On the publication of Anthony Bloor’s third novel, Simon Siabod Publishing spoke to the author about pigeons, plots, themes, and the brain of Karl Marx.
Simon Siabod: Anthony, publishing is a risky business as you know, and we’re still waiting for some indication that Larry’s Lessons might set the literary world aflame. Two years, and not a glimmer. So we certainly took a risk in publishing a novel by the same author which features a pigeon on the front cover. You must know that most people are pretty hostile towards pigeons, and I’d say you also took a risk in writing a novel that features one in such a lead role. Imagine how a publisher’s going to respond. They’re looking for another JK Rowling and a pigeon lands on the doorstep. They wouldn’t think it worth the time and effort to read it. The marketing folk would say no without even looking at it. You’re fortunate we don’t have a marketing department. Or visions of another JK Rowling. But you must have been aware of the risks?
Anthony Bloor: Writing is always a risky business if you want to be published. Any topical reference is bound to be out of date by the time a book gets into print, which makes satire particularly risky. As for pigeons, yes, I know what most people think about them, but we’re dealing with a specific pigeon here who has a crucial role to play in the story. I think one has to credit the potential reader with a dose of intelligence which goes beyond prejudice and is open to curiosity; if they’re likely to be put off by appearances, by the mere fact that there’s a pigeon on the front cover, there’s little I can do about that. You can’t please everybody. The mere mention of Karl Marx is bound to put some people off.
Simon Siabod: I think people are more aware of pigeons than they are of Karl Marx. Some people won’t know who he is in any case, particularly the younger generation. Whereas they all detest pigeons. As it turns out of course, Gabriel’s role is instrumental in bringing two separate worlds together, and one can’t imagine any other animal making the same journey with the same purpose. But having said that, is he just an instrument, a plot device, rather than a character in his own right? I mean, what do you think about pigeons? Where do you stand in relation to the vox populi, to the consensus view on pigeons?
Anthony Bloor: Consensus view? By that, I suppose you mean that pigeons are fat and lazy and basically a pest? Yeah, I’d go along with that, but then we’re talking wood pigeons. They are a pest, they devour everything, they don’t realise how heavy they are so they land on things and the thing collapses. They shit on food trays and the shit is disgusting, and they damage plants and anything that can’t take their weight, so yeah, I don’t like them at all. I don’t mind them cooing, cooing from a tree on a warm summer’s day, that’s quite pleasant. Just don’t land in the garden. But there’s different sorts of pigeons. I’m not all that keen on domestic pigeons, the ones you see on pavements and are always getting under your feet, but I don’t think they’re as bad as wood pigeons, wood pigeons are the worst. And then there’s racing pigeons, different again. I did a substantial amount of research into racing pigeons before writing the novel, and I was impressed by their abilities, I have to say. I have a lot of respect for racing pigeons. And Gabriel is not even a conventional racing pigeon. So yes, he is a character in his own right, not simply a plot device. In fact, he was the germ of the story, the story grew about him, and he developed just as much as the other characters did.
Simon Siabod: Right, so you too detest pigeons. Only joking. On the plot, Michael Eaton described the plot of The Big Wheel as ingenious, and the same could be said of The Messenger. Where did the idea for the novel spring from? If the story grew from Gabriel, is there a real-life pigeon at the root of The Messenger?
Anthony Bloor: The Messenger came from a fusion of things. Yes, there was a real-life incident with a pigeon for a start. But the background was the world economy which was going through a recession at the time. I can’t remember which one it was now, but I do remember Marx being in the news. There were one or two economists who dared to come out of the closet and admit that his economic analysis was turning out to be correct. This was to do with the cyclical nature of recessions, their greater frequency and so on. So there was that, thinking about the relevance of Marx. And then I’d been reading a lot of science articles on evolutionary biology and stuff which, er, got me thinking. And the structure was an important feature. It came from reading one of Salman Rushdie’s - Fury, I think. The structure was the most striking thing about that novel, for me. As a Rushdie novel I found it rather disappointing, but I was intrigued by the structure. It involves a three-part narrative where the first part takes you to a cliffhanger, the second part brings you to the same point but from a totally different perspective, and the third is the denouement. That’s the structure of The Messenger anyway, and I’m pretty sure it came from Fury. Which is a totally different story.
Simon Siabod: Gabriel… Fury? Do I detect a strong Salman Rushdie influence here?
Anthony Bloor: I am an admirer of Salman Rushdie. He’s a brilliant storyteller, and he’s had to suffer so much simply for writing a book. I read the Consortium edition of The Satanic Verses in 1993 and I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I had to wait for Joseph Anton to find out. He has been a strong influence in one sense, a source of inspiration in fact, as a model of courage in the face of adversity. Any setbacks I’ve had to suffer as a writer have been as nothing in comparison. And I think magical realism opened up new possibilities for the novel. It gave pride of place to the imagination, and restored a link between contemporary writing and fantastic tales of the past, going back to the Arabian Nights. But The Messenger is hardly a piece of magical realism. As for Gabriel… well, it’s a good name for a messenger isn’t it? I once shared a house with a Gabriel who played the clarinet. He used to practice all the time, morning and night. He did end up summoning the horsemen of the apocalypse, metaphorically speaking, but that’s another story. That was in 1993 as well. But the real-life incident with the pigeon happened about ten years later. As for literary influences, I’ve read so much over the years that it’s hard to pick out any single author as being more influential than the rest. They’ve all been influential, for different sorts of reasons. I read The Satanic Verses again recently and I did enjoy it, that would be my pick of the Rushdies, Fury the worst, but Fury did give me a framework for thinking about structure. As I said though, a totally different story.
Simon Siabod: Yes, the first part of The Messenger is a world away from New York and you describe the countryside setting and the local characters in some detail. Where did all that come from?
Anthony Bloor: From my experience of living in the Corvedale. There’s some real-life precedents there too, particularly the sort of changes I noticed when I was living there. In retrospect, I think I had an urge to record a way of life that seemed to be disappearing, threatened at least, by economic pressures and technology. Eroded by capitalism in fact. So it’s tied in with the rest of the novel in that sense. As well as via the story.
Simon Siabod: At one point in that opening section George compares the England of Virginia Woolf with the England of today and offers an account of how the class system has changed, with social attitudes changing “beyond repair,” she says. Given your urge to record a way of life that seemed to be disappearing, do you share George’s nostalgia for the way things were? And would you call yourself a Marxist? Do you want to come out of a closet?
Anthony Bloor: I don’t think George would call herself a Marxist, more a social historian I’d say; she used to be a history teacher, remember. And I don’t share her nostalgia for the way things used to be. My nostalgia has more to do with the passion for change which was such a feature of the late 60s and early 70s. My formative years, you might say. I read a lot of Marx. And I do think he was right in his economic analysis, I’m with Liz on that one. So would I call myself a Marxist? You’re asking me to think like Liz – she’s asked the same question in the novel. Well, yes, I suppose I would. No one has offered a better explanation for how the system works, in my opinion. As for changing it, that’s another matter. I was involved in student politics and I do have history as far as left groups are concerned – but it is just history, and not recent either. You’d be surprised how many former Trotskyists are now mainstream MPs. Not that I have any ambitions on that score. So I’m probably quite harmless.
Simon Siabod: The Messenger is rather pessimistic about change on Marxist lines. Do you not see any prospects for change? Are you actively involved in change?
Anthony Bloor: No, not really. Only as an armchair enthusiast, signing petitions and that sort of thing. I’m too busy writing to do any more. And I don’t really see any prospects for change on Marxist lines. We seem to be heading for a clash of civilizations, or rather between civilization and a violent and sadistic nihilism. Not to mention the possibility that we could all be wiped out by an incurable disease. The world is a very gloomy place at the moment. I get depressed thinking about it.
Simon Siabod: Yes, so let’s not think about it. On the brain of Marx, the project that takes up the second part of the novel, I got lost somewhere in the development from the point of thinking “this is all plausible, this is science fact” to the realisation that I’d arrived at a totally fantastic conclusion. Where does the transition lie? Is there a transition? Where does science fact end and science fiction begin? Is that a question you can answer?
Anthony Bloor: I’m not sure where the transition is myself. For all we know, some people somewhere could be engaged on precisely a project of this nature. We wouldn’t hear about it until something is produced. Plausibility is the thing. I mean, the story is the result of a thought experiment. What would happen if…? It’s based on science fact and then carries out an experiment in which a number of science facts are thrown into a mix, to produce something which to my mind is totally plausible. But fantastic at the same time. So I’m not sure how or where we crossed the line.
Simon Siabod: Technology is a theme that runs through all your novels. In The Big Wheel we have the story wizard and its insistence that Tom Jones is really Richard Hannay and the story he’s writing The Thirty-Nine Steps and we have the constant reminders of the original as the story progresses. There’s the virtual learning environment in Larry’s Lessons which goes terribly wrong and ends up in a mass brawl. And now in The Messenger we have biotechnology and a project that’s disrupted by the forces of nature. Technology doesn’t fare very well in any of these cases and your pessimism about social change seems to apply to technology too. Would you say you shared the Victorian’s dread of science? Do you go along with the idea that scientists in some cases are trying to act like gods, that they’re stepping into areas that are basically off-limits?
Anthony Bloor: That’s a big question. My experience of technology is based on working with computers in some capacity or other for the last 40 years, and as a writer I find technology very frustrating. It’s meant to increase productivity, but there are swings and roundabouts on the way. Apart from technical breakdowns, there’s the constant annoyance of popups and reminders about updates and upgrades and security threats, and you end up spending a lot of time fending off hackers and spammers and whatnot. It can be a nightmare sometimes. It was a lot easier when you could just use a software package to write and not think about those other things, but the Internet has changed all that. I don’t have a fear of science, just an enlightened cynicism about what it might achieve. A lot of scientific research is geared to the technology of warfare because that’s where the money is, so the benefits to you or I, if there’s any to be gained in the way we live and work, filter down some years later as an offshoot. I think artificial intelligence has some limited applications, and I have to say I’ve been very impressed with the developments in voice recognition technology. Not so long ago I would have scoffed at the idea that we’d ever reach this far, but things have moved on amazingly fast and with good results.
Simon Siabod: Speaking of artificial intelligence, there’s a number of themes running through The Messenger and intelligence is possibly the most prominent. There’s animal intelligence on the one hand, with the pigeon playing a lead role of course, and there’s George’s views on the subject and arguments about it among the various protagonists. Then there’s human intelligence, with the team of experts working on the Brain of Marx Project, and machine intelligence, with the machine they’re trying to build. And then there’s also a more pragmatic intelligence which one finds among the countryside characters, a different kind of intelligence from the applied knowledge of the scientific experts, but one that’s encapsulated in the description of Mary as a “wise old owl.” It’s as if the reader is being asked to weigh up these different intelligences, to put them in the balance, as if you’re asking the question, what is intelligence? Were you conscious of that?
Anthony Bloor: No, I can’t say that I was. My motivation was the story, and the development of the characters. It surprises me now when I read the novel, how much is in there. I get a different reading every time. I think you’re not fully aware of these things when you’re writing, you’re pursuing a thread, and weaving things in there that you happen to be obsessed with at the time. And I guess I have a lot of obsessions. They come and go, with the weather. And the seasons.
Simon Siabod: You must have been conscious of the ambiguities in the title. I mean, who is The Messenger? Is it the pigeon or is it Karl Marx? Or some other body or thing? And what’s the message? Love and Peace? Matrimony? Monogamy? If at first you don’t succeed, try again? Animals know more than humans? What’s the message?
Anthony Bloor: That’s not for me to say. You’re free to interpret the title as you want. I was aware of the ambiguity, right from the start. But my motivation in writing the novel was the story, as I said, and it felt better to leave the ambiguity dangling. The right kind of ambiguity can be entertaining, I reckon. It opens up meanings, rather than close them off, and I think that’s a good thing for a novel. It’s a good way to end.
Simon Siabod: Speaking of which, is that the time? The usual question to finish off then. What are your plans? What if anything are you writing at the moment?
Anthony Bloor: I’m concentrating on short stories. I like the constraints of the form. I also find it exhausting writing a novel and then reading it and editing it a hundred times over before that final decision – finis! The process takes over your life. There’s other things I have to do, other writings, so shorter forms are more convenient at the moment. I’ve written a few short stories over the years, but only when I’ve had something to say, so it’s taken a while to build up a collection. Other projects are in the incubator.
Simon Siabod: One more question. There’s one theme that flows like a stream through your novels, the theme of creativity. In The Big Wheel we had a stifled sort of creativity, a postmodern cum technological creativity that creates mutants out of originals. In Larry’s Lessons we have what’s virtually a study of the creative process itself, and in The Messenger we have the scientific project that’s trying to create, or re-create, the brain of Karl Marx. How do you see the theme of creativity developing? Is it there in the short stories? Where does creativity go from here?
Anthony Bloor: I haven’t really thought about it. In fact, it only struck me after The Messenger that there was a creativity theme running through the novels. It’s there in the unpublished first novel as well, probably even more so. As for the short stories, I’m not sure. If there’s a unifying theme there, it’s madness, in all its forms. But the short stories are more personal, generally they use recycled personal experience, so they refuse to be tied down to one theme.
Simon Siabod: And where does creativity go from here?
Anthony Bloor: I’ve no idea. Possibly a return to that first novel. It’s one of those in the incubator.
Simon Siabod: This is the novel you started in 1989?
Anthony Bloor: Yes, that’s right. It started out as a short story and turned into a beanstalk.
Simon Siabod: And we’re now in 2014. That’s 25 years in the making.
Anthony Bloor: Longer. It’s not finished yet. It needs a thorough review and possibly a prune.
Simon Siabod: Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 25 years.
Anthony Bloor: I hope so too.
For information on Anthony Bloor’s The Messenger, click here.