Monday, September 14, 2015


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If you want to read one of the most enjoyable, laugh-out-loud books this side of Wodehouse, check out Alien Baggage Allowance by my pal Humble Nations (if that's his real name). Full disclosure: Humble does my book covers. Fuller disclosure: He's one heck of a writer himself, as Baggage clearly demonstrates. What would it really be like if aliens visited? Baggage goes into full satire and social commentary mode from that point, and the laughs and sober "um, yeah, that would happen" moments come quickly. But enough of me. Here's the man himself....

1) How would you best describe Alien Baggage Allowance?

It's selection of super short fun, whimsical glimpses at what would happen if aliens landed on our planet, but it's not Sci-Fi and I hate the term Flash fiction. Other people would call it Sci-Fi Flash-fiction. So if someone was to call it such I would politely punch them in the face and gently inform them they were an utter imbecile. 'Flash' is some sort of Americanism that makes my skin crawl, like novellette (which incidentally always remains me of some sort of hygiene product for women of a literary bent) - it's a way of selling a book. I have to call it this because it's a certain length. There's a fantastic quote by Bukowski: 'The worth of a man is measured in the soul he can give, not the inches' - which is a little on the graphic side but it's a nice metaphor for quality over quantity. Also I'm a fan of the post-war experimental English author BS Johnson ... there's a great novel called 'Christie Malory's Own Double Entry' ... it's wildly funny and it's just 10,000 words long. The sort of people which would call that a short story or a novella are the sort of people that need to read such a book because it's a good treaty on writing itself. BS's asides which pepper the narrative are very funny, and actually talk about the art of writing a novel story telling in general. Which can be summed up by the classic line ... anything over 10,000 works is tiresome.

When I always sit down to write short, like any good writer, I try and write on more than one level. So all of the stories on the surface seem to be surrealist or funny, in a way rather disposable, but at the same time there's hidden little satires about the human condition in each of the tales. Some more obvious than others. It was quite interesting when I started getting feedback on the book, from both beta readers and reviews, different messages hit different people. Some people really got one story, other people got another. This made me really happy. Because in a good piece of art, or maybe a better way of saying it is, in a gallery exhibition of an art by an artist, people will get different things from a piece of art and stop at the paintings that resonate with them, so I guess that's what this collection is - a little exhibit of my ideas. I'm not trying to be pretentious here but it sort of sums it up nicely. I mean not exactly exhibited in the MOMA or the Tate Modern, maybe some shabby side street gallery.

2) Comedy is so fragile. Where did the jokes come from, and how did you balance the set-up and payoff? In other words, how did you know when something was funny, or when something didn't work?

Jokes come from the way I think about things. I have a quite facile and facetious nature as a person, I can be quiet dark or quite dry. People do find me funny. I spent a few years working on a TV sitcom with my a friend of mine that is a comedy genius (and I don't use that word lightly) but he's very lazy. So I was the driving force behind pushing the project forward because I do have a pretty good work ethic. But I held my own with my jokes too in the process. At the base of it all there's a great line by my favourite comedian at the moment, Doug Standhope, that I'll use, 'I didn't come from nothing' - he was talking about his mother being funny. My mum and dad have really good senses of humour - a lot of the good stories will end up in my next book that I'm writing, which is a memoir called 'Not Proud' - I've started fleshing out and remembering ideas.

And it's simple to know what's funny or what's not. It's whether it makes you laugh or not. If you don't laugh at your own jokes, they're not funny. You need to make yourself laugh. And if you go back to a story two months later and it still makes you giggle you know you're on to a winner. If not, drop it.

3) There is so much social commentary to milk from each story, I almost don't know where to start in asking questions, but I will state that you nailed the attitude of Americans fairly well, hahaha. What is the overall message you wanted to communicate with the book?

There is no overall message with the book. It's scatter shot. The Americans pop up quite a bit, I guess, because they're best placed to use as a conduit for humanity's bravado and arrogance. Which are some of the things that I wanted to talk about. I mean come on 'Home of the Brave' ... using drone planes is hardly brave, is it. And that sort of thinking is nice to me, how we think we're one thing and we're actually another. I quite like the philosophy of Lacan with his psycho-analysis practice of separating 'The Real', 'The Imagined' and 'The Symbolised' then talking about the Subject container in terms of these elements. People are too prone to reading the surface so a few of the reviews I think were quite put out by use of the Americans. But really it could have been any other overly patriotic country. A Lacanian reading of such bristling would have resulted in the French Marxist screwing up his nose and going 'You're all 'Imagined', you are mate.', as in their reality as an American can only be seen through this Imagined concept of America. So whatever. I'll use whatever tools at hand to say what I want to use whenever. I don't write to offend, so if you're offended then I suggest you have a rather low tolerance threshold. Tolerance is pretty cool in my book, although second to being truly open minded and tasting all thought process to see what you actually enjoy, as opposed to what you're told to enjoy or are conditioned to enjoy. I'm glad lots of people didn't enjoy the book for this simple reason, at least they were giving it a taste before spitting it out.

4) Who are some of your influences, especially your comedy influences? How did they help you through this book?

Influences are everyone and everything in every experience. To ask what you're influences are is a little foolish to ask a 41 year old. When you first start out you emulate before you find your voice. I did it. I remember writing a story in the style of Leonard Cohen when I was about 20 - I cringe when I think back to it. But who do I enjoy or have done in the past? That's another question.

I really like the comedy of: Peter Cook, Chris Morris (Brass Eye, Jam, Four Lions, etc), Doug Stanhope, Louis CK, Larry David, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedberg, Armando Ianucci (although 'The Thick of It' was way better than 'Veep'), Lenny Bruce, Stuart Lee, and then hardly even mentioned Daniel Kitson. I things that come from an informed place but then have the power to say what they want to say. That appeals to me.

The same with what I read, some authors off the top of my head: Dan Rhodes, Nicola Barker, Etgar Keret, Richard Brautigan, DBC Pierre, Andrew Kaufman. There's too many to mention really. I read about one novel a week and about one non-fiction book a week. So go through quiet a lot of stuff. And it's odd, I forget about some authors of five or six years and then remember them again and they've writing 2 or 3 new books and I have a binge. It's great. Reading DBC Pierre's latest at the moment, 'Lights Out in Wonderland' was fantastically inventive and fun. And it's set partly in Berlin. I read that whilst I was living there. I implore anyone who hasn't read that to go search it out. Fantastic late-capitalism romp.

But if you asked me what my favourite songs are at the moment is, well that would be easier, I'm obsessed with this at the moment: ... cracking tune and the video is nice too. Shame he's not made an album yet. One to watch out for.

5) Why did you decide to use humor and satire rather than a full, mainstream narrative?

Because that was the mood I was in. That's what I fancied doing at the moment. My life has been rather fractious over the last two years. Bumming about Europe again. Two months in Barcelona / Ibiza writing and then back to Leeds and then off to Prague for a year and then back to Barcelona to live (maybe move on now that a relationship with woman here ended), but I'm staying here any way, settling in. So I guess the snatched moments to write were reflect in what sort of book I wrote. I really like the short form - it's fun. There were about 200 stories, then ended up being those 82 in the collection. My next book will have a really epic and strong narrative theme running through it, I'm writing my memoirs. But I don't think I'll present it in chronological order because it doesn't make sense that way, I find that dull. I'm going to make it more mood-thematic as the narrative. So one feeling flows into the next. Think of it more like the 'Pulp Fiction' of my life. Skipping backwards and forward but gives a good feeling for what's happening.

6) Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I just have. And I have a stack of half-finished novellas as well that are going to be 15-25k in the works. There's three really good ones I'll be working on next year after my memoirs. And if you think memoirs seems a bit too grandiose then think of it more like a collection of my best anecdotes. My good friends have forever been on my back to commit these to paper. There's some classics. Most of them I don't come too well out of. As the title suggested 'Not Proud'.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


I recently met author David Angsten at the Taliesin Nexus writing conference in Los Angeles, and invited him to the blog to share a few words about his career and latest book, The Assassin Lotus.

David started out as a screenwriter and recently turned to novels. His work is a great alternative for thriller fans looking for something that doesn't feature terrorists or commandos, which they all seem to nowadays, and not that there's anything wrong with that, but even I like to alter the diet now and then. His first novel in the Jack Duran series, Dark Goldfeatured a sea monster; The Assassin Lotus concerns a plant certain people are willing to kill for. (Must be one heck of a plant.)

Here's David:

Brian Drake: Tell us about your hero, Jack Duran.

David Angsten: I’ve always preferred stories featuring “regular guys” forced into intense situations. I was weaned on Hitchcock movies, and I always liked his off-the-street, unassuming heroes—gee whiz family man Jimmy Stewart, martini-toting ad exec Cary Grant—who find themselves suddenly in over their heads. They’re forced to react. You get the sense they’re surprised at what they draw out of themselves. Both good and bad.

That’s the kind of guy Jack is. He appears in all three books—a sort of coming-of-age trilogy. Blindness was the central theme in the first book, DARK GOLD, when Jack was fairly young and na├»ve. But gradually he grows into a greater self-awareness, which is largely what the process of maturing is all about. An old idea. “Know thyself.” The ancient Greeks carved it on the Temple of Apollo—the setting for the opening of Jack’s second adventure, NIGHT OF THE FURIES.

BD: You've done three books with Duran and his brother. Are they entirely made up, or do they share aspects of your personality?

DA: By definition, every imagined character shares some quality of the author. Jack shares my ambivalence, my sense of humor, my fascination with women, my interest in art. But I suspect he’s a braver man than me, though the truth is you never really know until you’re tested.

His brother Dan is brilliant and passionate about ideas, but he tends to miss the subtleties in relationships. He’s also annoyingly confident in his theories and beliefs. Probably, like me, he’s covering up his doubts. But unlike me, I don’t think he’s aware of it.

BD: THE ASSASSIN LOTUS is dedicated to your mother. Do you write anything you wouldn't want her to read?

DA: As a 91-year-old reader, she’s pretty much seen everything. But yeah, there’s a reason her dedication had to wait till the third novel.

BD: Most thrillers these days feature spies or commandos or some kind of political conflict, but you've taken a different course. What prompted you to go with sea monsters and ancient psychoactive elixirs rather than the same-old-same-old?

DA: I got into the idea of a sea monster story when I realized it was the oldest thriller genre in the world. It goes back from the Bible and the Greeks all the way to Tiamat, the Babylonian sea monster story told over 5000 years ago. American versions include Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, all the way to Benchley’s Jaws and beyond.

The next two novels grew out of a longstanding curiosity. There are two very mysterious and legendary ancient drugs: kykeon—the elixir of the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, and soma, the psychoactive drink that’s praised in the early Vedic texts of Hinduism. The source of these two drugs has long been lost to history. Jack’s brother Dan is an paleoethnobotanist obsessed with uncovering the truth about them.

I think they make great MacGuffins. They allowed me to explore what I’m most interested in—mythology, belief systems, culture, religion. Not to get too grandiose about it, but what I’m really interested in is human consciousness. How we shape and channel and attempt to organize it. How we try to make sense of the world.

That may sound too ambitious for an action-adventure thriller. But I reject the idea that it’s “only a genre novel.” Mystery, action and suspense are essential, but there’s no reason you can’t explore big subjects and ideas. Writers too often get stuck in a rut, tilling the same dead ground. I suppose it’s good for marketing. Readers like to know what they’re buying. But really, how many more serial killer stories do we need?

BD: How has your background in screenwriting helped your novels? Or are they two different species that have no bearing on one another?

DA: Fran Lebowitz said screenwriting’s not an art form, it’s a punishment from God. After ten years of punishment I can’t disagree. I think it’s much more difficult than novel writing, with many more restrictions. But screenwriting taught me structure. That’s really what it’s about. Structuring a scene to coax out the drama. Structuring the story into acts. Turning a plot, revealing character. Setup, payoff, setup, surprise. A screenplay is a blueprint, focused on essentials. What happens, what’s said, what’s seen on the screen. They’re written staccato, more like poetry than prose. It really is an art form. Like kabuki.

Knowing structure is useful in novel writing. In fact, for thrillers it’s essential. But novels allow far more freedom for the writer. You can go anywhere your mind can go, consciousness has no bounds. You can enter a character’s head, reveal his hidden thoughts. You can lay out the big picture or focus on tiny details. The stray black eyelash on a woman’s pale cheek. The cool drop of sweat rolling down the hero’s neck. Smells. Sensations. Moods. Ideas. Absolutely everything is available.

And the great thing is, when you’re done with your novel, you have a finished product in your hand. Not just another script draft for everyone to piss on.

BD: Will there be more adventures of Jack Duran or do you have something else in mind for the next one?

DA: LOTUS ended the trilogy, so I’m taking a break from Jack for now. At the moment I’m working on a serial killer thriller—without the serial killer. Like all my books, it’s a love story. It’s set right here in West Hollywood.

BD: What do you like best about writing?

DA: Nailing the sentence. When you get it just right, it’s a kick.

BD: Thanks for stopping by and best of luck with your books!