"And indeed my prose is steeped in poetry"

An interview with Ken Edwards, author of Country Life

While on holiday in Zambia, Ken was kind enough to muse on some questions I had about his ninth book, Country Life. I was curious about his thoughts on the relationship between poetry and prose, the philosophies of the novel's characters, his lifelong relationship with music, and more. Below are Ken's answers, which we exchanged via email.

You’re a musician in real life, and two of the novel’s main characters are (albeit very different) musicians. How did your musical history inform theirs?

I describe myself as a part-time musician. I have had a lot of involvement over the years in contemporary music of various kinds, and I currently play bass guitar in two local bands in Hastings that I co-founded with my wife, Elaine, who is my musical inspiration. She’s a brilliant flautist and sax player, and pretty good on the keyboards too. The two characters you mention are not based specifically on any real-life musicians, but inevitably my intimate relationship with music-making informs what I imagine they do. Actually, I’d quite like to write an album for Nightmare! Also, it’s important to say that music is at the heart of my prose style: rhythm, pacing, dynamics, sound, silence. I have learnt a lot as a writer from great musicians.

In addition to other works of prose, you’ve published several volumes of poetry. Do you prefer one over the other? How has your poetry influenced your prose writing, and vice versa?

Very good question. I started out, back in the 1970s, as a writer of short stories, and I had some success getting them published. There was interest from an editor at a mainstream publisher in London, who wanted to see a novel from me. They were looking for the next Ian McEwan or Martin Amis. But I couldn’t write a novel. And I’d also become disillusioned with the literary world, and found what “experimental” poets were doing in Britain and the USA at this time so much more exciting. Also, they gave me a peer group, which I didn’t have as a prose writer. And so I started making poems and entered the world of small press publishing. But I never quite stopped writing prose, and indeed self-published my first novel, Futures, in 1998.  Fast-forward a few decades, and the poems ceased, but the prose started flourishing again. And indeed my prose is steeped in poetry. I have learnt so much from poets. Actually, “prose” and “poetry” are not a real binary pair. There is verse (an old-fashioned sounding word) and there is prose. Poetry is something else.

You’ve been the publisher/editor of a small press, Reality Street, for over 20 years, and have published several of your own works there. Why did you seek out a different publisher for Country Life?

Reality Street was not primarily intended to be a vehicle for my own writing. I founded it in 1993 with my friend the poet Wendy Mulford, primarily to publish poets we both liked. Since the turn of the century I have run it on my own, although it has recently ceased to publish new titles. The works of mine I’ve published under its imprint have been ones I was unable to place elsewhere. I’ve already mentioned the novel Futures, which was "nearly published” twice, before I became fed up with waiting and issued it as a Reality Street title. The book of short prose that became Down With Beauty was seemingly unmarketable to most publishers, and there was a certain satisfaction in doing it exactly as I wanted. The same applied to the poem sequence eight + six. But even today, when it is more feasible and more socially acceptable for authors to self-publish, I think there is an important sense of validation in persuading an external publisher to take on a book. I am very grateful to Unthank Books for giving me this opportunity, and look forward to working with them again if I can.

Tarquin’s philosophical rants are both fascinating and fully-realized. What kind of research did you have to do to bring them to life?

Tarquin is an amalgam of several people I have known (as well as embodying some of what I think of as the least attractive traits of mine!). He is ferociously intelligent, but also excessively opinionated, and self-serving while pretending not to be. His philosophical outlook is informed by my own reading and half-understanding of heavyweight political philosophy. In the email exchanges between members of the imaginary Neo-Marxist Party, I am afraid I parodied the discourse in some real email discussion groups I have encountered.

Describe your writing process in three words.

Write, revise, write. And if I had three more words: revise again, write.

If you could meet one of the characters from Country Life, who would it be and why?

Impossible question. As I hinted before, the characters in Country Life sometimes contain echoes of parts of myself, particularly Dennis, who has some of my characteristics at that age (early 20s). If I met him, I’d say: Don’t be so fucking stupid!

Writers can be superstitious about their process – do you have any superstitions around your writing?

I’m not superstitious, but I find set procedures very helpful. I’m naturally a lazy bugger, and would just slop around and avoid writing if left to my own devices. So I plan ahead, and set my computer to remind me on certain days with a message popping up at 9am: “Write!” And if I really don’t feel like it, the rule is: just write one sentence. Or even: amend one already-written sentence. That fulfills the brief. But inevitably, one sentence leads to another...

Is there a novel or author you love that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?

Another impossible question. I think there are wonderful American novelists, such as Gilbert Sorrentino, Douglas Woolf, Djuna Barnes, who are almost unknown in the UK. And the late Christine Brooke-Rose was a terrific British writer (inevitably exiled to France) also almost unknown in my country. But I could go on and on…