TCB interview with David Keenan

Interview conducted January 2020.
The paperback of David Keenan's novel 'For The Good Times' was published on 02/01/20.


TCB: One of the most startling and brilliant features of This Is Memorial Device is how well you manage to write and integrate very, very different focalizing styles. The last paragraph of the novel, in the voice of Paprika Jones, is terrifying and wondrous – and completely different in language and tone from the conversational staccato of Claire Lune, from the onrunning verbosity of John Bailey, and the phonetic rendering of Robert Mulligan, aka Steel Teeth. I’m really interested in how you were able to create and sustain all these voices as part of the same work – did you conceive of these characters individually at different times, write their accounts separately, and then compile/arrange them all, or were you able to write the book in a more linear manner, morphing into each new character as you went?

DK: I wrote it from start to finish, in a linear style, I do all my books that way, beginning to end, straight through, without ever having any idea, really, as to where it will all end up. We’ve talked about listening before, it’s basically what I do, I come up with a name, I allow the character to come to me in my imagination, and then I quickly get out of the way, I drop any idea of an internal censor, and I let them talk, have their way, and behave appallingly, if they must, or sometimes just be simply lovely. I am obsessed by rhythm, odd rhythms sometimes, but rhythms none the less, always, and I feel that the best way of ‘describing’ a character is ‘presenting’ them, primarily through their own rhythm, how that manifests on the page, indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you ever feel you’re ‘describing’ something then you have clearly failed to manifest that something completely, and the reader is now listening to your description of something as opposed to coming into direct contact with the thing itself. I believe that it is possible to transmit objects, places, people, through time and space and to materialise them right in front of you using words. So, yeah, I morphed as I went, but then when I went back to edit I exaggerated the little tics that had come through in order to more completely manifest the character as they wanted to be.

TCB: I’ve seen This Is Memorial Device compared often to Trainspotting, which I understand from the perspective that both books are structured as a series of vignettes and both are steeped in a particular time, culture, music, etc. However, Memorial Device reminds me more of a book like Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, because it doesn’t really (directly) chart the progression of a single narrative strand or a single character (like Trainspotting does with Renton) – although it does have the central concept of the band Memorial Device, it’s very much a composite work formed of separate small narratives. Do you think this is a fair assertion to make? Was there ever a consideration to anchor the book with the story and actions of Ross Raymond, or was it always the intention for multiple voices and strands to be collected as a unifying whole?

DK: I agree. I never considered a kind of unifying narrative. The best music books for me are always the oral histories, I love the contradictory accounts, the mad tales, how their characters come through in their telling, books like Please Kill Me and The Other Hollywood and Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey as well were all big influences on Memorial Device. Also, I wanted it to reflect how memory works, so the multiple tellings and perspectives were key to that. I love the idea of the centre being everywhere, the circumference nowhere.

TCB: Of course there has to be a question about dear old Airdrie, seeing as I grew up there too (first Greengairs, then Clarkston, finally, and mostly, Thrashbush). In the introduction to This Is Memorial Device, Ross Raymond writes:

They sounded like Airdrie, which is to say they sounded like a black fucking hole. Everyone loved them or hated them and the people who hated them loved them twice as much. We thought they would go the whole way, we thought they would vindicate Airdrie, valorise Coatbridge, memorialise Greengairs.

With this book, was it really an intention (or a hope) of yours to ‘vindicate Airdrie’?

DK: Yes. I always knew I would write this book, right from when I was a kid, growing up in Airdrie. I had such a happy childhood, even though we were really poor (in fact it’s only in recent years looking back and talking to my mum that I realise just how poor we were) but I was well loved and had a happy family life, plus I loved Airdrie, I loved it, the excitement of going down the town on a Saturday, all the weird mysterious villages like Greengairs and Salsburgh, I loved that it had history, old buildings, as well as seedy romantic flats, I loved that we could be in the fields, down the glen, swimming in a quarry, within about 10 minutes walk from our house, and I got to know so many eccentric people and local characters, my primary school headmaster William Brown early on encouraged me to read and write when even I had no idea that I might be good at it, he introduced me to calligraphy and I took lessons from William Scobie, one of the legendary Scobie brothers, absolute eccentrics and intellectuals, he taught me calligraphy in the front room of his mad book-lined flat on the main street, Mr Scotia is loosely based on him in Memorial Device, and then I learned he had edited a book called The Book of Airdrie and my mind was blown, that Airdrie could be important or interesting enough to have a book written about it made me feel like I lived at the centre of the world, so I sought it out and just loved it so much, especially cause in the first edition there was a section about ghosts and witches in Airdrie and that was so exciting to me, it sort of coincided in my brain with me reading Tolkien and Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and made me feel like Airdrie was a fantasy world, and I fell in love, and had amazing summer romances and tragic break-ups, all with this backdrop, then I started getting into music and back then the tribes were on the streets and it felt so exciting to see weirdos and people dressing outrageously in the city centre and I would fantasise about their lives, about their commitment to art, about all the books they read and the daring sex they were having and knew that one day I would memorialise it all.

TCB: In 2018, you wrote a short piece for Waterstone’s website, explaining the choices of your favourite books. Within this list was Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac and Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs – two of the most celebrated members of the Beat Generation, but not two of their most famous novels. Is there something in particular about the Beats as a group/movement that you find very resonant and inspiring, or is there no connection to be drawn here – are these just two disparate books you love for different reasons?

DK: Oh I love the Beats, I know it’s not cool anymore but I don’t care, Kerouac was huge for me, and Burroughs still is. I love Cody because Kerouac is pushing so hard at the form, it’s an extended love letter, I love so much of what Kerouac loved, and I write in love, with gratitude, and to re-enchant the world as it is rather than merely critique its terms, I’m one of those Kerouac-ian Yea sayers for sure. Burroughs' books are living organisms, entities, they are alive in there, and I feel that same way about my own books too, closer to channelling than writing, in a way. The Beats remain central to me but my favourites are a little more peripheral to that movement these days, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, David Meltzer (esp. his Tree journal and publications) …


TCB: In the introduction to your 2003 non-fiction book 'England’s Hidden Reverse', you wrote:

Ray Phiri, a South African musician who played on Paul Simon’s Graceland, sounds like a deranged censorial fundamentalist in his supposed championing of liberal values in the same volume [a book on the 1st World Conference on Music & Censorship, 1998]:

"'I would just like to say that life is a precious gift,’ he writes. ‘Anything that construes life as not a precious gift is evil.'" What!? Well there goes Pere Ube’s Life Stinks, Richard Hell, Suicide, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Celine, Jean Genet, Blaise Cendrars … most of the genuinely interesting and challenging art of the twentieth-century, in fact. All that’s left is Paul Simon, the Lightning Seeds, and Sting.

Can violent imagery and hate speech really have a redemptive value? I would say yes, yes it can.

This is a really interesting point. The question is – are you trying to imply the Velvet Underground are better than the Lightning Seeds? … Ok. My real question relates to the end of this quoted section – can you explain why you believe hate speech and such things can have a redemptive value in/to society? That may be quite an unpopular position to take in the current climate ...

DK: I think the current climate is the most hate-filled I can ever remember, and most people are clearly enjoying it. Everyone loves to hate. They talk of elected politicians as if they were genocidal Nazis, of celebrities who have the wrong opinion as being evil, I think now that religion is pretty much dead as a force in people’s lives a la that fundamental rage has been channelled into politics, and it really is presented as good versus evil, as if any human being is completely one or the other. But the shadow must be exorcised and/or exercised. I think if you repress the shadow, it comes back with force. Sometimes a good hate-filled bacchanal is necessary, the occasional storming of the boundaries is more fully human, I would argue, the occasional stressing and exploding of taboo. There is something about trashing something, life, the great gift, another, that is very of life. Everyone hates, just some people make the claim that they are good and only hate what is evil, but they are still hating. I hate all sorts of arbitrary random things, and I really enjoy hating them. But on the whole I’m not a negative person, I prefer to sing the praises of what I love, I prefer saying yes, to no. Nietzsche said that now that God was dead we have inherited all of God’s worst qualities and none of his good ones. Where forgiveness? Where love and understanding? Where empathy for the human stain?


TCB: I’m always interested in why writers choose the quotations they do for their novel epigraphs. One of those used in For The Good Times is from Nietzsche: “This ‘new soul’ should have sung, not spoken.” What is the significance of this statement, to the book and to you?

DK: Ha ha, talking about Nietzsche. It relates to escaping language, it is about pure affirmation, transcending good and evil and becoming what is, you, is, a song, singing. All these words, all this introspection is bottomless, there is no answer, no solution, nothing to be solved. Sing.

TCB: I was struck by the radical differences in how your two novels begin. This Is Memorial Device opens with an introduction, a statement, from the character who put the book together, so immediately the reader understands the concept of a guy compiling a collection to represent a band and a time and place. With For The Good Times, there’s no orientation at all, you’re thrown straight into this world of voices and perspectives, things that are already speaking and already happening, and it takes a wee while to grasp how the book functions. Was it a conscious decision to move off in a dramatically different direction right away, or more just a case of very different modes of narration suiting the different stories to be told?

DK: Yes, like Memorial Device I always knew I would write a book about the Troubles, and the things my family lived through, and their resilience, and their brilliant storytelling, and their jokes and their warmth and their madness and danger and complicated love. And I always had that first scene in mind, I wanted Christ to appear to the hunger strikers, and I wanted to reflect that different rules apply, that we are in a place and time where reality itself is up for grabs, and I wanted to capture some of the force and violence with which Christ manifests in time. And to have a right old laugh about it too.

TCB: I’m going to do the miserably modern thing of quoting a Twitter interaction – in a tweet you sent in October, you said: “Listening has been key to me as a writer; listening to your characters, to the dictates of the story, to what the book wants to be.” This is a fascinating topic for those of us interested in writing – to know how much pre-conception takes place in advance of the creation of books we love, and how much of it was borne of improvisation during the act of writing. Now that you’re free of a 280-character limit, can I ask you to say some more on this? What has your own process been?

I’ll even cite a specific example (SPOILER WARNING): did you always know Tommy was to die in FTGT, or did it just become an inevitability as the story was coming out on the page? (ie, I loved Tommy – was gutted)

DK: I touched on this earlier, but, yes, no, I had no idea Tommy would die and I was completely gutted as well. I can’t read the section about his funeral without crying. I never have any idea whatsoever what will happen in my books, and often when I do I am rudely, brilliantly, surprised. I presumed Tommy was the central character all the way through, and I mean, he still is, but his death rocked me. Things like this happen all the time, like the running joke with McManus through the book, I didn’t know that he was never going to speak, but every time he turned up in a scene he just sort of sat there, adding nothing to the conversation, yet he seemed so real and necessary and soon I began to realise, well, that’s just McManus’s style, and I let him be. Going back to Memorial Device, I am completely smitten in love with Mary Hanna. I wish I could hang out with her again in another book, but I can’t just insert her, she needs to show up when she wants to, so it was amazing when I was working on my book Monument Maker (publishing summer 2021) and in the book there was a young sculptor and the character goes to visit her in her studio/garage and as I was writing and seeing the scene he walked into the garage and the sculptor was Mary Hanna! I was overcome, it was so amazing to see her, and she was younger than I had know her in Memorial Device, it was really so emotional, and of course she only hung around for 5,000 words or so and then fucked right off, which was typical Mary Hanna, but it was so wonderful to see her. I don’t know anything more about any of my characters than what is revealed in my novels, if I want to find out more I have to write and see.

TCB: I’ll quote Sammy from page 67 of FTGT, describing the games played by some of the folk who visit the comic shop:

They called them role-playing games, RPGs for short. These are games where what you do is you pretend to be somebody else. But here’s the thing: the point of the game is not to win. The point is to play your part. I mean, you could get points and gain skills and stuff like that, but the real, serious gamers would try to get into the mindset of their characters and make the decisions that they would make, whether it was to their advantage or not. What I’m trying to say is, it was about being true, to a fantasy, for sure, but being true to it all the same.

Is this maybe a description of your own approach to writing fiction?

DK: In a way. For years I have mis-remembered a quote from Susan Sontag about why she wrote and I think by this point it has probably become my own, but she said that she became a writer because she wanted to lead everyone’s lives forever. That’s exactly why I write. I want to live everyone’s lives forever. I want to fall in love with everyone, I want to run off into everyone’s else’s lives and have an adventure and never come back. I want to be half of every couple, and live every story. With writing, you can.

- Other Things -

TCB: Are there any good Pat & Mick jokes you can tell us that didn’t make it into For The Good Times?

DK: The best Paddy joke is in Memorial Device, I think, the one about Paddy going on Mastermind, specialist subject: the IRA. So good.

TCB: In a recent podcast for Book Week Scotland, you said:

I made a vow early on that I would write the type of books that would live up to an illiterate person’s fantasy of what they could be. That became the sort of challenge for me.

It’s such an intriguing perspective from which to approach writing books. Could I ask you to elaborate on this a bit? Why is this your challenge, and how do you seek to do it justice?

DK: My father couldn’t read or write. Yet, he always underlined how important it was for me to read books and to develop my imagination. Give me a boy with imagination every time, my dad would say. Reading will change your life, he would say. And I would think, well, how the fuck does he know? He can’t even read. But then it occurred to me, what faith in words, what faith in books and in language, what must my father believe the reading of a book to be like? Unimaginable, transformative, magical. Then I thought, my dad would be disappointed if he read most books, most books aren’t as ambitious and magical and transformative as that, most books do not change people’s lives. But I was so moved by his faith, his belief, that I vowed I would write the books that live up to an illiterate person’s fantasy of what they could be. I write experimental novels that do not read like experimental novels, they work on multiple levels and can be read on any of them. I’m not interested in being clever, but in being true, I like to write with velocity, I like to drag the reader by his hair from start to finish without a trip or a pause. I strive for a kind of rapturous transparency.

TCB: So, to the future – in the great interview you did in 2017 with Alistair Braidwood for the ‘Scots Whay Hae’ podcast, you mentioned you had completed five novels before This Is Memorial Device was even published. Are more of these books going to see the light of day soon, or are you writing brand new fiction at the moment? Can you tell us anything about these unpublished works, and/or what may be coming soon from yourself?

DK: Yes, they will come out, trouble is I can’t stop writing more, I feel like I am possessed by a demon that won’t let me be. The next novel is Xstabeth, out in November of this year on White Rabbit, the new imprint that my editor Lee Brackstone set up as part of Orion. It’s about an angelic entity that fulfils people by disappearing them. It’s a magickal book, I’m in love with it. Then Monument Maker, which is a monster meditation (quarter of a million words) on art, religion, the great churches and cathedrals of Europe, enlightenment, violence, and the dynamics of cults, as well as a love story, mostly set in France. There are other books too, The Comfort of Women, The Tomb of the Song (I nearly lost my mind writing that one), I Am The Body of All the Conquistadors (fiction/memoir), Revolutionary Violence, The Disappeared, hopefully all of these will come out at some point. At the moment I am finishing a really weird novel called Conspiracy of Girls, which has got me hooked, as well as working on a new pamphlet for Rough Trade Books, another collaboration with the brilliant artist Sophy Hollington, called Encyclopaedia of Fate.

TCB: I like to end interviews by asking for literary recommendations, but as I mentioned earlier, you wrote a great piece for Waterstone’s doing just that, and also took part in our Fiction Friday feature a few weeks ago (click here to access this). So, for those who read and loved your novels but didn’t recognize much of the music discussed, are there any particular musicians/albums that you think all self-respecting David Keenan fans should know?

Fushitsusha – 'Double Live'
Bach – 'Actus Tragicus'
The Dead C – 'Trapdoor Fucking Exit'
Albert Ayler – 'Lorrach/Paris 1966'
13th Floor Elevators – 'Easter Everywhere'
Lou Reed – 'Ecstasy'
Tangerine Dream – 'Ultima Thule'
Parson Sound – 's/t'
Tampax – 'UFO Dictator'
Whitehouse – 'Cruise (Force The Truth)'
Ruth White – 'Flowers of Evil'
Joni Mitchell – 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns'
The Congos – 'Heart of the Congos'
Nyah Fearties – 'Rantin’ Robbie'
Big Country – 'The Crossing' ●

David Keenan is a writer based in Glasgow, Scotland, and the author of two prize-winning novels, This is Memorial Device (Faber & Faber) and For the Good Times (Faber & Faber), the latter of which won the Gordon Burn Prize 2019. His third novel, Xstabeth, will be published in Autumn of 2020.
You can follow David on Twitter @reversediorama