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the chemistry between the covers

Alan Bilton answers twenty questions about The Sleepwalkers' Ball



The question that everyone always asks about a book is 'so, what's it about?' But with The Sleepwalkers' Ball, in some ways that's a tough one to answer…
The book is made up of four inter-connected stories, all set in the same strangely black and white Scottish town, and these stories gradually link up to tell a tragic-comic tale of lost love and the perils of dreaming – or the perils of sleepwalking, at any rate. Underpinning the book is the notion that, as in a dream, the same characters – the lazy daydreamer Hans, Clara, the crazy girl from art school – turn up in different guises and different places, but that slowly their stories imperceptibly, mysteriously, merge into one. So, certain things – a heavy suitcase, a nightmarish train journey, pyjamas and nighties, a strange dishevelled band – keep on appearing in each of the sections and like some mysterious shape in the fog, the true story eventually emerges from the mist - with any luck, anyway.

How did you come to write the story in this way? In particular how did you come up with the idea of using the figure of the tour guide to show the reader around?
Well, I have to admit that I rather like moments in novels when the author addresses the reader directly and talks to you as if you and they are right there in the same room. Now I admit that this notion has rather died out in the modern novel – and that people rarely want to be reminded that none of this is real and they're just reading a book – but speaking personally, I've always liked that sense of voice, the author's own distinctive twang, as unique as a fingerprint. Anyhow, I was thinking about the author showing the reader around his book like a host showing his guests around some great house, and then I thought about all those ghost tours and walking parties that you trip over in the very places where the novel is set. Thus I came up with the notion of having this melodramatic, rather sinister figure taking the reader around the key scenes in somebody's life as if it were a ghost tour, the book taking on a gothic, melancholy air totally at odds with the slapstick comedy I was intending to write. And with that decision the whole tone of the piece suddenly shifted; now the book seemed precariously balanced between comedy and a sense of something much darker - or at least stranger. Anyhow, as I had the guide show the reader around I thought about including scenes that may or may not have happened, or things that the protagonist wished had happened or was terrified might take place. And this idea that our desires, anxieties and wishes carry the same weight as the facts – that to a sleepwalker, dreams are indistinguishable from reality – became central to the book.

Of course, one way of reading The Sleepwalkers' Ball is as a dream book, but that's also a notion that carries with it a fair few risks…
That's right. The thing about dreams is that really, nobody else is interested in them but you. If you have a really intense dream – strange or terrifying or moving – it's impossible to communicate these emotions to someone else who didn't experience them in the first place. Moreover, it's hard to get truly involved in a 'dream' book, for as soon as you know that everything is a dream and anything can happen at any time, things lose any sense of dramatic weight or tension – nothing really matters anymore. Thus I really wanted to avoid stating that any of the events in the book are dreams – rather, dreams and reality blur into each other, with strange, inexplicable things occurring alongside the most mundane realities of an ordinary, rather shabby little town. Kafka disturbs us because he denies us any possibility of solid ground: it is not that some things – turning into an insect, say – are fantastical whilst others are real, but rather that everything exists on the same plane and is delivered in the same deadpan voice. The dreamer can't distinguish between memory, fantasy or longing – all seems equally intense or upsetting or true – and I tried to keep the reader in the same state. No matter how strange what's going on might seem, our feet are kept firmly in the muck and the dirt – things still hurt, events have consequences, there's no way back to any kind of simplistic real. Thus, the book doesn't end with the line 'and then he woke up…'

One of the ways in which you try to keep things real is by setting it in a very specific location, a grey Scottish town dominated by a dark, louring castle. And yet you never say where this is.
I don't, but really that's how books work. If a writer describes a forest or a farm or a factory, no matter how detailed their description, the reader always substitutes a wood or cottage or, I don't know, a power plant of their own experience or imagination. It's the same with characters' faces: everyone comes up with their own mental picture. So, when I describe the twisty little alleyways, grey tenement blocks and gothic, overbearing castle, you can picture Edinburgh or Prague or something from a fairy-tale entirely. But against this impulse, as you say, you need to ground things in something concrete and real, specific places and memories rather than generic props hauled up from some studio back-lot. So for me the town is Stirling in central Scotland where I was a student for four years and where an awful lot happened to me – falling in love, discovering art, movies, books - discovering the world really. And all this autobiographical stuff provides the real emotional colouring of the book.

So, to be more personal, what does Stirling mean to you?
Well I went there this rather backwards, lazy, dreamy, um, idiot really, and I found out so much – all sorts of European films, modern art, books that seemed to have been written with me especially in mind. But at the same time, I was there in the late eighties and the town itself was very run-down, depressed, violent at the edges. It was the era of Thatcher and the Poll Tax, and there was real anti-student, anti-English feeling – so there I was, feeding my head with all these incredible arty things, and there was this working-class town mired in depression and unemployment, an almost overwhelming sense of greyness and lethargy. And this was a source of real tension. You had this amazing Gothic place, all granite blocks and twisting cobblestones and the castle itself of course, a place where your imagination could run riot, and then you had the rather grim reality of most people's working day, the 'real world', as no doubt my dad would say. And this tension is in the book too – between work and play, dreaming and doing, my rather naïve happiness and the melancholy hopelessness all around.

So what was inspiring you just then? And what are the inspirations for the book?
I was watching a lot of European movies – all the New Wave films, especially Truffaut who's also quite light-hearted about very sad things – and reading a lot of East European fiction too – the late eighties were a golden age for translated fiction from the old Soviet bloc, what with the wall about to fall. Thus I loved all those Czechs – Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, especially Bohumil Hrabal - who took depressing Soviet reality and transformed it into something surreal, playful and alive. And I think that's what art can do – remould the base reality of the world into something that responds to your own desires – or anxieties. Of course it's how you do this and don't lose yourself in illusion, how you simultaneously stay true to things as they really are, that's the real trick. But if you asked me what I was really trying to do in the book, it would be to turn my own experiences into a kind of painting or a silent film or a poem. What was it the American poet William Carlos Williams said? The problem facing the contemporary writer is how to turn the unpromising materials of modern life into art. And I was reading a great deal of American Lit as well, which I've gone on to write about and to teach. But as for British or even Scottish writers: well, for a whole generation of writers, the key book seems to me to be Alasdair Gray's Lanark, which is all about the imaginative transformation of Glasgow into a specifically Scottish model of Heaven and Hell. If you're trying to transmute a rather dreich, grey reality into something else then Gray is an inescapable figure, and all the art-school stuff in my book is a kind of homage to all he wrote.

And later? Where would you put Sleepwalker in terms of British fiction?
The embarrassing truth is that I don't actually read much British fiction. I love Kazuo Ishiguro for his voice – so restrained yet so hypnotic – and The Unconsoled was a big help in terms of trying how to figure out how to write a book that takes places on a kind of borderline, a space between anxiety-dream and wish-fulfilment fantasy. Oh, and the much-maligned D.M. Thomas deserves some credit too, for The White Hotel and Freud and the idea of writing books that only deal with poetic intensity without all the mechanics of so-called believable realistic writing. But really, American and European sources inform the book much more than British ones. I unconsciously stole the idea of our hero unable to find his own home in 'Our Grand Tour' from Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and all the laundry and the spectral, ghostlike figures wandering the streets comes straight from Gogol. But film was just as important to the book – and silent film in particular.

In some ways The Sleepwalkers' Ball feels like a silent movie captured in words – certainly there's a great deal of slapstick comedy in it, and Clara Bow, of course. So where do the silent movie references come from?
When I was little I loved Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, and then later on I discovered Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and I adored them all. It never worried me that they were in black and white or that nobody said anything: rather they seemed to me to take place in their own enchanted worlds with their own peculiar rules and peculiar logic, and I was happy to take part in them as such. Besides, there are lots of reasons why children in particular should enjoy slapstick movies: all those little fellows getting their own back on big, hulking bullies, a world where all the adults are clumsy, ungainly and dumb, a world without responsibility where kicks and shoves don't really hurt and where no matter what happens, everyone bounces up straight away, right as rain. Having said that, I also must have been a kinda nervous kid because I remember being desperately anxious about even the stupidest of comedies. If Stan Laurel messed things up, or Charlie Chaplin seemed to be trapped then I would get really worried about them – I identified with them that strongly. So for me slapstick comedy is about anxiety as well as wish-fulfilment, both a game without consequences and a sort of nightmare version of adult life. At any rate, watching a silent film comedy always makes me feel like I'm a kid again. The other thing about silent film is the way in which the lack of sound makes everything seem so phantasmal and ghostlike, robbing objects (and people!) of their weight and mass and turning everything into a kind of dream. And of course from the very early days of film-going, film was referred to as a waking dream, at once incredibly lifelike and photographically 'present', but also ghostly and fantastical, subject to both our wishes and our nightmares. The grey setting of the Scottish town made me think of it as a book in black and white, and from there it just seemed a short hop to recasting the book as a sort of silent film- the cartoon-like or grotesque characters, the dreamlike apparitions and sudden shifts in time and space, the way in which it occupied a strange sort of space between comedy and terror – all these took me back to the silent movies I'd loved as a kid.

And you teach silent films too, right?
Yes, I get my students to watch Buster Keaton's The General and Chaplin's City Lights, and Clara Bow and Valentino flicks – it's like a whole lost world, somehow ghostly and comic at the same time. And as I always say in my classes, you have to watch silent films in a much more active way, imagining the dialogue, filling in the narrative gaps, projecting your emotions onto the screen – you have to invest a lot more of yourself with silent film, you do at least part of the work. So in that sense we're back with the idea that, as with fiction, each reader or viewer in a sense rewrites the book or the film, colours it according to their own memories or experiences or longings. And that seemed central to Sleepwalker. Why not 'cast' silent film actress Clara Bow as my leading lady, and include all sorts of comic 'business' and exaggerations? If the whole book was a kind of silent movie then it could be both dreamlike and 'real' at the same time: not a real dream but a space on which the reader could project longings, fears, fantasies. I never wanted the book to be any kind of intellectual puzzle. Rather the idea was that the emotions of the book – feeling lost, lonely, searching for something you can't quite put into words – should be almost embarrassingly straightforward and apprehensible. It's not some kind of conundrum to be worked out: as Flannery O'Connor puts it, “the task of the writer is to deepen the mystery, rather than to resolve it.” Or as Wallace Stevens writes, “poetry is its own explanation”. It's a world not a word-search.

Why so many trains?
Well, my Dad was a railway man for most of his life – a track walker going up and down the rails looking for faults – and so we went everywhere by train was I was young. I mean, we didn't have a car until I was in my late teens (or a phone, but that's another story), so all day-trips and holidays were by train. And of course the idea of a rail journey as a metaphor for life has a long modernist pedigree – from Freud's argument that all dreams about travel are really dreams about death, to Russian novels like The Zero Train or The Yellow Arrow. But as for why the journeys in Sleepwalker are so nightmarish, I'm not so sure. Maybe it's images from the war, or from one of my favourite films, Closely Observed Trains, which is also a slapstick comedy about death, and juxtaposes the romantic with the sinister. I also seem to remember a scene from a Marx Brothers film where they're busy chopping up a train carriage to use for fuel, but I haven't for the life of me been able to find it again…

Okay: Ten short questions to end on. Are you a sleepwalker yourself?
Only when I was little, although I did go through a period when I was in my teens when I'd wake up to find that I'd hidden the house keys down my pants. Dr Freud will have to work out that one…

You're also an academic who's written critical studies of the American novel. Does this feed into your fiction?
Well, I'm very, very fortunate these days to teach the things I like, so I guess I'm drawn to books and films that touch upon the things which mean the most to me. But I have written and studied all sorts of different things. My PhD thesis, for example, was on Don DeLillo, a writer who I think I have nothing in common with at all.

Who's Hans Memling?
You'll have to ask a friendly Art historian. But it's a great name, no?

Does his art inform the book?
Well, I like his paintings of Heaven and Hell and the resurrection of the dead – but I much prefer the early Moderns, people like Miro or Klee or Chagall, artists who created their own instantly recognisable kingdom, each motif as recognisable as a brushstroke.

If this is a silent film, then what's the musical accompaniment?
Oh, jazz I guess – or crazy Klezmer music, which manages to be sad and riotous at the same time. Though for me, Stirling will always be linked with all those Scottish rock bands of the late eighties – anyone remember The Blue Nile?

Who would you like to direct a film of Sleepwalker?
Charlie Chaplin, Francois Truffaut or Jacques Tati. But since they're all dead, I'd be more than happy to go for Jiri Menzel, of Closely Observed Trains fame, or Milos Forman - who made a film called The Fireman's Ball after all.

Why does the book end with a ball?
Oh, for very personal, sentimental reasons. My wife and I got engaged at the graduation ball at Stirling Castle, so the book always had to end there…

You're an Englishman writing about Scotland for a young Welsh press. Does that feel odd?
That's true, I was born in York, so I guess that I'm one of the few people who still describe themselves as British.

What are you working on now?
I'm finishing a book on silent film comedy with chapters on all the key figures – Chaplin, Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand – connecting slapstick comedy to American culture in the 20's, especially consumerism, mass consumption and the idea of Hollywood as the dream factory. Hopefully it's nearly done.

And what about fiction? What's next?
Well, I've got some ideas, but once again they're fairly odd. We'll see…