods, you’ve given us an enigmatically-titled book of over 1100 pages in length across three volumes, incorporating a variety of styles and genres, and peppered with parallel vignettes that at first glance appear to place the work in a hinterland between the postmodern novel and the short story anthology. Care to explain?

Certainly, Craig, and thanks for the opportunity. Redshift Over Badtown is absolutely a singular novel and shouldn’t be approached as anything other. While some detours appear initially disparate, they will be seen to gradually coalesce into a single narrative. The three volumes are separate only in physical terms.

There is much in here, however, that is quite mysterious, and many enigmas which are not yielded easily, is that not fair to say?

Yes, that is entirely fair. Key elements of the book’s plot(s) and aesthetics are very much open to active participation by the reader. I like to share my toys.

For potential readers intrigued by what you have presented, can you provide a succinct genre description of the book?

A good old fashioned magical realist/social realist/Surrealist tragi-comic avant-garde pulp sci-fi romantic epic as glimpsed through a speculative lens generously imbued with the fluid and cryptic logic of dreams. Much like the firsthand experience of reality, in effect. Indeed, I consider it an entirely realist novel in the most candid possible meaning of that term. Perhaps I should have led with that.

Given the often (seemingly) illusory nature of the plot, I shall refrain from enquiring too deeply about that here lest we cast too particular a light on some of the more obscure aspects. But perhaps we can tantalise the potential reader by addressing the core concerns of the story; the themes and concepts that you’ve pursued. This is very much a story about stories, isn’t it? An artwork rendered in honour of art, and such… Feel free to stop me if this is all getting too dry and academic.

Somewhere a stable door is banging forlornly in the wind…

Apologies. This book is much more fun than I’m making it sound, isn’t it?

I hope so. Whimsy and humour are vital elements of the work, even if tragedy, adversity and horror are central. Still, your question is apposite. Crucial to the story is the idea of the arts as not only governing influences but as integral components in human psychology, every bit as imperative to survival as the respiratory system. A complete list of the many texts directly referenced and indirectly alluded to could feasibly fill a book on its own, but they can be seen to encompass all disciplines, a vast vintage, numerous cultures, and both extremes of a high-low cultural spectrum (should the reader believe in a distinction between high and low – I personally don’t and neither does my protagonist). I invite the reader to bring as much of their own cultural treasures to the story as consciously as possible. In the hybrid melting pot of cross-fertilisation that I’ve attempted to establish, you are encouraged to embellish its edges with your own songs wherever they resonate. As Annie says:  ‘Tune your ear to your soul and let it ring.’ The many mirrors and windows arranged throughout the story are likewise there for you to utilise as you wish.

Perhaps the first question that comes to mind when considering a lengthy book of this nature is what exactly possessed the author to write it.

It demanded to be written, having acquired a consciousness quite separate from my own. It began as a series of riffs on subjects integral to my own life and experience: grassroots arts and culture; illness; heartbreak; depression; quantum physics; the mind-body schism; feminism; radical socialism; the increasingly pervasive threat of rabid right-wing politics. Initially unrelated vignettes gradually displayed key areas of overlap, and the various threads drew me towards a unifying narrative that seemed dauntingly cosmic in scope. Nonetheless I set about tying the threads together, bolstering them with new strands that revealed themselves in the process, their logic often seemingly absurd but compelling.

Redshift Volume ICan you identify a singular impetus? What was the kernel from which the rest of the main story evolved?

It really was an amalgamation of several narrative threads in search of a direction that all found each other gradually, but the relationship between Squirrel and Annie was the essential core. That was something that sprang from a dream I had a few years ago. The dream was almost exactly what you read in the first few pages of the opening chapter: this strange young girl appearing in my frozen backcourt, seemingly out of nowhere, with this aura of fear and trouble around her, and this book full of secrets that she was reluctant to impart; maybe even the secrets of the universe itself. In the dream, the girl spoke exclusively in Anne Sexton quotes, but because it was a dream they weren’t real quotes, just weird warped phrases with a flavour of Sexton. I woke from that dream excited. I could see immediately the possibility of an enticing magical realist mystery around this girl as she was led around a more kind of social realist Glasgow from which she would yield surreal visions and portents. 

The theme of secrets, of characters keeping things hidden, often even from themselves, is prominent. I’m struck by how Squirrel’s eagerness to break through Annie’s defences is roughly proportional to her own capacity for hoarding unpleasant truths out of sight. 

Yes, her quest to solve the enigma of Annie finds her shedding much of her own armour unexpectedly. For everything else that Redshift Over Badtown might be, it is at its heart an extensive character study, one illuminated by extremes of passion and trauma. 

Squirrel and Annie’s relationship is quickly established as the emotional centre of the story, and it’s one that’s consolidated by their fortuitously shared interests in writing and art as much as their differences elsewhere. Right from the start there’s an eerie sense of a deeper connection between the two characters than can be rationalised in any realist interpretation. Were you ever worried about stretching credulity in this regard?

Never. I knew that the story I was writing was borrowing the clothes of social realism but that its logic lay in something more akin to Surrealism. I tried not to overthink it and simply let the narrative evolve in the way that it evidently wanted to. But right away I was conscious of both Squirrel and Annie as writers, as storytellers, and that in exploring each other’s worlds they could each be cast as a character in the other‘s writing. Squirrel begins the book as an authoritative voice telling us about Annie, but Annie proves an elusive subject with a narrative will of her own, while Squirrel’s narration also betrays some gaps and inconsistencies. I was keen to play around with those parameters; to blur the lines between storyteller and subject, a game in which the reader themselves would be gradually implicated. 

This also plays into a larger theme of identity in the novel, and the fluidity thereof. Time and place likewise become mutable, acquiring something like a crystalline state in which many narrative possibilities are glimpsed. In the novel’s latter half, a radical “splintering” of the narrative occurs, resulting in the redefinition of many of its components and some intriguing experiments with the text as plots merge in dreamlike ways and words even begin to bleed and dissolve off the page. 

This is the natural progression of the writer/subject conundrum taken to its absolute logical extreme. The book, in essence, becomes a kind of tapestry of dream and desire; a raw map of the human psyche, which is an extremely whimsical terrain. That said, there is a continuous and fairly linear narrative thread woven throughout. A lot of it is also enmeshed with the various theories around the nature of time that are explored in the story, and which form a strong philosophical foundation. From the start, too, there is a suggestion of hybridity as an evolutionary force, and this manifests in various ways throughout the book; from Squirrel and Annie’s mutual immersion, to the blurring of the past and present in the streets of Glasgow, to Soledad’s murky origins, and beyond. Cross-fertilisation is a progressive agent in the story, with ‘purity’ cast as its malign opposite. 

It’s interesting, because Squirrel, while passionately progressive in many ways, also seems mired in the past; waylaid and tormented by ideals of her youth and her sense of having squandered or spoiled something precious. 

Right. She herself is something of a microcosm of the larger battle in which she seeks to engage. These are very ordinary, human contradictions that I chose to cast in the most hyperreal dimensions. In my experience, the concerns of everyday working class people are rarely explored in this way in fiction. I was keen to do my bit to rectify that. 

As mentioned, time and place are fundamental to this novel, both as rational absolutes and as ethereal entities defined by consciousness and culture. Many of the concepts explored with regard to the perception of time and space are somewhat universal, but there is a very distinct perspective to the narrative that is firmly tied to your own background.

That’s true. The perspective of one having lived the entirety of their life thus far in the West of Scotland through the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is a bedrock of the story. Still, its relevance wasn’t always obvious in  the writing, or not at first. It evolved naturally. I don’t recall the exact moment I realised that I was casting my home city as a surrealistic frontier where art and aesthetics might be wielded as revolutionary weapons and tools with which to reshape reality, but I didn’t question it. (Any self-respecting Glaswegian already knows that Glasgow is at the centre of the universe.) The final binding agent was the protagonist who seemed increasingly elusive in direct proportion to my attempts to mould them. Just as I was poised to throw up my hands in defeat, she finally emerged; slipping through the narrative folds I had unclenched, fully-formed and lugging a baggage of personal history that I could not on my own have conceived. I had entertained numerous permutations in my pursuit, but none of them had foreseen that the navigator of this vessel should be an angry, thirty-something, working class art-punk lesbian who is far more than the sum of her parts. As the song goes, ‘You Never Can Tell’. Redshift Over Badtown is ultimately not my story but Squirrel’s, and this is how she wanted it to be told.

She’s certainly resolute in putting things across in her own particular way. Much of the dialogue for example…

Yes, the frequent use of local dialect was at Squirrel’s insistence. For those who may struggle with the vagaries of the Glaswegian tongue, she and I have agreed upon the compromise of a glossary which can be found at the back of each volume.

The lens through which Squirrel views and relays her story is, as you have said, very particular to her environment, but it’s also a little more specific than that, isn’t it? The subcultures in which she socialises and thrives are presumably very familiar to you. 

Many of the characters exist in a hinterland where Glasgow’s DIY arts and music scene overlaps with its grassroots political activist circles. This has been my milieu since I was in my late teens, so yes, it’s a world I know well. It was important to me to present that culture as truthfully as possible, incorporating its roughest edges as well as its more edifying attributes, and avoid the romanticisation of which I find many so-called “social realist” depictions of Glasgow to be guilty. Crucially, though, I feel this is a side of Glasgow (and greater Clydeside) that is rarely illuminated anywhere in fiction, so there was a considerable sense of freedom in not having many examples against which I might measure my work. Clydeside’s legacy as a largely working class industrial hub is of course a vital element, but this is neither a dewy-eyed parochial vision nor a pandering to the grim and gritty Glasgow of crime fiction (although violence does play a significant role in the book).

Redshift Volume III feel I should ask you about your use of violence, particularly in the latter half where quite a few very ghastly scenes occur. From early in the narrative there’s a suggestion of  a certain kind of “moral” violence (the oppressed striking upwards) versus an immoral variety (the hammer wielded by the oppressor), but the story presents both rather ingloriously. The distinction seems to blur in places.

The question of violence and its appropriateness is a crucial one in the novel, and one not easily answered. I must confess that I personally am not a pacifist. My feeling is that as humans continue to struggle to dismantle oppressive power structures or harmful ideologies, a certain degree of violence will always be necessary in some circumstances. This, to me, is a disturbing but unavoidable eventuality in the fight for liberation, and one which I don’t feel the pacifist lobby have ever answered convincingly. That’s not to say, however, that real-life violence is something that should be looked upon lightly or anticipated with anything other than horror. As soon as one rationalises violence for any reason, one is automatically on very shaky moral ground and must bear a heavy burden of proof that one’s actions are justified. In some cases they can be, but it invariably involves a trade-off. No one’s humanity emerges intact from a battle where lives are lost. But there are unequivocally people with more of a resistant constitution than others. In Redshift Over Badtown, I was consciously exploring the idea of alliances between very different players with assorted skills and motivations fighting towards a common goal. It’s initially foreshadowed in Squirrel and Annie’s conversation about the Spanish Civil War, where the question of necessary violence as part of a progressive campaign is explicitly raised. These concerns are mirrored in the weird mythic characters introduced in Annie’s scrapbook: each of them rebels in their various ways, each with different propensities for violence, strategy, empathy, nursing… a diverse range of skills and interests, gradually merging into one mission with inevitable internal conflicts fuelled by both moral objections and personal agendas. In a sense, the character of Sakura is the personification of this uncertainty: simultaneously an amoral force and yet also the truest, most literal revolutionary.

It’s impossible to speak of these various characters without addressing the fact that the majority of them are female. Indeed, through its two leads, the story is very much grounded in female concerns from the outset. This is really a narrative about patriarchy seen from an outsider’s perspective. Was it always your intention to write something like a feminist parable?

It wasn’t initially deliberate. It evolved entirely from the characters. As soon as the character of Squirrel had consolidated herself in my mind, she was quite forthright in showing me how this story should be written. All of the book’s feminist foundations were woven in naturally but quickly. Squirrel’s voice and persona were always very clear to me, and I just followed her lead. The whole thing really grew out of that. By the time I started my first draft of the second chapter, I already could see how her viewpoint – the viewpoint of a very particular kind of woman – would fertilise and develop and enrich the plots I had in mind, and new elements were continually revealed to me the more I trusted Squirrel’s intuition. It became clear that this was a story about women and girls who had to build and rely on a support network that operated under the veil of patriarchy but drew its strength from beyond. A story about women helping women, where men (even the benevolent ones) were secondary or tertiary characters – something I felt I hadn’t seen or read often enough. In reality, though, the credit goes to the characters. They showed me how the story should evolve without my trying to force it into an allegory. Had the characters’ voices and personas not been so strong, then perhaps I would have found it a greater challenge, and in all probability the book would never have been written.

As a male writer, what challenges did this female-centric narrative present, and how did you overcome them?

As far as the characters are concerned, all I had to do was let them breathe, as I would with any character regardless of gender. There wasn’t any magic formula, despite what many male writers might try to tell you in an attempt to obscure their own shitty characterisation and patriarchal attitudes. That said, I was fortunate for a selection of close female friends and acquaintances to whom I did turn here and there for feedback, guidance and advice during the writing, whose input was extremely valuable. I think the most important thing for any male writer crafting a story from a female perspective is to be conscious of their own male privilege, which inexorably colours everything we do, everything we think, everything we create, and is not something that can just be dispelled with good intentions. Part of the responsibility that male writers should assume when writing female characters is to recognise that there are certain areas of female experience that are untouchable, or ought to be, because men just cannot possibly have the appropriate level of knowledge or empathy to illustrate them in anything other than a reductive manner. How many exploitative descriptions by shitty male novelists of a girl’s first menstruation have we all read, for example? No one needs that shit, least of all female readers. A bolstered support network for women writers is the only cure for this mince. In the meantime the least male writers can do is employ a bit of imagination and appropriate respect in addressing these topics, which ought not to be difficult for practitioners in a creative medium. In light of this, there were certain elements (Squirrel’s memories of her adolescence; Annie’s burgeoning sexuality; the lascivious frolics of the Muskrats) which necessitated some tactful vagueness and/or sleight of metaphor on my part. There are still some explicit moments, but I tried to be as sensitive as possible with each. The key point, however, is that no matter how good or bad a job I might have done in representing female experience, it’s not my place nor that of any man to judge. There will doubtless be elements which come across as clumsy or lacking to some female readers. I fully expect and welcome criticism in this regard. Listening to what women have to say about these things is the only way us menfolk will learn.

This plays very much into the themes of abuse and exploitation that haunt the story from the start. There’s a real slow burn behind the novel’s first half; a rising tide of fury against injustice, specifically that committed against women and girls, that finally culminates in the prolonged howl of rage that drives the second half.

Indeed. From early on I knew I wanted this theme of a female-led revolt to be prominent, and for it to incorporate the rage of the young and the unborn; new generations swooping without mercy upon a patriarchal status quo in reprisal for the injustices it perpetuated.

On top of that, the book prominently explores LGBT themes. Presumably the same rules apply…

As a heterosexual male, I had to administer a similar degree of care with these things, yes. But again, the characters really spoke for themselves. The idea of minorities merging into a revolutionary force becomes a stronger theme as the narrative progresses, with characters of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds converging towards the climax, so I felt that I was at least travelling in the most positive direction where the identity politics were concerned.

Wounds, both metaphorical and literal, play a significant role as agents of change in the story. Can you say something about that? 

There’s little I can add here that the story doesn’t make explicit, but I suppose it goes back to an old adage about learning more from life’s ordeals than its pleasures. I got to thinking on the idea of how a network of wounds, mental and physical, could also be read as a text – a codex of evolutionary truths through which the subject might find enlightenment – and simultaneously as a psycho-biologic warren, a journey through which might be presented in a more literal sense. I had already been exploring Glasgow through a psychogeographic lens; casting it as a text of prose poetry, the reading of which permits a certain transcendence of time and space as linear, objective phenomena. At a certain point these interests fused, so that the mind/body-text and city-text were complementary elements of the same volume; the same fluid hybrid world in which my characters could wander and thrive and suffer and (in some cases) perish.

What were we saying again about being dry and academic? 

I’ll take it all back if you help me blow out the fuse on this petard.

There is an obsessive focus on the specifics of location, particularly throughout the first half of the narrative where minute architectural and natural details are generously celebrated.  How important was it to you to reflect these real-life environs accurately?

It was definitely important, but there was a degree of give and take. Glaswegians and other Clydesiders will recognise many of the locales described, and I hope will appreciate the accuracy with which I have attempted to represent them insofar as plot and aesthetics permit. There are, however, instances of deviation with which the more exacting reader may take issue. The journey detailed in chapters 10 to 13, for example, would rely upon an uncharted sequence of small but absurd detours in the real world. Laying all my cards on the table, I will confess that a few such alterations were administered purely for the convenience of plot, but for the most part they were aesthetic decisions in keeping with the book’s underlying ethos. Redshift Over Badtown is fundamentally a study of inner and outer landscapes and the less easily mapped hybrid territory where these two realms merge. As such, the Glasgow explored in its pages is one subject to psycho-emotional shifts, each more seismic than the last, that cause the city’s geographical narrative to remain only as consistent as the perspective of its readers/narrators.

On the subject of trusting your characters to show you the way, it seems they did an awful lot of talking. Although the book is littered with very vivid descriptive passages and impressionistic flourishes, a great deal of the characterisation and plot are propelled by the dialogue. Was that always your intention?

No, I must admit that surprised me. Prior to this, I had long felt that dialogue had never been my strongest suit as a writer, but these characters really took control. There were moments when Squirrel and Annie’s voices were so clear in my head that the writing of their dialogue got to be like taking dictation. Most of the cast similarly fell into place after that.

Redshift Volume IIIYou described the characters introduced in Annie’s scrapbook as having a mythic quality. What’s interesting is that each of these characters incorporates a familiar iconography but ultimately embodies ideals which are much more forward-looking. You adopt elements of the Wild West, Greek myth, Celtic mythology, Japanese folklore, Hindu legends, a touch of Latin American mysticism, and blend them with progressive politics, posthuman philosophy, and sci-fi tropes. The past is thus redefined as a portal to the future.

That became gradually more conscious as I was writing. Soledad and Sakura were the first of those characters to manifest (the former having in fact been a feature of my writing for many years, appearing in a string of short stories that pre-date Redshift Over Badtown). It took a while for me to recognise the mileage I could get out of playing with the iconography in each case, but when I did it quickly became something of a game, one that affected the development of several characters in the book’s latter half. It’s an extrapolation of the psychogeographical theme of the first half: this vision of post-industrial Glasgow as a melting pot of eras, where the linearity of time has been disavowed. The fact that the two characters most steeped in “ancient” cultures are also the two most readily equipped for the future that is glimpsed is something that plays back into the idea of time as circular.

This is underlined by the theme of generational conflict in the book. You quite lucidly present a case for the youth of today and tomorrow as harbingers of more progressive change, with those who would cling on to old ideals cast as enemies. Is your trust in the next generation quite so enthusiastic in reality?

Well certainly that’s what Squirrel wants to believe, and of course she’s highly attuned to evolutionary ideas. From that perspective, future generations can only be superior to those of us alive today. Whether that evolution takes a progressive form (the dismantling of odious hierarchies and a more responsible attitude to the planet and its species) or something more destructive and malignant is quite impossible for me to guess at. Certainly we should all be as engaged as possible in working towards the former. Squirrel is very empathetic to the young, and in this sense she is the embodiment of a frustration I commonly experience when talking to many people of my generation or older who are keen to denigrate today’s youth and its culture, adopting a very rosy-tinted and self-serving view of their own generation and their own bygone youth, all of which is deeply reactionary in my view. The theme of generational warfare grew out of that. I wanted to openly throw in my lot with the young firebrands of tomorrow in socking it to these crusty, self-regarding old farts. 

As discussed, the novel’s approach to time is fluid, but the main portion of the narrative, at least in the first half, is set very specifically in the first days of the year 2000. Why this particular period?

Bizarrely, the date, 2nd of January 2000, was actually a component of the same dream in which Annie first appeared to me. It just seemed such an odd, arbitrary detail that I decided to incorporate it into the story. It turned out to be perfect; this notion of time being at a crossroads, of different eras blurring into each other at their edges, this twofold aura of wonder and uncertainty. It added extra thematic gravity. More importantly, it opened up avenues to explore Squirrel’s life in greater detail, with the various stages of her past and future fixed to definite points in history. That was invaluable, as Squirrel’s story ultimately became the story of Glasgow, of Scotland, and of the larger world in which she lived within a very specific span of decades and the events therein.

Real-life events are referenced quite thoroughly throughout the book, some in documentary detail, others mythologised into skewed mirror images of themselves. Each is important in that it helps define the motivations of the characters and the culture in which they exist, but how did you go about deciding which events to present faithfully and which to translate into hyperreal myth?

That was never really a question in my mind. There are certain events in Scotland’s recent history (which is to say within the last thirty years) that consist of such tragic weight that I wouldn’t feel it appropriate for me to cast the specific facts of them as a canvas for my fiction. I wouldn’t even have considered it. For example, the events described in chapter 32 (and all of their narrative repercussions thereafter) are of course a warped reflection of a real-life tragedy that will be easy to identify, but one which is steeped so thoroughly in the themes and aesthetics of the novel that it retains a comment on the horror of the actual event whilst avoiding its factual details. Where I chose to maintain factual accuracy was mainly in descriptions of the Scottish and UK political climate: the passing of real-life laws; the advent of wars and strikes and other tumults; the identities of the crucial political players. Their accuracy was sacrosanct.

From Squirrel’s anger at Thatcherism to the mythic battles of the Muskrats, the struggle between grassroots progressives and authoritarian, right-wing regimes is a central aspect of the book, isn’t it?

Very much so, and it’s what led me to incorporate certain glimpses of the future (including our present) where more fortified forms of Thatcherism are working inexorably towards a far more aggressive version of that same austere mission. Considering the spirit of dissent that currently exists in Scotland (not to mention the conflict that looks set to ensue between Holyrood and Westminster following the results of the 2015 general election), the book probably couldn’t be more timely.

Craig Woods, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. 

My pleasure, Craig. Listen, while I have you, there is the wee matter of that envelope of cash you still haven’t returned to me.

Ah. Yes. There’s a thing about that. I had to take rather an unconventional route across the shards of time to make this rendezvous. The ferryman was quite a stickler for the fare, I’m afraid… 

Redshift Over Badtown is published by Apophenia, and can be purchased here: http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/books/apophenia.html

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