“We are at a profoundly exciting moment
in the development of the history of narrative art.”
Interview with Jo Ely, Contributing Editor
CM Taylor is a literary, science fiction, and dystopian novelist who has published under the names Craig Taylor, Ed Lark, and CM Taylor. He has ghostwritten for an internationally famous author and contributed material to Plan B’s The Ballad of Belmarsh album. His journalism has appeared widely, including in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, and he is the author of five novels: Light and Grief’(both published by Thoughtplay), Cloven (Osiris), Premiership Psycho and Group of Death (Corsair). Grief was nominated for Best Book of the Year 2005 by the British Science Fiction Association. CM Taylor is Associate Lecturer at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies.
Ely: It would be fair to describe you as pretty cutting-edge in terms of working with new narrative forms, and finding creative and entrepreneurial routes to the reader. Could you tell us a bit about your work with apps and your experiment with the British Library, and your experience with crowdfunding your work? (Would you want to publish any other way now?)
Taylor: We are at a profoundly exciting moment in the development of the history of narrative art. Whether artists like it or not, technology leads art around by the nose. And new narrative art forms are springing up in the wake of digital technology’s development.
The artefacts produced in the years after the development of the printing press in Europe, where there was huge experimentation with book forms and types and sizes, were known as incunabula. Now we are in a kind of digital incunabula, and as a storyteller, I feel almost morally beholden to add my own experiment. Why wouldn’t you?
But I wouldn’t say I was cutting-edge. Digital stories have been around decades and I am a latecomer to this party. There are people far more progressive and experimental and forward-thinking than I am, who have been working in the space for a long time. People like Em Short, or Kate Pullinger, or Dreaming Methods, or inkle, or Simogo, or The Goggles, or Simon Meek, or Meg Jayanth, or David Varela. I just turned up at the end and went, “Woah, I love this stuff.” I am a complete arriviste. And what’s worse, a guileless enthusiast.
But I really do love the work. Things like the app Device Six, which hugely inspired my own foray into digital literature. Made by four guys at Simogo—the Swedish Beatles. Or like the Web documentary Welcome to Pine Point. Exhilarating pieces of work that are taking narrative art in new directions based on new developments in technology. And of course being an idiot I had to have a go myself. So yes, we created and crowd-funded a paranoid sci-fi app about conspiracy theories on the Unbound website.
But the truth is it’s been very difficult. We are in other people’s hands a bit, because we don’t have all the skills needed to design and program, we haven’t been able to deliver it as quickly as we would have liked. It is something that will get over the line, and something I am enormously proud of, and Crump, the guy that I am working with, is a human being I admire and love.
Now with regards to the British Library thing, we are collaborating on an experiment to document the creative process. They have put what is effectively a piece of spyware on a laptop on which I’m writing a novel, and this spyware documents every key stroke I make, and documents the time it was made. So every deletion that I make, every sentence that I change, it’s all there. It also takes screenshot every few seconds.
What are we going to do with it? Well, it is easy to imagine the keystroke data being presented in various ways: as an art installation; as slow television; as an app or on the web with a tempo control to watch the keystrokes at a speed of your choosing—a million key strokes whizzing by in five minutes. And hopefully we are going to get academic researchers who are interested in the creative process to get involved in it.
It’s an ongoing thing because the book hasn’t been finished. So every now and again I take my laptop into the British Library and they milk the data. I don’t know what they’ve got really. I don’t have access to the spyware program, and I don’t really think about it when I’m writing. But yes, there is a full documentation of every single thing I have done in the creation of a book.
Ely: Which of your novels most affected you in the writing of it? And is there a difference between writing the first novel, and the second, third, fourth, etc?
Taylor: I guess the novel Cloven affected me the most in writing. It is a book about the history of human relationships with animals, and ultimately how that has become a co-evolutionary process. And it affected me most simply because it took me the longest to write, and is the weirdest and the most off-track, a fabulously prolonged sojourn in an eccentric cul-de-sac. There’s lots of good things about the book. But really, I could’ve written a non-fiction book about the subject. Cloven taught me what the novel can and can’t do.
Ely: I would guess that it’s a hazard of being a satirist to occasionally be accused of standing for the thing you are trying to debunk. Have you ever been criticised by readers whose values you share, or picked up the “wrong” fans? And do you ever get nervous about being misunderstood?
Taylor: Well yes, the main character in the last couple of novels that I had published is a psychopathic, misogynistic, serial-killing England footballer. And he’s pretty full-on with his misogyny. And I was accused of sexism—the fact that I was engaged in full-throttle attack on misogyny didn’t seem to register.
So, I’ve definitely got it in the ear for satire, yes, but do I get nervous about being misunderstood? Not by readers. By the people I love, sure, but readers who misunderstand you, or misunderstand satire—and satire is an exercise in sustained sarcasm—they’re not really people you can worry about. They are literalists.
Literalists scare me, not because they misunderstand me, but because they misunderstand everything. And reasonable people scare me as well, enormously. If ever anyone tells you how reasonable they are, the chances are they are about to screw you.
Ely: You earned Masters in Anthropology from Cambridge University. Did that youthful training give you a kind of early insight into human behaviour, and maybe send you off in the direction of satire and dystopian?
Taylor: Sure, there is a connection between writing and anthropology. Kurt Vonnegut, himself an anthropology student, called it, “A science that is mostly poetry.” And you do study mythology and linguistics and ritual and community and identity, which is tremendously fortifying for a writer. And also I think it is really helpful not to study English to be a writer. I think having your head full of the same stuff that every other writer has got in their head is not always the best way forward.
There is a tendency in British universities, on the creative writing courses, to only employ teachers who have degrees in English or creative writing, and this self-perpetuating narrowness of artistic point of view is surely not good for the novel. Storytellers can equally come from physics, psychology, anatomy. I think that studying the thing that everyone else studies is not necessarily going to produce the greatest works of art.
As to how anthropology helped me, well, on a human level, the people teaching it were excellent people and they really put up with a huge amount of waywardness and dumbness from me as I was behaving in a very extreme and hostile and self-destructive way at that period in my life. So I am grateful to the discipline for attracting such developed human beings to teach it. But I don’t know if it set me off in the direction of satire and dystopia. My family are from Yorkshire, for many generations, and they are blunt and quite aggressive in their humour, and have zero tolerance for any type of hubris. They don’t just call a spade a spade, they call it a bloody shovel. So I think this militant calling-out of hubris and self-delusion and deceit is part of my family heritage, more than anything.
Ely: On a (sort of) related note, I really wanted to ask you about Kev King (the protagonist of Craig’s satirical novel Premiership Psycho) and President Trump. Kev is not so much a Trump voter per se, he’s more like the natural outcome of a Trumpish society—sexist, greedy, vain, and narcissistic. Would Kev have seen a father figure in Trump? Where do you think Kev’s brand of toxic male mythology comes from?
Taylor: Well Kev would have stayed in one of Trump’s hotels and been profoundly upset by the second-tier level of customer service that he received. The thing about the Trump brand is it is not truly high-end. It is for people who think they are truly high-end, or people who want to be truly high-end. It is for people who want to make it, rather than people like Kev who have already made it. Kev would despise Trump’s accommodation of the second-rate.
Kev would not have voted for Trump either. Politics is a misnomer. The most important thing in the world is customer service, and you get that from corporations, not politicians. He would admire some things about Trump—his route-one misogyny; his hillbilly materialism, his outlandish nepotism. But Kev would see Trump as an amateur. As a serial killer you can’t get caught lying, and Trump gets caught lying all the time.
As to where Kev’s toxic masculinity comes from, it comes from the same place as Trump’s—unusual conditions of unearned liberty and privilege resulting in incomplete sublimation of the id. Unusual privilege and dangerous self-regard are bedfellows. If you are rich, chances are that you will think it is because you are better, especially if you have not earned it, as then the need for self-delusion to protect the engorged ego becomes greater, and so pronouncements against those that contradict become more hostile.
Trump is clearly clinically insane. But actually as a British writer I feel it is dangerous to be talking about Trump and satire. We are in a perilous situation in the United Kingdom, not only with the Brexit vote, but also the way that the Conservative government are using Brexit as a diversion while they perform ideological surgery on public services, on education and health services, effectively taking away every concession that working people won in the twentieth century.
We can gain some light relief as we point and laugh at the funny orange American man, rather than dealing with the profound difficulties we are all implicated in in the UK, that are more ambivalent and much harder to face. Laughing at Trump while our own country burns is awful and dangerous. We are deaf, dumb, and blind children walking into a mincer.
I was good friends with the murdered politician Jo Cox. And what happened with Jo has made me climb down from satire a little bit. The situation is too tense and difficult. It is not enough to exaggerate people’s faults and mock them and pretend that they’re idiots. The situation calls for more compassionate and intelligent resources than satire. Satire is a tool for the outraged and the puritanical. But mocking our cultural opponents at this moment is not going to improve anything.
Satire is a sophomore and somewhat preachy reaction to a complicated and profoundly important moment in our history, and—I say this as a satirist—I just don’t think satire is good enough for this job. Only honesty and vigilance and love are good enough.
Ely: You’ve done some ghostwriting, if my research is correct. Is it perhaps ever a little bit painful to the ego to not be credited for your hard work? Or did it turn out to be quite freeing?
Taylor: Yes, I have ghost-written. And no, it is not painful at all to hand the work over and put someone else’s name on it. That’s the job. My expression took the form of portraying somebody else’s story.
There is an enormous satisfaction that comes with accommodating another person’s story and style. In film, that is what you do most of the time, work in service to somebody else’s vision. It is a discipline and a privilege to enable another. It allows the writer to have what they need most—to be part of a group enterprise.
Ely: What are you working on right now?
Taylor: I’ve just put to bed a TV pilot co-written with a long-term collaborator Jeremy Sheldon, who’s taught me a huge amount about the art of storytelling. It’s a historical action-adventure. I can’t say any more than that, other than it is absolutely kick-ass.
Then I’m collaborating on a period supernatural drama film with another writer, a relatively new partnership with a playwright and screenwriter called Tim Rhys, who I met at Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York last year. Tim is full of excellent observations and is great company. I am very excited about that.
I am developing a movie script of my own, a science-fiction story of revolution and technology which has been on my mind for about twenty-five years. And I am still working on a novel I have been working on for three years, which is the thing I am doing with the British Library. Plus, we are nursing the Unbound science-fiction app through development.
Other than that, I teach a lot, and I edit other people’s novels a great deal, something I really love doing. I get a huge bang out of entering the world of another writer to grasp their intentions. Their success and development is my own. Writing is a privilege and anything you learn at the coal face you are obliged to pass on to your brothers and sisters.
Follow Jo Ely on Twitter: @Jo_ely_ness
CM Taylor: @CMTaylorStory
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