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20 Questions with... Jack Wolf

Jack Wolf's debut novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, was published to critical acclaim in the UK and US by Penguin Random House in 2013. It was listed for the Edinburgh Lit Festival Best Debut Novel and for the Polari Prize for Queer Fiction, and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel award that year ahead of strong competition. Jack subsequently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and taught at Bath Spa for several years on the university’s BA and prestigious MA in Creative Writing programmes.

Jack now teaches on the Open University’s online MA in Creative Writing and also offers freelance manuscript consultation and mentoring. Mammoth and Crow is Jack’s second novel. A third novel, The Devil and The Rainbow, is planned for publication in 2023.

Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?

I grew up in a large village outside Bath. It was a place that had undergone a lot of development during the 60s, 70s and 80s and the original inhabitants were still seething with resentment at incomers like me and my grandparents – who’d moved there after his retirement from the army and always thought of themselves as Northerners. Ironically, I later discovered that actually I have deep ancestry in the area: my grandfather’s mother’s lot were smiths and farmers there from at least the 17thC. My grandparents had no idea. And I have no idea why they were drawn to that particular place after a lifetime of living abroad, especially when they felt no connection to it, but something must have been going on on a level nobody was aware of. In retrospect, my childhood was bizarre, though at the time it felt normal. I was brought up by my grandparents after my mother’s remarriage to a local man who did not want me – a lucky escape for me, actually. My grandfather had been a Major in the SAS – he was personal bodyguard to the Queen Mother at one point – and was suffering from what I think now to be PTSD. He had a fixation with locking doors and a paranoid fear of strangers. I used the idea in The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, (Penguin/Random House 2013) in the section where Tristan is tormented by goblins, though my grandfather’s monsters were very human, and also, possibly, more real. I used the village too, or at least an 18thC version of it, as a setting in The Devil and the Rainbow, which is coming out via Aurochs Underground next year.

Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?

I always saw myself as a writer and at one stage decided that if I had to live in a van and eat fresh air to be able to do it, I would. But in the real world it turned out that I actually needed some source of income. I was lucky – again. After The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones was so successful, I wangled my way into teaching Creative Writing on the BA, and later the MA , at Bath Spa University, where I stayed for a few years while completing my PHD. I now teach Creative Writing at the Open University, and have a small number of independent students – but I can’t have too many of those as I like to give detailed 1-1 feedback. I’m also training as a professional positive reinforcement dog trainer. I’m quite passionate about positive reinforcement – it’s a science-based method of training which does not confuse canine psychology with that of a naughty human child – which is also a problematic label , of course. Leto in Mammoth and Crow (Aurochs Underground Press, 2022) is considered ‘naughty’ by most of the adults who have to deal with her. She’s actually deeply traumatised by her relationship with her neglectful and emotionally abusive mother, and that trauma manifests in disturbed behaviour.

Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.

Mammoth and Crow is a dark fairytale of the catastrophic damage that results from an unbending adherence to an evil ideology – in this case early 20thC Fascism. I can’t believe I just had to contextualise that references with ‘early 20thC’; but here we are. It’s also about the power of the land, and the tensions that prevail between between this world and that of the spirits. Sorry, that’s more than two sentences.

What are you working on right now?

I’m on a final redraft of The Devil and the Rainbow which comes out in 2023. This was my PhD novel - it deals with racial and transgender/lesbian themes plus the moral consequences of slavery, and a load of other hot button stuff that will most likely stop it from being an overnight bestseller, so its a good thing it’s coming out via Aurochs. It’s set in the late 1790s and moves from Bristol, which I know very well, to the Caribbean island of Grenada, where the main characters get caught up in the Fedon rebellion. It’s a pain in the ass to work on because it has three separate point of view character voices, who use distinctive dialect forms. I have to work out how strong to make each dialect – think of on a scale of 1-10 where one is bland modern day speech and 10 is unintelligible to a non-native speaker. It’s a question of balancing narrative fluidity with character authenticity and overall interest.

I’m also spending a lot of time getting ready for the inanugural volume of Aurochs 1, which is a literary journal with an animist approach to storytelling. The first volume will be a series of short fiction and CNF pieces on the theme of ‘How do we become Indigenous to Place’ – an idea that came from a throwaway remark voiced by a Native American commentator that the White settlers’ disrespectful attitude to the Earth suggested that they didn’t know if they were staying or leaving. It seems to me that that sentiment could also apply to a lot of British people and institutions, too. We need to do something to change this; and as humans are a species that thinks primarily in narratives, storytelling seems a good place to start. There should be a CFS going out on the website pretty soon.

Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?

My usual routine, when I have one, involves writing in the morning, walking the dogs, then coming in and working some more until the job is done. It’s hyperfocused, exhausting, and antisocial. But I’m either Working or I’m Not – and when I’m Not Working, because of one thing or another, trying to get myself into a routine does not help re-light the creative fire. I have to wait for the story to reveal itself and want to be written. I try to teach my students the importance of a regular writing routine, but I’m afraid I don’t listen to my own advice.

Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?

I can write in cafes, on trains, anywhere, but only when the story is determined to come through and nothing can interrupt or impede it. If I’m rewriting, editing, or whatever, I’ll be in my living room, probably at the table. I have a desk but I associate that with teaching and setting up documents for publication, so it doesn’t work for me as a creative space.

What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?

Writing must never become a job. Write primarily for your own enjoyment, or you risk losing both writing and enjoyment. If you find yourself writing solely or primarily for a reward, and then the rewards stop coming, and if they stay stopped for long enough – and in this current publishing climate, unless you are very lucky, it is likely that at some stage, they will do exactly this – you will stop writing. You won’t know why you’ve stopped or have the faintest idea what to do about it, especially because you may have just gone through a stage of writing like a demon just before it stops. You will feel confused and increasingly desperate, and will try all sorts of things to try to start the flow again, and when these don’t work may begin to worry that you will never write again. Take this worry seriously, because you won’tunless you find / re-find your inner motivation and stick with that, whatever happens. This isn’t some old wives tale or (just) my own experience – it’s based on sound psychological science. Check out Operant Conditioning – its a training method used by animal trainers, sports coaches, and other teachers – and look up ‘extinction’ – it’s a real eye opener.

Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?

I love them, actually. They get me out of the house and I get to meet people I would not otherwise have got to meet. I’ve met some wonderful people through doing live readings. But early on in my life I did train as a performer, so readings hold no fears for me whatsoever and I have an idea of how to do them so the audience can hear and I don’t dissolve in a puddle of goo. The worst one I’ve done so far was at Bristol Pride back in about 2012. I was on stage with Rhona Cameron and when I came off my then girlfriend told me that RC had been pulling faces and making stupid gestures while I was reading. I had thought the reading went ok apart from that, so I was pretty annoyed at her – RC, that is. But maybe she was just trying to show appreciation and offer encouragement towards a very new writer who had never done a reading to an audience of that size before.

Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?

I think all – or at least most – writers do have recurring themes, which generally emanate from things that are bugging them either consciously or otherwise. I tend to find my work involves difficult relationships between damaged people which frequently tip into abuse, either purposefully as in Mammoth and Crow – I won’t say which one that is – or accidentally. The love story between Tristan and Katherine in Rawhead is sadomasochistic, but though abuse lies right at the heart of that novel, that particular connection is actually pretty healthy in comparison with some of the more conventional relationships in that novel. They genuinely care about each other, and neither wants to dominate or coerce the other. Jane and James Barnaby, on the other hand… dear oh dear. I have a very dark view of human relationships, I think – but I also hold that humans are a very complex mixture of dark and light characteristics, and so are capable of redemptive acts. Evelyn Murray, in Mammoth and Crow, is probably the darkest character I have created so far – she’s a fascist, a neglectful mother and – well, you’ll see for yourself when you read it – but she’s also a human being, and a confused and damaged one. How much of her behaviour is her fault – i.e. of her own free will – and how much is an unhealthy – and involuntary – reaction to her circumstances?

Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?

I think that whether or not any writer has a moral purpose is entirely up to them, and there is no ‘should’ for any of us. Not all writers want to be burdened with the weight of purpose, of any sort, and not all writers’ work should have that weight laid upon it. Not all my work has a purpose – some of it is just for entertainment, and I’m fine with that. My three completed novels all do, though. I do think that writers who genuinely want their work to do, and to say, something important have a responsibility to themselves and to the work to make it do and say whatever that is to the best of their ability.

Aurochs UP was set up with the express purpose of publishing writing which will challenge the status quo regarding the relationship between human civilisation and the non-human world in both the writing industry and the overall cultural conversation. Mammoth and Crow is an Animist narrative which aims to get people to question elements of their own relationships with the non-human worlds. But my treatment of this issue is not in any way didactic – Mammoth and Crow is a work of fiction, not a philosophical discourse. Within it, an animate world is simply assumed – the whole story flows from and around that assumption. This assumption reflects how I perceive the world – every being has, and is, its own person after its own fashion, and is worthy of respect accordingly. And yes, for me, that personhood does extend as far as moors, and rivers. I guess that could also look like a recurring theme… though it’s not really a theme so much as a fundamental element.

Do you write between genres or not?

Some people say my work sits between fantasy and literary genres. Sometimes it gets called magical realism. I think the uncertainty springs from a misunderstanding on the part of the reader – I touched on it in the previous question – regarding how I see, and thus how I represent, the world. For instance, I got some damningly faint praise from a critic at one point who was impressed by my use of the pathetic fallacy – which I was not using. Setting is never inert in my work – never simply a background on which human emotions can be projected – so if, for example, the weather seems to be in harmony with or antagonistic to the characters, this mirroring will hint at something happening in the deeper structure of the narrative. The basic premise, on which every other element rests, is that the real world is inherently magical: that the worlds of matter and non-matter are always deeply intertwined, and that imagination – what the human mind creates in order to make sense of things it does not immediately understand – can act as a translator between the two. So when Tristan sees goblins at the door, and maybe does not ‘really’ see goblins at the door, the question is not: ‘Is Tristan mad, or is he seeing faeries?’, it is ‘Why is Tristan seeing faeries?’ which is actually very different. But I have found some wonderful people in both the literary and the fantasy communities, so I don’t mind the confusion – and I have been working on a genre fantasy trilogy – though this is rather on the back burner at the moment. It is still likely to reflect my way of seeing, though.

Which living writers do you most admire?

I tend to admire writers who behave well to other writers, particularly younger or newer ones. Too many writers have a serious case of the killer ego: I have no time for them no matter how good their work is. But there are many writers whose work I admire separate from what I think of them as people, good or bad. Margaret Atwood has been a favourite ever since I encountered her through Surfacing. I like Jeff Vandermeer’s (fantasy author) surreal imagination, and also the way he is rewilding his Talahassee garden. I read a lot of non-fiction – Robert Macfarlane is a favourite, and Robin Wall Kimmerer is another – I have been getting into Native American writing for a few years. There are some amazing N.A and F.N poets that everyone should read – Joy Harjo, of course – but some less well known people like dg nanouk okpik (capitals intentional) and Cathy Tagnak Rexford, who are both Inuit. I have a large anthology of N.A/F.N work that I like to dip into by candlelight in the winter.

Which dead writers do you most admire?

I have to go a long way back – at least as far as the middle ages. The Beowulf poet, maybe. And the first people writing Anglo-Saxon prose at the time of Alfred the Great, because they were literally figuring out how to make an entirely oral language work on paper – which means they were sorting out the rules for sentence structure and so on as they went. There’s a significant difference in style between something like the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Beowulf poet, for example, and this has something to do with the fact that the poet was working in a genre that already had rules laid down in it, as well as his own considerable talent. The prose writers were working out how close to Latin the written language should appear, and whether they could simply write in the way that they spoke. Fascinating stuff. Of course I do like unpicking and rewriting languages…

What’s the book you wish you’d written?

That’s a hard question – I don’t tend to feel like that about other writers’ work. I guess really I just wish I had written the books I haven’t written – yet.

What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?

Obviously I’m strongly inspired by the natural world, and the beings who inhabit it. Music can trigger creativity for me, I find, but it has to be the right sort of music, and hit in the right spot. I’m listening to Heilung a lot at the moment – if you don’t know who they are do check them out because they are very interesting conceptually, even if you decide you don’t like the way they sound. Their most recent album contains a version of the Hymn to Nikkal – the oldest piece of written music so far discovered. I’m also spending a lot of time watching films of cave paintings – Chauvet in particular. I might write something set in the Aurignacian period.

Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?

I’m not sure I’ve ever really experienced it, though I do go through periods when I just don’t write – fallow times, I guess. But sometimes even when I am working I don’t feel as if I have the energy to write, or worry that I have run out of ideas. These periods are easier to deal with when I have a project on the go, and then it’s really just a matter of writing through them. I think it is easy to lose your love of writing if it becomes a job, though, so the most important thing to do to overcome writers’ block is probably to prevent it in the first place, by staying in control of your own art.

What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?

I had someone tell me in response to The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones that reading it had changed their life – probably pretty hard to beat that one! I’ve had some nice reactions to Mammoth and Crow, though. One of my favourites was ‘I feel better for having read it’, which I guess comes pretty close.

How do your family and friends feel about your writing?

They are used to it – it’s been what I do for so long that my son, who is now 20, barely knows anything else. I think having an author for a parent may have gained him a small amount of street cred from his schoolfriends, at least for a while. I remember one afternoon when he came home after googling my press photos in the after school library club and photo-shopping them – I think they all got some real amusement out of that. I did try to steer him away from a creative career and towards something more lucrative, but it now looks as if he is heading towards writing and performing his own music despite studying physics at university. Kids never listen to their parents, of course. I knew that, but I tried anyway.

Do you have a favourite bookshop?

We have some fantastic independent bookshops in Bath – Toppings and Mr B’s are the best known and probably the finest. Rawhead had its launch in Toppings back in 2013, so I have an especial fondness for it.

How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?

Honestly, I don’t know. Regarding Amazon, I can imagine both futures, depending on genre, publisher, and intended sales: more dependent in the case of large established publishers bringing out mass market stuff, who can afford to give Amazon its hefty cut and still expect to make significant sales on the back of it; much less so in the case of small publishers like Aurochs Underground and a few others in more or less the same arena. Despite Amazon’s current push to recruit independent authors, there are weaknesses in the automated platform it uses – I have seen more than one Amazon produced book that is misprinted, or simply of low quality – and I think anyone who is serious about producing high-quality work will get fed up with that pretty quickly. Mammoth and Crow is available in a print on demand format on Amazon, but neither Aurochs nor I expect to make any money out of that, and the inclusion is really only to facilitate foreign sales now that Brexit has made posting abroad prohibitively expensive – I think the publisher’s return on each sale is round about 20p. Most sales so far have been through the Aurochs website itself, and I am pleased about that. Those copies are pre-printed on recycled paper, quality inspected and numbered prior to despatch, and I get a much greater return on each of them – Aurochs was founded with the intention of giving writers a much bigger cut of the sales receipts than they usually get. There’s no pressure to sell a certain number of copies in the first couple of months, either – the publisher is playing a long game. The downside is that there is, at present, no writer’s advance. So it’s a gamble – but publishing always is. I think that in the end this will be the way to go both for small presses and for independent authors: small presses producing the books and handling their own sales without paying the middle men through the nose; authors producing quality work in the knowledge that they will share fairly in any profits, while not having to fear that they will be de-listed or have their work put out of print

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