Writers on Lockdown: Kenny Mooney

Kenny Mooney’s books are experimental, ‘unapologetically nihilistic’ prose poems that skillfully thrust the reader into new perspectives. In the first of a new series of interviews, I caught up with him to chat about isolation, writing style, philosophical influence, and the importance of ambiguity in literature.

Hi Kenny, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!

Thank you for having me!

So how are you faring in these strange times – is isolation beneficial to your creative process or a hindrance?

The isolation isn’t a problem for me. I’m an introverted, fairly anti-social person, so being told to stay indoors and not socialise is basically my life. I’m amused at how many people, mostly those I work with, have been going on about how they don’t know how they’re going to manage, and it’s been about a week. I imagine them already chewing their fingernails down. These will be the fucking idiots buying all the food in the supermarkets. 

Isolation definitely benefits my creative process though. I’m not the kind of person who can write around other people, I need a totally separate space that I can control and manage. Not that I’ve been writing very much lately, but when I do, having somewhere away from other people is certainly required. I guess because this whole situation isn’t actually that much different to my normal life, for me, I don’t feel as compelled to take advantage of the lockdown and do something creative.

I think pressure to be productive can have a negative effect on output for creatives. Would you agree?

I would definitely agree, at least for me. Different people respond to different stimuli, but in my experience, pressure is not a great way to encourage creativity. And I think that can often be part of the problem for writers, and other artists. We put ourselves under so much pressure to reach some arbitrary level, be it a particular word count, or to be original or funny, experimental, or whatever. I think if people just relaxed and let the work be itself, to arrive in its own way, they’d be happier, and maybe more productive. But who knows. I’m wary of giving or listening to writing advice. Do whatever works for you.

You’ve released two novels recently: Desk Clerk and In the Vast and Boundless Deep. Within just a few months of one another, in fact. Do you write quickly or were you working on them simultaneously?

That was really just down to good timing. Or bad, depending on your point of view. I actually finished writing In the Vast and Boundless Deep in late 2017, I think, and then spent the few months into spring 2018 editing it. It then spent about a year or so being submitted to various publishers, so while that was happening, I began work on Desk Clerk. Or more accurately, I returned to work on Desk Clerk, because that book has been around in one form or another for years. It actually began life as a short piece of fiction that I wrote sometime in my early 20s. I still have it somewhere. It’s awful – I was still very much under the influence of writers like Burroughs, and it showed. It was followed by a second piece, a bitter, sardonic rant called Office Notes, that I wrote one day after one of the shit temp jobs I was working at the time in Glasgow. Between the two pieces, they had many of the things that went into Desk Clerk – the alienation, early versions of the narrator, Pristina, the doctor. For years I added to it, and it became a sprawling, disjointed novella. At some point in my 30s I decided to try and turn it into a coherent novel, with a “proper plot” and characters. I soon got bored of that crap. It wasn’t until I had finished Vast & Boundless that I embraced the fragmented nature of the manuscript, and went with it.

At some point in my 30s I decided to try and turn it into a coherent novel, with a “proper plot” and characters. I soon got bored of that crap.

So really, Vast & Boundless should have come out first, then Desk Clerk, if I were going with the order they were written. But Desk Clerk feels like an earlier piece. It’s closer in style to The Gift Garden, and that’s because sections of it date from earlier in my writing life. It’s gone through a lot of editing and rewriting, but much of the early sections are years old at this point. So stylistically, Vast & Boundless is the more recent piece of work.

As for whether I write quickly – not really. I mean, when I start a project, I can. When I was working on Vast & Boundless I hit about 2k words a day, so given I have a day job and my working day begins at 6 am, and doesn’t end until about 12 hours later because of my commute, that wasn’t bad. It’s the time between projects that tends to be long. The gap between V&B and Desk Clerk was short because I had Desk Clerk just waiting to be finished. But my first book, The Gift Garden, was written in 2011. I didn’t publish it until 2017, and that was when I started work on V&B. Between then there were no long form projects, just short fiction. And most of that was crap.

Would you consider publishing any shorter fiction, or do you find novels/novellas more suited to your creative vision?

I don’t think my writing suits the shorter form. I’ve published short fiction in a bunch of places, but I haven’t submitted anything for a while now. None of it really set me or anyone else on fire. I think ultimately I don’t really care about writing short fiction. I never have really. I think it has helped me to “find my voice”, and it can be a useful way to work out ideas, but for me, the end result isn’t as satisfying. Which isn’t to say I find short fiction unsatisfying to read, quite the opposite.

Writing novels or novellas, gives my style a bit more breathing room (not that I really want people to have any!) and some space to become something. It gives me some time to create an atmosphere, or imagery, that builds something. My stuff is quite image-heavy, so it needs that room to take shape. It’s in those spaces that I hope readers find “story”.

Although each book you’ve released is obviously very different, would you say there are any themes in common?

There are obviously images and ideas I favour, or that come up time and time again. I favour writing in the first person, because my style is so focused on interiority, almost to the point that I don’t care about things beyond that. I joke that my writing is just about guys going mad in shitty apartments, and to an extent that’s true. I’m very interested in the shrinking of space and location, so much of my work is set in single locations, like an apartment. I also have a weird obsession with hospitals, the office, fields.

The themes I’m trying to explore are concerned mostly with obsession, paranoia, guilt, failure. All three books are about those things in some way. Desk Clerk is, and always was, a much more political story, and intentionally so. V&B was influenced by some much more grand philosophical ideas. So there’s a definite common theme that runs through them. In a sense I’m trying, in some way, to explore the failure of masculinity, in its various aspects: emotional, political, philosophical. How successful I am at that, I’ll leave to readers to decide.

I’m trying, in some way, to explore the failure of masculinity, in its various aspects: emotional, political, philosophical.

That makes sense. And so pertinent with the shrinking of space and going mad in apartments! You mention philosophy as an intent and influence. Are there any schools of thought or philosophers you’d say had a particular influence on your ideas?

V&B was influenced a lot by post-structuralism and psychoanalysis, specifically Deleuze, Foucault, and Julia Kristeva. My partner was in the middle of doing an MA in Interdisciplinary Psychology at the time, so we had a lot of conversations about structuralist and post-structuralist ideas, which is really where the Kristeva stuff came from – her ideas around the chora, for example, stuck with me. I’ve been reading Deleuze for a few years, dipping into various books of his, and he’s probably one of my biggest philosophical influences after Nietzsche and Marx, so there’s stuff in a lot of my writing that’s strongly influenced by his ideas on becoming. One of the main themes in my writing centres around identity, and the nature of the Self, and those post-structuralist theorists definitely feed into that.

Deleuze isn’t just a philosophical influence though, he’s a creative one. His philosophy is all about creation of ideas. He celebrates that which is radical and experimental, that seeks to find a new voice within an existing form. In that way reading his work is like filling up on artistic motivation. His work can be difficult, but for me, there’s a joy in the way he writes – he’s trying to change the way you think, about art and philosophy, and that’s in the way he writes. To try and read his work in a conventional way is like reading Finnegan’s Wake and expecting a linear narrative. It’s missing the point.

Your writing has a very rhythmic, poetic quality to it, but at the same time carries no fat. Does that take several drafts to get right, or is it a style that forms organically for you?

I find that it’s just the way I write. All my books are actually pretty short. Desk Clerk and V&B are both around 30k words, not even “proper novels” according to agents and publishers. I think because I don’t have dialogue, and I’m not really interested in describing things the way more conventional writers do, that has the consequence of making things very trimmed down. I was told by an agent to make V&B longer, to “fill it out”. My reaction to that is, “with what?” I say what I feel needs to be said, the way I feel it needs to be said, and no more. Everything else is just padding. To be honest I’m not really thinking about it in those terms when I’m writing, I just go with what seems right to me. I don’t really know how else to describe it.

Concrete statements about characters: names, histories, physical attributes – it’s all irrelevant to me, and objectifying that which I want to keep unstable.

One of the things you just touched on is that you don’t use dialogue. I’ve also noticed that very few of your characters have firm identities. Were these conscious decisions?

Yes and no. I don’t write dialogue because I don’t like it. It feels artificial to me. There are some writers who are great at writing it, but I’m not one of them. But it’s also because of the severe internalised point of view I want. I almost want the sense that nothing outside the mind/view of the narrator exists. Desk Clerk has people speaking, but it’s reported by the narrator, it isn’t dialogue as such, it’s “she tells me x” or “she says x”. It makes everything that much more contained, and that much more unreliable. It would make more sense in a 3rd person narrative, but I always use the 1st person, and in that mode, I think dialogue, at least conventional dialogue, seems out of place.

Again, with the lack of firm identities, I think this comes about as a result of the intense internalised view, but it’s also a deliberate thing because I want there to be ambiguity about the characters. One question I like to ask people who’ve read Desk Clerk is: what gender is the narrator? They usually say male, but nowhere in the book does it say that, and in a few places it’s insinuated they may be female. There’s no right or wrong way to take it, but I’m interested in how people approach the text. And I’m interested in the fluidity of my characters’ identities. All of my favourite writers approach their work with this kind of question, the likes of Kathy Acker, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett – they’re all asking questions about identity and subjectivity. And that’s what interests me, as a reader and a writer. Concrete statements about characters: names, histories, physical attributes – it’s all irrelevant to me, and objectifying that which I want to keep unstable.

It’s so interesting, what you said there about the narrator in Desk Clerk. I, too, assumed they were male, and now I’m going to have to go away and think about why…! I think it’s fair to say that all three of your books leave a level of interpretation to the reader. Is ambiguity important to you in fiction, as both a reader and writer?

It’s extremely important. There’s nothing worse in art than to have something laid out explicitly for you. That’s true of literature as much as it is of film or music or painting. There needs to be space for people to do their own work, to do their own thinking. For me, to join the dots in my writing would be to completely rob the reader of their agency, their involvement in the text. Writing for me is like making music or a piece of abstract art. I don’t really want to tell a story, I want to create a sensation. There’s a quote from Francis Bacon I think from an interview he gave, where he talks about wanting to “paint the scream”, and Deleuze picks up on that in the book he wrote about him. Art is about creating sensation, creating atmosphere, mood, affect. I want to write the scream. I want people to feel moved in some way, any way, even if it’s revulsion or horror or disgust. If they hate my books, then that’s great too.

Sometimes I want to deliberately encourage different interpretations. V&B was designed specifically to throw up many different ways of reading it. I actually have no “official” plot, no way of looking at it that I as the author consider “correct”. I wrote it with several deliberate insinuations for what could be viewed as the “real” story, and I’m sure there are others I’ve not noticed. So in that particular case I was trying to encourage readers to see different ways to join things up. Like when you come out of a David Lynch film and you can kind of fit all the pieces together, but there’s always one bit that doesn’t quite fit. That’s what I wanted for that book.

I want to write the scream. I want people to feel moved in some way, any way, even if it’s revulsion or horror or disgust.

I think that’s a great approach, and it certainly makes for a long-lasting impression on the reader. You mention abstract art and film as comparators – do you have any other creative pursuits, apart from writing? If so, do you find the different disciplines play into one another?

I sometimes make music, although not as much these days. I do feel like they use the same “muscles” as well. It’s very similar to writing for me in that I’m trying to create an atmosphere, a sonic texture. I don’t write songs, that’s a very specific skill and one I don’t possess. Pieces of noise and soundscapes, are more my thing. I’ve often thought about creating music that would accompany my writing, but I’ve just never got around to it. Maybe one day.

That would be a fun avenue to explore. A multimedia experience…

I’ve attempted to get close to that kind of thing with some of the short promo videos I did, particularly for The Gift Garden. I’d love to be able to spend more time and put more into that kind of thing, a kind of audio/visual expression of my writing, but I don’t have the time, or to some degree, the talent for what I have in my head. It would be really cool, but I may have to just be satisfied with the words and the occasional piece of music.

Finally, then, a question I’ll be asking everyone in these interviews: which three books would you recommend for readers on lockdown?

  1. The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. Not one that most people go to when they think of her work, but it’s set during the brink of an alleged apocalypse, with the cast of characters holed up in a grand mansion. Shows Jackson’s great talent for dialogue, pacing, and razor sharp satirical humour. And that oh-so important ambiguity.
  2. The Plague by Albert Camus. An obvious one, given the situation right now, but a great novel, and definitely a lot better than the more famous The Stranger.
  3. The Passion According to G.H by Clarice Lispector. Nothing at all to do with the lockdown, it’s just an incredible novel, and everyone should read it. It is set in a single room though, so it does have some relevance.

I haven’t read any of those, so I’ll be adding them to my list! Thank you for your time, Kenny, and the best of luck with your next project.

Thanks for having me!

If that piqued your interest, you can buy Kenny’s books via his website, Fields of Dissonance, where he is also keeping a daily ‘Plague Diary’ about his experience of the pandemic. They are also available to order from all good bookstores.

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