Just before I started writing this blog I read a brilliant book called Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont, a dark and surreal tale about a late night taxi-driver which was brought to my attention by Scott Pack. His review of that book is here. On the publication of his second novel, The Juggler, I got the chance to ask him some questions about his work. Many thanks once again to him and editor Anne Westgarth at Myrmidon Books.
Your first novel Thirteen drew on your experiences as a late night taxi driver in Brighton. What was the strangest thing that happened during that time?
Well, the scene in Thirteen where an immediately post-operative transsexual asked me to de-flower her was absolutely true, so I guess that was pretty strange – and there really was a fire when I got her home, although whether they were rabbit hutches that were burning is another matter.
What was the inspiration for writing The Juggler?
Thirteen is very much a book about personal ‘stuff’ and the process of dealing with it.I became aware quite quickly, though, whilst writing it that we all carry stuff that can be seen as impersonal – what we have to face because we are human beings, regardless of our biographies. In Buddhist philosophy these are often referred to as ‘the five hindrances’ – Sense desire, Ill Will, Restlessness & Anxiety, Sloth & Torpor and Doubt & Indecision. These are the titles of 5 of the chapters of The Juggler.
Does that mean that you hope people reading The Juggler will find relevance in Mark’s story regardless of their own personal biography and indeed his, that there will be a universal appeal to this impersonal enquiry?
Yes, as far as the relevance of it goes. I would also say that what I value most in the literature that I read is a sense of psychological truth. No matter how weird a story becomes, does it hold to its own truth? I pondered this a lot whilst writing The Juggler.
Reading your books I was reminded of writers like Kafka and Auster. What writers have influenced you?
Hermann Hesse, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre.
You highlighted the top 10 books about psychological journeys in an article for The Guardian. What attracts you to this kind of writing and is it a style you’ll continue to use?
I don’t really think of it as a style, but more as a subject matter. I am more and more interested in what psychological authenticity is, and how we can achieve it. Most people (myself included) spend a lot of the time being flotsam before a whole set of habits and ego-dominated drives towards judgement, gratification and status. This can be pretty dark stuff if you look at the internal tyranny involved, and getting to grips with it has to be a journey of some kind, I guess…
You work as a psychotherapeutic counsellor. Can you explain a bit more about what that is?
My counselling training was framed within psychoanalytical theory, although my practice is very much about building a relationship with my clients (rather than being the ‘blank screen’ of the psychiatrist). Perhaps this was where a lot of my interest in authenticity comes from. People in the West tend to be addicted to ego things – stimulation and arousal (intellectual as well as sensual), inflated self-worth, competitiveness. We often seek peace, but when offered the time to genuinely sit peacefully with our own experience, we distract ourselves with busy-ness, chasing our tails and yet yearning for that which we are denying ourselves. I try to help people sit with themselves for long enough to see what’s beneath all that ego chatter.
Do you see your fiction as an extension of that work, vice versa, or are the two separate?
My fiction is a product of my own therapeutic enquiry. A question such as ‘Who am I?’ can never be answered, but the journey of trying to understand it as a question has limitless possibilities, and can lead to very counter-intuitive realisations.
In that search for psychological authenticity is there a danger of not liking the person that you find?
In the apparently paradoxical way of these things, the answer seems to be both yes and no. What often happens is that when people really sit with their experience for the first time, they will inevitably come across stuff about themselves that they dislike. However, what they’re really seeing are the parts of themselves that are not authentic. Getting through that to the genuinely authentic in ourselves will always be a journey towards happiness.
How do you go about the process of writing? What is your writing environment like?
I have no specific environment, and work at any computer at any desk. What I need is head-space, and time to think. The environment is secondary.
There is a malign presence in your work, a real sense of danger. Where does that sense come from?
Ha ha! Well, ‘malign presence’ is quite a way of describing it! If you think of what I have said above about ego-domination, then I think that every one of us who has not yet mastered their ego (i.e. 99% of us) has a part of themselves that is a ‘malign presence’. How many times have you done something even though you know you ‘shouldn’t’ or in the knowledge that you’ll end up regretting it? I am just being true to human-being-ness…I would add that I think the world provides plenty of opportunities for humour and that, really, the other side of ‘malign presence’ is a humour at the absurdity of the world, and at ourselves.
You may have noticed that this is question 13. Are you a superstitious man?
Most people are superstitious, even though they try not to be. I wanted to say ‘no’ to this question, but then I remembered crossing my fingers about something only this morning, so there we go!
Without spoiling anything of course, can you explain a bit more about what the character of the juggler represents?
The Juggler is one of the most powerfully symbolic of the Tarot cards. He can taunt, tease, infuriate and challenge but is ultimately wise. He is the teller of uncomfortable truths.
I seem to have read quite a few books recently featuring men of about 30 being forced to evaluate their lives. Is the mid-life crisis happening earlier?
Mid-life crises usually happen when a person realizes that the drive for money, status influence and respect is not really going to come true in the way that was imagined. Usually, people are happier after they’ve had their crises and dealt with some of that unhelpful yearning, and so I guess earlier is better.
It’s interesting that many people use that moment of crisis and conflict as the starting point for a creative work. Out of the ashes…
Yes, I am certain that is true, although I am also rather wary of it as a concept. I have known a number of writers who have felt that you can only write from a position of personal angst, and although it does seem to be true that angst can cause a sort of gush of creative energy, other more benign states of mind work just as well (in my opinion). I think using a moment of crisis as you describe can be very cathartic and helpful, but perpetuating it for the sake of creativity as many people do is very harmful.
Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, a dark, optimistic novel called The Conjuror, about a counsellor…
Could you recommend an undervalued book that readers of this blog should rush out and buy?
Hermann Hesse’s Journey To The East, which is back in print, thankfully. Hesse is brilliant at the mythic, but also at the ephemeral nature of our own desire to know ourselves.