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20 Questions with... Philip Arneill

Philip Arneill is a Belfast-born writer, photographer and researcher. Co-creator of the ‘Tokyo Jazz Joints’ audio-visual documentary project, the first edition of his Tokyo Jazz Joints photobook was published by Kehrer Verlag in June 2023 to widespread acclaim. His writing has been published in Ropes, Riffs, We Jazz, Honest Ulsterman and The Guardian among others. His photography has been exhibited and published worldwide.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Philip Arneill and I am a Belfast-born photographer, writer and educator. I grew up in a religious home with kind and generous parents, along with my younger brother and sister. I was born in the mid-70s and grew up in the 80s, so The Troubles were a constant backdrop to the more normal side of life. I studied in Glasgow, Scotland, before moving to Tokyo, Japan, where I lived for 20 years. I returned to Ireland in 2017, and after four years in Dublin, moved back to Belfast in 2021.

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

I’ve always been told I should write and wish I had done so more seriously earlier in life, but then again, everything happens at the time it’s meant to I guess, so I’m pleased (at least) that I finally began applying myself to writing in a more dedicated, focused way in the last two years. I’ve also been a photographer for over 20 years and have pursued a series of long-term projects, the longest of which was recently published as a photographic monograph called 'Tokyo Jazz Joints', an homage to Japan’s wonderful world of dedicated jazz listening spaces known as jazz kissa. I’m also a trained teacher and teacher trainer and I’ve worked in education in some form or other since my early 20s.

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

My Soil Train story will be published online in Honest Ulsterman this month, and it’s about a man who repeats a daily obsession without fail, to make his own small stand through one simple, strange, idiosyncratic ritual.

What are you working on right now?

I’m continuing to write short stories, which I hope to eventually bring together in one collection. To publish this collection would be a dream for me.

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

I see myself as an incredibly lazy person, and I don’t have any writing routine. I admire people who can approach writing this way. It doesn’t really work for me though, so I basically write when I feel moved to, and it’s genuinely not something I have much control over. If I’m in the mood and the story comes I’ll write it. The only systematic approach I have is that I do make a note on my phone of either a phrase or snippet of language that I might hear when I’m out somewhere – which might eventually resurface in a story – or any basic story ideas that come to me in order to capture these before I forget them. When I do write, unless I have a specific plan, I often start by going to this list to see which one jumps out at me the most before having a go at writing the story.

Where do you write? Always in the same space, or different places? Can you write on the move?

I can write anywhere, although I’ve noticed that perhaps one of the most productive places seems to be airports, where I spend a fair bit of time! Once I have an idea for a story and I get going I can usually push through and finish it in one sitting, and don’t need a particular environment or quiet or anything like that. In fact I can write with music on or noise around me easily enough if I’m in the zone. I usually write frantically by hand, and then transcribe it using the Notes app on my phone before transferring it to Google Docs (by voice) where I edit and format it. I can’t type for toffee.

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

I’m not sure I’m really in a position to give advice to other writers to be honest. If I was giving advice to an earlier version of myself, I would say that it’s important to keep going. It’s important just to write and not worry about what it is yet until you’ve got it all out on the page. That’s the time to start going back, to reread, edit and hone your story, so don’t overthink it. My partner Julie is an editor so it’s amazing to have someone who can give open and constructive feedback, and it’s always fascinating to me where a drafted story starts and where it finishes up after it’s been edited and you’ve taken feedback onboard. I think it’s also key to write for yourself and write because you need to – not for someone else, or because you have to. There’s a lot of rejection ahead too, and the amount of submissions that journals seem to receive over what they actually accept is a staggering lottery winning-type of odds, so it’s crucial to keep writing and submitting stories, accept the rejections, and enjoy the acceptances if and when they come.

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

I have no problem with live readings. I used to be a primary school teacher, and I’ve had actor training as well so it certainly doesn’t bother me to read stories aloud. I’m experimenting with trying to combine performance with some more autoethnographic academic writing I’ve been doing around long-term photographic projects; it feels a little scary and a bit of a gamble, especially in front of an academic audience, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know I guess.

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

I don’t write with any particular themes in mind, but the more short stories I’ve written the more I realise that certain things do surface more than once: quirky obsessions, insider-outside dynamics, specific musical and cultural references, love, obsession and perfectionism. Inevitably perhaps, having grown up in Belfast in the 1980s, an awareness of religion, politics and The Troubles are also often present in the background in some form.

Do you write between genres or not?

I’m not really sure about writing between genres per se, but in addition to short stories I do also write academically, and sometimes incorporate elements of autofiction into that style of writing. I’ve also written a YA novel about a young girl who travels through different countries with her eccentric parents, who tend to wander off and leave her to inadvertently have her own adventures in foreign lands.

Which living writers do you admire the most?

I always find this kind of question really difficult to answer! I love the novels of Belfast writer Glenn Patterson and at the time I read it, his series of essays called Lapsed Protestant resonated with me in an incredible way. I find Kevin Barry and Wendy Erskine’s short stories something to aspire to, and also found Jan Carson’s The Firestarters really inspiring when I first read it. When I first moved to Japan, I distinctly remember reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami for the first time, and that started a lifelong fascination with the 1960s counterculture of Tokyo.

Which dead writers do you admire the most?

Evelyn Waugh. Kurt Vonnegut. Gil Scott Heron. I also wonder if I would have been able to stay in Japan and live so successfully had I not read the inspirational essays of Donald Richie – they helped me so much to better understand and acclimatise to that amazing country.

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

Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham.

What other external influences do you have? Nature, place, music etc..

My upbringing, Northern Ireland, jazz music (and music in general), photography, 20 years living in Japan, travelling, teaching, good food, proper coffee, my friendships, and romantic relationships.

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

I don’t suffer from writer’s block, just from chronic procrastination.

What has been your favourite reaction to your writing?

That’s really hard to say. I’ve had one or two really nice editor comments from stories that didn’t quite make a journal cut, which is always more galvanising than a flat ‘copy and paste’ rejection. I think the fascinating thing about putting a story (or a photo or book) out in the world is that you’ll never see or hear most people’s reactions to it, but they’re reading it or looking at it nevertheless and having their own individual response – I think that’s amazing. My partner’s reaction to my stories is probably the most important. She’s always kind and supportive but won’t spare me a truthful response, so I always know from the strength and tone of her reaction exactly how well a new story might land with others.

How do your family and friends feel about your writing?

I don’t really know. I would say my family wouldn’t have much interest in my writing really, but would be supportive nevertheless. I’ve only ever shared my short stories with one or two friends for fear of that tumbleweed moment… but when I have, the reaction has usually been pretty positive.

Do you have a favourite bookshop?

Not especially. I try to support independent bookshops when I can (like Belfast’s No Alibis or Dublin’s Winding Stair ) especially as they’ve stayed the course while Amazon put so many out of business, moved everything online and now ironically (in the US at least) have started to open their own physical bookshops… I used to love going to Strand bookshop in New York the first few times I was there during university. Livraria Lello in Portugal is easily the most beautiful bookshop I’ve ever been in.

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

Who knows. Humans will always write I suspect, so from that point of view its future is safe. If the question is related to the future of the book as a tangible object, I would say also potentially it’s bright as these things tend to swing back and forth like a pendulum. People once proclaimed the death of vinyl records a couple of decades ago, but now LPs are becoming the preferred format for many people on which to listen to music again, so you just never really know. I have no problem with e-readers, and they’re much more practical than stuffing 10 heavy books in a suitcase when travelling. At the end of the day – whether it’s a tangible paper book or an e-book – the reader experience will always ultimately come down to the quality of the writing.

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