In conversation with Paul Buck

An augmented transcript of the Skype conversation that took place between the publisher, Jess Chandler, and the writer, Paul Buck, on the occasion of the launch of his novel Along the River Run, published by Prototype, 9 December 2020.

(Jess is seated in her office. Paul is seated at home with the background effect of Lisbon and the Tagus behind him.)

Jess Chandler: Along the River Run, which is the latest novel in the Prototype fiction series is a crime novel, of sorts, set in Lisbon, and tells the story of two London ‘lads’ who have escaped to the city, and it’s about the strange things that happen to them as they come to terms with a crime they’ve committed. There’s much more to it than that, but that’s a brief summary to set out this conversation.

We’re both at home, of course, we’re still in lockdown. Paul is not, in fact, in Lisbon. So, to start with, Paul, can you tell us a bit about when and why you wrote this novel? It’s something that I read a few years ago actually and that we’ve been working on gradually, over time. So, tell us a bit about the background.

Paul Buck: Right, well it’s a very simple seed that started the book. For example, when we see something on the news, or read about it in the paper, either a murder, a crime, or even a political point that comes out, we immediately make a judgement depending on our background… We make some form of judgement. And then later on perhaps, let’s say particularly if it was a murder and the trial comes along, we then start to read about other details, more context. And therefore we might suddenly have an understanding of what really went on, or empathy for the characters, or not, but certainly it changes our judgement. So, I wanted to take a very straightforward event which happened in the north of England more than a decade ago, where a murder was committed and the two people that did it, they fled the country. So, I went with that idea as a starting point. But, of course, there were issues that made me want to continue. What really interested me, there’s not… I’m not interested in the police chasing them. I’m interested in what happened to these two people when they’re taken out of their context. Suddenly they have another world which they cannot relate to, and their upbringing doesn’t really allow them to adjust to it. So, they have to come to terms, they have no option. They’re between the ages of 15 and 25, when things change in your life, and suddenly… it’s like if you are put in prison, you suddenly realise you can start to become educated. It’s a similar situation. It’s a different prison. You’re in Lisbon and you certainly could become educated or things can happen to you. We’re living at the moment in a lockdown and a lot of people… it is affecting them mentally, so it’s a similar situation that we have now. People are thrown into places where they have to come to terms with where they are. Or not. Risk the consequences. So that’s where we’re coming from in this book.

What I also thought was very important was that the very first scene, the Prologue so to speak, is very heavy. It will put off, discourage a lot of people. It is supposed to nauseate you. I know we see it in films nowadays. You get a horror film‚ or not even a horror film, a crime film, a crime television series, where the introduction is extremely strong. This is heavy, and, with words, you can actually make things happen that the reader doesn’t really realise they’ve taken in, or on board. On the surface it can seem strong, or not, but actually you’ve… the skill is to try to make it heavier for the reader. And the consequence then… you then take on board and judge these characters from that point of view. And as the book progresses, you have to take on board that image that you have at the beginning and to compare everything that happens against that image.

If you think of it in terms of film, for example. In the olden days, Hollywood characters, Hollywood stars, used to say, I have to be seen from this angle. I have to have this lighting on me, so that the audience sees me as this type of character. My reputation is this, I want this. So that’s how they used to be. And then, later on, some of them thought, I’m very famous, it doesn’t really matter, this film is just an ordinary Hollywood film, let’s make it more challenging for myself. Let’s ask the director, the producer, to make sure that I’m shown in a very bad light at the beginning, because then the audience will see me like that, and as a result I will have to spend the whole film trying to prove to the audience that really I’m not that bad a character, and their first unfavourable opinion of me was wrong. And it’s a similar type of thing here, what I’m trying to do. And so I make it very heavy, very strong and offensive at the beginning, but you have to go over that, absorb it, and it gives you something to bounce against all the time. Everything that happens in the book, you bounce against that opening. Not always consciously of course, but that is what was the challenge for me. The book isn’t just about writing a story. It is about using language to direct your thinking.

Jess: I’m glad you mentioned that opening because it is quite violent and shocking and it is something that we discussed. As a publisher I suppose you think, what are people going… like you said… will people be put off and afraid to read on, just appalled by these characters. And of course, any nerves I had about that, there’s a good reason for them. We discussed that. That constant image in your head, it’s an image that you can’t erase, and of course that’s its power.

Paul: It’s also relevant today because of the position of sexual assault on women, and men as well, but sexual assault on women. It is an issue that is current and also brings out the point of the way I used women within the book. I mean I don’t use women, women are the book. To me women are the book, not the two main characters. They are the thing, the focus, that’s in the centre, but it’s their reaction and relationship with the women that is the important factor for me. And this was one of the other areas that interested me as I wrote it. One of the other reasons why I wrote it.

Jess: And why is the novel set in Lisbon and what is your interest with the city? You wrote an earlier cultural guide to the city which is a brilliant book and I highly recommend it to everyone. What’s your relationship with Lisbon and why did this story feel like it needed to be set there?

Paul: Lisbon is one of those cities which I fell in love with from the first time I went. Catherine [Paul’s wife] had been there before and she’d told me various things and I was reading Pessoa, Saramago, and various others… oh and I saw the film, Alain Tanner’s In the White City. I mean people have this idea that the White City is a Portuguese kind of concept, but it’s not, it’s from Alain Tanner’s film. If you stand on the other side of Lisbon, the other side of the river, and look across, it’s a very white city. And the term was… actually came from him, from his title of the film. But also the sun coming down very hard on the white stones of the street and the white of the houses makes it reflect and it makes the city very very white and very very bright. And those ideas were there in my head before we went and – the first time and then the second time – and then we just kept going, keep going, because although it’s a small city there’s still a lot there and you don’t actually get bored with it. If it was too big then you would never be able to explore fully. You can actually walk around this city, although there is a metro system – the new part is brilliant – but you actually want to walk around. And also the river is a very important part of the city. I could sum up by saying I know the city enough to be a tourist and not a tourist, enough to write this novel.

Jess: I think we really get that sense, reading the book, of a deep knowledge and understanding of the city and its inheritance, and also the strangeness, the kind of magical quality of it through the eyes of these young guys, one of whom has never even travelled abroad before. Of course, central to both the city and to the book is the river. The book’s cover has an image of a cork with the word ‘Tagus’ written across it, which really makes sure that everybody knows, before even opening the book, that the river is central, and the imagery of a river, will keep appearing throughout the book. Can you talk a little bit more about that, how the image of the river works its way through the book, both literally and as a kind of image and metaphor.

Paul: Without giving away any spoilers, because I’m always told I give spoilers when talking about things. Along the River Run, the title, is taken from James Joyce and, very particularly, I wanted that kind of concept, the flow, the rhythm of it, the music of it, within the language as well as in the actual physical side of it. Lisbon is set beside the river. It’s a very wide river, the Tagus. It’s on the… just coming up to the estuary, so it’s like the Thames going into the Channel, so it widens even further. The book starts with this crime by a very small river in London, South East London. The lads flee to somewhere which they didn’t know about, which is actually beside a very wide river. And so therefore I want that kind of… the implications of that expansion, and also those bridges across it. You play with the ideas there. And the concept of swimming is part of the book in various ways. Even fishing, because they see people fishing there, and that also has echoes. So I play with all those echoes back and through. But also the concept of water, I use water itself in many different ways. Sometimes you don’t even notice it but I want it to kind of seep in, so to speak, so you feel like you’re kind of floating on it. And a lot of the… a lot of the references, the cultural references, the writers, the filmmakers, the painters, their use of water and the Tagus as well is there, without you necessarily realising it. To me the whole point is, as in any book, or in anything that I write, or in any art as far as I’m concerned, I want to know all the undercurrents. Whether you appreciate them or not, it doesn’t matter, because the more levels, the more possibilities for you to understand. Sometimes it’s just one sentence in the course of it. In the Prologue there are a few sentences that are put there which you’ll probably read straight over, but later on you might suddenly think, ah!, now I understand something about that character, because I want, and quite a lot of them relate to concepts of the river and the water, because I want that there. And I want the concept of flow and the concept of the music of a river. To me that is what is important to flow. A sense of music and rhythm is one of the important things for me in life. The pulse of the body.

Jess: And are there writers in particular whose styles, whose interests, whose ways of storytelling, were particularly, consciously, make their way into the book? Is that something you can tell us a bit about – the kind of literary influences I suppose, though not just literary. Cultural, as a city you know so well and have written a cultural guide to. Can you talk a bit about any writers or artists or music even, that’s found its way in to the book?

Paul: From a Portuguese point of view, there are three writers – actually there’s more than three – but three main writers who have been embedded, or in fact haunt the city, so to speak. I’m in the foreground and behind me is the image of Lisbon. It is actually fake. This is actually projected, an effect, and I am the real, the body here, but it appears as if I’m the one who’s haunting the image, and that behind is real, because I am the one who can move in and out, or aspects of me, technological tricks. It is one of good things, or bad things, whichever way you look at it. (During this, Paul moves around so that his image, or parts of his head, hair, shoulders… vanish, reappear.) But that kind of concept of haunting is one of the things that the book is also about. It is a haunting of people. It doesn’t matter… it’s a haunting as a reality in the book, the characters and what happens, but also the town, the city, is haunted by Pessoa, Saramago, and I actually reference another one, Sa-Carneiro, on the jacket. He died very young, at the age of 26. He committed suicide in Paris, but he was an intimate of Pessoa. Pessoa is also a haunting character. Not only because he writes about Lisbon, particularly in The Book of Disquiet, which is his big famous book. But he had over 80 heteronyms, which are like pseudonyms. He wrote under all these different names, so some of them are there when you… and you don’t even realise you’re reading a book by Pessoa, and so they’re kind of a haunting image on Portuguese literature, on Lisbon itself. And Saramago in his turn has also taken on Pessoa. One of his books called, I’m trying to think, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – Ricardo Reis is one of the names, the heteronyms of Pessoa, and so he’s writing as a character coming back to Lisbon to link up with Pessoa, under this other name. So, we’re already talking haunting images there. But they talk about real places and you feel, it’s the skill of being able to write, without just naming this road, that road, and all the rest of it. So you feel where they’re going, which areas they’re in. And that Saramago, in Ricardo Reis, is part of the area where my book is set. But he wrote another one up near the castle as well, which I also reference quite a bit. I mean I use quite a bit of, but mainly down towards the river and down towards the docks, going right the way through to Cascais, which is like the Margate of – um, that’s not very nice – the Margate of Lisbon is Cascais, next to Estoril, which is where the famous casino where James Bond was first thought about and all the rest of it. And these kinds of things are played with in the book as well, referenced. So, they are some of the literary type of characters, but of course, from another point of view my influence of, people who have influenced me, is just tremendous, so I would just say the Portuguese ones at this particular point.

Jess: You’ve already mentioned a little bit about the way you think about writing dialogue, the musicality of it. You’ve written a lot for the theatre and are an expert, really, on writers like Artaud, Beckett. Dialogue is obviously, I mean you can tell from reading this book, and with just a small knowledge of your other work, that dialogue, speech, the sounds of language, are incredibly important to your writing. Could you talk a bit more about that and about how you capture the particular voices of these, of the characters in this book, because it’s a very particular way of speaking, with all of the kind of signifiers of class and education that comes with it. Could you talk a bit more about that?

Paul: It’s very interesting because last night I was thinking about Sexy Beast, the film, and you have a dialogue in the middle between Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. Well, they don’t have much vocabulary, is one way of putting it, and yet you can tell the two different characters. It’s the way they do it. But of course you can’t do that on the page, you’ve got to find other ways. Writing dialogue for theatre, writing dialogue for film, writing dialogue on the page, are different, and yet one doesn’t want to clip all the words. One wants to find ways of organising the sentence, slip in words differently, or just slight nuances in either character so you can tell which character is talking, particularly as I don’t want to write, ‘He said,’ you know, ‘Jake said,’ ‘Lee said’. You want it to run. I come from a background of the 60s. Harold Pinter. In fact, I’m sitting in Sidcup now, which is where Pinter’s caretaker kept his papers, and which is where all my papers are. So, for me, although I like Pinter overall, the early Pinter, with the menace of the two characters and how you make them work against each other, it’s very important to me. You could see the same in Beckett, if we suddenly mention Beckett, of the tramps. You know that stand-up routine, of them playing off against each other. And in Beckett’s case he was often interested in the sound rather than the sense. He often used to tell the actors, you know, Billie Whitelaw or whoever, go with the sound not the sense, and to me, it is the same, because when people speak they misspeak and you mishear people – you hear sounds rather than sense. And so how to play with all this. That was one of the challenges for me, and I wanted to really focus on dialogue. Not only coming out of theatre but crime writers like Horace McCoy, Harry Whittington, who are the 50s noir writers I like, but a bit more than that, they’re social writers as well. They’re not interested really in private detectives, police procedures. They’re interested in the social background of the crime that’s going on, or the criminal aspect. But they can write lots of dialogue and you can understand what’s happening. How to play with that. Most people know Horace McCoy because of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but in fact I Should Have Stayed Home, which is set in Hollywood, is to me the one that plays with the dialogue. It taught me a lot about dialogue, how to make dialogue work. Harry Whittington does the same. Not famous, because you know these kinds of writers, like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Day Keene, they’re much more well known as the pulp writers, but Harry Whittington is another one. Long spans of just dialogue, and you get taken along. That’s one of the challenges. And in one of the parts, I think it’s about ten pages or something, which is just dialogue with three people. I might try and record it in the next few days. We’ll see whether I can do it! It’s three people, so I have to also play a Portuguese person at the same time, a transgender person as well. That’s where dialogue is for me. It is theatre, but the difference between… If I was to make this novel into a film script, I’d have to lose lots of the dialogue, because visually you can capture it, but here, on the page, you have to take it without putting too much extra in. How can you make the dialogue do it? To me that’s one of the challenges and I would like people to roll with that as well and then realise where they’ve gone. And how suddenly things become a shock to them, just through the dialogue, and you’ve not actually said anything more, other than what’s in the dialogue.

Jess: Thinking a bit more about traditions of crime writing, of noir, as you’ve started to talk a little bit about. There’s been a high-profile for crime writing in France, with Série noire for example. Would you place Along the River Run in a similar field? I’m asking really because your writing, and your work as translator, editor, publisher, is very much rooted in French culture. So, can you tell us a little bit about these influences and connections in your work and life? You’re somebody who’s been incredibly important in publishing the work of French writers for English readerships as well. So, this could be a huge conversation about many different things. But I suppose thinking specifically about the traditions that play into this book?

Paul: If we were to take the Série noire, as you just said, that started in the mid-40s. They were basically interested in the American noir writers, like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Horace McCoy, James M. Cain, very particularly. And unlike at that time in England, it influenced a lot of French writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were influenced by Horace McCoy and James M. Cain, and they acknowledged the fact. I don’t want to go into all of the reasons why, but, for me, I wrote a book in the 60s called The Honeymoon Killers and Série noire in France bought it. And soon after that I became friends with a French crime writer called Jean-Patrick Manchette, who is now regarded as their leading kind of contemporary crime writer. He died too young; we were good friends. What he liked… what he liked in our friendship, he thought I was literary and yet he had chosen crime writing as a literary way, because he didn’t really want to follow the Tel Quel people or the Nouveau Roman. He thought he could do social, political things within crime writing, and he knew that I was interested in that, and that I was not interested in police procedure, but at the same time I had a literary interest. He could see that I was interested in language and he was interested in how you could play with language. So that was our relationship, and although all his novels became films, we actually started writing a novel together because he had a block at one point and I said, well let’s write a novel together to see if that would unlock his novel writing block. It’s slightly out of that crime field, on purpose. Indeed, it has a political subject. We got about eight chapters in then he said he was back into his own writing again. So, with his last novels before he died, I was kind of doing some research for him in this country. In France just now there’s been a big book of, a big thick book of his letters, just come out. Well they’re only a selection, but to my shock and surprise I noticed there are twelve letters to me in there. There’s James Ellroy, Donald Westlake, Derek Raymond, you know all these people that he was also communicating with. That’s because he was trying to bait me, I’ll say it like that, bait me into writing another crime book, to write in that area, and so he was testing me by trying to say, these are the things which we have to play with; this is the concept, what makes a crime book work. Go on, you know, I’m challenging you to do that. So, we were talking about the mechanics of crime writing. It made him articulate theoretical points… He kept copies of all his letters as well. It made us both… we’re both interested in the mechanisms of things, so that was part of it. So, in the crime writing area is the American, French… Manchette… that I’m involved with. But of course outside that, as you just suggested, is my involvement in French literature very directly, which is actually post-Nouveau Roman, with people like the Tel Quel writers, or Change writers, Jean-Pierre Faye and others, and behind them is Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski, Artaud, Pierre Guyotat, and they’re kind of big people for me, plus a whole load of other people, poets and writers, and that is really where I’m coming from, and they pepper everything I do, even though I might, as here, at this particular moment, write a crime, social novel, psychological thriller, it’s still got all those undercurrents for me. Which doesn’t mean to say everyone’s got to know, but the more you have underneath and the more you understand, the more you can hone in and try to make something work on a simple level. The idea is to try to simplify, not to make things more complicated, as you get older. I hope, I think, that’s what I’m doing, to a degree. But then at the same time, all of my work is playing with different areas, because I challenge myself in different ways. So that’s what I was challenging in this book, that’s what I’m… Now I would like, if it wasn’t for the situation we’re all in… I was actually moving towards theatre and I wanted to write theatre again. I have a one woman play, Isabelle, which I wrote a long while ago. We’ve only partly staged it. I could even do that now because it only requires one woman on stage. It’s like Georges Bataille meets Hans Bellmer in the way it’s just one woman in a room, and it’s not really thinking of Beckett at all, but as I say this I’m thinking ‘Oh Beckett’. But it’s not. And yet at the same time, I would like to do, because I have directed, I would like to direct Genet’s The Screens, which is almost impossible but that is the challenge and at this particular moment, impossible. I mean you couldn’t even think of staging it. I think Peter Brook and I think the Royal Shakespeare Company, Marat/Sade. I mean he could have gone that way and he did US, but Marat/Sade is kind of a good way when you’re moving towards The Screens. But to do it really, we haven’t… we’re distanced enough from Genet to be able to do it differently; distanced enough from the Algerian war to be able to do it, to take it on. But it will never happen, I’m too old and it’s going to take a few years before life settles down again, and before theatre builds again. So, I’ve discarded that… For now.

Jess: Something important about this book, and you said earlier that the women are at the heart of the book; they’re crucial, even though the two main characters are these young men. So, women have a very important role to play in this book. Hestia Peppe, on the back of the book we have a quote from her discussing your craft as a writer, and she says that the book is ‘propelled’ – and your work in general – is ‘propelled by the powerful currents of a lifelong engagement with the feminine.’ Tell us more.

Paul: In particular this book, but also in general… this house is full of books by women and always has been. Ever since the 60s women have played a very important part in my reading. Whether it be Marguerite Duras, whether it be Jane Bowles, you know, before they were fashionable, Jean Rhys, before anyone even knew their names. Even crime writers. You look downstairs on my shelves: Leigh Brackett, Vin Packer, Dolores Hitchens, Dorothy Hughes, Helen Neilsen, we can go on. Vin Packer I must have virtually every single one of hers. They’re Gold Medal books. They’re kind of social novels; not crime in one sense, they’re social novels. But these all have sort of filtered into me. You look at my music shelves. I have an enormous number of… from Ella Fitzgerald, Karin Krog, Sheila Jordan, all these female singers, jazz singers, but going further… I mean just female singers. Musicians. Francis Marie Utti, who plays the cello, is one of my great loves, as a cellist, and what she tells me and what she teaches me in, either writings or – she’s on my Facebook so I can see her – as a person as well. They’re all part of what I’m about. So, into the book here, and because I was bought up in, totally, in a female environment, sister, mother, all the people living next door. It doesn’t mean to say I understand women, but they’ve become my challenging point. I live, you know, I’m married, and have two daughters – a son from another relationship – but two daughters, very specifically, and so I tried to reflect in the course of this book the lads’ different relationships with different type of women. From the very word go, the very first people in the book are women. Different type of character, and you then start to assume about them as well, and of course you have to then change those assumptions as you go on, because they’re still a presence in the book. As well as the people the lads meet in Lisbon, they can’t help, because they’re out, they’re out of their zone, they meet people, they have to react with people, they’re not in the High Society areas, they’re with the people on the street. They’ve gotta meet with those people. They’re going to bars. They get thrown into situations, and so therefore they’re people they don’t normally meet. So, I wanted to try and bring forward ideas of them, and Lisbon, and particularly at the time, which is the beginning of the Millennium, it was one of those hot cities where people used to go for the weekend. Along the riverfront there’s all those clubs, nightclubs, The Lux, and places like that, where transgender people, or lots of camp people used to be dressing up. You could see it all the time. There’s lots of articles written about it at the time as well. And there’s still part of that aspect there, of those bars. I wanted to bring out part of that as well. But many different facets of women are worked within the book, and to try to make them not just subsidiary but to bring out the characterisation of them all as well. So that you either feel for them – no one is black or white in the book. I don’t want you to think everyone’s a goody. Nobody is black or white, I don’t think. I can’t place anyone. Everyone…

Jess: Yes, I’d agree with that as a reader.

Paul: Yes, I mean no one comes out of it well, I don’t think. Someone does! Perhaps, ah yes, there’s a woman who’s the clerk in the hotel, towards the end.

Jess: Yes, that’s true.

Paul: She doesn’t have a big part but she is sympathetic straight away and understands what she can do.

Jess: There’s so much that we could talk about and it feels like I wish we could explore so many different areas, but to finish I thought it might be nice for people to just hear a bit about how you’ve got through these crazy months that we’ve all, well that we’re all still in; the chaos of life at the moment and its strangeness. What has this been making you want to write and what are you working on at the moment? I know you’re working on a few different things. But anything in particular that feels like it had to be done now, because everything is just so strange.

Paul: Already I’ve finished, but I haven’t come to terms with publishing it yet… is a book that’s set in Whitehall – white hole, white hell – it’s all about the lies and the rapture of lies. It’s extreme. It’s like Sade meets Bataille meets Pierre Guyotat, and will I publish it? I don’t know. But I wrote it and I finished it. And I finished it before we’ve gone in to this even worse stage, on purpose. I wanted to finish it because now in my head, I want to explore another existential period, and I feel that I should be sitting down and writing according to that as well. Years ago, I wrote The Honeymoon Killers in one week. I did one week’s research, one week’s writing. I had no choice. I was being commissioned to write it. And that’s what Manchette picked up on when we became friends. Pulp fiction was written very fast. But I know people who write very fast now. I tend not to. I’ve written a book, a novel, Without You, which is about film, is a narrative based on 167 films, and I draw all the narrative from them to make a novel. That took five years. But I would like to sit down now, just pull out all the plugs, the phone, Facebook, everything, just lock myself away for two weeks and just write a book. It’s not with a blank screen, blank paper. It is with what’s inside, that tension that’s there, of what’s around, and to find something. I’m thinking like that because I’m thinking of Georges Bataille, I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin, I’m thinking of Clarice Lispector, I’m thinking of Maria Gabriela Llansol, who is a Portuguese writer that nobody knows. She’s another one of these, like Clarice Lispector, until a while ago nobody really knew about her, and she is only really now being discovered in Portugal. She’s been sitting there on my desk for a while. And now, all of them have aspects which make me understand that I could do something, but how it happens, I don’t know. So, I have ongoing books, all the time. They’re always challenging concepts of what can be done and what can’t be done with books. That’s an ongoing thing. This is why I think of Bataille, who was always challenging ideas and never really finishing, never had closure. I mean I’ve got 25 books which I’ve never published, when I look at it. I mean they’re either novels, collections of essays, collections of poems – substantial, not just talking about little pamphlets – novels, prose works, 200 songs that I’ve written. Once again, that’s another aspect of the music side, exploring songs. I’ve written songs for people, whether it be Marc Almond for whom I translated Jacques Brel and others, or 48 Cameras or Melinda Miel, and what interested me there were the rhythms, the rhythms within language. How to make them so that people could sing them or how you could vocalise them. It’s all part of this concept of rhythms of language, flow, movement, once again. There’s probably about 200 of those. You could publish those as a book. So, there’s all these things, but I don’t necessarily always see that you have to write a book to publish it. But now I’m starting to see that I’ve got a web and that perhaps I should fill in some of the gaps. I’m getting a bit old and it might be an idea to put a bit more cement in. Is that good? Or let a bit more water flow over it all!

Jess: Thank you so much Paul. That’s really brilliant and so much more to be found out.

Watch the interview here