Stephen Moles interviewed by Frank Burton, 23rd May 2013
How did you go about writing the book?
Taking Wittgenstein’s aphorism about language (“If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”) as inspiration, I attempted to show what it would be like to live among lions, linguistically speaking. I tried to imagine an alternate version of human expression that makes perfect sense to those who use it but appears unintelligible when viewed externally. I spent a lot of time translating lines from classic literary texts into different languages using Google’s translate function. The aim was to be left with phrases which, when finally translated back into English, were as semantically intangible as Chomsky’s “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. I then went on to utilise them in an Oulipian way as basic building blocks with which to tell a meaningful story. None of the phrases made it into Life.exe in the form Google offered them to me, but working elements of them into the text felt like a form of constrained writing. I believe that humans are constrained by language as much as they are liberated by it, so I tried to use it here, paradoxically, to describe an escape from a prison of words.
Could the novella be categorised as “experimental” fiction?
I consider all works of fiction to be experimental to some extent. Creativity and experimentation are almost synonymous for me; however, experimental is also a synonym for shit in a lot of people’s thesauri. I guess they think that if the experiment is successful, you name the genre after the way in which it was a success, but if it’s a failure, you call it experimental as a way of saying “at least he/she tried”. The reputations of writers like BS Johnson have suffered because of the experimental tag – I personally found House Mother Normal and Trawl a real chore to read but breezed through Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, yet I consider them all to be experimental. So, yes, Life.exe can definitely be categorised as experimental, but hopefully that doesn’t mean it’s shit.
The book combines serious subject matter (domestic violence for example) with elements of comedy. Is it difficult to maintain a balance between the two?
I think it’s easy to maintain a balance because tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin. I’d even go as far as to say they’re actually the same thing until they are perceived by someone. Like Schrödinger’s cat being simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened, a thing is both tragic and comic until it is observed (and therefore reacted to). One person might find someone being punched in the face hilarious, while another might find it distressing, but the thing in itself remains the same – it’s the tragicomic currency that has no fixed value but is universally accepted.
Who are your influences?
Everyone, really. Even unexceptional writing can be a good source of ideas to subvert. But in terms of the writers I really admire, William Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, Kobo Abe and Franz Kafka have all had a profound effect on me. They’ve got entire bodies of work I could read again and again without ever getting bored.
How does Life.exe compare to your other works of fiction?
It’s certainly one of the weirdest. With the other pieces I’ve written, it’s a bit easier to say what they’re “about”, even though that’s a completely subjective and arguably unimportant judgement to make. I’ve written stories about alcoholism, tinnitus and the London riots, for instance; but if I had to define Life.exe in that way, I’d say it’s about language and how it affects our understanding of the world. It’s not giving too much away to say that language is the main character and it dies at the end of the book.
What’s the story behind the cover?
The picture on the front of the book is of the New York gangster Arthur Flegenheimer, or Dutch Schultz, whose surreal monologue given on his deathbed made him an unlikely source of inspiration for many artists. I thought the rugged countenance of the man who offered the world an esoteric text with his dying breath was the perfect symbol for the content of Life.exe. There’s also a nice juxtaposition between the word “Life” in the title and the fact that the picture is of someone who has just expired. Among Dutch Schultz’s poetic offerings are such gems as “No. No. And it is no. It is confused and it says no. A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. Did you hear me?” and “Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henry. Max, come over here. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone”. His last words are better than those of Michael Jackson, who said on his deathbed: “I’d like to have some milk. Please, please give me some more.”
How do you feel about non-profit publishing?
I’m a believer in art for art’s sake, so I’m in favour of non-profit publishing. Once the existence of an author or publisher becomes dependent on the profits of books, financial concerns inevitably exert an influence over the content of those books. The important thing is not to confuse artistic value with financial value. Some great literature is intrinsically uncommercial, and it should stay that way.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Yes. I’m writing my first novel. It’s about a society in which everyone is a celebrity. With all our lives being played out publicly on social networks and reality shows, it doesn’t seem so fantastical to think that anonymity will one day become extinct. The novel asks the question: if everyone is famous, what is the point of fame? It’s intended to work as a carnival mirror for society.