Here, I try to answer a series of questions about the novel “Beef” without totally ruining the book for people who haven’t read it yet. For another series of questions that do end up spoiling major plot points, see here. For the novel itself, see here for the futuristic virtual eBook, and here for the physical printed version.
What were your reasons for writing the book?
There were a bunch of reasons for writing the book. I mean, I’ve always been writing, pretty much as long as I’ve been able to hold a crayon (although these days I do use the crayon much less than I used to), so I had to write something. But why “Beef” in particular? The initial idea was, I was really interested in exploring this idea of whether or not an affair had to be physical, or whether or not there could be such a thing as a “platonic affair”. In the end, I didn’t quite write that story – there’s no way that what goes on between Royston and Gene could be termed “platonic” – so I may still have more to explore with that particular concept. But yeah, I thought that would be an interesting idea to explore, this idea that an affair is begun well before the skins thwack together – that’s it’s not actually the physical stuff that matters, it’s the hearts and minds. Because I think we put a lot of weight on the actual sex when it comes to affairs – did they or didn’t they? – when it’s actually the emotional and psychological bizzo that hurts the most.
So that was the main driving force, but I also had all these other ideas for this future world that was just over the horizon, a world where we grow meat in stainless-steel labs and can’t go outside during the day because there’s no ozone layer and where all art is really just an extension of advertising and so on: this world that is ostensibly a vision of the future, but really is just a commentary on the world right now, just extended logically a teensy bit. So these two things – this personal story of non-physical infidelity, and this world of the incredibly-near future – just got slapped together. And “Beef” was born.
Was the book fully planned out beforehand, or was it just pulled, like a series of a magician’s joined-up handkerchiefs, straight out of your arse?
You have such a delightful turn of phrase. I might steal that and use it in a book one day, if you don’t mind.
Just answer the question please.
Fine, be like that. Well, like I said, there were a bunch of ideas for this not-very-futuristic future world, and this tale of not-very-physical infidelity, and the two were just sorta crammed together into the same story and let loose. To be honest, I write best when I don’t plan it too much, when things just get to flow on their own and take me where they seem to logically go. I did know what the climax was going to be, and I knew that Royston and Gene were going to get closer and closer to physicality, but other than that, I really had no idea where it was going to go. There was this moment quite early on when I realised that meat-without-killing-actual-animals was almost the perfect metaphor for infidelity-without-actual-sex, so once that had dawned on me, the book became filled with food metaphors: Royston’s friend Luka tells him the old line that “just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu” (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a phrase meaning “just because you’re in a monogomous relationship doesn’t mean you can’t check other people out”); the idea of the attraction of Forbidden Fruit makes a few appearances; Gene is described with all sorts of foodie-type adjectives; and so on. None of that was intended, it all just happened once I’d started writing. The way I tend to write is to have a few nice ideas, a few set-ups, and then just see where things go. Then, once I’ve discovered what happens, the second (and subsequent) drafts are just about chopping away all the stuff that didn’t work, and refining the stuff that did. So, to answer your question, there were some bits that were planned beforehand, but a hell of a lot of arsekerchiefs.
What was your writing process? Did you have a specific strategy for writing it? What time of day best suits your writing process? What were you wearing?
I’ve honestly never understood these kinds of questions. What possible difference could it make to you if I wrote in a beret at twilight or in a fez at the stroke of the witching hour? I mean, I’ll answer you, because I don’t like confrontation, but it doesn’t seem particularly relevant. I would get up in the morning, make a coffee, have some breakfast, descend the trapdoor to my shadowy dungeon, and write. Then I’d come up for some lunch, another coffee, maybe a smoke, and then descend once again, and write. Then I’d eventually rise again and try to spend some time with my family. Now and then, when particularly inspired, I’d write again after my daughter was in bed, and keep at it until the wee hours.
My strategy was just “keep writing”, basically. First drafts are great that way: you can just keep writing stuff, and it really doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, because if it’s shit, you can either just delete it or fix it later on, and if it’s awesome, then it’s already awesome and it’s done baby, done.
No specific times of day are better or worse, I just need to be inspired (and, luckily, for pretty much all of “Beef”, I was feeling inspired).
I wrote the majority of the book stark-bollock naked. And I didn’t always use my fingers to type. Eh? Eh?
Well, ask a silly question etc. I mean, sheesh: “What was your reading strategy?” “Where did you read it?” “Did you read it more in the mornings or at night?” You don’t see me asking you things like that, do you?
Well, this is your FAQ, not mine.
Okay, fair enough. Sorry, I’ll take this more seriously. Please, carry on.
What is it about infidelity that interests you so? Was the whole thing just a weakly-disguised voyeuristic affair-by-proxy?
I’m not sure what you’re insinuating here. I mean, I think infidelity is an interesting thing to most people because relationships are basically the core of our experiences. Relationships of all sorts are what we spend the majority of our energies on, as social creatures: our family relationships, our friendships, our parents, our children, our partners, our lack of partners, trying to get partners, trying to deal with ex-partners, trying to test the waters with this or that friendship to see if it will ever become a partner-type relationship, being with one partner while kinda wishing we were with some other partner, experimenting with non-monogamy, having threesomes, dealing with rejection, accidentally sleeping with our own mothers, etc. Every story is really a story of relationships, and the old-school monogamous relationship is rife for stories to emerge. I mean, the idea that you’ve found “the one”, when there’s seven billion people on the planet, well, statistically-speaking it’s pretty unlikely, isn’t it. And yet here we are, with loads of us tying ourselves to just one partner for as long as we can possibly stand it. The trad. monog. relat. just begs to be interrogated, really. I mean, I actually love it lots, it’s the perfect kind of romantic relationship for me, especially with someone as incredibly inspiring and wonderful and hilarious and smokin’ hot as my long-term partner-of-choice Nalin, but as far as the rest of you are concerned, well, good luck.
Where do you get your ideas?
Drugs. And wikipedia.
Sheesh. I just kinda think about stuff. I mean, it’s a weird question. I’ll be washing the dishes or just about to fall asleep, when I’ll get this sudden realisation, or understand the consequence of something, or just have this question pop into my head, which I don’t know the answer to, but feel like it would be fun to explore. Like, what if there are spirit guides who help people to achieve their goals, but only because these spirit guide creatures feed on feelings of success, ie, as far as the spirit guide beings are concerned, it’s a totally selfish act driven by hunger, not an altruistic act driven by wanting to help us? Or, what if someone was making fake child pornography in photoshop and putting it online, in an attempt to stop real children being exploited – would they be doing a good thing, or a bad thing? Or, what if seeing a black cat really is bad luck, how does that feel for the cat? That kinda thing. I don’t know, really, I don’t. It may simply be a symptom of the yet-to-be-formalised Blackwell Syndrome, who knows. I may just have something wrong with my brain.
Are you Royston?
No. He’s much thinner than I am.
Are you a fatter version of Royston?
No. Not really, anyway. I mean, I do share his bumbling sociophobic awkward party-hating qualities, sure, and I am probably just as far along the Aspergers spectrum as he is, fine, and I do have a tendency to overuse technicalities, and I do feel occasionally overwhelmed by my rudderless lack of agency in a meaningless universe, okay, okay. But I think if Royston ever met me, he’d actually think I was more like Luka (scruffy, pettily anti-mainstream, dodgily drug-addled, hopelessly hipstery, etc) or Syd (harshly critical, overly political, uncompromisingly contrary, conspicuously desconstructionist, etc). That is to say, I think all the characters in the book are small parts of me, cranked up to ten and made slightly more interesting. Except maybe Lena: she’s small parts of Nalin, cranked up to ten and made slightly less interesting, with a bit of me stuck on the top.
I think a book of short stories. And then I plan to revisit the world that “Beef” is set in, but this time focusing on the hyper-political mega-critical Syd, as she interrogates notions of “femininity” and “feminism” in the context of her falling pregnant (to this horrible sexist flaky hipster guy who I still haven’t named). The whole book will be an exploration of gender and genderlessness and motherhood and pregnancy and all the kinds of questions that arise with such a traditionally-“gendered” act. Plus loads of weirdos and subcultures and mutants and politico-anarchic clubs and societies and poverty-stricken artists. At this stage it’s called “The Post-Cultural Pregnancy of Sydenham Jones”. Stay tuned!