Stewart Home is an author, artist and filmmaker from London. He writes both fiction and nonfiction, and has written, edited and published pamphlets, magazines and anthologies. Home’s work is difficult to define – it often reflects the fundamentals of Neoism, which by definition resists definition – but there is evidence of the influence of punk, the occult and the radical left.
Ajay RS Hothi Stewart, when did you start writing?
Stewart Home When I was 15 or 16, for music fanzines. Punk music. Basically I wanted to get to see the shows for free. I wasn’t so interested in writing; I was interested in music. I learned to play the guitar and I was in some rock-and-roll bands that attempted to play EFM, or extra-fast music, although it wouldn’t be extra-fast by today’s standards. One of the things about me is that I’ve never known whether I’m right- or left-handed. I can write with both hands, though when I was a kid I was always made to do it right-handed. I started using a keyboard and mouse right-handed because my girlfriend was right-handed so she had it set up that way. After about 20 years I wondered whether I could do it left-handed, to see whether I could avoid RSI, and now I mostly use my mouse left-handed and it actually feels weird when I do it right-handed.
Anyway, the point of this is that I think I should have learned to play the guitar left-handed instead of right-handed. It was fine when I was playing bass guitar or rhythm guitar but when I started playing lead guitar my lead guitar playing was very odd – which wasn’t to say that it was bad. I used to play with some very good guitarists and they just couldn’t figure out what I was doing to make this sound, even though they could do very many things that I couldn’t. My rock-and-roll career didn’t go where I wanted. I really wanted to be the singer but I couldn’t sing like Aretha Franklin. Very few people can, but that’s what I aspired to. Even Tina Turner would have done, for the screaming and the level of vocal control at least. But all the time I was writing and people were saying, “You can write very well” and I was like, “I’m not interested in that, I’m into rock and roll.”
I was still writing about rock and roll and I carried on writing, as well as doing art shit. I didn’t go to art school – maybe I should have done, but no. I think if you’re going to go to art school you have to go to a metropolitan art school, like in London or Glasgow or Edinburgh, and you network. Having said that, I did win a Hamlyn Award in 2013, which is the one everyone wants because it’s the most money, and I have sold work to the Arts Council, and I have had a show at White Columns. Maybe I didn’t need to go to art school. I certainly think that people don’t need to go to creative-writing school. I honed my skill by signing on the dole in the 1980s and reading shit and working on shit. I was interested in a mixture of things: music stuff and visual stuff. I started rereading a lot of fiction when I was in school: skinhead books and Hell’s Angels books, Mick Norman and Richard Allen. Mick Norman was a progressive guy who had the gay Hell’s Angels being harder than the straight Hell’s Angels and after the authoritarian right-wing government took over, the Hell’s Angels were the only hope for the country after the Angry Brigade had been crushed. He was a good guy. Mick Norman was actually called Laurence James. He edited the early Richard Allen skinhead books. By the time Skinhead Girls was published in 1972 he had gotten so fed up with Richard Allen’s racism that he refused to deal with him any more and passed him on to another editor. Richard Allen’s work got worse; his drink problem got worse.
I was looking at all those books again and looking at them through the prism of the nouveau roman and other stuff that I read as a teenager (because I didn’t just read skinhead books and Hell’s Angels books). The kind of fiction I wrote took off because I used to be involved with a magazine called Workers’ Playtime and some of our friends had joined [the political party] Class War, which was degenerating into anarchism. Because we weren’t anarchists I thought it would be really funny to write a story in the style of Richard Allen but about Class War, parodying them. But in the end I decided to model it more on a Hell’s Angels writer called Peter Kay who wrote a story called “Anarchist”. The collective I was in that produced the leftist magazine fell apart during the time I was writing the story. I think I originally wrote about 55,000 words and published it in a magazine that I published myself called SMILE, and it had quite an impact and I thought, “This is good.”
This went down really well, so then I did a parody of the art world called “Straight”, and then I thought I should go for novel length again. I wrote my first novel, Pure Mania, in 1988. I sent it to a few places – 4th Estate, Serpent’s Tail – I think I heard politely but negatively from Serpent’s Tail. I wanted to get a proper publisher to show that I could do it. I knew a guy, Peter Travers, who edited The Edinburgh Review; he was the guy who discovered James Kelman and Tom Lennon. He was a friend. I worked on a magazine that he edited. When he was a student in Edinburgh he published them as part of Polygon, which was a student imprint connected to Edinburgh University. I was in Glasgow when I saw him and I said that I’d written this novel and I was wondering if you’d take a look at it because I don’t know where to get it published. He said, “Oh, don’t you know? I’ve just become editorial director of Polygon again and it’s just been bought out by Edinburgh University Press, so it’s not run by students any more. I like your stories so if I like your novel we’ll publish it.” He got back to me really quickly and said, “Yeah, it’s great, we’ll publish it.” So that was that. After that I got a really snotty letter from 4th Estate with my manuscript back saying, “Oh yeah, you know, sorry it’s taken me a year to look at your manuscript. What’s more, when I read it, I didn’t like it, you can spit on my grave,” and the manuscript was annotated with all these comments about how shit I was as a writer.
One of the ideas that I had taken from the nouveau roman was the idea of repetition, and I had read these pulp writers and seen how they had repeated phrases through books. With Richard Allen you can find whole paragraphs repeated, so I repeated stuff through the book, but the idea was that it was meant to be humorous. They didn’t get that I had done this deliberately. It’s like they thought they were sophisticated literary guys, but they hadn’t got past Evelyn Waugh. They hadn’t found out about Alain Robbe-Grillet or Claude Simon or any of that continental stuff.
People are quite surprised by the comedy. A lot of the literary critics didn’t get that I was not trying to produce pulp fiction or highbrow fiction, but instead some kind of hybrid between the two. Of course I was influenced by Baudrillard, as one was if one was in the art world in the 1980s, and obviously I had looked at the Surrealists and the nouveau roman and I thought if you can have repetition then you can have simulation of the whole plot as well and it doesn’t have to be non-linear. But after doing five novels in that style where, again, the repetition of style was part of the whole joke, and having thought I’d perfected it with the fifth, and then getting fed up that English literary critics didn’t understand that I was not trying to write pulp fiction, I decided to do non-linear books for a while. And, lo and behold, when the first non-linear novel came out in 1997, Come Before Christ and Murder Love, Time Out was saying how Stewart Home was influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet and I was like, “Uh, yeah… but it wasn’t just this book.” How did it take you guys six books to figure this out? Because of course you get influenced by references, but you try to use them in different ways and try to cross material.
In the mid- to late 1990s I was absolutely massive in Finland. I was their biggest-selling author and the most borrowed in the library system. My first couple of books did well in Germany, too. They also did well in Russia, but you don’t get rich by selling books in Russia – because of the exchange rates they sell the books a lot cheaper. My favourite of the early novels is Slow Death from 1996 because I think it was then that I had perfected what I was doing. Although there’s nothing wrong with the earlier ones, some of them have some really nice passages. I always try to find a gimmick: the first one was angry neo-punk rock vegans attacking tea-swilling scummies with baseball bats in cafés, and people who ate Hitler cuisine, and because they were in a band they couldn’t go wrong. If they got away with it they had struck a blow for veganism and if they were nicked they got the publicity. With a love story in it, of course.
But my favourite story is probably 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess from 2002. I used to, for various reasons, spend quite a lot of time in Aberdeen, even though I’ve never lived there. You have this weird thing on the seafront at Aberdeen because it used to be one of the big beach holiday places in Scotland before everyone started going to Spain. People used to go cruising there like it was American Graffiti, so there’s this joke that Aberdeen was L.A. on the North Sea. I was reading Berg and thinking that you could really do something in Aberdeen that starts off like this, but I can’t do a Scottish voice so it’d have to be an English-literature student, but I’ll have a female one having a nervous breakdown. And then there’s all these stone circles in Aberdeenshire; it has the highest concentration of stone circles in the world, although they’re on a much smaller scale than Stonehenge or Avebury. I went to a lot of them. When Attack! Books was going, Steven Wells and Tommy Udo were always asking me if I had any ideas for books. When Princess Di died I said that I did. You know that book 101 Things to Do with a Dead Cat? I said that I’d like to do one called 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess, but it’d be a cartoon book and they said that they’d need a novel. But I’d had the title for quite a while at that point. We could have this conspiracy theory that Princess Di’s body was being ritually taken around the stone circles in Aberdeenshire. So the protagonist and this older male, who she may be hallucinating or she may have met, can be discussing literature because then you could have all these reviews of books – I used to trawl through shops buying remaindered novels for 50p because I wanted the sludge of the industry. And so she can discuss literature, have sex with this guy (of course, because that’s an important element of any novel), and go to these stone circles, so you can have all this antiquarian description. Also they’re carrying around this ventriloquist’s dummy, because there’s one in Berg as well, but it’ll be weighed down with bricks. But rather than getting burned my dummy will come alive and take over the narration of a chapter and take part in the sex and whatever else.
So that’s how you get your ideas. There’s always stuff banging around, but the beginning is just stuff riffing on Ann Quin. §
Home’s most recent novel is The 9 Lives of Ray the Cat Jones (2014), the true story of a teetotal, fitness-obsessed, working-class Welshman whose plans to become the middleweight champion of the world are thwarted when he is put in jail for crimes he didn’t commit.