Hi, and this week I’d like to introduce a British author, Jack Messenger and his book, Farewell Olympus. He writes fiction about people: the mistakes they make; the things they do to live with themselves; how the world changes them.
What is one thing that no one would usually know about you?
‘I once played volleyball with the archbishop of Barcelona’ is the first line of my novel Farewell Olympus. And I really did once play volleyball with the archbishop of Barcelona! But I never talk about it …
What did the best review you ever had say about you and your work?
I had a totally unexpected review from Mark Gordon, whose novel, The Snail’s Castle, I greatly admire (read it!). Ages after I published Four American Tales, he put a short review on Amazon, which included this:
‘Unerringly, the hues change from story to story, from the atmosphere of alienation in One Hundred Ways to Live, to the outlandish, satirical humour of Ballbusters on Parade, to the intersection of childhood memory and death in Uncle Mort. Messenger’s language is precise, the right word, that gives you the feeling you are holding its weight in your palm, admiring its glint. These short stories, in my opinion, stand with the best in the form, and I would unhesitatingly place them on the same shelf with authors like Salinger and Carson McCullers.’
Phew! That really made my day, and I’ve been basking in the reflected glory ever since.
Are the names of your characters important to you?
Characters’ names are extremely important, and I imagine they are for most authors. Think of your own name and how it is part of who you are; how it encapsulates a world of thought and feeling and experience for those who know you. Perhaps it is a name that has a long history and means something in particular; perhaps it comes from another country or from an ancient mythology.
We are rarely able to choose our own names, but authors can choose names for their characters that have associations and resonances which illuminate personality. I say ‘authors can choose’ but sometimes, in my experience at least, it’s the characters who often choose their own names. Sweet Pea announced her name to me even before I began to write Wichega, for example, while Uncle Mort is a play on words, as he dies in the first sentence of the story and, of course, ‘mort’ means death in French.
When I can, I like to use names I love in real life. Tony and Loulou are recurring names because they’re my beloved greyhounds. So they often appear – if you read my new novel, Farewell Olympus, you’ll find them there. I’ve always liked the name Eugene, and it’s a name that Dickens used in Our Mutual Friend, so I was delighted when Eugene popped up in Farewell Olympus. It’s just the way my mind works. Other writers have different minds!
How did you choose a title for your book?
With enormous difficulty! Farewell Olympus was a bewildering experience in many ways. Up until then I had always started with a title, or at least had the title very early on, and I spun the story out from there. That didn’t happen this time and it made me extremely nervous: what was the story about and where would it end if I didn’t know the title and what kind of book I was writing? So, for the many months it took to write, I worried and worried. I could think of lots of titles that were appropriate, but none of them really worked as titles or made me feel ‘that’s the one!’ Then, when I came to the last page of writing, the title revealed itself. It was if it had been hiding all that time. I knew at once it was perfect. Finally, I could relax!
Do you think there is any elitism attached to the different genres of books, both in the fiction and non-fiction worlds?
It’s pretty clear that there is, although nowhere near as much as there once was. There’s been a revolution over the past twenty or thirty years in particular, as scholars and academics have taken genres of all kinds (not just literature) extremely seriously. And not only genre – popular culture in general. So genre writers no longer have to feel apologetic about what they do, and that’s a good thing. Good writing is good writing no matter what the genre; a ‘literary’ novel can be a meandering mess and dull as ditchwater, while a crime novel can be beautiful and effortless and profound. I think it’s only a diminishing clique of people who are terribly snobbish about all things popular. Such people have always been there, ever since the beginning of the modern publishing industry. Women, especially, were regarded as second-class writers in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth simply because of their sex. Thankfully, that is rarely the case today.
Elitism these days is more about the divide between writers who are published by major publishers and who have literary agents, and writers who are independently published. But that, too, is changing rapidly, as many independent writers (fiction and non-fiction) are seen to succeed financially and artistically. Those who look down on them don’t really understand what is going on.
What is the single biggest challenge you faced when writing your book?
Plot! It always is. I get characters and situations and dialogue quite easily, but plot is hell. It’s hell because it’s hard work and also because, frankly, I am not interested in it. It’s rather like loving somebody, but then being forced to take a course in biology to understand all about their supporting structure of bones and muscles and what have you. That structure is absolutely necessary of course, but knowing it in microscopic detail is not usually essential to one’s love. I think of myself as writing literary fiction, which is more interested in the why of people and not the what of plot. That’s the big difference – when there is one – between genre fiction and literary fiction. Great writers of literary or genre fiction blur the boundaries between the two, which is always interesting.
Do you have any hints or tips for aspiring writers?
Be yourself. Learn from everyone but don’t be dictated to. There are plenty of ‘experts’ who will tell you to do this or that, that it’s essential you write their way, that you must focus on x, y or z. Pay no attention. Be true to your vision. Follow where it leads. Only then will you come up with something worthwhile.
Are you jealous of other writers?
No. That’s not to say I don’t envy other writers’ talents and what they have achieved. I wish I had their abilities. I am also pleased for them and grateful. It sometimes annoys me when everything falls into someone’s lap simply because of who they are – a television celebrity I usually have never heard of can get a publishing deal just like that. But authors collaborate more and more, especially independently published authors, and I like that. We cooperate rather than compete. That is marvellous.
What was the most important thing you learned at school?
I knew no better at the time, but my senior school was pretty rough, so the most important thing I learned there was how to avoid violence. So I talked or joked my way out of nasty situations, which later stood me in good stead when I began to write. There was an awful lot of casual racism, homophobia and antisemitism at the school I am thinking of, so I was glad when I learned years later that it had been demolished!
You can find Farewell Olympus in Kindle and Paperback format here: :
Amazon – Farewell Olympus
You can meet Jack on his website here: https://www.jackmessenger.co.uk
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