Christopher Neilan lives in Brighton and has written his first novel, Abattoir Jack. Neilan began writing seriously when he realised it was unlikely that anyone would pay to hear him play guitar, and yet more unlikely that anyone would pay to hear him explain in detail his favourite Tom Waits songs. Abattoir Jack is described as a journey of love, drugs and madness.
Abattoir Jack is set in the States, why did you choose this location and did you find writing the American dialogue tricky?
The location chose itself really. My background is in film – the study of film and sort of low-level attempts at filmmaking – and it’s perhaps a more prevalent device in film than in literature to make the external environments of your story represent the interior world of your character. You have so little time on-screen that you need all the present elements (music, diagetic sound, camera angle and movement, location, colour palette, wardrobe) to be working for you to tell your story, and so the best films are telling their stories not just through what the characters are saying and doing but by everything that you’re seeing within the frame. An example that springs to mind is that film Tim Roth directed about the incestuous relationship between a father and daughter. When the father went off to have his way with his teenage daughter, they went to an unbelievably bleak black concrete bunker on a windswept hill to do it. Now that’s not a likely thing, necessarily, for that character to do, but it’s poetic. The exterior represents the interior. Well, Abattoir Jack started as an idea for a film. It was going to be my first screenplay. And I sort of began writing sections of it out in prose, as a writing exercise, and found that I liked the prose. So I wrote three chapters and sent them off to the Annette Green Authors Agency who I thought I might like to represent me, and David Smith said they were great and he’d like to take me on. So it became a book. And no bad thing – it’s a rather cinematic, sort of flippant and youthful story, but I think that kind of thing is really exciting to see in prose. Just look at Craig Clevinger, or Chuck Palahniuk, even Roddy Doyle – he was criticised in his early work for being too American, too movie-esque, and those comments only really started to go away when he won the Booker Prize.
Anyway, the American location really chose itself – firstly because a road trip in the UK has all sorts of entirely different connotations to a road trip in the US. First of all, it would be over in a few days! The American road trip is more of a grand undertaking, and this character needs a grand undertaking. He needs to do something a little bit magisterial. And then the story becomes about how misguided that is, he starts to see that he was grabbing life in the wrong way, but that perhaps the fact that he was trying was the point all along. And once you accept that the story is going to be set in America, and that he needs to begin the story in a very lowly emotional state, very isolated, living a hard life, an abrasive life, a life that wears him down and wears him out, something that he needs to get away from… this is how I came to place him in a tiny isolated desert town, in the middle of nowhere, blinding bright sun and scorching heat, cutting up dead animals every day, nothing but the smell of blood around him and red stains on his t-shirts. This is about creating poetically the grind and trudge of an unsatisfying life. And then the story is about this character trying to escape that.
As for writing the American dialogue, I didn’t find it tricky at all, it came as second nature – whether or not it rings true is for other people to decide, but no-one’s had a problem with it so far. I’m in my 20s, I grew up watching American television, listening to American bands, watching American films. The ability to imitate American speech patterns is pretty much hardwired into young Brits.
Also of course the influences on the book are almost all contemporary American writers (Palahniuk, Coupland, Clevinger, Hunter S, also Raymond Chandler who is probably my favourite writer, and at the time I’d just read Vernon God Little, an American novel by an Englishman, which was a huge influence) which affected both my story choices and my ability to write American vernacular.
I guess mostly second-hand. I’m not a big drug person myself and the drugs are there as a dramatic tool, not for the innate coolness of seeing drugs in a story, the way Guy Ritchie makes films about guns and geezers not because they have any kind of meaning to the story but just because he thinks guns and geezers are good. The drugs aren’t there because I like stories about drugs, they’re there because I wanted Jack to journey into a strange and otherly sort of realm. It’s like Jack journeys beyond the everyday and into a dark nighttime world, and I wanted that world to be tinged with fear, just a little, and the sense of something being not-quite-right – because ultimately, as I’ve said, the journey is going to go wrong. The thesis of the book is completely ripped off from the Stones: you can’t always get what you want, but going on the journey is actually the important part. What can I tell you, Mick said it better than me.
And actually, drugs aside, the inspiration for the story came in one very clear moment, and it was thanks to the Pixies. I’d been listening to Surfer Rosa and Come On Pilgrim a lot (and really loving them), and I was home at my parents for Christmas, and the TV was on, it was some cooking show, and they were on location hanging up these pig carcasses. And something about the tonal quality of that music and that imagery just set off a lightbulb in my head. And the idea was formed there and then. I just developed the story after that – whilst listening to Caribou on repeat.
You apparently turned to writing after realising that no one would pay to hear you play guitar. If you could play in any band, which one would it be?
Ha! Yes, I am and always will be a frustrated musician finding other outlets for his burning musical desire. I’ve been trying to be in bands since I was about 18 (and dreaming of it way before that), but my musical skill is more limited than my literary skill. I’m a better writer than I am guitarist. I’ve had some bad luck in that field too – I’m not so bad, I can sing and I can play, it’s just never worked out for me. But I still play my guitar around the bars in Brighton so you might catch me if you’re lucky. And I always harbour hopes that I’ll release some kind of album at some point in my life. Maybe I’ll do a reverse Nick Cave – make my name in novels and screenplays and suddenly start an avant-garde punk band when I’m in my forties.
I think I’d only be good enough to play in some vaguely punk orientated band, so I think I’ll go for Mission Of Burma. They’re still one of the most underrated bands of all time. Signals, Calls & Marches is a spectacular album in about nineteen different ways. I’ve read reviews that claim that they started both the post-punk and indie-rock sub-genres with that one album. Two genres for the price of one. I mean, that’s nonsense, but it’s a great album.
What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t writing?
Looking forward to the day when writing pays my way in life. Playing my guitar in tiny wee pubs. Reading, watching films, talking about films with like-minded friends. Ingesting as much good comedy as I possibly can – I’ve seen about every scrap of Bill Hicks and Stewart Lee there is to see. And watching football too. I don’t play much anymore but football is one of my few non-art based pleasures. Thank God I’m not American, I’d probably be a baseball fanatic.
What’s next? Is there another novel in the pipeline?
Yes, I’m working on what I think may turn out to be novel number 2 as we speak, and thinking about the idea of trying to get a collection of short stories out there too – if there is still anyone left on the face of the earth who actually pays for short stories by the time I’ve finished. You can go to www.authortrek.com and see a story of mine. And I’ve just written my first screenplay – a British noir thriller set in 80s Salford – so I’ll be hoping to move into that arena too. And I do a little film journalism – I have a regular soundtrack column at www.movie-moron.com, and I contribute to Film International and the online arm of Little White Lies. I got my first writing experience in comedy, in fact it was Bain & Armstrong (writers of Peep Show) who got me my first work, and I still do a little comedy when I have the time – you’ll hear some of my stuff on the next series of Recorded for Training Purposes on Radio 4.
Abattoir Jack is the first novel to be published by Punked Books, a new paperback imprint for trade fiction and non-fiction.
More info: Author Trek