July 30 2011: An Interview With Tim Etchells about Endland Stories (Pulp Faction, 1999)

Following yesterday’s post of a 1997 interview with Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells about Pleasure, here’s a kind of ‘part two’, the transcript of an interview conducted on 9 January 1999 at the Sofra Cafe on Old Compton Street in Soho to talk about Etchells’ book of largely unclassifiable short fictions, Endland Stories (Pulp Faction). An edited version of this conversation appeared in The Big Issue in the North (#249: 22 – 28 Feb 1999).

Wayne Burrows: I suppose the first question would be about the Endland Stories and when we last met we talked about how the work, particularly the Pleasure piece, was getting darker, and it seems like these stories are if anything even darker still. Is that a deliberate or less conscious move?

Tim Etchells: The stories come out of a lot of writing that I’ve been doing over, probably, 12 years or something. Around 1986 I wrote a huge and mostly unpublishable novel which was basically me writing loads of stuff and carving it into this huge book. It was so out on a limb and scary that when I did wheel it round to a few publishers they’d take one look and think ‘oh no, what the fuck’s this…’ and quite rightly, in some ways. But the world of that book was very much a kind of rewritten Sheffield, a kind of ‘Sheffield meets films and videogames and goes completely crazy’, you know? What happened next was, because I’d written that,  about two or three years ago a friend asked me to write a very short story, for this collection of twelve page books he was doing. So I wrote the first of what are now the Endland Stories, which was called About Lisa, for that…

WB: That’s the first one in the book, where she becomes invisible?

TE: Yeah, that’s the one. But the way I thought about the short stories was as if you’d taken the novel and boiled it for ten years, reduced it right down and come up with these very to-the-point, micro-narratives, almost like little cartoons. So it’s gone from being something like a deranged version of War & Peace to these tiny, nasty little cartoons.

WB: Endland Stories has a very distinct written style, too…it’s not really conventional literary prose, is it?

TE: The flavour of it, as in a lot of the writing I’ve done with Forced Entertainment, is really that there’s an obsession with this rather brutal and dilapidated, more-or-less British landscape, and people trying to eke out bits of lives inside that. Having created that atmosphere, I’ve then polluted it with bits of fairy-tales, bits of videogames, bits where you think you’re probably in Bosnia or Rwanda, and quilted it all together so you can see that England is still the focus, but the closer you look the stranger the various parts  become. The other thing that goes with these stories is that the subtitle is ‘Bad Lives‘ and one of the initial ideas was this idea of writing lots of characters’ stories, writing about people whose lives go wrong, so the thing was really just me sitting in a room, creating these people and letting them walk, watching them fall over, then taking this slightly sadistic pleasure in making these weird things happen to them.

WB: Its interesting how in the 1980s a lot of material in circulation was about celebrating hybridity, there was this quite marked celebratory aspect a lot of the time, whereas over the last few years that celebratory edge has gone, by and large, and there’s more of a ‘Christ, we’re fucked’ panic thing that seems to be going on behind it. Where before people might have been rejoicing in the escapism and possibilities of (say) video-games and films, now it’s more likely that  work will be try to be a warning about the dangers inherent in all that…maybe a sense that media has become more controlling than liberating?

TE: Yeah, and in the book there are two stories about film stars, one called Void House and one called Natalie Gorgeous, but one of the things about the stories is the way the rest almost religiously avoid portraying anyone who’s remotely in power of any kind. There’s hardly anyone who’s got a job, let alone a good one. So there aren’t politicians or people making decisions for corporations or whatever, and all the stories are about people who are on the receiving end of this stuff. There’s nobody you could really see as being in anything you could describe as a powerful position. That was pretty much a deliberate choice, to deal with the bottom of the pile and to ask what happens to, say, the unemployed, dope-dealing grebo from Derby, whose birthday is eradicated when time gets decimalised, who gets the real shit end of this stuff… Perhaps there’s also a slightly cruel desire to create these characters who are fucked-up, more fucked up than the reader, hopefully, but also a desire to portray what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all that stuff, and not to be in control. I would always say there’s a kind of playful optimism to the stories, but yeah, they are also about people whose lives get rather snarled up in the fallout of all these big things going on elsewhere.

WB: The one exception, even if they’re not that obviously powerful or anything, is that there seem to be a lot of Gods in the book, trying to intervene… I guess the interesting thing is how you talk about being on the receiving end, and the Gods are named after all sorts of things, but basically consumer products, cultural products…

TE: Yeah, it was because the stories are also fables, in a way, allegorical tales with a kind of moral, which is mainly that things go bad. There was a desire to bring forces of good and evil, in some absolute but kind of slightly absurd way, down into that big messy world and see what happened, see if they could sort things out or not. I suppose the main thing about the Gods in the stories is that they’re as fucked-up and compromised and absurd as everyone else, and one of the stories in the book is about this debate the Gods are having about whether they should carry on behaving like Gods because no-one believes in them anymore. Some of the Gods say ‘we need to carry on because it’s intrinsic and important’, and others say ‘well, nobody believes in us, we should do whatever we like’. And the Gods are a sort of mix of real ones, and silly made-up ones – there’s Mr. Stretchy and Pepsi-Cola or whoever up there – which is really just me messing about with different kinds of big power in the world, which I figured I might as well call Gods as anything else.

WB: How much thought really went into those names? One thing that struck me was that the lists of Gods’ names read like the first things that came into your head each time…

TE: Casual…

WB: Yes, like random strings of words, almost…

TE: I think that’s true. I mean, all of the stories at some level were worked very carefully on, but one of the things I worked especially carefully on was that feeling that the narrator is bored with what he – probably he – is telling you, that he doesn’t give a fuck about the story, or he hates the characters. So he’ll often say ‘dum-de-dum, blah blah, blah’, or, ‘etcetera’, or ‘you know’, because it’s like he’s saying ‘you know the kind of thing, I don’t have to describe it all to you, it’s a bit boring, and you know this guy’s going to die anyway and then the Gods came down, and they were like, oh, who cares, so-and-so and so-and-so’. So it’s got this kind of aggressive, pissed-off attitude to its own material, and it can sometimes feel off the cuff, like it doesn’t care, like the narrator writes down the first thing that comes into his head. There’s one of the stories where the spelling of the central character’s name changes practically every time it’s mentioned, and there I was thinking it should be, ‘oh, I don’t know the guy’s name, you know, began with c, it doesn’t really matter’. And then there’s the thing that in fables and oral tradition the names of the heroes will mutate over many years. Except in that case it’s changing every other paragraph or sentence.

WB: There’s also a lot of assumed knowledge, the way a story like Void House, the film essay, keeps going ‘of course, everybody knows what happened to…and it’s these two completely made up characters you’d never heard of till they were just mentioned. There’s a fair bit of that going on, isn’t there?

TE: Yeah, but that’s because these very condensed micro-stories, these cartoon stories, can only be told now because there is a level of knowledge here. Anyone who’s spent a few years watching bad television will be able to fill in all the gaps because they’ll know what kind of stupid stories exist in the world, and they just have to draw on that bank of things to fill in the gaps. And the narrator has that kind of slightly matey attitude sometimes, which says ‘you know’, and you sort of don’t because it’s all made up, but then you also sort of do because it is that particular kind of bollocks you hear all the time. It’s like in a local paper, you’ll read a headline, Nightclub Bouncer Dies After Fatal Toaster Stabbing or whatever, and you think, ‘oh yeah, I know, it’s that one again’ … So the stories do draw on that level, that bank of floating imagery and story fragments we have now.

WB: Because with Void House or Natalie Gorgeous it’s quite interesting how they’re completely fictional – these things don’t exist but reading them you feel like you have seen films very like these. The film in Void House, ‘Bone Grinders’ or whatever it is…

TE: Bone Grinders II…

WB: you do feel there’s some really bad 1980s ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ type video-nasty you might vaguely remember having watched years ago that would look not unlike this.

TE: Yeah, because it deals with stuff you already know, and while I wasn’t thinking of any films or film-stars in particular, it’s like you’ve killed enough time reading stupid articles in magazines about films and film-stars that you can regurgitate a semblance of that but distort it as you go. I think that’s true with all the stories in that book, that regurgitations of cinema and regurgitation of other stories is one of the ways they operate… It’s like my son, who’s six now. There was a point when he’d tell you stories, and he still does it sometimes now, but he’d tell a story that was comprised of bits of the last four stories he’d read, which would just come jumbling out in no particular order. So he’d know there should be a party at the end, and everyone would fall asleep at the end of the party and wake up and everything would be alright, and then he’d know a few things to stick in the middle, but that would be it, the rest would be really chaotic. In that sense, these stories have that element of remixing and sampling in them, so lots of the little bits of language and plot are stolen from things, and sometimes I just thought ‘I’ll write down that little chunk, or this narrative event’ and basically stole, really. It’s like they’ve been sewn together with other things, but not actually sewn together very well, so you can see all the stitches, and I quite like that.

WB: That happens in the language as well, so you have sections that are chunks of tabloid vitriol and cliche, then really grand, archaic, high-flown rhetoric, and it’s all just thrown together…

TE: Yeah, you can really see the joins. Another way to think about it sometimes is to think of it like you’re tuning between radio-stations, getting little bits of stuff from different countries, different wavelengths and places… But then the strange thing is that the idea is still to create these characters that you feel something for, even if they are obviously cobbled together from different places, badly stitched into a narrative that’s pissed-off with itself and a bit aggressive about them. It’s doing all those things to undermine itself, and most of the stories are just three or four pages long, but the book still wants you to care about the people, and to feel sorry when something bad happens to them.

WB: The Shame of Shane story starts off with ‘Shane was a thief, a misogynist and an intellectual pygmy’, kind of quite damning really, but by the end you do feel quite sorry for him, frozen into this weird situation where he doesn’t age, becomes even more isolated than when he began and wanders off into nothingness, so there is this odd turnaround in your sympathies…

TE: I hope so.

WB: But at the same time, I suppose we’re talking about the book as if it’s incredibly serious and bleak, but there are a lot of jokes in there, so another thing in the Shane story is the bit where he gets the tattoo on his forehead done: it says ‘I am the one and only’, and his friend goes out straight away to get an identical one done.

TE: Oh yeah, there are a lot of incidental fun things, and a lot of the bad things that happen, or the stupid things the characters do, are funny. You can take a slightly perverse pleasure in watching these things happen. They’re very playful as well as a bit bleak, these stories.

WB: I also wondered how far you’d see this as part of Forced Entertainment’s wider programme, if you like… I mean Endland Stories is being put out under the name Tim Etchells, as something separate from the company’s work, but I suppose there’s going to be some overlap. I was surprised quite how much overlap there was, though: the ‘Modern life is rubbish’ section in Arse On Earth, or the ‘QUIZOOLA!’ gameshow in Who Would Dream That Truth Was Lies have both been in Forced Entertainment shows. There was a lot that I recognised in there, and I suppose I’m asking if that’s just another case of the borrowing you talked about, just from yourself this time?

TE: It’s mainly that I tend to collect stuff in notebooks, then the stuff from the notebooks ends up everywhere. What I also do sometimes is, if I’m working on stories while we’re also working on shows, I’ll take the stories in to pass them round to get comments, or just to amuse people while we’re working. Then bits of that material will slip between the two contexts. So the story that has the question ‘Why is modern life rubbish?’ and the Gods coming down to earth to try and answer that question, pre-dates Pleasure, the theatre piece, so in that case the story fed into the theatre piece. Then sometimes we’ll be working on a theatre-piece, and if I’m looking for some random little detail for the story I’ll nick something back from that. So it does kind of steal from itself, but it’s not that conscious or important. It’s more that I’ll be looking at the notebooks in a cupboard or on the shelves, and if you go into them to snatch bits of material from the shelves you’ll often end up snatching things you’d already snatched before. So, yeah, there certainly is that kind of relationship there, but it’s not really very important.

WB: It’s also very much the same sensibility as the shows, which I suppose is inevitable…

TE: Totally, and I think the stories allow you to get to certain things you can’t get to in the theatre work, but nonetheless the sensibility is the same. It’s about the same job of trying to describe what contemporary Britain might be like, trying to talk about language, trying to talk about what’s real and what’s not real, which are all things we’ve been trying to deal with in the performance work for a really long time, so I don’t think it’s any surprise that the stories then try to tackle many of the same ideas and the same landscape. It does seem quite inevitable really.

WB: I was quite interested when you sent the script of Dirty Work, the new Forced Entertainment show, because it’s almost entirely text-based…

TE: Yeah, it is…

WB: …so it’s almost like a variation on these stories in that you only have the voice reading the words, like the words on a page, to create these worlds out of. Is that deliberate, or just a product of the two things being done in parallel again?

TE: Well, I think as a company we occasionally do performances that are much more focused on text, so there’s the piece we did in 1995, Speak Bitterness, and then QUIZOOLA! more recently and now Dirty Work. All of those pieces you could say are just text, and that’s relatively unusual in terms of what we normally do. But we occasionally just do projects like that, and with Dirty Work I think there was obviously a desire to do something very text-based, and certainly a desire to do something that was very, very minimal. So Dirty Work became this long description of a performance that doesn’t happen, and it’s an impossible performance to stage. It begins, ‘Five nuclear explosions start the show’, then there’s a series of great battles from history. So it’s kind of like ‘wake up!’ from the first line. I think one of the things that is similar to the stories in a sense is that weird thing of when you say something in language, when you describe something, you do sort of make it happen in the mind of an audience. So in the stories I can create ‘Dave’s topless chip shop’, and you can imagine it, and understand this place is part of a world where a character – Lisa – might be putting her jumper back on after work. And although there’s no such thing as a topless chip shop – to my knowledge, anyway – as soon as you read those words – ‘Dave’s topless chip-shop’ – your brain kind of conjures up a vision of some seedy place where spotty teenage girls are paid to serve chips to old men with their tops off… ugh! Horrible! But language is powerful, because the moment you say those words that non-existent place is instantly there. The whole thing with Dirty Work as a piece of performance is that we figured out that if you described the whole show, you could somehow make it happen, even though on another level, of course, nothing happens at all. Language then becomes this strange device that makes things happen that aren’t there, impossible things even…

WB: The area I thought of as quite parallel was where at the start of the script you’ve got a short prologue saying how the piece came out of a guided tour of Alcatraz, and a bit about how to survive solitary confinement by imagining a TV screen and putting shows on it… Both the script and the stories seemed based around this idea of using the imagination to survive, putting all these things together and trying to find a way of surviving in impossible situations…

TE: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I’m trying to think if there any of the characters who use that strategy for themselves… But I think one of the things is that there’s a kind of playfulness in the stories, and if they are optimistic as stories, they are optimistic because they encourage you to start looking at the world in a more playful way. You can create your own stories, you can mix between the channels. You don’t have to take this pile of crap, or that pile of crap, or any of it too seriously. And if the characters in the stories aren’t quite capable of that, at least in the writing of them and the reading of them there’s a celebration, or at least a certain kind of celebration, of that mixing between things, as well as – what we were talking about before – that anger and sense of despondency about what happens to those people. They get crushed between all these great big icebergs, if you like, and it’s a bit of both: a celebration of creative energy and collisions, with a sense of futility and powerlessness underneath and above it.

WB: It also seemed like you have a parallel in the way the stories are a kind of synthesis of all kinds of other stories, and in Dirty Work a synthesis of bits of Shakespeare, bits of history, bits of realism and detective stories and dropped-trousers farces, so everything crosses over and gets mixed up or goes astray in a similar way to the stories…

TE: Yeah, I mean I’m just fascinated with what happens when things collide. To me, that’s the great thing about living in cities, the really interesting thing that’s left in the world at the moment, which is slowly being eradicated. Where I stay in London is just off Brick Lane, and I love being able to walk out of the house and go left twenty yards to the Mosque, and right twenty yards to a pub that has strippers at lunchtime. Then you’ll have tourists on the Jack the Ripper tour in the evening, and the pub goes through a total transformation, while the Mosque is still there on the corner… I really like walking out of the door and knowing that there’s no such thing as normal, there’s just this enormous collision of different systems, sets of beliefs and ways of life. I feel very comfortable in that situation, and the slow, very slow homogenising of everything is one of the most depressing things in the world, for me. So there’s a kind of desperation in the way everything is jammed together in the stories, but also a sense of the energy and the slightly insane fun of that, which is very important to me. It’s hard to know how long that can last, given the way the world seems to be being ironed flat…

WB: I guess in history people often thought things were being ironed flat, but then something always came along to screw that idea up again, eventually…

TE: That’d have to be a cause for optimism, I think, definitely. It may be because people – whether consciously or instinctively – just don’t want that, don’t like it, so, yeah, however small our room for manoeuvre might be, I’d like to believe people will find ways of sabotaging that drive towards uniformity, and we will invent ways to cock up the sense of order that is so often being imposed on us. That’s a good thing, I think.

WB: There seem to be a whole complex of things going on at the moment that are referring back to ideas of art as a tool for imaginative transformation, which is something I’d tend to see your work – in Endland Stories and with Forced Entertainment – as part of to some extent. I wondered how far that might be considered, as a tactic, and how far it might be less conscious…if it even applies at all.

TE: I think in the stories there definitely is a project to take the landscape of contemporary Britain and sort of bend it and distort it and push it so it becomes something else, both more and less real at the same time… There’s a kind of realism in the stories, and there’s a kind of loose knitting and subways thing going on there too, pushing it in as many different directions as possible, mainly to get at a different kind of truth about the situation we’re in. Because I do feel extremely bored with the whole ‘football realism’ thing that’s passed for writing in the last four or five years. You know the books I mean. They’re very autobiographical, especially interested in masculinity…a few good books did come out of that, but it also very quickly become a really boring… saddle, I think. So there’s definitely a desire to distort that perception of Britain, because I like to think that way you’re going to get closer to the heart of it, and also because I just want people to look differently at the environment they’re living in. So if it helps to make the landscape a bit more like Bosnia, or a bit more like a videogame, or a bit more like a fairy-tale, then that’s what I’m interested in doing. I’d see myself as being close in intention to writers like J. G. Ballard or Michael Moorcock from the 60s and 70s, among British writers at least – much closer to them than to that whole wave of realist writing that’s come out of British cities in the last four or five years. People like Marquez are in there, too – writers trying to say things about the real world but who go about it in this very slippery, slightly indirect way.

WB: One writer who came to mind when I read these stories was a Nigerian novelist called Amos Tutuola. It struck me that the way language was being used was quite similar… He did The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life In The Bush of Ghosts in the 50s and early 60s. I think he got some criticism in Nigeria at the time for doing what was seen as quite a stereotyped image of Africa for the West, but it’s always seemed to me that he was subverting that by taking these traditional folk-tale figures and giving them hands made out of television sets: just mixing different things together in ways that seem very close to what you’re doing in Endland Stories…

TE: Yeah, I’ve got several of those Amos Tutuola books and I really love them. But in a way, it’s not surprising to me that I’m drawn to a writer like that. I don’t know anything about the kind of, quote, ‘real context’ he was operating in, I just know the books, and I’ve always loved the language of them, the way they mix the fabulous and real, and the way they demonstrate a confusion about those kinds of things… not that he was confused, just that he raises those kinds of issues about the exact lines for a reader. Yeah, very nice – I like those books a lot. I think the other person we’d have to talk about in a similar context is Mark E Smith from The Fall. The writing and the words in The Fall’s stuff from the late 70s right on through into the late 80s was stuff that I listened to a lot, and again he was somebody who was interested in writing about a gnarled and brutalised Britain, but at the same time threw in stuff about time travel, a fair amount of drugs, and a very fucked-up vision of what that Seventies and Eighties British landscape was like. He’s someone who created a version of Britain that’s twenty times more interesting than anything, say, Irvine Welsh or Nick Hornby came up with, and as a portrait of what, well, certainly 1980s Britain was like, you look at Mark E Smith’s best work and it’s all right there, it’s fantastic.

WB: It’s not a connection that had occurred to me, really, but once you say it, that seems quite obvious, somehow. Looking at Forced Entertainment pieces, then looking at the sleeve art of This Nation’s Saving Grace, which on one level is this kind of cack-handed, not considered at all collage, but on the other produces a total image which is shot through with allusions and ideas in a very considered way…

TE: Absolutely, and in that sense Forced Entertainment are a group of people whose late teens, early teens, were punk and New Wave, then we did university… but every one of us, or half the group at least, would give some nod to that idea of ‘do it yourself’, ‘you don’t need to be able to play’ and all that. Which I think is bollocks in a way, but what’s good about it is the way a lot of that work put an emphasis on energy and vision rather than on spurious technique. And once you look at the stuff a band like The Fall have done, it’s extremely skilled and well thought through, but manages for the most part to have that appearance of being sloppily thrown together. But it does that in a perfect way. That’s how our performance works a lot of the time, and the writing has a lot of the same feel. Sometimes I think these stories might best be presented handwritten in biro, in slightly manic capitals, rather than as a typeset book.

WB: Is that why you’ve used a typewriter face instead of a more conventional print face for the book?

TE: It was more just wanting a slightly unusual look to the book, a little bit in your face, so there’s a slightly dense look to it. I like the way it looks a lot, actually.

WB: I suppose the last question is whether Endland Stories is a kind of one-off, or do you have plans to do more written work outside the theatre context?

TE: No, it’s not a one-off, or I hope it’s not, anyway. I’d like to do more written stuff. I think my chances of finishing a novel that could be published are now a hundred per cent greater, not because of where we are with Forced Entertainment, but just because my skills are now much better. When I wrote the first thing, the one we talked about at the start, it was just a splurge, and doing the stories – and doing all the Forced Entertainment shows we’ve done since then – has taught me an awful about controlling things, structuring things, and basically understanding the architecture of a book. I have some understanding of that now, and I’d really like to write a novel. It’s difficult to imagine when that might happen, given our schedule, but since the stories went to press I’ve done a couple of new ones that aren’t in this book. So the nice thing about the stories is that you can keep doing them in the little gaps between things – but a novel would be a very nice thing to do at some point, too. There’s also a whole collection of critical writing and performance texts, Certain Fragments, which is coming out from Routledge  in March. That’s a very different kind of book. It’s kind of academic. Except if I write academically, I tend to mix it up with anecdote and fiction, so it’s all the same to me, really.

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