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David Keenan's explosive third novel, Xstabeth

David Keenan is someone who has a long association with Monorail, he was one of our first customers. Later on we would sometimes order in records from Volcanic Tongue, the shop and distribution company he ran with his partner, Heather Leigh. More recently we hosted a launch party for his second novel, For The Good Times. My own association with David goes back even further. David’s first concert was a Pastels show in 1987 which he memorably described in a Wire magazine epiphany. In recent times we worked together on an adaption of his debut novel, This Is Memorial Device for the Edinburgh Book Festival. This interview, timed to coincide with his forthcoming book, Xstabeth, was conducted by email.

SP: I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to music in your fiction writing. Both This Is Memorial Device and For The Good Times have very immediate images which music is central to. Is there music in Xstabeth and if so, what is it? Is the music one of the first considerations in your writing? It never seems added on. I’m thinking of Martin Amis trying to contextualise one of his characters by talking about them being into The Velvet Underground (early novel, maybe The Rachel Papers?). It just came off as annoying and trite. I’m wondering if there's a mixture of music playing and character background too - their music history.

DK: Yes, there is a lot of music in Xstabeth, to the point that certain sections that have lilting song-like qualities or that are particularly mesmerically rhymed or rhythmed also come with suggested chord sequences, so that the book may be performed, sung, accompanied, scored, as you go. It’s focussed on a pair of singer-songwriters from St Petersburg, Russia, who are obsessed by moody weirdos like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Roy Harper, Jackson C. Frank, Sky Saxon, Bob Desper... also, there’s a character that runs a DIY underground folk bar in St Peters where he sells weirdo western LPs and bootleg cassettes. The bar is called Snork’s. Bob Desper’s track “It’s Too Late” was a big influence on the book.

I loathe the books of Martin Amis.

The music isn’t my first consideration when writing, I try not to have any considerations at all, I literally move from sentence to sentence, tracking what the revelation of the book may be, circling it, pushing forward, but my aim is always musical, albeit not conventionally musical, sometimes, but rhythm is so important for me, a line that cannot be rendered musically, when spoken on the tongue or sung on the breath, is of no interest to me, every sentence must flow, or at least, creatively flounder, and contribute momentum and energy. No way back. But the characters, really, decide what music they are into, or whether they are into music at all. I mean, that list of musicians who appear in Xstabeth, I don’t personally think I would have chosen them myself, I mean, I’m not much of a Nick Drake fan, but I could see why one of the characters loved him. I just don’t like music that is too sorry for itself – though I love achingly sad music – and Nick Drake just seems sorry for himself. Sometimes I feel that way about Neil Young too, though I love him much better than Nick Drake, but I never feel that way about Dylan, say. So, you have to discover your character’s musical history, you can’t just impose it, just saying that they are into the Velvet Underground and using that as some kind of communicative shorthand, ugh, that’s not writing, that’s doodling. And it’s writing that is desperately trying to make ‘points’. I hate writing that makes points. Write pointlessly, which might be the best advice ever given to a writer, straight after the premium commandment, never take any notice of any advice for writers at all costs whatsoever.

Do you listen to music as you write? Is there a match between the words and what you’re listening to in the moment? I wonder if you ever have the radio on or if it’s completely controlled. I was thinking that a little randomness is maybe sometimes helpful in going somewhere unexpected with something.

No. I couldn’t possibly listen to music when I write. I write in silence because listening is key to my practice, my writing is closer to dictation than thinking stuff up, so as I need to listen as carefully as possible, not only so that I pick up exactly what wants to come through, but also so that I don’t fool myself with mere non-channelled noise or chatter passing as the voice of not-me and trying to sneak past.

There is always a match, though, in the words and in everything I am reading, listening to, experiencing at the time of writing the books. I have this thing where everything I need is there right in front of me, if only I was better able to creatively re-see it. So I always factor in things that happen to me, stuff I check out, ideas I encounter or am working through, in the work itself, because I have this basic faith that the life and the work are an unfolding simultaneity, or rather I have written myself to this point of faith and found it to be true, and self-fulfilling. The randomness comes from the times when I am not writing. I never ever ever allow myself to take notes ever, in fact I never allow myself to consciously even think about my books when I am not actually writing them, so as when I am out and an idea comes to me about some book or I see or think of something that seems pertinent, I immediately banish it, dismiss it out of hand from my mind, in the faith that the things that arrive, during the writing, the channelling, as I said, even if they do come from that day, or from that earlier thought, have the persistence required to be weighted, that they are inexorable, and so a part of it, and are included.

Also, I have become much more serious in my listening, so I no longer have background music. I sit down and listen to albums all the way through, on vinyl and CD. I would rather go back to revisit a beautiful pressing of an old classic on vinyl than stream something. I also think the ritualising of, and the sacramental nature of, this encountering with music is something that I really enjoy getting back to, taking it seriously, and I do, I think 20th century rock and pop culture is the greatest. It’s where I worship. Besides, like, Bach.
I love this description of your writing as being almost like dictation. Of working in the moment with what comes through. I’m trying to imagine the closest musical equivalent and I’m thinking of the speed that Bob Dylan was able to compose in that whirlwind 65-66 period, his 'vision music’. How do you personally get to that place and is it possible for you to stay there for hours and days on end? Do you ever review something and think where the fuck did that come from?

I think that all the time. When I read back Xstabeth I could barely remember even writing it, I can’t recall living in that voice day-in for months on end, and yet I did, and when you put it like that you feel like a drugged hostage of literature or a mad amnesiac somnambulist or a weird mechanism for language and what it wants to get up to. I think of Dylan’s mid-60s period a lot. I remember he called the era after it, the Great Forgetting, because he lost the ability to write those same sort of songs, and I always have that slightly nervous feeling that one day all of these words will no longer be mine to receive, that I may no longer be able to tune in, that I will have lost her love, so as that’s another reason I write like a maniac every day, because when you’re on you’re on, and who knows how long that might last? Having said that. I have been writing fiction every single day of my life now for the past twelve years or so, so I know how to get into the zone immediately, and have all my strategies for listening, and my feel for rhythms and character, available, right there, soon as I sit down to write, and yeah, it’s getting harder to stay inside that whirlwind of dictation, I guess, I don’t write for as long as I used to write, before, back then I had a pretty athletic approach to non- stop writing, whereas now I prefer a concentrated intense burst, no more than a few hours at a time, mostly. There are issues of sanity and insanity that go along with that, with dealing with voices in your head, and these voices are present all the time you are working on a book, but the fact I can’t remember writing Xstabeth or inhabiting that space, reassures me that I am good at banishing these demon voices as soon as we have successfully done the dirty.

It was so enjoyable to work on the adaption of This Is Memorial Device. The language in that is totally musical and that’s why I think the actors were able to start reading it so well quickly. There was a good level of intensity in what we were all bringing to it but a lot of laughter too. I was really impressed with how open you were to the collaboration. By this point is your attitude, 'well I’ve made this work, let’s see what else can become of it?’.

I think the book has a life of its own, which I am as interested in as anyone else is, to see where it might go and how it might manifest in future. I loved working with you and Graham Eatough and the whole cast, I’d never done anything like that before and it was an intense few days putting it together, it’s very different from writing a novel, so I am very aware that a lot of what works on the page doesn’t work on stage, etc. It’s weird, I had a vision of Memorial Device in my head that looked nothing like the cast but after just a few days they totally became the same people in the book. I was moved, laughed a lot, but also cried.

This Is Memorial Device has become a total cult, hasn’t it? People are really passionate about it and in a way almost believe in it in the same way they would an obscure band that was 'the band' they were most into. You must enjoy that. Has it gone slightly further than you thought it could? I mean what Airdrie bands have got a bigger legacy than Memorial Device? Do you worry that a really dire adaptation could come along and ruin it / them?

It’s completely mental what has happened with Memorial Device, the connection it has to people, and I think it kind of validates a lot of people’s experiences, growing up, getting into music, you know, playing in a band, putting on a gig, publishing a fanzine, sticking up a poster, mooching around the city centre looking mad and amazing, maybe not really taking it that seriously at the time, or otherwise selling short your experience, but then years later, looking back, and realising how magical and bold and how much belief it took to commit to that culture, that music, with all of its implications, growing up in a small town in the arse end of nowhere. But, I mean, it is completely real to me too. I lived with these characters for years, and many of them turn up in later books, which is something that always delights me so much, when an old character, an old bud, an old comrade, an old girlfriend, shows up in a book unannounced, Mary Hanna, Teddy Ohm, and I think about Memorial Device a lot, they are my all-time favourite band, especially when Mary Hanna was in them. But I only know as much as what took place in the book. If I wanted to find out more, I would have to write it. At the moment I am writing a weird pre-Memorial Device book set in the 1960s in Airdrie, and featuring Teddy Ohm and his crew, and it was so great to be back, and to be privy to the unfolding of another part of the story. As for dire adaptations, I simply wouldn’t allow it. It means too much for me to allow anyone to cheapen it or just not even really get it. I would always be involved, in some capacity, in order to make sure that we stay true. I owe it to Memorial Device and to everyone who ever believed in the power of a band to be as serious as your life. But the sort of people who are attracted to something like Memorial Device inevitably seem to be the ‘right’ people. It’s a really positive vibe.

I want to ask about the book covers. The photographs you’ve chosen are so perfect (the design’s been good too). It’s really important, isn’t it? A lot of book covers feel sometimes kind of interchangeable in a way that record covers aren’t. Your books look like a series of albums. That’s the intention, isn’t it. It feels like it’s part of building a total experience.

Oh god yes, I couldn’t stand to have an ugly or generic or uncool cover, it’s vital to me that the book is a perfectly primed entity, right from the cover shot/design all in, everything is in mutual conversation with everything else in my books, all aspects, and I do have a really great collection of photographs that I have amassed through the years. I’ve been very lucky that Faber & Faber and Orion have both been very open to my ideas for covers. The shots I used on Xstabeth and on The Towers The Fields The Transmitters are photos that have haunted me my whole life, I always knew I would use them for something, and they are both so Xstabeth. For me, being a mad rocker, I model my book covers on consistently brilliant weirdo independent label runs by people like Corwood, ESP-Disk, Folkways etc. Definitely, the classic album run, is the model.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on just now and what might be up ahead?

Xstabeth and its prequel, The Towers The Fields The Transmitters, are both out in November on White Rabbit, my editor Lee Brackstone’s brilliant new imprint. I love these two books, they’re inexplicable, and I can’t wait to get them out there. I also have a new pamphlet coming out from Rough Trade Books this summer, Empty Aphrodite: An Encyclopaedia of Fate, my second collaboration with the brilliant artist Sophy Hollington. I also have my first ever short story published, Mistress Fluck, as a limited edition chapbook from Tangerine Press in the autumn. After that my novel about stone, the great cathedrals, religious art, cults, the fall of Khartoum and the Second World War, called Monument Maker, will be published summer 2021. It’s a quarter of a million words and the most ambitious thing I have ever attempted. After that, my book set in Airdrie and the East End of Glasgow in the 1960s/70s, Industry of Magic and Light, and then the memoir I wrote about looking for the remains of my father in Mexico, I Am The Body Of All The Conquistadors. And probably by that time I will have written a whole bunch of new works too, if she still loves me, that is.