In a gratuitous and unabashed attempt to sell copies of his new novel ‘Angry Birds’, James Austin Farrell interviews himself about his new book and why he thinks everybody should read it. James, who has been editor of CityNews for almost two years now, and before that worked as deputy editor for Citylife magazine, has been writing fiction with a varying degree of success for about 20 years.
James: The first thing I would like to ask is why you insist on carrying around such a long-winded name. I’ve always thought it mildly pretentious, and madly annoying when writers include their middle initial or middle name. It’s as though they are trying to add gravitas to their writing by simply adding a letter, or in your case ‘Austin’. Do you not feel any shame?
James: Actually, I agree with you. It does seem awfully contrived. Similar to when people use the adverb ‘awfully’. The thing is, my dad was James Farrell, and so was his dad, and granddad (not a very creative family), plus there are two very well–known award winning novelists called James (G. and T.) Farrell, and both of them included the middle initial when they published. You could say they started the pretension, and I had no choice…So I do it because I didn’t want to be another James Farrell, but I guess I also thought it made me sound more writerly. I don’t think I’ll ever fully escape pretension never mind how conscious of it I am. I accept I’m slightly crooked. Aren’t we all?
James: What’s the book about?
James: Do you know that this question probably drives every fiction writer into a silent fit of anger? And yet that’s what everyone asks, ‘What’s it about?’ Maybe hoping for an ‘all-in-one’, DVD type explanation. They don’t exist. I secretly fear being asked this question. Think of a different way to approach an interview about a book. In fact, if you are reading this, never ask a writer what his book is about. Be more specific.
I can tell you it’s not a story about strange bellicose birds with super powers waging war against sedentary green pigs in shoddily built houses.
James: Is it your first book?
James: It’s my first published novel, but I’ve had novellas published, including an (online free) audio book, and other short works of fiction. I’ve also written quite an epic novel, a book that I always thought would be my great novel, but after five years and about 500 pages I had to get away from it. It terrifies me now. I guess a man’s history, or a man’s meaning-of-life kind of book is something that should be done in increments over a lifetime. I bit off more than I could chew so to speak, more than I was old enough to understand. Although I will go back to it, I just need to grow up some more. It’s such a heavy book. It destroyed three computers and was thrown away (by accident…?) by my ex-girlfriend. Angry Birds was something I was writing for fun, it was a break from the bigger work, a workable and pleasant impasse, even though I guess it’s still quite dark, and in parts quite heavy. It’s also funny though. There’s levity.
James: People generally say that everything you write is quite dark. They say you are sometimes depressing. How do you respond to that?
James: Maybe Carl Jung would say it’s my INFP (healer) personality type: Orwell, Blake, Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Camus, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Poe, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Thom Yorke, Morrissey. All of these ‘supposedly’ INFPs are depressing at times, but without their painful and tormenting versions of the world we might fail to understand chronic pain, and by doing so empathize less, or not appreciate joy when it peaks. Being dark or writing about pain, hatred, and loss is also hopeful; it helps us to reflect on things like goodness, beauty, comfort. I find vacuous ignorance more disturbing than Radiohead’s OK Computer or Knut Hansun’s Hunger. It’s selfish to turn away from other’s misfortune, but I understand why people do it. The strange terrors of Marquis de Sade, the isolation of Kafka, or the hopeless poverty of some of Dostoyevsky ‘s characters, doesn’t depress me at all. I find it life-affirming. I’m not depressed after watching hard hitting Mike Leigh films, or seeing how drab life can be on the streets of Baltimore. But the stir-crazy hill-billy ignorance of Fox News, and the hackneyed hysteria of those that parrot sick mainstream media, that can get me down…as can MTV, Obama rhetoric, Thai soaps, or the brazen product placement in money/ propaganda films such as Transformers. Sometimes I find shopping malls the darkest places on earth, even though they’re pathologically bright and everyone walks around smiling.
My favourite author is Louis Ferdinand Celine. Many critics call him dark, unforgiving, cruel. I’ve always read a man who is injured by the misdeeds of other men, the selfish elite and ignorant mass. His dark humour is a reflection of mankind’s sourness and barbarity, especially in times of war when Celine wrote. Humanity needs people like Celine. I’m not comparing myself to these iconoclastic writers and artists in the sense that my creative skills are on a par with theirs; I am saying that I respect them all greatly, and that is why I guess my writing seems dark. I immerse myself in other people’s misery as they did, and try and live it, so that I might relay it to you. I was also born melancholic. First time I heard Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ when I was about 14, I remember thinking ‘man, this is amazing’. I was in love with that song before I had strong opinions. Wham wasn’t my cup of tea.
Angry Birds is a dark tale, but throughout the book an idealist attempts to bring light into other people’s lives, although – and this also goes for the people above – by doing so he makes himself extremely tired and depressed. It’s a kind of martyrdom he faces, or may turn away from. It’s about joining the fight, or going home and hiding under your sheets. All good artists in some way are martyrs, because to truly reflect life you have to hurt yourself. It’s quite a gruesome story, and at times it seems that it is determined to self-destruct, but I believe for all the pain the characters suffer, their plight is not in vain. The most selfish thing in my mind is to go through life extolling your own happiness, giddy on your own fortune, as if you should be proud about it. It serves us all to get down with other people’s misery now and again. Life is a team game.
James: Where does it all take place?
James: It’s a short work, the kind of book you should read in one or two long sittings. I try to mimic panic attacks in many of my stories (having suffered from them as a youth). There are only a few locations, and so anxiety is able to intensify within such a claustrophobic book. A school (under scrutiny from the educational board) is one location, as well as some of the most ill-fated streets of West Yorkshire that I based on one particular (fictional) place in Bradford, and inside a house in the middle of a very large council estate not far from where I grew up. But as I say, the place is fictional. It’s an amalgamation of my nightmares and memories from the past, an exaggeration of squalor – although that’s debatable
James: What inspired you to write the story?
James: I don’t know really. Anything can inspire me to write. I’ve never been able to stop my brain from telling stories. Sometimes I walk down a road in Chiang Mai and see a man carrying a baby and I start telling myself his story – suddenly he has a history, and often the future is bleak. It passes time. I played the game Angry Birds and the characters just came to me, as did the plot. I didn’t rework the plot much…although I always play with almost every sentence I write until it seems the words are all tired out and stubborn to budge anymore. I guess I wanted to explore the darker side of social media. In the book, the game Angry Birds causes dissonance in a school classroom. The object of the game, to win by means of mindless destruction but where the levels are endless, is symbolic of insatiable capitalist ethos. It’s also symbolic that to get ahead in the game you can actually buy (with real money) special ‘power birds’, so to be ahead, you must have financial means, entry to a higher power. Envy plays a large part in the book, as does the manifestation of that envy. It’s about inequality, poverty, disenfranchisement, greed, discrimination, and all its negative consequences, including violence, a lot of violence.
James: Can you explain some part of the plot without spoiling the book?
James: The game serves as the catalyst to these young people’s resentment towards each other, their distrust of each other. They study at one of the worst schools in a poor part of West Yorkshire where “statistically, it’s an open and shut case” that many students will become unemployed, low wage earners, alcoholics, drug addicts, and criminals. These statistics are real, yet we can’t seem to overcome their reality. The Orwellian/Marist viewpoint is made known, that the education system is inherently unfair, as those born with more money always get ahead. Although it’s a thriller, perhaps even a horror, my political undertones are clear. But the plot is driven by violence and fear that surrounds the young men, especially when the villain, an EDL (English Defense League) supporter and a man with an unashamed passion for violence becomes embroiled in the plot.
James: So it’s a novel of our times?
James: Totally. I did some research into the EDL, talked to teachers in England. I read hundreds of Facebook Posts by EDL members and tried to understand their parlance, their plaints. I’ve also been reading a lot about radical theories concerning education. But the crux of the book, the violent behavior, the abuse, was something I experienced every day as a child. I grew up in quite a violent environment where bullies and malcontents were everywhere, including in my own house.
James: It’s starting to sound despairing. Maybe you are a downer…
James: It is despairing, in a way. Life on those council estates is tough for a lot of people. Crime, addiction, constant harassment, being skint, is not as much fun as it looks in Trainspotting.
While I don’t hide my harsh criticism towards what I still think is a discriminatory and inequitable education system in England, I have an idealist teacher in my story, based on my own thoughts and those of romantic philosophers such as Richard Rorty, about how the dysphoria can be improved. I believe education can save these kids, rather than what it does now, placing them at the bottom of the pile. Education serves as segregation. Education is presently just a sorting house. My teacher in the book, a kind of ill-starred loner, believes he can make a difference. He can change this, or help affect change. There is hope for the kids.
James: What do you hope to gain from the book?
James: I don’t know. It would be nice to see some copies sold, and of course being my first book I’d like people to review it. I don’t know if it’s groundbreaking, or even original; it’s hard to tell you how good I think it is. If you stare at the same object for a long time it starts to blur.
I believe that the system these kids live in has managed and sustained their apathy, their rage, and their sadistic impulses. They are determined by their surroundings, but can they overcome anger or hatred? My teacher knows what makes children ‘bad’, but that doesn’t mean he can fix the afflictions. Good advice, or being an avid Guardian reader is not enough for my teacher, he knows he has to get his hands dirty. As Orwell wrote years ago, we have to make sacrifices. Theory alone is an implausible stance against the ills of society. I hope people learn something from the book.
James: It does sound kind of heavy for a book about children.
James: I hope – it was my intention – to write the political beliefs between the lines. The book reads as a thriller, and I expect some people could read it and not ask about inequality, or what kind of an environment might cause someone to be excessively violent. Some people might just think it’s a nasty book about the game Angry Birds, which I guess it is. If you only read the first page of dialogue you might be forgiven for thinking a moron wrote the story. Much of the story is dialogue between teenagers. I think I got the balance right, between high and low brow. If the people I am writing about can’t understand the book then it’s definitely failed.
James: What next?
James: I have one more novella – maybe longer – to finish, part of a semi-autobiographical account of my experiences as a child all the way to getting to Thailand. After that I will return to my epic story about boredom, called BORED. And hopefully, if I am still alive, I want to write a book based in Thailand about romantic love and identity. I actually have a short story coming out as part of a book of short stories written by authors around the world. It’s based on a train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.
I want to say thanks to Spanking Pulp Press who published my book, and also to Dick Holzhaus for his support.
You can purchase the book in paperback or as an ebook here.