Chris McCabe, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Mill Road hospital Liverpool, and then in Liverpool (built on the site of a Victorian workhouse), until moving to London in my early twenties. I now live in Liverpool and work in London.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
My dad was an autodidact, acquiring a good collection of books through joining various book clubs. As a result there was an impressively wide range of books on our shelves at home, from history (The World at War; The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire; The Third Reich), fiction (The Lord of the Rings, all the novels of Thomas Hardy), complete Shakespeare and most useful for my development as a writer and poet, the works of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce.
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
In terms of my poetry I don’t think I ever fully recovered from discovering Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man in my early teens. Various epiphanies with poetry at home and at school occurred in my teens: Wordsworth, Wilfred Owen (discovering he had been local to Liverpool made a strong connection with me), Robert Browning, Shakespeare. I fell in love with the work of Dylan Thomas, who made such a deep impression I had to stop reading him for well over a decade in order to find my own voice. But the book that changed my life was James Joyce’s Ulysses, read over the summer between A-levels and university, and becoming an obsession that in the end I decided to write a sequel, Dedalus, set the day after Joyce’s book.
Do you write every day, and do you write many drafts?
Yes, I write something, or think about the something I am writing, every day. I’m a compulsive documentarian, I write on my phone, in notebooks, anywhere. The only obstacle is time and the profound lack of it. As a result I tend to binge-write when the possibility arises, though I’ve also learned that you can get a lot done just writing just an hour a day. Amounts of drafts vary massively, poems often arrive nearly ready-formed, other time taking thirty drafts. Dedalus went through at least five drafts along with a new injection of writing at the editing stage.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
Dedalus is the work I’m most proud of as it took hundreds of pep-talks to myself to silence the voice in my head that was telling me that writing a sequel to Ulysses was ridiculous. I’m also massively proud of my new collection, The Triumph of Cancer, which is coming out with Penned in the Margins this Autumn, and marks a great breakthrough with my poetry.
Books that changed your life?
I’ve mentioned Ulysses, any book that makes you write a book is a book that has changed your life.
Your views on book publishing?
I’m excited by indie presses, my publishers Penned in the Margins and Henningham Family Press, who genuinely take risks. There are an impressive amount of presses of this kind out there now, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Galley Beggar, to name a couple, who make gorgeous editions, get their books in shops and, most importantly, take risks.
How important were, and are, editors? Have you had much encouragement from your editor(s)?
I’ve been blessed to have two amazing editors. Tom Chivers is my editor at Penned in the Margins, and has steered me through two poetry collections, two books of creative non-fiction about London’s Victorian Cemeteries (In the Catacombs and Cenotaph South), as well as various other projects and live performances. Tom is that rare things today, a detailed, hands-on editor, who climbs inside a manuscript and comes out the other side covered in the entrails of the work. It’s always a joy working with Tom. David Henningham is my editor at Henningham Family Press, as an artist and writer himself, he has these brilliant impulsive responses to a writer’s work. When editing Dedalus he set me the challenge of writing notes for the novel, like T.S. Eliot wrote for The Waste Land. I took him up on the challenge only wrote the notes in the style of 1980s computer gaming, which then led to him creating visual maps to accompany them. There’s nothing like having this level of attention on your work.
Which is more important, style or voice?
That would be like choosing the mind over the body, they both should be fused into a single chimera.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they in reality?
As a teacher of poetry I’d say they can be massively useful, depending on who you are as a writer. Courses can give you the space you need to work, which might be problematic to find otherwise, and begin to harden you up for feedback and critique. I didn’t do any creative writing courses myself, being a writer off your own steam is still an option!
What are your favorite literary journals?
Test Centre is a very interesting journal, publishing experimental work and limited edition books by writers such as Iain Sinclair. I also make visual work, including collage, and have recently discovered the Canadian magazine Kolaj, which is dedicated solely to collage.
How well are your books received in Europe?
I’ve been lucky enough to have my poems translated into a number of languages, including Croatian and Portuguese. I’m currently working on editing a book of poems in endangered languages which will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2019. That will include poems written in a number of European endangered languages, such as Basque and Belarussian, so that will hopefully gain interest across Europe.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? What about social media?
Technology has freed me up to write far more that I’d have been able to do otherwise. I still use a phone with a keyboard (the wonderful Blackberry Priv which is a smartphone with a flip keyboard) so that I can walk and write at the same time. In Dedalus I played around with ideas of what James Joyce might have done in the age of the internet and social media, which both became integral to the content of the novel.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
17 June 1904, just to see if I captured Stephen Dedalus’s hangover correctly in Dedalus.
Your favourite prose authors?
Do I still need to mention Joyce? There are many others…Jean Rhys, Iain Sinclair, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Chekhov, Laurence Sterne, B.S. Johnson, Brian Catling, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, Lydia Davis, Dambudzo Marechera.
Your favourite noir series?
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Fassbinder.
Favourite feature films?
Inland Empire (David Lynch), Jaws (Spielberg), Melancholia (Von Trier), Suspiria (Argento), Broken Embraces (Almodovar).
Five favourite bands?
The Fall, Captain Beefhart and his Magic Band, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Your chief characteristic?
Your bedside reading?
Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, with its language of the night, is always by my bed. As are Blake’s Illuminated Books, for the morning.
The McCabe family motto is Aut Vincere Aut Mori: “Either to conquer or die.”
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