“It’s Only Words”: In conversation with Marc Nash

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Marc Nash, author of A, B & E, was the first “writer off the internet” I ever met, when we both did our debut readings – at Book Club Boutique’s Gush. Since then we’ve read together more times than I’ve had hot dinners, and he’s grown into one of the most inovative performance prose artists out there. But one thing that remains the same is his commitment to pushing and pulling words in ways the average writer can’t begin to contemplate. In the first of what I hope will become a series of masterclasses, it was my pleasure to het to pick his brains about his obsessions with words, language, and typography.

DH: How far can you break a book down before you lose any sense of meaning? To paragraphs, sentences, words, syllables, letters, further?

MN: That’s a good question. While I’m not sure I lose any sense of meaning, I am aware that the formal innovations (at typographic level and upwards) are extremely difficult to maintain across the length of a novel. They have to keep mutating – but always for a reason – otherwise they become stale very quickly & you’re better off not bothering in the first place. 

DH: Would it be fair to say that each of these units has meaning in a different way, and that one of the problems with the “traditional novel” is that everything is lost beneath the unit of “the whole thing” and that we should, as writers, seek means of trying to give readers that full rich experience, to turn the chord of a novel into an arpeggio as it were?

MN: well as in my answer above, the unit of the whole thing can still swamp even the innovative formalisms. I just think that the written/printed text is usually presented in linear fashion, left to right, moving from the top of the page to the bottom. I like to break that up. But as you know my real interest is at DNA level, ir alphabets and typographies, because these build into words and words of course are the usual core unit of prose. I just wish I had time to explore it properly. I’m having some modern majuscules designed for me, but I don’t even have a story to use them in yet… What I don’t want personally is a notion of giving the reader a ‘full experience’ by bringing in other non-print media, ie embedded videos etc. There is more than enough with the printed page to manipulate & deform. This is where I can’t see e-readers helping the situation. The book is potentially an aretfact if we make it such. Safran Foer’s last novel showed what can be done.

DH: I think it’s best you don’t have a story in mind for them – that would surely defeat the object. Surely the excitement is in seeing individual letters, utterly new in appearance, and seeing what you can build from them, which may not even be – at least wholly – words.

MN: I’m not sure I agree with that, but then it depends what we mean exactly by ‘story’. I still write word narratives, not produce visual art texts. Typography and other design features seem to offer both the possibility of fragmentation of the word and yet also the enhancement of meaning beyond the word itself. I don’t want to say too much about these majuscules, but they are letters constructed out of a certain key thematic image. 

DH: How would we go about starting to do that? What techniques do we have?

MN: As many as our imaginations refuse to be bound by. 

DH: Which leads me to an aspect of your work which both delights and intrigues me – your verbal precision. It’s very important to you always to find the right word for a situation. How do you reconcile this with needing to look beyond words themselves to the DNA from which they come?

MN: Well for me the DNA is the etymology, the root. How far the current usage has deviated, or kept faith with its origins. Norman French/Anglo-Saxon, Latin etc. That’s always a potential starting point. I love to employ words in such a way that two different (sometimes contradictory) shades of the meaning can both be read into it at the same time. I like the echo or the undertow of that second meaning. That all comes from the context of the rest of the sentence.

Anglo-saxon kennings are a wonderful conceptual approach to language and metaphor. Compounding words in German also. Then there is just the playful deforming of words, through punning or assonance or even the much despised alliteration. It is literally open season as well as open sesame on words.    

DH: How do you think sight and sound relate when it comes to meaning?

MN: Well Delillo swears by it and I think I’m with him. When we read, we are sounding the words inside our head in some way. Therefore rhythm is fundamentally key. Plosives and fricatives and assonance still apply, even ‘silently’. The letter “c” is my favourite letter – I wrote a hundred single word sentences story, all words began with “c”. Mind you i’ve never read it out live.

DH: I was thinking more of their relation to meaning in a more fundamental sense (you can tell I work in a Phonetics department). Do we understand a word because of how it sounds or how it looks?

MN: Good question, I’m not a linguist so I don’t know, but I believe both work in rather different ways.Reading& writing rely on the highly visual, compared with the aural component for the spoken word. But we can understand a word when we read it, or when we hear it. Again, I’d love to know exactly how we ‘hear’ the words in our head as we read.  

DH: Homonyms and homophones and almost-homonyms/homophines and that kind of thing. It seems to me one of the exciting things you (as in you personally) could begin to explore is what happens to meaning when we strip sound out altogether – is this something you can do by disrupting the way words appear on the page so that, whilst the word is there, its presentation means it cannot be seena s a whole, cannot be instantly “sounded out”

MN: maybe not instantly, but the habituation would probably force us to sound it out in order to progress through the text. I’m not after a word flotation tank reading experience where you just immerse your whole ‘body’ in the text, but there is no fixed co-ordinates for you within the text. I am still about a narrative. 

DH: One of the things I think people find difficult at first with your writing is that you refuse to give them an emotional way in. Everything is about “telling”, chasing meaning across the page and pinning it down. It’s an incredibly bright light to shine in their faces. I get the impression that you feel you owe it more to readers to try and be exact than to make things easy.

MN: My bugbear with all this emphasis on new technologies for readers is that it seems to be about the convenience of reading, taking away any excuse the potential customer may have for not reading a book. I don’t want my books to be convenient or easy. Of course the reader has the right therefore not to read my book and I’m fine with that. I don’t write escapist literature, I write stuff that I want to engage the reader in thinking about our world. To do that, one has to try and pin down the nature of that world and language is a double agent in this task. It interposes a membrane between us and our senses, occluding as much as pinpointing meaning and interpretation of sense data. So yes I’ll try and pursue language to the point at which it can’t squirm meaning beyond our grasp, but of course this is probably doomed to fail. This show versus tell thing I increasingly shrink away from. I employ voice rather than character, therefore it is all telling. And yet the language is both metaphorical and linguistically shy, so the voice is not a pure one but an interpretative and lyrical one, therefore it is showing some of the unseen connections between diffuse things. I’m not the novelist equivalent of an observational comedian; I’ll take any piece of observation and twist it into a metaphor to illuminate something radically disjunctured from it. Nothing is sacred and everything can be debased. 

DH: Would it be fair, then, to say that the meaning-world you want to bring your reader closer to is a sensory and not a (choose alternative wooly word) spiritual or emotional one – or does language as conventionally employed create the same membrane with relation to emotions as it does with sense data? And finally, you’ve expressed your aim – but what techniques do you ave for catchinglanguage out in its trickery?

MN: No, any novel must give the reader an emotional experience. I’m just looking for other ways of attaining that I suppose. Sensory may be part of it but if it is, it’s not scientific on my part, it’s way more intuitive. I don’t have the requisite scientific knowledge to execute it rigorously like that. As to techniques, again it’s not that regimented. Language is still organic, even though we can deduce ‘rules’. For me it’s the shades of meaning between different words, which to use of chide/admonish/rebuke/upbraid/reprove/ etc etc.

   Sometimes I have to go back and restate a similar sentence using different words, just to try and nail it between the        two, where either one alone won’t carry it.

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5 Responses to “It’s Only Words”: In conversation with Marc Nash

  1. rozmorris says:

    Dan and Marc, thank you for a most interesting discussion. I’m probably at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. I go for engagement through character and showing – but regard myself as an experimenter with genre boundaries and storytelling, rather than a ‘writer’. Nevertheless, I was so interested in a lot of your ideas.

    About words making sounds in our head – I’m always profoundly aware of that, and often a wonderful phrase can trap me for many minutes. I often wondered if there was some way to make that process faster so that the meaning of a page slips into the mind unconsciously, more like an experience than a translation of a visual symbol? I guess that’s one of the territories you’re exploring. When we think we need language to pin down what we mean, but if we could find, say the machine code underneath the high-level language, we could perhaps find a swifter way to use our brains.

    I’m not sure what your majuscules are – but I often thought there were characters we could import from other languages that might make our reading experience more seamless. For instance, the beta-like symbol used in German as double s. Our own lost character, thorn.

    All fascinating – thank you!

  2. yearzerowriters says:

    Thanks Roz. I do wonder sometimes whether passages of my work, or maybe all of it, are stripped of most visual association within the reader’s mind’s eye or not. I have no idea if this is a strength or weakness. I think readers are used to reading and having visual images translate from the words inside their mind. So maybe it asks for a different approach in reading. But like I say I’m unsure if this is a good thing or not.

  3. Dan Holloway says:

    Marc, is part of what you’re doing with pieces like Feed Tube replacing one kind of visual association with another, wrongfooting the reader to see what’s left.

    Roz, I think that question of whether we can bypass the words themselves to mainline what’s underneath straight to the reader is a really important one that goes to the heart of what meaning is, and what we are doing – whether it makes sense to think of a meaning that’s transferred, or whether words play a key role in reminding us that there is no such thing as meaning.

  4. yearzerowriters says:

    The latter of the two in your response to Roz. There is no such thing as objective meaning or truth or reality to my mind. And words’ drapery often serves as a veil to obscure that, erm ‘truth’.

    I don’t look to consciously wrong foot the reader, nor to see what’s left as some sort of distillate. I’m much more consciously concerned with earlier stages of the processes, as said at the unit of words, letters and images, rather than outcomes. They’ll shake out however they do.


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