Storytellers and Anthropologists

I’m currently in the middle of editing a book that I’ve been working on about the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia. I was in Tanimbar some twenty years ago as a fledgling anthropologist, and it was in Tanimbar that I started writing seriously. In fact, I find it hard to disentangle my time in Tanimbar from my life as a writer. This, in part, has been why I have found this book so tricky to write, and why it has taken long. Read more

Ontological Claustrophobia – A Short Story

So there I was, sitting amongst philosophers, and we were all talking about ontological claustrophobia, the fear of being, that kind of thing.

The room was getting a bit stuffy. We’d been there a long time, talking and talking and talking. Suddenly I felt out of breath. ‘How about opening the window,’ I suggested. ‘That will help, I’m sure. Then perhaps we can talk about something else.’

The philosophers grumbled. ‘You don’t understand,’ they said. ‘You never understand.’ Read more

Seven Stories Event

February looks like it is turning into a busy month; and I’m very pleased to be heading up to Seven Stories in Newcastle (my favourite UK city, by the way…) for a [amazon_link id=”1407116525″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Snorgh[/amazon_link] event to tie in with World Book Day. This year’s World Book Day (the actual date of WBD is Thursday 6th March) at Seven Stories is all about Snorghs, sailors and adventures. So Tom Docherty and I are heading up north to do a warm-up event on Sunday 23rd February. Here’s the link to Seven Stories to find out more.

Brief Thoughts on Creativity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about creativity. I’ve been thinking about what it means to bring new ideas, thoughts and stories into being. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking about fairy dust.

Part of the reason for all this is that I’ve been hard at work over the last few weeks writing a paper which is due to be published later this month in National Taiwan University Studies in Language and Literature. The paper is called “Participation, Pattern and Change” and is about what I am calling participative creativity. The main idea behind the paper is that whilst creativity is still frequently seen as the intervention of something unworldly into the world—either a god, or a god-like infusion of genius into the mundane, or some kind of fairy dust—when it comes down to this, this is a pretty bad model for how we go about writing stories, composing music, painting pictures, coming up with new thoughts and hypotheses, finding new solutions to problems. So the paper explores a ‘participative’ model of creativity, drawing on my current favourite text, Liu Xie’s sixth century Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (“The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons”) and on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). My aim is to set out a model that can account for literary creativity whether in China or in the West, one that does not have recourse to fairy-dust notions of creation ex nihilo.

What is at stake here, is the question of what the conditions are that are  necessary for creativity. As a teacher of creative writing, sometimes I come across students who claim, curiously, that they are not ‘creative’; and when this happens, I wonder what it is that they think that they are missing. It is my suspicion that they are in the grip of unhelpful notions of what it means to create. There is a widespread and popular idea of creativity as something akin to fairy dust: intangible, a bit sparkly, not entirely of this world, and rather hard to procure. And this fairy-dust notion of creativity is, I think, what lies behind the brainless notion (a notion that is adhered to in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that creative writing cannot be taught. This is an idea that is so boringly widespread, and so clearly evidentially false, that it is hard to know why people still maintain it in newspaper column after newspaper column. What this particularly numbskull notion seems to boil down to is this: either you have fairy dust or you do not. And it’s not down to you, or down to whoever is teaching you, whether you have fairy dust: it is, ultimately, down to the fairies (and who knows what they are up to?).

I’ll post a link to the paper when it is published. But here I want to just mention a wonderful book by James Austin (who some visitors to this blog may know as the author of [amazon_link id=”0262511096″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Zen and the Brain[/amazon_link]), called [amazon_link id=”0262511355″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Chase, Chance and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty[/amazon_link], which explores the role of chance in creativity, and which I think makes some interesting inroads into the question of what it is to teach creativity. Our relationship with chance, Austin points out, is not just a kind of victimhood in the face of blind chance. In fact, Austin divides chance into four different categories. I’ll set them out below.

  1. Chance I: Blind luck, things just happen.
  2. Chance II: Chance that favours those in motion (or, as Austin writes, “the posture of creativity is forward-leaning”)
  3. Chance III: Chance that favours the prepared mind.
  4. Chance IV: Chance born out of a distinctive personal “flavour”, out of the fact that it is an idiosyncratic individual who is engaging with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that, from the point of view of teaching creative writing (or creativity in general), although Chance I is out of our hands, chance II, II and IV are not. Chance II is a matter of keeping moving, of going out and rambling over the hills, of seeing what you turn up in libraries (I tell my students, sometimes, that they should hand around in library shelves waiting to be mugged by passing books; Walter Benjamin talks about walking down the street and being mugged by passing ideas).  Chance III is a matter of accumulating a wide store of reading and of experience on which to draw (something that Liu Xie, in particular, insists upon). Finally, Chance IV is a matter of cultivating idiosyncratic interests and obsessions, because out of these strange juxtapositions, interesting things can arise. And all of this can boil down into really quite practical advice. Keep moving and keep exploring the world. Keep accumulating experience and reading. Follow those things that matter to you, and cherish your idiosyncratic interests. It is this, ultimately, that makes creativity participative, because it is about getting involved in the stuff of the world, rather than pulling down something unworldly from a mythical location outside the world.

What it comes down to is this. I don’t believe (or I don’t think I believe) that there is such a thing as an inherently uncreative person; but I do believe that there are more or less creative practices or even forms of life. And these can be taught.

How the Revolution Began

After reading Julian Baggini’s piece on burning the Encyclopædia Britannica in Aeon Magazine, I couldn’t resist reposting this story about book-burning that I wrote way back (as one of my series of Yijing-based stories), and that was published on Necessary Fiction back in 2010. The story was called ‘How the Revolution Began’, and featured not a blazing encyclopaedia, but instead whole libraries of burning books, culminating in a set of blazing dictionaries.




First they banned novels, because they said — reasonably enough — that the world was complicated enough and the problems of the world grave enough, without the distraction of imagined worlds and non-existent problems. I was a young man back then. I remember standing outside the City Hall and watching the people bring cart-loads of dreams, fantasies and imaginings to fuel the pyres set up by the authorities. And perhaps I was not alone in feeling a kind of glee at the sight of those cheery orange and yellow flames, at the satisfying crackle of paper going up in smoke.

Afterwards, it was strange how quickly we adjusted. We got used to reading other things on the bus as we travelled to work. We filled the empty spaces on our shelves with ornaments. We got by.

Two years later, they outlawed books of poetry. There were protests, mainly from the poets themselves, but the reasoning of the authorities was sound: light verse, they said, was inconsequential; ballads were stories in disguise, and thus should, for the sake of consistency, go the same way as novels; love lyrics fostered delusion; sonnets were impossibly elitist; limericks inclined the mind to disrespect; and haiku — well, haiku were just downright odd, and foreign with it. Besides, nobody had read any poetry for years, even if — unaccountably — there were many who persisted in writing it. Read more

Philosophers and Dinner Dates

My goodness, two posts in two days… But don’t assume that this is going to be the way of things from here on in: I just thought I’d post to say that there’s a little interview with me over on the Bloomsbury philosophy blog, about Levinas, philosophy, which philosopher I’d like to have over for dinner, and my forthcoming book [amazon_link id=”1441124152″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling[/amazon_link]. It’s a chatty, breezy kind of interview. There’s an extract below the fold: Read more

The Descent of the Lyre Now Published (an interview)

Well, I’m pleased to say that my second novel, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Descent of the Lyre[/amazon_link], is now published, and so I thought in honour of the occasion I would post the following interview that first saw the light of day over on Necessary Fiction.

The interview that follows was conducted by my one and only pseudonym (or perhaps my heteronym), Lupe Varos. I invented Varos back in 2006, when I was running a small literary magazine and, not having enough content, decided to publish one of my stories under a pseudonym. Back then, Varos was based in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, where he was working as an English teacher. Now, by an astonishing stroke of luck, I have tracked him down to where he is currently living, and it happens to be in the Rodopi mountains of Bulgaria, which is precisely where the Lyre is set. Where would the world of fiction be without such remarkable coincidences? And Varos has kindly offered to interview me. It’s all very postmodern, don’t you know…

The following interview was conducted by fax, as Varos does not use email. He’s funny that way. We faxed and refaxed drafts of the interview between Bulgaria and the UK until we were both happy with the text. It was an arduous process, but worth it in the end, I think.


LV: Your new novel is set in the Rodopi mountains, which happens to now be my home. What is the novel about, and why set a novel here?

WB: I think I first visited the Rhodopes in 2005—whilst you were in Morocco, if my memory serves me right—for a short break, and I was immediately struck by the rich relationship there is here between landscape, memory, myth and music. It’s an extraordinary part of the world. Whilst on that first trip, I visited Gela, which is said to be the home village of Orpheus, as well as the Devil’s Throat cave, where the ancient musician is said to have entered the underworld. I was intrigued enough to come back to Bulgaria the year after, and then the year after that.

LV: Three trips?

WB: Indeed. The first was a holiday although, as a writer, I don’t really think of holidays as holidays: I’m always on the lookout for new stories, thoughts and possibilities. The second was a short trip. I was attending a philosophy conference at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, and so I took a few extra days to travel in the country. Then the third trip was a more extended journey, in 2007, across Europe by train, which was specifically for the purposes of researching the book.

LV: Was it a conference about Bulgarian philosophy?

WB: No. French/Lithuanian. Emmanuel Levinas. It was the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. I remember lots of very long papers, simultaneously translated. It was a kind of asceticism.

LV: Let’s get back to Orpheus. You say that your novel The Descent of the Lyre is a reinvention of the myths of Orpheus. In what way?

WB: I am a classical guitarist, and so the Orpheus myth is one that has long had a resonance for me. What strikes me about the tale of Orpheus—and about the related Greek myths—is how it combines an extraordinary violence, a sense of loss and longing, a concern with religion, and a preoccupation with music as both that which is born out of violence, and that which might allow violence to be stilled. It seems to be a myth, in other words, that has what Lorca calls “duende”.

As a reinvention, these components are still there in the book, but shuffled around somewhat, so that the book touches on the myth repeatedly without following exactly the same kind of trajectory.

LV: We’re getting very abstract. How about stopping all that philosophy for a moment and telling me what the book is about?

WB: Well, you were the one who asked about philosophy… but, OK. Point taken. The book follows the fortunes of Ivan Gelski—Ivan of Gela—who leaves his village after the abduction of his bride-to-be and becomes a haidut.

LV: A bandit?

WB: Exactly. This is the early nineteenth century. Ivan Gelski takes to the hills, where he leads a small band of marauders, seeking revenge for his stolen bride. But things change when his companions abduct a Jewish guitarist, who plays extraordinary music that manages to still Ivan’s hunger for vengeance.

LV: Wait a minute—what’s a Jewish guitarist doing in the Rodopi mountains in the early nineteenth century?

WB: Well, it’s a complex story; but the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II was engaged at the time in the reform of Turkish music—there’s quite a long and intricate history of musical cross-fertilisation between the Ottoman empire and Europe, and all of this is touched on in the book, but perhaps it is a little too intricate to go into here. Anyway, this is why the guitarist, Solomon Kuretic, was heading to Constantinople. The rest is history. Or, perhaps, fiction.

LV: As the book proceeds, Ivan himself turns to the guitar.

WB: Yes. I don’t want to give the whole story away, but the encounter with Solomon is central to the whole novel. It is what precipitates Ivan on a course that leads to his fame and later to a strange kind of sainthood.

LV: Religion seems to be one of your preoccupations, not just here but in other things you have written as well…

WB: Yes. What can I say? As an atheist child of the clergy (there are lots of us out there), religion is inescapable for me.

LV: So you are a spiritual writer, or a writer concerned with the spiritual?

WB: Good heavens, no! I find the language of “spirituality” oddly enervating. I have no taste for it. Lots of people talk about being “spiritual but not religious.” If anything, I am the opposite: religious without being spiritual. That’s not to say that I have religious beliefs; but I am fascinated by religion. Religion, for me, is a matter of magnificent frocks and cassocks; it is the music of gongs, bells, guitars, choirs and so forth; it is strange rituals and wonderful buildings and peculiar societies of oddball individuals; it is a multitude of experiments in living, some relatively sensible, some utterly bizarre; and it is a huge and fertile mass of stories. Compared with all this stuff, the airy nothings of the “spiritual” seem unappealing to me.

LV: You talk about ‘stuff’: is this some kind of materialist view of religion?

WB: Yes, but with the qualification that stuff is wondrous and exciting and rich and strange, rather than heavy and lumpen and empty of meaning. Sometimes I think I’m not so much a materialist as a “thing-ist”. I like things.

LV: So how does this play out in the book?

WB: Well, in a few ways. For example, there’s a character called Bogdan who loves only those things he can touch, those things he can feel with his hands. I’m rather fond of Bogdan’s approach to things. In terms of the apparently “religious” dimensions of the book, the story begins with a curious evocation of a visit to a hillside chapel, and an encounter with a saint with a guitar and bandaged hands. This might seem as if it is setting the book up as somehow “spiritual”; however I think by the end it is clear that something else is going on. Nevertheless, this image of the saint becomes the guiding image for the book, although by the book’s end, despite all the miracles and strange happenings, I think I haven’t departed too far from the kind of “religious but not spiritual” thing-ism that interests me.

LV: Does the chapel exist? I’d like to visit it.

WB: Yes, it does. It’s not far from the monastery at Bachkovo. Just up the hill, in fact.

LV: Oh, that’s pretty close. I might go and visit when I have a spare moment. And what about the saint?

WB: So you mean does he exist? Well, he does now. Before I started to write the book, I decided to paint an icon of him, to give me a sense of what I was writing about. I’ll let you see the image, although I should warn you that—despite four years in art college—I’m far from being a decent artist.

The Icon of Ivan Gelski - Will Buckingham
The Icon of Ivan Gelski – Will Buckingham

LV: That’s a strange image.

WB: Indeed. Strange, and not very well-painted.

LV: What were you doing for those four years in art college if you were not learning to paint?

WB: That’s a very good question. I was mainly hiding away and reading books. It was a good education.

LV: OK. Let me get back to the question of stories and storytelling. You say that one of the reasons for your fascination with religion is that religion involves a seething mass of stories.

WB: Yes. I’m excessively preoccupied with stories. I work in both fiction and philosophy, and I like to think that what I do can be divided into two kinds of activity. On the one hand, I am concerned with story-like philosophies. And on the other hand, I write philosophical stories. This doesn’t mean that I shoehorn Kant into everything I write, of course (although jokes about Kant are always welcome in novels), but it does mean that everything I do seems to come from one or other—or both—of these directions.

LV: I’d like to hear more about your relationship with the guitar. You have been playing for—how long?

WB: About thirty years. On and off, of course. When I was at school, I used to get up early in the morning, around six, and practice for an hour or two. Every day, without fail. I was very committed. I did that for about seven years. Sometimes back then I thought I might become a professional guitarist. But I neither had the fingernails nor the determination. I play less these days, and I’m very rusty; but guitar music has been an important part of my life. It’s an extraordinarily intimate instrument, I think.

LV: In the book, one of your characters starts to write a history of the guitar, also called The Descent of the Lyre, which begins by making a link between the guitar and violence. What is this link?

WB: Well, it’s there in the myths of Hermes creating the lyre. It’s there in the tales of Orpheus. And it’s there in Lorca as well, of course: both in his poetry, and in his life as well, I think.

LV: In the book there are a number of recognisable historical characters: Fernando Sor the guitarist; Antoine Meissonnier the publisher and composer; Karl Toepfer the guitarist and philosopher; Félicité Hullin the dancer. How did you research the book?

WB: Fairly meticulously, I hope. There were the three trips to Bulgaria. I also spent time in Paris and Vienna. The UK Arts Council funded the final research trip, which was invaluable. I bought some very solid boots with a part of the grant, so that I could tramp over hillsides. They were excellent boots. That was five years ago, and I am still wearing them today. I did a fair amount of archival research as well, because it is important to get things right; but I didn’t need any special footwear for that bit.

For me, writing fiction is a kind of research. It is a testing out of ideas in relation to the wider world. It is a kind of exploration. If my writing stopped feeling exploratory, I’d stop writing, which is why my books are all rather different from each other. One of the biggest challenges with The Descent of the Lyre was making sure that the story I was telling was one that was in harmony with the actual historical events. I drew a lot of time-lines. But—no doubt—there will be mistakes. There are always mistakes.

Getting to grips, even ever so slightly, with the language certainly helped. Back in 2007, when I carried out much of the research, I spoke at least some Bulgarian, although it’s currently been pushed out of the way by the Chinese I am learning for another project, so I’ve forgotten most of it, or else when I remember it I stick bits of Chinese in, which leads to terrible confusion.

There were other kinds of research too. Painting the icon was a kind of research, as was the few days that I spent writing an imaginary lost musical work of Fernando Sor. The score for this piece actually appears in final version of the book (although I only realised after the last proofs had gone off that I had included the wrong draft of the score — something that will matter only to sharp-eyed musical purists…).

LV: The Descent of the Lyre is out now. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

WB: Well, there’s a philosophy book that is for enthusiasts only, called Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling. Then there’s my children’s book, The Snorgh and the Sailor which is just out, and seems to be doing well, so I’m wondering about working more in that particular world. I have a couple of projects in the area of children’s writing that I am following up on. And I’m also doing a book of stories – a ‘novel of sorts’, I am calling it – based around the Yijing or Chinese Book of Changes, hence the Chinese-learning. This has been fascinating, although it’s a curious hybrid of a book, so who knows who will publish it. In fact, it contains one of your stories.

LV: One of mine?

WB: Yes—that one about the apple pie and the old woman that I published back in 2006 or so.

LV: It would have been polite to ask permission first.

WB: Yes, I know. But you are very hard to track down.

LV: Fair enough. Let me finish by asking you about Bulgaria, which—as you know—is now my home. Are you planning to return any time soon?

WB: Is that an invite?

LV: You’d be welcome any time. Life here is good. At this very moment, I’m looking out over the hillside, a glass of rakiya in my hand, a shopska salata in front of me…

WB: Well, I’d love to, of course. It would be good to blow the cobwebs off my poor Bulgarian language, and I have friends in Bulgaria who it would be good to catch up with. Perhaps if the book is translated into Bulgarian, I can come over for a launch.

LV: If you do that, I will interview you in the flesh. No faxes.

WB: That would be wonderful!

LV: Well, let’s see what happens…

Philosophers, Cleverness and Storytelling

I’m very happy to have just signed a contract with Bloomsbury for a book about Levinas and storytelling called Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling. The book comes out some time early next year, all being well, and it’s been a long time in the making. It aims to read Emmanuel Levinas, the French-Lithuanian philosopher of ethics, both as a storyteller of ethics, and as somebody who calls storytelling to ethical account. There is an intriguing tension here. On the one hand Levinas talks about ethics (almost despite himself) by recourse to the telling of stories; but on the other hand he raises all kinds of interesting questions about the ethical dangers of certain kinds of storytelling. Read more

Two Tribes of Storytellers

Next week, I’m away in Birmingham at the lovely Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center for their Borders and Crossings/Seuils et Traverses conference on travel writing. I’m not exactly a travel writer myself, although much of my writing—both in fiction and in philosophy—has a preoccupation with crossings, passages, movement and travel; and so I’m hugely looking forward to a week in such wonderful surroundings talking about how, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, stories are travels and travels are stories. I’m hoping that the week will be, in spirit at least, half-conference, half-retreat. It is something—after a busy few months—that I could well do with. Read more


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