The tables are turned and Tim Sykes puts the questions to Gordon Collins this time.
Tim: Your inspired conceit in ‘Psycho-Nasal Aggravation Syndrome’ – that the removal of nostril hair causes chronic irascibility – seemed to be a means to approach anxieties about one’s (ageing) bodily self. Another of your stories revolves around a different sort of conflict between the protagonist and one of his organs. Is the estrangement between the physical and the self an important theme for you?
Gordon: Isn’t it an important theme for you? Your eyeballs will turn to jelly, your legs will turn to wood, your brain will rot and your stomach will become a useless bucket. Can you ignore all this? No. No. Actually, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that. In the novel I just finished writing, “Japan BigSYS”, I describe a system where all humanity is commoditised: knowledge is qualifications, communications are evaluated by their approval ratings and friends are only friends if the system says they are. Wealth, power, convenience, health, sex and love credits are all tradeable. This is estrangement between the symbolic and the self like in mathematics. I think estrangement is very popular for us 21st century subscribers and it comes in different flavours.
T: The story’s happy ending comes with a glorious shock. It made me laugh out loud while simultaneously breaking into a wide-eyed grimace. Had this occurred in a public place, reasonable people would have moved away from me. Is this the sort of effect you hoped to achieve?
G: A reviewer of Unthology 6 said that it made her, “splutter with horrified amusement” which I am pleased with. Yes. My game is to disarm the reader with humour and then knock them down with combination moves: punches, kicks and holds. If the attack is humiliating for the reader then so be it. Remember, you started this.
T: I consider ‘PNAS’ a significant contribution to the literature of nose-loss. Were you consciously thinking about Gogol when you wrote the story?
G: I’ve been fiddling with PNAS for ten years. I read Gogol’s “The Nose” when I was 92% through with PNAS and, while it was reassuring to discover a forbearer, I don’t think I was overly-influenced.
T: I have been a fan of your writing since discovering ‘Even Meat Fill’ in >Unthology 3. A recurrent feature of your fiction is the depiction of a realistic, often banal, world in which a single element is drastically off key. Are you especially drawn to writers of the grotesque and surreal? Which authors would you say influence and daunt you the most?
G: These are my guys:
Drawn to: Lewis Carrol, Kafka, Beckett, E M Forster, Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Will Self, Kazuo Ishiguro, Daren King, George Saunders.
Daunted by: The Russians, Borges, Calvino, Marquez, M Amis, Sebald, Bolano.
Perhaps I’m drawn to those with more time on their hands, more idealistic, whimsical and yet Anglo Saxon.
So I am daunted by those for whom literature is as important as oxygen, have a more pressing need to write, are, in a way, more pragmatic and yet less Anglo Saxon.
The grotesque and surreal would be in a lot of those like when E M Forster describes his belly-button fluff as a pillow for dismembered mice.
T: You are a mathematician. You have lived in Japan. What aspects of your non-literary life have fed into your fictional imagination?
G: At first my attempts at writing about Japan were “humorous” clumsy-foreigner-discovers-himself sort of efforts. When I started to describe Japanese society as a deterministic system, I found that certain plot lines suggested themselves. It was like, having established some axioms, I was able to prove some theorems within this system.
T: You are a novelist as well as a short story writer. How do your approaches to the two disciplines differ?
G: Short stories are the treat I get when I finish a novel.
T: What are you currently working on?
G: A novel called “VAR” which is about banking and risk analysis. The villains are reckless and violent traders and the heroes are renegade mathematicians.
T: Where can we read more Gordon Collins?
G: Have a look at www.zipple.co.uk.
T: My mum has read and enjoyed your story. However, she remarked that she nearly didn’t read it at all because the title ‘Psycho-Nasal Aggravation Syndrome’ put her off. Would you consider changing the title for the benefit of readers like my mum, when it is republished in your Collected Stories?
G: Of course I’ll gladly make any changes your Mum requires but what if other mum’s want changes made too? Where does it stop? Will I have to “live tweet” all my writing to MumsNet so they can instantaneously edit my work?
T: Last September you asked me whether I plucked or trimmed my nasal hair. Flustered by the question, I found myself lying. The truth is, I do a bit of both – impulsively. Do you pluck or trim?
G: Neither. Writing the story was cathartic. My body hair and I live together in harmony. I have nurtured it and now it is my garden of delights.
Psycho-Nasal Aggravation Syndrome by Gordon Collins and Everything Changes, Nothing Perishes by Tim Sykes top and tail Unthology 6, edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones.
Unthology 6 is available to order from the Unthank Books Online Bookshop, Waterstones, Foyles, Book Depository, Wordery and all good booksellers.