I always felt that my generation of writers (meaning those born in the mid 1960s - early 1970s) were sorely underrepresented. There are a few of them out there but not many who are producing fiction that is able to capture the life experiences and issues that our generation has encountered over the years in a truthful and honest way. The U.K’s Garry Crystal is one of those writers and he also manages to make his points by mixing the serious subject matter with a dose of wry humor which truly enhances the reading experience.
Garry Crystal’s work has appeared in numerous publications and on-line sources such as The Adirondack Review, Tunrow Journal, Orato and more recently The Expats Post. He is also the author of the blog “Life and Payback’s a Bitch” and has written numerous non-fiction articles that were published all over the internet. He is the author of two short story collections, the first of which was “The Last Busker in London and Other London Tales” and he is currently working on his novel, “London, An Unrequited Love.”
His new short story collection, “A Relationship, in Pieces” is that book of short stories that makes you want to return to it again and again. As in his previous collection, the stories here are put together thematically, exploring the variety of ways in which we relate to one another, either in love relationships, friendships or when encountering strangers. They are what I’ve come to expect from Crystal - well written, intelligent tales which force the reader to not only delve into the lives, thoughts and feelings of the characters he writes about but to also think about your own relationship to the people you encounter throughout your life. Everyone will be relate to these stories and the often complex nature of human relationships where things are almost never black and white. This is why I have become a huge fan of Crystal’s fiction. It is about something and they are refreshingly free of all the modern pretensions often associated with short fiction. These stories aim for the heart and the gut and with each story, he hits the target dead on.
I recently discussed with the author his overall career as a writer and his thoughts on both his wonderful books.
A lot is put on a writer to “be” a certain “type” of writer. Is that something you ever thought about, or do you just write what you feel you want to write about?
I was on a writer’s forum the other day and one guy was asking people what were the best genres to make money from. This guy just wanted to find a popular genre, write a book and make some money from it. Most replies to his question were, “good luck with that, try writing about vampires.” Write whatever you want to write but if you are going into it with the sole intention of making a shit-load of money then that’s your focus; the money, not the writing or the quality of the writing. You can make a lot more money doing other jobs than writing. I don’t think most writers who write because it’s something that they’ve always done, initially think about the money. There is something in them that makes them want to write, and they would still do it whether they are paid or not. A lot of writers will try different genres etc but usually there will be themes within their work that are recognizable. Writing is all about creativity, so it’s always good to try something new, use your imagination and push yourself. If you are focusing on your audience when writing, what they will like, you will simply produce the same work repeatedly, and it will show.
How old were you when you discovered that you wanted to be a writer? Who influenced you? What were the first books that effected you?
I’ve always written stories as far back as I can remember, don’t ask me why, I have no idea. As a child I read (and reread) Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer but the first writer who made a difference to the way I viewed things was Ken Kesey. When I was about 15 I saw the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at a theatre in Perth and immediately bought the book. Kesey’s take on the way the world actually works tapped right in to my own experience of life, even at the age of 15, and things became clearer especially with the rules and regulations and how other people want you to act a certain way to benefit them not you. From there it was Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, Bukowski, Kundera; all the usual greats. Unbearable Lightness of Being is still one of my favourite books.
Did you have any mentors or teachers, or did you just strike out on your own?
Not really, I’ve never taken any creative writing classes or courses. Journalism was part of a college course that I did for a couple of years and I had a great journalism teacher, unfortunately I can’t remember her name. Probably for a lot of writers the best mentors are the authors they read, they can shape your opinions, make you view things in a different light and you can learn from their style of writing. I think a lot of young writers start off imitating certain writers they like and then they grow out of it as they eventually find their own voice and their confidence begins to increase, it’s always an ongoing learning experience and it takes time. It’s why a lot of writers cringe at their first efforts when rereading them, I know I do anyway.
You’ve written some very interesting and well researched non-fiction articles over the years. I’m thinking specifically of the one about Rupert Murdoch and the Lockerbie Bombing, both of which got quite a bit of attention. What drew you to write about topical issues? Is that something you always wanted to do?
I’ve never actually made up my mind whether I wanted to write fiction or non fiction articles, so I try both I suppose. I studied journalism mainly because I wanted a way out of the tedious office job hell I was doing and it was the only course in my city that included writing as part of the syllabus, as well as film studies and photography. When it comes to writing it’s all linked though, they are all stories whether they are fiction or not, you are still telling a story to the reader, passing on information, although some will disagree with this thinking. The difference with non fiction is that you have to undertake research and fact checking, I don’t do that with my fiction writing, well not much.
Articles such as those on the Murdochs or Chilean student protests or the moronic Nick Griffin of the BNP are ones that I felt strongly enough to write about, issues that got me pissed off. People who have been placed as leaders and examples of success to others, politicians especially, and you can tell the ones who are simply self-serving manipulators feeding off others, they are the government in the UK at the moment, and a lot of the time they get away with it. Tony Blair is a perfect example, a mass murderer who is still able to go about his life amassing a fortune and still seen by many as having a credible point of view on the way the world should be run. How did the world get so turned round that we allow these people to be in charge of things and then rewarded when they screw up? It’s complete madness. Kesey knew.
You’re one of the only writers I know who actually makes a living from your writing. Is there anything you can share with the readers who are aspiring to do the same?
It’s hard to make a decent living from freelance writing on the net but it is possible with perseverance. I had been for a few magazine writing interviews when in London and always heard the same thing, “You’re a bit older than we expected, we’re looking for someone young we can mould into our style” and that was at the age of 30. In the end I started writing freelance for an American company that paid $10 per 400 words, abysmal money, but that gave me published internet articles that I could then use to apply for higher paying jobs. I was pretty lucky in that I found some companies who were willing to pay decent money for articles and these were long term jobs plus some freelancing of my own. But that is not creative writing; if I could make a living from creative writing I would be more than happy. Anyone who wants to start freelancing from home better be sure they like their own company, not bother about wondering if there is going to be a next job and not be too put off by rejections.
Okay, let’s focus on your fiction now. You’ve recently released two eBooks, “The Last Busker in London and Other London Tales” and “A Relationship, In Pieces.” What was the genesis behind these two books?
There is a total of seven stories over the two books and four of the stories have come from a book I’m still working on. The book is mostly fiction with some fact thrown in, and I used certain real incidents because I wanted some sort of reference point that I could use to anchor the story in reality, if that makes sense, to find a way into telling this story. I’ve lived in London three times throughout my life and each time has been a different experience, and I think this has to do with age. My take on London as a 30 year old was different from how I saw the city as a 20 year old. Everything was new and exciting as a 20 year old whereas in my thirties my attitude had changed. I write at one point in the book in a conversation between two characters,
“That's what I said two years ago when I first moved to London. I soon found out the streets aren’t paved with gold.”
“Yeah but I knew that before I moved here. You can see the people who thought they could come to London, bend over and pick gold off the streets. They’re all lying on benches in Trafalgar Square with hernias and cans of Special Brew”
The book is called London, An Unrequited Story, with the title referring to the city and relationships. Writer Dan LaFollette explained the relationship between people and cities perfectly when he wrote recently, “Every city has its personality, and its feel. But that feeling can be different depending on who you are, and where you are in life. Reality takes on so many different personalities.” Big cities are often equated with dreams; if you are going to make it in life, that’s where you have to be to achieve your dreams. But it doesn’t always work out that way whether its love, work, whatever, but that’s not always necessarily a bad thing; experiences alone can be worth it. Millions of people move to different cities all over the world ever year, all looking for something and all having different experiences. With this book I’m focusing on how the city affects people regarding relationships, loneliness, work, the interaction people have with each other, good and bad. The way everything is not always how it is portrayed to the world in those romantic comedies set in London.
How does the Title of the book London; an Unrequited Love Story actually relate to the story you are telling?
The title has a few different meanings I guess. I sent a couple of hundred pages of the book to a friend to read and they were of the opinion that the unrequited part was the main character’s relationship with alcohol and self-destructive tendencies more than anything else. But to me, it has more to do with not committing to anything, and by doing this the main character is the one who is actually not reciprocating, to the city, to relationships, to life. The main character has become stuck in a point where he views everything as temporary and doesn’t want committal due to previous experiences. There is a main female character also stuck in pretty much the same situation when they meet and it’s kind of an anti-love story in as much as not all stories come to the happy ending conclusion.
The story “The Last Busker in London” is a rumination on loneliness, particularly on Christmas Eve. It perfectly captures the quiet winter nights in London perfectly. I see it as a Christmas tale with a very 21st Century sensibility. It is definitely not “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It has a very realistic feel. Is any of this story autobiographical?
That story is mostly autobiographical, there are some character changes as its part of a book and I adapted it as a stand alone short story. During the time the story was set I lived 20 minutes outside of London and had made the trip into the city after work had ended on Christmas Eve. If the story had continued in real life it would have me trying to get back to where I lived from London on Christmas Day with no trains running and an appearance at a Christmas dinner in London where I didn’t know 90% of the people there, and they just looked at me and the state I was in after the previous evening as if to say “what the hell happened to him?” I would say it’s a cautionary tale of what can happen if you don’t keep your wits about you and wander into places you know to be no go zones. When I did move to London there would be many long nights out, and where drinking was involved it could go either way, some good, some bad. I think, where that story is concerned, it could have turned out a lot worse than it did. So I see myself as being kind of lucky that I got off lightly.
“Sunrise in the City” seems to touch on the idea of expatriation and how one’s chosen city is often looked upon as an extended vacation rather than one trying to integrate. When I originally reviewed this story, I had mistakenly thought the car was a stolen vehicle but apparently it wasn’t, just the complete irresponsibility on the part of the character who was driving it. Does the action of this character typify the attitudes of most young expatriates living in a foreign city, or was it more just a commentary on issues concerning growing up and leaving behind old ways?
I don’t know if it typifies young expatriates although the friends I hung out with in London were all from somewhere else, Australians, Americans, Irish, South African to name a few. One common theme was working hard and then enjoying the nightlife in London, you were basically working just to have a good time at the end of the evening or the weekends. I’m sure not everyone who comes to London is like that, some people have a set direction or plan, but when you are young these things can happen. The act in the story was irresponsible but not intentionally so; the wrong time in the wrong place. But if incidents like these are increasing you have to say, enough is enough, something isn’t working here, and that’s when you start to look at your options and that it’s maybe time to change the way you are acting to something that has less harmful consequences.
In “The Terrorist on the Tube” you confront the idea of making snap judgments. In the era of “The War on Terror”, and especially in light of the not long ago Tube bombings in London, you capture perfectly a society gripped by fear and paranoia to the point where even a suffering individual is looked upon with suspicion and fear. Is this story in any way a commentary on Tony Blair’s England or just a general case study in how easy it is to judge someone without knowing anything about them?
That was a strange one because when writing it I didn’t immediately think of it as about any sort of commentary on the War on Terror it was more the snap judgment issue. It was only when writing that I noticed the story was going that way and it was written not long after Sept 11. I deliberately left out a detailed description of the person in the story in terms of race or skin colour because I didn’t want to get into the ridiculousness that is racial profiling, although maybe I should have but I didn’t want that to be an issue. I can’t speak for the people on the tube, huddled into a corner, but whatever fears they had were real enough for them, and the increasing feeling of fear, paranoia and suspicion that has been created by governments with the slogan “the War on Terror” is real for many people.
“Waiting in the 11th Arrondissement” is a wonderful story and I love the idea of examining the couple through the eyes of the waiter rather than through the couple themselves. Although its being seen through the eyes of the waiter in the restaurant, you manage to capture the feelings and emotions of the couple, making it seem you are inside them, rather than looking at them from afar. You can feel their tension, the tap dance that they do, but still seen through another set of eyes. Was this narrative choice just a way of presenting the story differently or did you set out to show a third party’s empathy with those he observes on a daily basis?
I used the waiter as the narrator just to put a different slant on the story. I could have more easily I think written it from the perspective of the man or woman but just wanted to try something different. I wanted to try and put myself into the place of someone watching what was going on, and it brings another character into the story. I’ve worked in a few pubs in my life and by far the most interesting thing is seeing the interaction of people as the night goes on. These mini dramas are always occurring in pubs and restaurants and the people involved are usually oblivious to anyone else watching them, but others are always watching and forming their own opinions from their perspective and their relationship to the people involved. I also wanted it to be slightly humorous, and those watching this type of drama can usually find it much more amusing and entertaining than the actual people who are having the argument and creating the drama.
One of my favorite stories is “Running with the Bulls”, which appears in your new book, “A Relationship, in Pieces.” It’s a very romantic and heartfelt story. However, at least to me, I couldn’t help but feel that the Running of the Bulls served as a metaphor for trying to keep excitement alive in a relationship that had its share of ups and downs. Was that your intention?
When I first published this story I got a lot of feedback, and readers were giving me their views and pointing things out that I hadn’t noticed from their perspective. You are right about the bulls as a metaphor, although again I don’t actually think I realized that as I was writing it. It is also about trying to change but bringing with it that saying, “the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expected a different result.”
I think the male character is more of the mind that the relationship isn’t going to change; a pattern has been set in place, it’s as if he has already given in to his fate. He doesn’t want to deal with the arguments he wants everything to be how it was at the start whereas the woman knows that relationships aren’t like that, they have to either grow or die and arguments etc are part of it, at least for this couple. I think both of the characters know where the relationship is heading they just have different ways of dealing with the reality of it. You can have a couple who love each other but this doesn’t mean that they are right for each other.
In “Strangers”, the narrator decides to go home with a beautiful young woman who offers to keep him company for the day, after her friend had run off with his money. The dynamic between them beautifully illustrates the tap dancing people who don’t really know one another go through, the defense mechanisms, the dishonesty, but yet empathy and caring. Would you elaborate more on this?
You could compare this story to the Last Busker in that it’s about strangers meeting, and the way the characters meet in the story isn’t exactly normal. If you live or have lived in big cities there is always wariness about meeting strangers I think, and especially in such situations. You would be a bit naïve not to be on your guard because you never know what can happen, things can go wrong in an instant as seen in The Last Busker. Of course it all depends on past experiences as to how much of a guard you have up.
Both characters in Strangers have walls up from previous experiences in their lives. The dynamic changes between the character once the morning arrives. The meeting during the night sees the woman eventually using defence mechanisms, such as lies, to keep herself safe and in the morning the position is reversed and the man starts lying to get the woman to leave. A lot of people, due to past experiences, would rather be alone but safe than take the risk that comes with letting people in, to me that’s kind of like building the bars to your own jail although I can understand it, which was the reason I used the example of Myra at the end. I did actually know a woman who had never left her house in 20 years.
What were your reasons for publishing independently rather than going the traditional route? What are your thoughts on independent publishing and the seeming rise of authors taking the initiative to bring their work directly to readers?
I wanted to try out self-publishing as I was writing an article on the subject and wanted to see what the results would be, and the whole ‘independent publishing’ thing has been attracting a lot of press attention. I’ve always been wary of self-publishing, possibly because of the stigma attached to it and the fact that writers were taking the step of paying someone to publish their work. Now it’s free to do, although with publishers such as Amazon taking a cut of the writer’s profits it’s not actually free, but traditional publishers also take a cut so there’s not too much difference on that side of things.
A lot people have the impression that if you can write a book you have it made, there should be no problem finding an agent, publisher etc, but it’s just not that simple. When you look at the case of Lionel Shriver who wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, she was rejected by 30 publishing houses and 16 agents. She eventually found an agent willing to take her on and received a $2000 advance and the book is now a worldwide best seller and hit film, mostly, or so I’ve read, through word of mouth. A lot of writers would be turned off by a couple of rejections, and 30 publishers decided Shriver wasn’t sellable or wasn’t right for them. So should writers be leaving the decision down to the publisher’s taste and ‘expertise’ on what they think is fit to publish?
Independent publishing does put the power into the writer’s hands and means they don’t have to rely on the permission of publishers to get their work out to the readers. It’s in no way a guarantee of success but it can help to reach a wider audience and is better than giving up because a few publishers say no. As someone else mentioned, readers don’t go into bookstores to check out who publishes the books, they don’t care who the publisher is, they care about the subject matter, genre, writer etc. I’d say use both routes if you want to; self-publish and send off samples to agents and publishers.
What advice would you give to a young writer?
Practice, as in write every day or if not every day as often as you can. There is a quote where someone asks a successful professional in his field how he got so lucky, and the reply received was, “the more I practiced, the luckier I got.” Some writers, publishers etc are of the view that a writer should write their first book then disregard it; the first one is just for practice. I wouldn’t go that far but as with anything, the more you work at it, the more effort you put in, the better the results should be, and also get as much life experience as you can.
A quote from Norman Mailer on experience, a writer worth taking advice from:
A very young writer sits on a park bench with his girl. He kisses her. He’s seventeen. He’s never had such as kiss before.
Later that night he tries to capture the event.
I love you, he said.
I love you, she said.
He stops, throws down his pen, and says, “I’m a great writer”!
Sometimes, you have to wait.