• An Interview with Austin Collings • 15.08.14
Updated: Sep 8
Austin Collings is an author and film-maker from north Manchester, he co-wrote Renegade: The Lives & Tales of Mark E. Smith. His debut: The Myth of Brilliant Summers, a collection of short stories, was published by PARIAH in 2014.
Interviewer: Why did you decide to settle in Hull, so far from the centre? Philip Larkin: The centre of what?
Why do you write? To detail the skein that separates unremarkable from abnormal. To keep faith with powerlessness. To make the art of writing popular. I am also forever in debt. I plague the sleep of landlords and landladies. Maybe one day it will all come good. Until then, I have days where I feel like Freddie Quell or the ageless youth in 400 Blows. I have no real excuses for this severe sense of outsiderdom, this stoical loneliness that has engulfed me since primary school. I only know it’s hard to get rid of. There was a time in my early 20’s when I used to roam pubs in London and Manchester, barely speaking to anybody, filled with chaotic melancholy, getting plastered and writing in my notebook, conferring yet more sadness upon myself, soaking it up for future reference. I still do it now but not half as much. Drinking alone is more than it’s cracked up to be. I’m happy in my own unhappy way. We have to acquire a distance—artistic, monetary, sexual—from the brutal meaninglessness of life. This is the game of appearance. The writing’s not so hard; it’s the living that’s hard. But then no writer is worth his or her salt if they can’t work amidst chaos. Describe the stories contained within The Myth of Brilliant Summers... The stories should read with a mystical clarity. You have to abbreviate into intensity; that’s why most of the stories are barely longer than a page, making the book the perfect size to slip in your pocket and look clever with. But that’s not to say I’ll always write in this abbreviated style. I’d also like people to be addicted to reading the stories, like a drug, or an image that creates a peculiar magic beneath the skin.
I don’t see other people’s normal or beautiful. I’ve been gifted with incident. I’m drawn to clips of incident. For instance, I looked out of my front window a few months ago and saw a man with raw red eyes and a Jesus-beard gone stiff and straggly. He was sitting on the small wall over the road, holding his stomach. He then started retching and being sick. But I couldn’t hear him. It was a silent sickness—so to speak. I just watched him, hoping he didn’t collapse and die. He didn’t. After wiping his mouth, he then took a picture of the flowerbed he was sat next to, using an old camera that he wore on his front.
At school I once saw a boy hanging from the library stairs at lunchtime. He’d used his tie as a noose. A few of us had been winding him up a few weeks previously: ordinary dark kids stuff. He threatened to come in and shoot us with his dad’s rifle. Myself and one of the few decent teachers, Mr Hilton, rescued him. The boy went away for a bit after that—not sure where exactly—but returned a month or so later and nobody said anything about the hanging incident. As a younger kid I saw the corpse of a suicide pensioner. She lived a few doors down from where I grew up. I remember it bright and sunny and the ambulance lot wheeling her out. Her sons stood watching. I stood watching. She’d hung herself at the top of the stairs. I always wonder why she decided to commit suicide at such a late age.
“Instead of committing suicide, people go to work.” – Thomas Bernhard
What is bad writing? The illusion of comprehension. In a trance of greed, modern publishers appear to be obsessed and in thrall to inartful and cosmetic notions of formula and familiarity. Proudly unadventurous, it has to be like this or like that. It can’t be something else. They want books like other books so they can market ‘it’. The ‘it’ cannot be difficult or challenging or an amalgamation of styles or genres and definitely not other mediums. The ‘it’ must make ‘sense’. Sense is everything, as long as it’s their sense. Every single element in a book or even film nowadays has to be understood—and understood at the lowest common denominator. It's a real shame, because there are so many places that people could go if they weren't corralled so tightly with those kinds of restraints. Don Delillo recently said, "American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous." This is obviously true of contemporary English writers.
“Specialisation means that everyone becomes better and better at less and less and eventually someone will be superb at fuck-all!” – Kenneth Williams (The Kenneth Williams Diaries)
Do you write everyday? I’m a binge writer. I go through phases. I don’t like it when writers say they write such and such an amount each day. It could easily put somebody off, thinking you have to write that actual amount.
Why work with us? I love a long shot and PARIAH is a rare rip of light in a bin bag of musty darkness. They got in touch with me via a mutual friend. They felt a connection with the mood and style of the stories—the menace and sadness and skewed humor—and saw them as a perfect starting point for their own vision. They have all the makings of promising independent publishers. I’m hoping they don’t do the usual; start strong and then quickly crumble and concede to fashion and modern whims. But I think they’re sharp enough to hold their nerve. They’re an intriguing partnership, almost a comedy double-act. I liked them from the off; first time I met Jamie Lee he was reading a book: Naomi Campbell’s Swan—and he handed me free beer tokens with a mischievous beam in his eyes, like somebody in possession of spectacular secrets. PARIAH’S other half—Jonny Walsh—is of the same bent, if a little less reckless and show-offy. Bright man. Potty dress sense; looks like a toy sometimes or a ‘nam vet; occasionally he even wears a wet-suit. But he’s got good reading taste; first book he lent me was Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, which is like reading the written equivalent of a lightning bolt. We’re all linked by an unfashionable love of Malcolm Lowry (the name PARIAH is a nod to that dead lunatic). Where did you grow up? Radcliffe, North Manchester. An eternal shit-hole, where the streets bear the apocalypse within themselves and where the people have an animal indifference to life. My parents didn’t have much but they also knew that I wouldn’t learn much at school so I spent a lot of time at home or in the cinema watching films and reading and listening to music; honing my own world. I also grew up amidst rampant pedophilia. I think my family were the only ones not practising it. Nobody batted an eyelid. Lawless, violent place, like Gummo or Twin Peaks meets Coronation Street. Eerily quiet as well; as I imagine Shankill was in it’s dark heyday. They’ve now knocked down my old school—Radcliffe High—in much the same way they demolished 25 Cromwell Street, to silence the radgepot demons. For me, the sound of England is a dog barking—at itself: The British Bulldog barking at itself in the same frustrated way a baby cries without knowing exactly why. That’s England and that’s definitely Radcliffe.
The first book that really grabbed you? Salem’s Lot – Stephen King. I was 11. It was a paperback. Black cover with a drop of red blood on it. The pages were aged and the typeface small. A lad at school lent it to me—Howard. We called him ‘Grandad’. The book was his dad’s who looked the same age as his son. Funny set-up. Cracking book. Howard turned into a cowardly shit much like the rest of Radcliffe.
Do you have any favourite opening sentences from books? “It began as a mistake.”
– Post Office, Charles Bukowski
“Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”
– The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V Higgins
I also like the sentence: “Trevor Axford, fist to his chin, asks Hal is he’s ever just simply fucking hated somebody without having any idea why.” – Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. But that’s not an opening sentence.
Tell us about working with Penguin on Renegade: The Lives & Tales of Mark E Smith... Penguin left me to it. No meddling. It was a special time. Lyrically, E.Smith is untouchable and has been for the past 25 years; the group name alone, The Fall, is masterful; loaded as it is with all manner of literary, artistic, philosophical and seasonal associations. He’s a true great; a force; real living fiction, and there’s something compellingly Sci-Fi about him and the way he sees things, like a character from Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, Riddley Walker. However, I still think the book could have been done better and I wish I’d suggested altering the first part of the title to—Grandad Versus King Kong—much earlier, but it was too late at that stage.
Best words of advice? I don’t come from a family of advice and I don’t really seek it from other people. But my dad once took me to a football game when I was a kid, 4 or 5—Bury versus Northampton or something along those lower league lines—and he said: “If you need to go for a pee do it in a man’s coat pocket.”
Tell us something good... Mate of mine emailed me a YouTube link to an interview with Elephant Man-era David Lynch the other day, saying that I look like him—or to be more exact—I look like an angrier version of him. At first, I thought he meant the elephant man. That’s technology for you. Compliments, distorted. Scarecrows, unlabelled.
Coming out of the bookies a few months ago, I overheard a mother behind me outside a shop, saying to her toddler son: “Either walk properly – or don’t walk at all!” What Samuel Beckett would have done to live in my neck of the woods.
The Myth of Brilliant Summers was published in paperback on Halloween, 2014