Marc Nash is the author of five collections of flash fiction and four novels, all of which, according to his bio, “look to push narrative form and language”. His latest novel, Three Dreams in the Key of G, certainly fits the bill: in reviewing it for Splice, David Hebblethwaite called it a book that “feels like an intervention” and aims “to shake up conventional notions of what a novel can be”. Nash also contributes frequently to literary discourse in other ways: blogging (for a decade) at Sulci Collective, tweeting daily, and regularly sharing video discussions of recent books on YouTube. In recent weeks, Marc Nash generously set aside time to talk to Splice about the writing of Three Dreams in the Key of G, his interest in experimenting with language, and the process of getting his novel into the hands of readers.
Let’s kick off with something notable about the title: the assonance, four rounds of “/e/”. This seems to be a signal to the reader, before page one, that Three Dreams will be a novel that relishes prosody and the possibilities it opens up: rhyme, wordplay, double entendre, and so on. How do these elements of style become part of your writing process?
I think about words a lot. Words that fail, that don’t quite convey the meaning I’m after (oh, for the German language’s facility for compound words); words that have more than one shade of meaning, and my attempting to suggest both meanings within a single usage in a sentence; and as you say, prosody, the sounds of words, puns, lexeme echoes and so on. I like using words in unexpected contexts, in sentences where you wouldn’t expect to find them. I like veering between high and low vocabulary, from scientific or words with august roots in ancient Greek or Latin, through to street slang or online speak. And when I say ‘like’, I mean that that tends to be my focus in the writing.
Because I’ve written a lot of flash fiction (fiction of 1000 words or fewer), I’ve written stories sometimes riffing off a single word. So a single word can prompt a whole chain of words in its wake. The words lead me. When I write, I don’t think about plot or character so much as voice and language. Character is fully contained within voice, so that takes care of that. And as for plot: again it comes back to the voice, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it.
How spontaneously do opportunities for wordplay arise as you’re writing? Or do you have a selection in reserve, to work into the prose when the time is right?
I’m not drawing from a preset stockpile, although I admit that in the editing stages I’ve often replaced a word with a better word I may just have come across — as long as it fits. Sometimes that can involve thinking about the word’s origin — is it Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, or a colonial loan word? — so I may feel that its origin makes it inappropriate in that particular instance. And it’s very much a gut feeling, the writer’s reflex, rather than a matter of following hard and fast rules. My editing process is pretty unconventional, too. Most writers reduce their word counts through editing that tightens up the prose. I usually find some new riffs I hadn’t seen earlier, so my drafts expand the word count.
If you’re thinking less about things like characterisation than about style, how did the three distinct characters in Three Dreams come to you?
For me, a novel idea first comes together when I have the central image or theme and the narrative voice, and those two elements cohere. In this case, the metaphor was one of misprints in human DNA reproduction (and therefore alphabets and ‘wrong’ letters/spellings). That led to the human genome being given voice, but I also knew I wanted to contrast that with an actual mother observing the development of her children (nature versus nurture) so there were two female voices in place. And then I knew it had to involve three voices, to echo the triad of female archetypes — be it Virgin/Mother/Crone or Mother/Madonna/Whore. Somewhere out of that last idea emerged the third voice of the Crone.
Can you linger a little on the moment when you found the voice of the human genome? Giving the genome a voice is a crazy idea, at least in the abstract. Were there times when you doubted whether it was something you could work with successfully?
Well, while there are always doubts, I also have an adamantine trust in language to get over any humps. Getting the voice right, which naturally involves language, is the key. In the case of the genome, this came down to the little paragraph headers, combinations of the four chemical base letters C(ytosine), T(hymine), A(denine) and G(uanine). These could spell out tone-setting little words or acronyms, as well as delineate the different sides/characters and voice of the genome, which — as you say — doesn’t follow the normal laws of characterisation. This device also allowed me to drill below the level of sentence and word as the unit of the novel and hone in on the unit of the letters.
Right: it’s something that operates at the most micro level of the book, but its possibilities for recombination flow upwards to other levels — in the structure of the story of Jean Ome, for example, which continuously reconfigures itself as Jean’s journal entries are presented out of sequence.
But what about the two female characters? There’s no getting around the fact that both of them are female, and that they each have lots of things to say about femininity and masculinity with regard to violence, parenthood, sexuality. What was your internal monologue like, as you tried to navigate the minefield of gender politics while writing these sections?
The considerations of a male writer grappling with female characters, and annexing creativity and even childbirth itself, only bit in once I finished the book and was thinking about how I’d talk about it and market it. During the writing it really wasn’t much of a factor, again partly because of a trust in words, but also the personal material of being the main child-rearer of twins. I did that Piagettian thing of observing their development as part of my parenting and, unwittingly, that provided good source material. I’d also studied the transactional analysis of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott at college, so that provided the theoretical frameworks too.
I’d thought about gender and read a lot of feminism twenty years ago, and things like #MeToo shows that nothing significant has changed in society in a practical way. I didn’t have to reread my feminist texts for writing this book.
And once the book was in a state of completion, it found its way into print with Dead Ink. How did that happen? Obviously Dead Ink has a subscriber base which provides advance funding for its publications, but how did Three Dreams receive backing?
Dead Ink put out a call for full manuscript submissions, and when they’d got enough that they were interested in publishing (about ten, I think), they applied for Arts Council Funding for the whole thing and were successful. Mine was one of those chosen. The books were to be spread out for a year, and initially each one would have its own crowdfunding drive, but the schedule got backed up and mine was in a bundle of five for a crowdfund in August 2017. You could pledge either for individual books, or for bundles of three or all five. I’m not a fan of crowdfunding books myself, and I’m not sure it’s something that Dead Ink will go ahead with from here, because hopefully the business has moved on to the next level as a publisher and doesn’t have to rely on crowdfunding.
How did the editorial process play out, especially given your tendency — as you mentioned earlier — to grow your books during editing?
Fantastic! Nathan [Connolly, Publishing Director at Dead Ink] said that as I had my own style, he was pretty much going to leave Three Dreams as written. He said he’d commissioned all ten works on the basis of what was submitted, so he didn’t foresee huge rewrites on any of them. The only subsequent edit was the copy edit, where some in-house style guide standardisation was brought to bear on my manuscript, which involved an awful lot of discussion about commas. As I’m not either Harold Pinter nor Samuel Beckett, plus it was late in the day and close to going to print, I didn’t argue comma by comma.
Finally, what do you make of the response to Three Dreams so far? It was called in as a shortlist entry for this year’s Not the Booker Prize, although it didn’t score many votes, and Sam Jordison seems to have put his finger on the dynamic between the book and its readers when he pointed out how uncompromised it is — and uncompromising. What has the response been like from your end? More critical or more engaged than you expected?
I didn’t really have any expectations going in. I just write the books I want to write — try and meet the artistic, intellectual, and literary challenges they pose — and once I’ve finished I move on to the next one to be written. Although, of course, when a book is published, you have to get your head back into it for the marketing push. Three Dreams was written a while ago. The time from acceptance by Dead Ink to release was a good two years (a year between the crowdfunding and release) and I had written another novel in that period which was where my head was when Three Dreams came out. Obviously, being called in for the Not the Booker shortlist was a huge help in terms of exposure and having people aware of the book’s existence. It was also totally unexpected, but then everything is anyway.
Those readers who’ve said that the book isn’t for them — I totally understand that response. Those who’ve discussed its themes and style have revealed things to me about my own book that I wasn’t aware of, things that had crept in subconsciously. It’s always a delight when that happens. I believe it’s important to never underestimate the reader, so I think I can be uncompromising (except for the style guide edit!) and just see how readers fare. I’m just going to offer you these words from William Burroughs: “in my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been explored”. Apart from the comma before the ‘and’, I agree with this approach entirely.