JMR Higgs speaks to Flinton Chalk
Here at The Big Hand we’ve been delighted by the reaction to The Brandy of the Damned, the debut novel from JMR Higgs. Here Flinton Chalk from the band TC Lethbridge emerges from his decades-long slumber to speak to the author:
FC: As I understand it, you’re won’t talk about what The Brandy of the Damned means, is that right?
JMRH: More or less, yeah. I made a promise to one of the first people who read it that I would never explain it, to him or to anyone. I think he feared that the explanation in my head would be a great disappointment compared to whatever interpretation he had in his head. So, other than to reassure you that the whole thing makes perfect sense, I try not to be too specific. I can talk around it, of course. I can talk around it like a good ‘un.
FC: One review I read said that it “was to middle age what Gregory’s Girl was to the teenage years.” Would you agree with that?
JMRH: Yeah that sounds good, doesn’t it? I can’t actually remember much about Gregory’s Girl but I think it’s a compliment. As for the middle age bit though – as I see it, for the first half of our lives we’re driven by a yearning for euphoria and in the second half of our lives we’re driven by a yearning for Grace. Which is a good system, I think, I think we’re lucky it works like that. But the switchover point is not an easy one to navigate, and that’s roughly where the characters are in their lives, so I can understand it for that reason.
But that said – if you were to set a novel in the very heart of Britain, you would have done that in order to talk about Britain in its entirety. The centre point is a good place to get perspective in all directions.
FC: Another reader called it “dense like a fruit cake.”
JMRH: Yeah! But that’s what books are supposed to be, aren’t they? Or at least, it’s how they’re going. Readers deserve twice as many ideas told in half as many words, I think. Especially in non-fiction, where there are all these ‘one idea’ books that would have made brilliant essays, but which have been strung out to whatever length it is that conforms to the publisher’s prejudices. So one good thing about the ebook revolution is that maybe we’ll get past all that legacy baggage and treat the reader a bit better.
I’m slightly wary that some reviews make the book sound hard going or difficult, though. It’s a really easy, light, good-humoured read. It’s only afterwards, when people start to write reviews, that they get bogged down with all the stuff that it’s dredged up for them.
FC: Is it easy to market such a book like that? It’s not part of any obvious tradition.
JMRH: No, it’s totally impossible. It’s a debut non-genre novel from an unknown writer, there’s no hope for it. But that said, there is always word of mouth. And a good way to get word of mouth is to write something that plays bloody hell with the reader’s subconscious, to the extent that they gibber about it afterwards with anyone they meet in order to get their head stable again. That’s pretty much the only option available to me.
I dread to think what damage my next one will do, that goes much further along that road (ED: this is a book that’s not been announced yet, but which will be out in September.) (UPDATE: Let’s say January). Reading The Brandy of the Damned seems to make a really positive difference to people, but the next one might undo all that good work, I fear.
But it’s a good time to do this because publishing is in such a weird state. It’s never been easier to get published and so everyone is getting published, which is great. But oddly, they are all publishing books that don’t need to be published. They are all writing books about vampire cops or some shit. Because that’s what the logic of the industry demands, you know, books which are the same as books that have already been written.
It’s no different to music or films or whatever. They’ve just made a $200 million film about the Battleships board game, not because anyone involved thought it was a good idea but because everyone involved understood that the logic of the industry dictated that the film would actually get made and they’d get paid. So as long as you completely ignore the prevailing wisdom of the industry, it’s actually a great time to write something like The Brandy of the Damned, something that I think comes from a deeper place but without falling into the moon-eyed, sentimental new-agey thing, because no other fucker seems to be doing that at the moment.
FC: But if they were, would you know about it?
JMRH: No, you’re right, that’s where the whole theory falls down. I suspect most of the potential readers for stuff like this don’t have time to read it because they are too busy going on the Internet to complain about the Battleships movie.
I take the view, though, that I’m extraordinarily lucky because I have such a remarkable readership. I mean, they’re great, my readers, they are qualitatively better than other writers’ readers. They just rock, basically, there’s research out there that claims that one of my readers is worth 50 normal readers. Why this is, I have no idea, but I’m not complaining!
As I understand it, all literary conferences next year are devoting sessions to debating the phenomenon, with an eye to reacting to it sometime in 2017.
FC: That’s not true, is it?
JMRH: No, not at the moment. But if you put it in the interview, and people read it and repeat it, it’ll become a little bit more established and that is almost as good as truth. On a practical level, I mean.
The Brandy of the Damned is out now on Kindle at the ridiculous price of £1.64 or somesuch, and will be available in paperback at a more sensible price in the near future. The author can be found over on his blog and on Twitter. Flinton Chalk may or may not appear online soon, you can never tell.