To Create an Autonomous Fiction

Hugh Fulham-McQuillan discusses writing Notes on Jackson and His Dead

Hugh Fulham-McQuillan,
Notes on Jackson and His Dead.
Dalkey Archive, $17.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Hugh Fulham-McQuillan’s strange, disquieting stories have been appearing in various journals and magazines for several years now. About a year ago, Dalkey Archive published his début collection, Notes on Jackson and His Dead, though the book struggled to win the attention of readers. Yet, in reviewing the collection this week, Daniel Green described the stories as “intriguing in their inspiration and persuasive in their execution”, comprising a volume that “both hangs together conceptually and provides sufficient diversification”.

Green also pointed out that “Notes on Jackson and His Dead doesn’t quite fit readily into prevailing dichotomous categories — conventional vs. experimental, realist vs. fabulist — but this is a strength, as the book pushes against convention by reinvigorating aesthetic strategies that remain recognisable.” In advance of the review, Hugh Fulham-McQuillan was generous enough to engage via email with Daniel Davis Wood, to discuss the writing, the ambitions, and the reception of Notes on Jackson and His Dead.

You wrote the stories in Notes on Jackson and His Dead at a time when Irish literature is thriving, thanks largely to the proliferation of publication venues that your work has appeared in: gorse, The Stinging Fly, a reinvigorated Irish Times. But the book seems to have flown under the radar, relative to other writers who have published in some of the same venues during the same period: Nicole Flattery, say, or Rob Doyle, or Wendy Erskine in Northern Ireland. From the outside, this looks a little bit like the result of low-key nationalism — attention is given to Irish literature addressing Irish issues and Irish life, rather than Irish literature of a more abstract variety — but of course that’s an outsider’s view of things. What’s your view? And more broadly, how would you see yourself positioned in the wider field of Irish literature, if not characterised as “an Irish writer”?

It’s wonderful to see Irish writing doing so well, spurred on in no small part by editors who greatly value literature and seek to encourage it, and I am very thankful those who have published my work. I do wonder, though, about the usefulness of grouping literatures by nation as if writers were players on a national team. It has always felt slightly reductive to me. I have a theory that, in terms of influences on their work, writers have two selves. There is the one who is born in a certain country and who lives in this or another country, taking in the sensory experiences of their surroundings, amongst people and things, and they gather from these experiences what we usually call a life. And then there is the literary self that grows through reading the work of others.

I imagine one way in which writers differ is in the varying influence of the “real life” and that of the “literary life” on their writing. For many writers, real life is the predominant influence, and it may be true for every writer, but your history of reading will undeniably influence your writing too. I remember reading an interview with Javier Marías, when I was not yet published, where he spoke about publishers rejecting his books because they were not Spanish enough. I took encouragement from his insistence that while he was Spanish, the literature that inspired him came from many other countries. Ideally, we would group writers not only by their nation but by their reading and writing. They would have two passports, one depicting the geographical and cultural space in which they live and another depicting the literary traditions in which they work. We would speak of our nations as we always have, but just as importantly we would speak of islands and continents formed solely of books.  

In saying that, I am an Irish writer, born and bred, and there is a fine tradition of what might be called experimental writing in this country. While Notes on Jackson and His Dead was due to be published in Ireland, the UK, and America, it has thus far only been published in the latter, and it seems increasingly likely that Dalkey Archive won’t be publishing it in Ireland. My book not being available in Irish bookshops is very unfortunate. Reading the experiences of writers during the pandemic who have delayed publication dates, and are unable to launch their books, has given me a feeling of sympathetic déjà vu. Despite my book being published a year ago this month, I never had a book launch, and if it were not for Chapters in Parnell Street and Raven Books in Main Street Blackrock, who, knowing of my publisher’s distribution, ordered in copies from the US, I would not have had the pleasure of seeing my book on the shelves of a bookshop, or even receiving a finished copy. It not being published in Ireland or the UK has probably played a large role in its position on the radar. I have heard that review editors are reluctant to publish reviews of books that cannot be bought in local bookshops, which is understandable, too.

When it comes to the stories themselves, one of their standout features is that they have an interesting relationship with their own status as “fiction of ideas”. In your ‘Research Notes’ at Necessary Fiction, you write of your suspicion that “ideas may play the largest role in th[e] early stages” of your creative process; but you also write that the ideas you make an effort to accumulate — ideas drawn from “history, philosophy, art and speculation” — ultimately place constraints on your writing, “curtailing the choices to be made”. Can you elaborate on how this works in practice? Do you recall a particular idea that animated a particular story in a way that limited it, or gave it direction, or otherwise made it workable?

I meant to say that ideas, or situations, are often the first aspect of stories that comes to me. For example, the title story grew out of the (very) idle thought: what if people shed their skin? I was initially writing as if I was observing this character who shed their skin, and this narrator became the documentary maker and the character who shed their skin became a conductor and so on. That story was actually written very quickly, in about three hours, which is extremely unusual for me, and so I didn’t need to do any research for it.

I often procrastinate by looking up something that I had decided was absolutely necessary for what I was writing, and getting lost in further research that then advances the story in an unforeseen direction. You are introducing a piece of reality, whether idea or fact, that is new to both you and the story. For example, I knew nothing about sinkholes before writing ‘Entrance to the Underworld’. For the purpose of the story, though, it made sense that the woman’s brother did know, and so learning about sinkholes, and how people have related to them in the past, fixed certain elements — such as the brother’s almost obsessive interest in the Mayan belief that sinkholes were openings made by Chaak, a god of life and water that led to the underworld, or the gaping mouths of earth gods. This, in turn, led to the title, as that Mayan belief reminded me of an article I had recently read by Lydia Davis, comparing her translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way to that of Scott Moncrieff’s. As evidence for her argument that hers ran closer to the original text, she compared Scott Moncreiff’s translation of l’entrée des Enfers, “jaws of Hell” with her own “Entrance to the Underworld”.

Another example is the story ‘Theme on the Character and the Actor’. While it is an homage to Borges’ ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, it came into being after I learned that that Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a renowned Shakespearean actor, whose favourite role was that of Brutus, Julius Caesar’s assassin. Booth’s father, who was also a well- known Shakespearean actor, was called Junius Brutus Booth. The parallels were too numerous not to make it fiction.

At what point in the creative process do you move from the consideration of ideas to paying attention to style, on a sentence-by-sentence level? I ask this because I’m quite struck by the anti-visual nature of several stories. By this I mean that you use words to describe something that the reader can sense, if not exactly picture, in the mind’s eye, though it would be virtually impossible to capture on film or translate into a visual medium.

The title story, ‘whiteroom’, and ‘Fog’ contain the most prominent examples of this, and the indeterminacy of the narrator of ‘(Within This Space)’ speaks to the same phenomenon. Here it feels as if the writing itself is being driven by an exercise in style, rather than an elaboration on a philosophical idea that provides a narrative premise. That is, it feels as if you are using writing to describe something outside writing that can in fact only exist in writing, so that your words create a hermetic world rather than reflecting some prior conception of an external reality. How much of this is an intentional effect that you aim to capture before you begin writing, and how much comes about from the struggle to combine ideas with sentences?

I’m a slow writer. I go through a lot of drafts before I see myself in my writing. I think of it as a process of accretion, like a painter layering paint on the canvas until they’re happy with it. Really, the ideas serve as inspiration, something to get me into the space of writing. Depending on how well the writing is going, my focus quickly moves into the story itself, and my need for whatever idea it was disappears unless, as I mentioned above, the story needs it, or I feel I need it to write the story. I am very much a utilitarian in this way.

One of my aims when writing these stories was to create a sort of autonomous fiction like that of Beckett’s later fiction, as I strongly believed that that was the highest level of fiction that could be achieved, a pure literature that could exist only in language (my views have since become more catholic). While this was something that I had hoped to achieve, I couldn’t say that I intentionally aimed toward this when writing the individual stories, so I am delighted that they created that effect when you read them. As I did not study writing or literature formally, I’m not always sure why or what I have done, only that it works or it doesn’t. With each new story I tried only to make a piece of fiction that worked, from the first line to the last.

In the (decidedly mixed) review in Kirkus, your reviewer described the book as “ambitious but uneven” and lamented that “tremendous potential is sometimes buried beneath a miasmic stylistic expression”. I take it that the reviewer means narrative potential — the potential for a great story, unencumbered by “continental philosophy” and “contemporary cynicism” — but I find great rewards in your vexed relationship with the very possibility of straightforward storytelling. What does this relationship entail in the heat of the moment, when you’re putting one scene after another? Does it ever happen that storytelling itself threatens to run away with you, so you have to consciously cut back on events in order to not let narrative dominate? Or are these stories the output of someone who just naturally feels that there are more important and effective things to writing than narrative?

Thank you, yes, I think there has been an overvaluing of narrative in contemporary discussions around literature but also in our wider society. While narrative plays a large role in how we perceive and understand the world and ourselves, it necessarily skips over parts of reality, which is a problem because, as I wrote elsewhere, in the battle between narrative and fact, narrative almost always wins. It is an inherently seductive form, and it is for this reason that it is so popular, and it is for this same reason that I distrust it.

Beyond fiction, there are occasions when narrative is immensely important, like in therapeutic settings or in the broadening of societal narratives by including those of people who had previously been excluded. But it is also used whenever people want to elide the truth, like in advertising, or when the powerful want to demonise or divide the less powerful. Narrative is important. We couldn’t live without it, but we need to think of it as a tool that can be used to our benefit or to harm us, rather than an indisputable good.

So yes, I believe there is much more to writing than narrative. I am always trying to write against it in some way, and I most enjoy writing that manages to do this. I don’t think I could ever write fiction that doesn’t in some way acknowledge its status as such. It would feel unethical somehow, like I was condescending to the reader. I couldn’t do it.

Finally: influences. Also in your ‘Research Notes’, you credit “the Kafkas, Lispectors and Prousts” as influences on your work. Meanwhile, Dalkey Archive compares your work to Borges, Poe, and Donald Barthelme. These seem like quite distinct sets of forebears. Your choicess are more meditative and atmospheric; Dalkey’s are more allegorical and/or absurd (though Borges and Poe are both quoted in the text). And indeed, one of the things that Daniel Green suggests in his review of Notes on Jackson and His Dead is that the Barthelme comparison doesn’t sit quite right. But perhaps you see things otherwise. What is it particularly that you think you’ve picked up from Kafka, et al? And would you say that comic writers like Barthelme, or potentially others, have played a role in colouring your work?

When I mentioned Kafka, Lispector, and Proust, I was thinking of their inward focus. In their depiction of inner states, they are absolute realists. I would like to think that they have influenced me in some way. How, I don’t know, but their influences — and more particularly those of Kafka and Proust — have seeped into the literary atmosphere to such a degree that, when reading any serious writer who has come after them, whether they write in their wake or against it, you are more likely to be exposed to their influence than not.

I think the greatest achievement of these writers was their ability to go beyond convention, stereotypes, calcified narratives, and the structures of society, to excavate a hidden or previously unspoken part of the human experience and mimic this in their writing. They excavated parts of the human experience that had, until then, remained hidden. At the most reductive level there is the anxiety, existential and psychological, of Kafka’s characters, the analysis of identity and being in Lispector, and the study of perception and memory Proust. And most importantly, they each did this in a way that only they could.

While I don’t believe that we experience the higher levels of consciousness entirely in language, reading words on a page is the closest approximation to eavesdropping on someone’s conscious mind that I can think of. Literature’s greatest strength is that language is its sole material, which is why, in my opinion, many of the greatest writers have in some way transformed how we understand ourselves and how we relate to the world. Just as an academic finds that the more advanced they become in a subject the more aware they are of the gaps in their knowledge, great writing exposes the reader to the mysteries and complexities of experience. In contrast, the worst writing can only make our world smaller.

It was in the work of these writers that I found what I was trying to do in my writing. I would add Poe in there, too. I think I learned mostly that fiction is at its strongest, and most honest, when written from the first person (Kafka’s third person is an honorary first person). Describing the world is fraught with questions about objectivity and bias, but the moment you write from inside the narrator’s mind the shape of their perspective becomes as important as anything beyond it.

I haven’t read enough Barthelme for him to be a very strong influence. Rather than comic writers, I would say that comedy programmes have had a greater influence in my writing. I rarely watch drama on TV. But again, returning to those big names, Proust and Kafka can be very funny. I always appreciate it when a writer isn’t afraid to be funny. Writing is after all a form of play.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.