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Not Waiting For A Niche
Steve Aylett
interviewed by... Steve Aylett
"I get bored when there's three or four
sentences that deal only with story"
"If you know how bad things are in the world,
that we're basically in hell, you'll know we don't
have the luxury to be humourless."
HEADLESS FAILURE FOUND IN POND - screamed the headline, and all were gripped with the unreal wonder of Steve Aylett's early death. But all had leapt to the wrong conclusion. The body was that of a master chef, meeting the grim fate which awaits them all. Badly shaken, The Zone asked Aylett to interview himself and to ask the questions no-one usually bothers asking...
Steve Aylett

What's that stupid round symbol on the Accomplice books meant to be?

The Accomplice town seal.

What's the worst - published - thing you've written?

A story called Idler - there's some good gags at the beginning about videogames and life generally, but then the thing just descends into a piece of creative writing. It was made to house those gags at the beginning and that's not really good enough.

What's the best thing you've written?

Shamanspace, and the book I wrote after that, which is Dummyland, the third Accomplice book.

Why didn't Shamanspace get much coverage?

Partly because it was from a smaller publisher, partly because it detracted from the funny bloke image. Also it was being printed the day those planes hit the twin towers and so on - in the months after, people seemed to be thinking even less than usual, there was even more evasion and more hunger for escapism. The last thing people wanted was a book about suicide cults destroying the entire universe - they preferred to fall arse-backwards into Tolkein. There seems to be an even fiercer determination to ignore the hell that we're in.

Why don't you write more women characters?

I'm not very good at writing women, except in regard to how men are attracted to them with a certain intensity. And I find it very difficult to make women funny, even though I love funny women. I worship them a bit, which makes it difficult for me to be funny about them.

When did you write Captain Seb's Log [a very light nautical thing now on the Aylett website]?


Which of your books is the closest to you as you are in actual life?

Shamanspace is probably the nearest to how I am - but then so is Inflatable Volunteer, which is the other end of things. I think Inflatable is me in a rare healthy moment, a loose and knockabout mood, not even making a point, whereas Shamanspace is me most of the time, with a poison head.

What's your beef with the whole postmodernist thing?

The notion that there's no such thing as a fact, makes it easier for people to be manipulated. But some people don't have the luxury to pretend that everything is mutable. If you have no food, but you're told by authority that you have food, do you have food? No, the fact remains that you don't. But postmodernism (which is championed by a class of people who are never in the position of having no food) pretends that the facts are altered by the statement. If the general belief is that there's no such thing as a fact, of course you can get away with anything. Government loves postmodernism - that total blurring and interchangeability gives full lying rights. They love it now that more people are just accepting whatever they're told because of the notion that nothing can be physically proven. They've always been able to get away with anything, but they can do it with less work now, because nothing that's said ever means anything. Words have been spliced away from the objects they signify, so when people use them, nothing precise is being said. It's like dealing with psychopaths - even they don't know if they're telling the truth. The concept of truth doesn't really exist for them.

For politicians, psychopaths or postmodernists?

That's right. A marker of intelligence is the ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction, and the respective value of each. People who can't tell the difference, tend to be imprecise and humourless, two things that often go together. I find that people who are fuzzy-thinking and imprecise aren't genuinely funny, because humour needs precision. It's like a device with wires that have to be connected up properly. Even the simplest gag has a couple of wires in it. If it's just stodge, the current doesn't flow properly. It's a myth that those people who are precise and pedantic are always humourless - those that are, are that way for reasons of mood or intention. It's not the precision itself that banished the humour. Precision is crucial for real humour, even if it's just a bloke tripping over a drain. So people who think for themselves, from raw matter, tend to have that. It comes out as a kind of practical mischief. Without humour or mischief you're more likely to take a philosophy off the peg, whether it's socialism, objectivism, whatever. When you take something off the peg and become that thing, you delete yourself, make yourself part of the wallpaper. It's a shame. Or maybe, if you didn't have that imagination in the first place, nothing has really been lost. But perhaps some seed of potential has been cut off from nourishment.

Have you ever thought of writing a children's book?

In terms of storytelling my stuff is often like fairly simple childrens' writing anyway, just saying what happened, like a parable. The Crime Studio is very simple and light, and I'm surprised when people talk about it in the same terms as Slaughtermatic, or even Shamanspace. The Crime Studio's really the early, happy days in 'Beerlight' - it's not even set in the future really, that one was only pigeonholed as SF because it had a SF cover on it, and because some people were so out-of-it they thought it was dystopian. The Accomplice stuff is a bit like like childrens' book writing also. I like the Series of Unfortunate Events books, and I like the Moomins.

Why aren't there any gay characters in your books?

Well I always thought Blince and Benny were gay, but they themselves didn't know it. And in the Accomplice books there are two characters who turned out to be gay - whenever I wrote a scene with these two, they would be circling around each other in a certain way, and I didn't know what was going on, and I realised they were obviously very into each other. They have a nice marriage ceremony at the end of Dummyland, the third Accomplice book - it's very sweet.

What's your connection with the ash ( groups?

Nothing except I just used to lurk there a few years ago. I've been asked about it again lately because I name-checked it in an obscure way in Shamanspace. The ash thing isn't what it used to be because, obviously, most of the founding figures from the late 1980S and early 1990s killed themselves. So it became more gossipy and seemed to lose some of its original spirit. Though I suspect that compared to things generally, ash is still an oasis of honesty, and is a comfort in that way. Ashers are probably still some of the most honest people in the world. Everyone else is going in the opposite direction.

Are there really hidden cyphers in your books?

Yes. I get bored when there's three or four sentences that deal only with story, and sometimes work some sort of backward message or acrostic into it to keep myself amused. Then after a while I'll forget that it's there, the same as I'll forget what the special significance was of characters' names and so on, references to classical stuff or politics. Except the obvious ones, like Skychum being Chomsky and so on. I remember there's an acrostic near the end of Atom that goes something like "Aylett is fucking with your head." But people could probably find messages where there aren't any, which is what I was trying to say in The Waffle Code, a reference to The Bible Code. Take any lump of text and put it through selective rules, you can get messages out of it - they've put recent court transcripts through the Bible Code cypher program and got thousands of hits. So I'm probably asking for trouble.

Was Bigot Hall in the tradition of Thomas Love Peacock's gothic parodies such as Nightmare Abbey etc?


Is 'Laughing Boy' based on you?

Steve Aylett's science fiction double Steve Aylett
How did the Accomplice books start out?

They were meant to be sort of pulpy books where there'd be a lot of them, like those quick books that Daniel Odier wrote under the name Delacorta (Diva, Nana, Luna, Lola). I don't mean crime thrillers, but I mean quick and easy. But they ended up being just as dense as my other stuff, if not more so. I couldn't be loose and casual - the only time I've done that was with Inflatable. With the Accomplice stuff you can look at it at deeper and deeper levels of detail and the stuff's still there. But they are sort of soap-like, and do link up. So it's right that they're ending up coming out all close together.

Why don't you write a big, normal, bland, stillborn bestseller?

I like the super-fertility of ideas and things in my stuff, for various reasons - things are very bland and sterile these days and it's a nice contrast to that; also I don't see the point in wasting time; and lastly, as someone once said about an over-expressive musician, it's good for things to be excessive because otherwise, what is there to be whittled down over the years, assuming you're around for a while.

Do you have a favourite Accomplice book?

Yes, the third one, Dummyland. The first one (Only an Alligator) is quite full and juicy, and fresh because everything's a surprise, the first one in the series. The second one (The Velocity Gospel) has got all kinds of awkward bones sticking out of it, which in some ways is good, it's the strangest in some ways. The third one, Dummyland, is the best balanced, and the best one I think, with some creepy stuff in it which I like, and a great court scene - I like my court scenes. The fourth (Karloff's Cicrus) is very smooth, almost too smooth, I'm having to throw folds into it to lush it up.

In reference to the Al-Shifa bombing, sum up the meaning of the 'Shifa' story in one sentence.

Shifa was about the difference between justice and therapy, how therapy is seen as more important - it doesn't matter who or what is punished so long as someone is, with a lot of noise, and so long as it's done by an official body.

You mention Kafka occasionally - are you a big fan?

I like him but I'm not fanatical - I think he went too easy on the legal system in The Trial, I'm sure he was bought off. I used Kafka in Atom but he appeared as the same sort of Kafka caricature that a lot of people do. I tried to incorporate an apology to Kafka into the end of that book. There was no way I could write him as he really was and keep it blended with the style of the book. I made the same mistake a lot of people do, even though I like him.

Do you read reviews?

Not much, now - favourable remarks from outside could stop me from using my own judgment. Unfavourable remarks too.

Will you ever write a book with no gags in it at all?

Probably not. If you know how bad things are in the world, that we're basically in hell, you'll know we don't have the luxury to be humourless. There are some writers, university types or whatever, who take an off-the-peg political stance and are very grim about it because they haven't experienced much of the worst, and so they have the luxury to adopt that pose, and as a result their stuff is quite dry and not very human. I hope they get bitten in the arse soon and grow up, see that things are worse than they thought. It'll improve their work and might also get them some of that practical mischief I was talking about.

How do you categorise your writing?

Satire, mainly - epigrammatical stuff, which is kind of a process of increased miniaturisation, in order to pack more in and also leave room for lush stuff. Totally the opposite of everyone else, in other words. But I'm not waiting for a niche - they can sort it out later.

Do you still believe that satire never changes anything?

Yes, it's obvious that it doesn't.

Are you interested in working in comics or movies?

There is some comic stuff coming up. And if people want to make movies of my stuff, that's fine.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I hope there's nothing. I'd feel really cheated if I found I had more shit to deal with.

Have you read anything lately that you actually liked?

I re-read a thing by Nelson Algren called Nonconformity, published by Seven Stories in New York. It applies very much to things right now, in this latest return to the 1950s - 1980s part of the arc. Also David Remnick's Ali biography King Of The World is good.

Having interviewed yourself, can you possibly disappear up your arse any more than this?

I don't know, Steve. I just don't know.
Books by Steve Aylett:
The Crime Studio (1994), Bigot Hall (1995), Slaughtermatic (1997),
The Inflatable Volunteer (1999), Toxicology (1999), Atom (2000), Shamanspace (2001).
the Accomplice series - Only An Alligator (2002), also - forthcoming:
The Velocity Gospel, Dummyland, Karloff's Circus...
visit Steve Aylett's website.
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