Could you give a brief description of Communion Town for new readers?
Communion Town is a sequence of stories about an imaginary city. The subtitle is A City in Ten Chapters, and the idea is that the book builds a mosaic picture of this invented place from the perspectives of many different citizens: in the first few stories, an immigrant finds herself in trouble with the city’s paranoid authorities, a folk singer falls in love with a rich girl, a child has a scary encounter by the canal, a hard-boiled detective is drawn into a surreal investigation, an abattoir worker suspects his boss is a murderer… I wanted to capture a feeling I’ve always got from cities where I’ve lived, which is that they’re strange, secret places with all kinds of weirdness hidden just under the surface of everyday life.
Does working as an English teacher help with and influence your writing?
I think so. It’s an excellent day job for a writer, not least because it involves reading lots of books and thinking hard about how language works. And universities just feel to me like hospitable environments for writing. I know some people think academia sits uneasily with fiction-writing, and I can understand the argument that an academic subject like English Lit has to be orderly and systematic, whereas fiction needs to be wild if it’s worth anything. But I’d say that’s a positive tension — the point of fiction being that it’s a free, irresponsible place outside all the frameworks and institutions within which you ordinarily live. So writing and teaching bounce off one another nicely, for me, and having a day job also means I sometimes get to talk to other human beings, which is a plus.
What is your writing process like?
Slow, disorganised and largely made up of procrastination. I do a lot of planning, like drawing diagrams of the plot, transcribing stuff from notebooks, making maps, working out characters’ biographies and so on. All of that seems to be necessary to get to the point where I can face the horror of the blank screen — but then when I do try to write a sentence, the preparation melts away and I end up producing something with very little resemblance to the plan. I’m still trying to establish a process, really, because with Communion Town it was all quite experimental. I had some stories to tell, but I didn’t initially know where they were heading or how they were linked, so I proceeded by trial and error, and the more I worked on the stories the more they spoke to one another, and drew together into whatever fragmentary unity the book turns out to have.
The novel touches on a number of very interesting themes that I’d like to ask you about – firstly, the flaneur. You’ve taken this idea of the flaneur in a very interesting trajectory away from Baudelaire and even Walter Benjamin – could you explain a little bit about this central (but shadowy) figure in your work.
The flaneur is a recurring character in Communion Town — he’s this sinister figure who roams the streets, popping up every now and then to interfere in the lives of the citizens. He’s always lurking at the edges of the story, and, like the city itself, he appears in different guises as the book goes on: he’s a busker, a canal boat dweller, a political agitator, a serial killer, a ghost. Each time he’s another kind of urban wanderer, another manifestation of the life of the city. He made his presence felt quite gradually in the writing of the book — as I was redrafting the various narratives and working them into closer unity, I noticed that this nameless figure kept appearing, looking slightly different each time but always with the same air of menace. He clearly wanted to haunt my characters, but I wasn’t sure why. When I realised he was a sort of flaneur, I looked up Baudelaire’s essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and found this:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world–such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito… Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness…
That phrase ‘a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness’ helped me see what the flaneur was doing in the book — it suggested someone so absorbed in the environment that his identity breaks up and he ceases to be quite human, becoming a wandering incarnation of the city instead. For Baudelaire this seems rather a joyful condition, but Walter Benjamin is more dubious about becoming ‘one flesh with the crowd’ — for Benjamin the flaneur stands for the hollowness of modernity, with its transformation of all relationships into commodity exchanges: ‘The intoxication to which the flaneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers’. The flaneur is a way of thinking about the ambiguous appeal of dissolving into the crowd, and about how cities do bring people together, but only in flawed, compromised forms of communion.
One thing that surprised me about the flaneur of Communion Town was that he turned out to be a storyteller — he’s a kind of ancient mariner who wanders around looking for someone who will listen to his tale. The reason for this wasn’t immediately clear to me, but I think it has to do with an Edgar Allan Poe story called ‘The Man of the Crowd’, which opens with Poe’s narrator watching a busy London street. He spots an old man with a horrible but strangely fascinating face, and decides to follow him. The old man walks through the city all night with no apparent purpose, always going with the crowd, and eventually the narrator concludes that it’s impossible to make sense of his behaviour: ‘The old man is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.’ Poe’s Man of the Crowd has a story, but we’ll never know it, because ‘there are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told’. The flaneur of Communion Town has such a secret, and he’ll share it with you if you’re foolish enough to listen.
There also appears to me to be an interest in psycho-geography – each character building up their own city (each a flaneur in their own right) but each story/individual interweaving in other character’s ‘towns’ – what was the inspiration for this premise?
The book‘s organised around the idea that a city is a fluid world which looks very different depending who you are and what kind of life you’re living. As I understand it, the word ‘psychogeography’ was coined by Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 1950s, and for them it was about the notion that cities aren’t stable, singular realities that can be objectively described, but are fundamentally subjective, surreal phenomena comprised of the experiences of those who pass through them. I tried to build this idea into the form of the book, so that while the city is always itself, it also becomes a new place for each character — and while the various characters’ paths interweave at various points, the book’s also interested in how city lives often don’t intersect, and how people get lost and lonely and fail to know one another.
Debord’s psychogeographical map of Paris could have made an alternative cover illustration for Communion Town (https://www.bsfa.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/debordpsychogeo.jpg), but even better would be a drawing called ‘La Citta Analoga’ (http://www.gizmoweb.org/2010/05/su-aldo-rossi/), by an Italian designer, architect and urban theorist called Aldo Rossi. I love this image because it does exactly what the book tries to do: it’s a patchwork of incompatible ways of looking at a city, in many different styles and scales, all mashed together. That might even be the flaneur hovering at centre-left. Rossi wasn’t a psychogeographer, but Communion Town owes a debt to his ideas about cities, specifically to the idea that a city is a system of memory, ‘the collective memory of its people’. For Rossi, the city is a built environment expressing human needs and purposes in a solid, lasting form, and the bricks and stones are less important than the underlying dream-life that gives them their shape. A city is a pattern formed by human lives as they flow through time and space — in other words, a city is a story.
It also leads into the notion of the town as a ‘strange attractor’ – each story being a reiteration of the town (and the flaneur) – what was the thinking behind this approach?
My maths isn’t good enough for this question! But, based on my vague wikipedia-type understanding that a strange attractor is an iterative equation which causes complex shapes to emerge unpredictably out of chaos, I agree that this makes a nice metaphor for how the book works. Each section takes the same equation — the idea of city as story, and flaneur as storyteller — and shifts the values slightly so that these ideas manifest themselves in a new way. And as the book goes on, I hope, the different iterations of the city interact with one another and more complex patterns arise.
The thinking behind this was to try to allow the text to define its own structure and meaning, rather than imposing everything from above in a conscious, deliberate way. I was interested in the concept of emergence, the phenomenon in which complex systems are generated spontaneously out of a large number of interactions between smaller, simpler elements, in fields ranging from economics to animal behaviour. So for instance the complex behaviours of an ant colony emerge from the interactions between individual ants which follow simple rules; or in the human brain, higher functions like consciousness emerge from the interconnection of many individual neurones; or the world wide web displays large-scale organised structure in spite of being a decentralised, unplanned system. And cities are emergent phenomena too, containing many elements of human design but also displaying spontaneous forms of order. Rossi writes that ‘with time, the city grows upon itself; it acquires a consciousness and a memory’, which seems like another way of saying the same thing: the city has a life of its own, and although you’re part of it, you’ll never know the whole story. That’s why cities are uncanny places.
Your novel also moves between different styles and genres of storytelling (the Holmes-esque detective, the Kafka-esque interrogation, the 40’s detective) yet they all fit into this city you’ve created – what were the reasons for this inspired method?
This was the original motive for writing the book. I wanted to try writing in a lot of different styles that I loved as a reader, and see if I could cram them all into one storytelling space. My private method was to think of each story as aspiring towards the voice of a particular favourite author (G K Chesterton, M R James, Angela Carter, Alasdair Gray and M John Harrison are in there, amongst others). For a learning writer, the point of this kind of approach isn’t necessarily to produce faithful imitations — it’s just that it gets you started, and with luck you work your way through pastiche and into something that feels more like your own voice.
One effect of mashing up different kinds of story is that the reader has to become alert to shifts in genre. Each time you enter a new section of the book, the frame changes and you have to ask ‘what kind of story are we in now?’ Some readers seem to like this and others find it annoying, but I came to feel that the mixed-genre method made sense for Communion Town, because that’s how cities work. It’s not just that a city is a mass of stories coexisting in the same place — it’s that those stories belong to different genres. They work by different sets of rules and contradict one another’s basic assumptions, but they have to rub along together nevertheless.
You’ve written a brilliant (and creepy) debut – what was the most enjoyable aspect of it all?
My best experiences in writing so far have definitely been the moments when the work-in-progress did something unexpected. You hear people talking about this kind of thing and it always sounds wanky, but it’s true that at a certain point, the language starts generating its own logic, and the text does things the writer could never have come up with alone. The book turns out to be cleverer and more purposeful than you are yourself, which is serious fun.
What’s next for Sam Thompson the novelist?
I’ve got lots to learn and I just want to keep going: at the moment I have two books in early planning stages and I’m working on both while I wait to see which one takes over. One’s more or less straight lit-fic realism, and the other’s a weird post-disaster fantasy with monsters. I’m still having trouble choosing between genres.