King Crow is the really rather superb book by Michael Stewart. You can buy it here. It is published by the also really rather superb Bluemoose books. I was lucky enough to get some time to speak to Michael.
DH: First up, major congratulations, first of all for the First Book Award comments, and I can’t think of another way to use the word first in the sentence, save for that, and second for Not the Booker. I look forward to sparring and friendly japery and generally creating a bit of all-in-the-spirit-of-it-but-with-a-little-serious-aside-about-hipster-literary-cabals-in-london mayhem. Er, how does it feel or some such shot ice-breaker?
MS: Thanks Dan. Most readers don’t realise the reality behind many literary prizes, that publishers often have to pay to enter, and then pay if they are long-listed and even pay again when they are shortlisted. In some instances these costs can be thousands. In other words, these prizes, by their very nature, prohibit independent publishers. For instance, if you look at the entire history of the Man Booker prize, there are really only six publishers who have ever won. The public is being misled. The Not The Booker is a welcome and transparent alternative, and I’m delighted to be shortlisted.
DH: So, stone the crows. How many times have people said that to you thinking it was funny?
MS: Er… that’s the first time actually… The myth that crows eat lambs is still a widely accepted one. It isn’t true and I would say please don’t throw stones at crows!
DH: Seriously, though, birds. My wife grew up with nightmares about plague doctors in bird masks. I grew up loving ravens because of Edgar Alan Poe. What is it for you?
MS: Those plague masks are very sinister. You can buy them on eBay. My interest in ravens also comes from Edgar Alan Poe who I discovered when I was ten and ill in bed for eight weeks. Like us, birds are highly complex animals living in strongly hierarchical societies. Like us they judge on appearances and seem to ‘enjoy’ making music. We are told that dogs are man’s best friend. But a dog lives in a world of smell. A world entirely hidden from us. Like us, birds live in a predominantly visual world. I think birds have always been used as potent symbols – albatrosses, ravens, dodos, robins, eagles, vultures, swallows, cuckoos, sparrows, storks, owls.
DH: No, really, seriously, King Crow touches on many of the themes of adolescent alienation that I think have been treated too glibly in a lot of modern literature. It feels like we only ever hear about disaffected middle class kids in London. But the reality’s so more complex, and what’s being written too – tell me about some of the fabulous non-London-centric things people should be looking at, and what we can do to get the cultural media to look at it more seriously.
MS: I agree, although I do think the sands are shifting. The BBC move to Salford Quays for example. The media is gradually becoming more representative of its audience, although it doesn’t always feel that way. It’s in the interests of those in power to demonise those at the bottom rung of society. If they are not perpetrators but victims that means society is unfair. So those in power have to constantly portray the most vulnerable members of society as criminals and ‘chavs’ in order to justify widening inequality. To bring it back to publishing, great things are happening in the world of the independents. What Bluemoose are doing, Route Books, Comma Press… is all very exciting. But do you read about it in the national press? Sadly, rarely. The reality is, that the gatekeepers of our cultural experience are extremely parochial: Blackburn say or Dewsbury is as remote to them as Zanzibar or Timbuktu. The only way we can change this is to challenge, in an amiable way, those gatekeepers.
DH: How many times in an average interview do people ask you about Ken Loach?
MS: The book has been compared by many to A Kestrel for a Knave, Barry Hines’s novel which Ken Loach adapted for film so beautifully. I think though that Cooper would look down on Billy. Or at least have very little in common with him. They are very different characters. I love Hines’s novel and cite it as an early inspiration. Those so called ‘angry young men’ (and women) novelists of the 50s and 60s are so important to writers like me who come from a working class background, and who have very few role models of even examples to draw on and say, look so and so can make it as a writer, maybe I can. John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow. For me it was Shelagh Delaney, who grew up close to where I grew up. Also Walter Greenwood. Another working class Salfordian turned professional writer, and that was in the depression era 1930s. In my house the bible was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, by Robert Tressell. I remember turning 13 and my mum dusting down her copy and saying, ‘son, it’s time to read it now’.
DH: I’ve seen the trailer for King Crow, and the cover – it’s a powerful image. The whole thing is very visual, reflecting, I guess, Paul’s daydream world. A world that almost belongs in magic realism, in Latin American or Japanese fiction (and coming back again to film, I’m thinking of Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive). Is that fair?
MS: Well, without giving the game away, the non-naturalistic imagery becomes increasingly important in the novel’s denouement. I’m not terribly interested, despite my earlier comment, in merely writing about the kitchen sink. I think our imaginations are such an important facet of who we are, and far more interesting, often, than our day to day lives. For a character like Cooper, the world of imagination is a tremendous escape from his surroundings.
DH: In other words, a book that’s at once incredibly specific, locked in a particular place, but with a twenty-first century cosmpolitanism?
MS: Well, I firmly believe that the universal is in the particular, yes. Blake said, ‘he who does not imagine in minute particulars does not imagine at all’ and I’d have to go along with that.
DH: Thank you!