Brian Catling is a poet, sculptor, performance artist and writer. He is a Professor of Fine Art at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford. And, with the publishing of novel The Vorrh (the first in a trilogy) now a novelist whose work has been lauded by fellow Englishman Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta) with the following kind words:
Nowhere, though, is Catling’s way with literary clay revealed more eloquently than within the genuinely monumental pages of The Vorrh. It’s represented in the trilogy’s enormous mass and in its artful combination of bark, metal, mud and stone to build an edifice inside the reader’s mind; a tactile craftsman’s attitude that’s signalled from an unforgettable opening scene which centres on the manufacture of a legendary bow. The scene in question, from this brief description, might be taken for a standard trope of fantasy and myth that could derive from Tolkien, Robin Hood or Rama, were it not for the material of the item’s manufacture. With this early revelation, the intrigued and startled reader is informed that, if indeed this is a work of fantasy, it is a fantasy quite unlike anything they may have previously encountered in that much-abused and putatively primal genre.
Primal because in this field of things that never happen we can perhaps see the origins of the imagination as a human faculty, and much-abused because of the absurdly limited palette of concepts which have come to represent fantasy’s most identifiable features and markers. By definition, surely every fantasy should be unique and individual, the product of a single vision and a single mind, with all of that mind’s idiosyncrasies informing every atom of the narrative. A genre that has been reduced by lazy stylisation to a narrow lexicon of signifiers … wizards, warriors, dwarves and dragons … is a genre with no room for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, arguably the earliest picaresque questing fantasy; for David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus with its constantly morphing vistas and transmogrifying characters; for Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast books or for Michael Moorcock’s cut-silk Gloriana. It is certainly a genre insufficient to contain the vegetable eternities of Catling’s Vorrh.
The following questions are based on an ARC of The Vorrh provided by SFSignal, and answered by Mr. Catling view email over several weeks. Lately, I’ve trended toward interviewing Brit authors (see the Moorcock interview); I’m feeling the need to invent a time machine so I can interview Mervyn Peake!
Larry Ketchersid: You’ve participated in a wide variety of creative endeavors: from performance art to sculpture and poetry. What was your inspiration/motivation to target that creativity toward novel writing?
Brian Catling: The making of objects and the writing of poetry were the major poles in work for a long time. Performance sparked up between them way back in the 80’s. Then making videos joined in the creative scrum and allowed a new voice to appear.
I had made some tentative stabs at writing fiction in the form of long poems themed around imagined installations and acts; In Written Rooms & Pencilled Crimes, chambers and action were described in forensic detail. But the novels never escaped until 2006, even though I had the opening sequence (The making of the bow) and the title of The Vorhh for a long time. I had never got past page three before consigning the multiple attempts to the waste bin. Three things happened to changed that:
- laptops came into being (a profound invention for a dyslexic cockney stutterer)
- I was inspired by the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and
- enraged by the puerile lazy grayness of other less talented contemporary authors.
Together these made a push /pull mechanism that provided the friction to ignited the whole thing. I thought The Vorrh was going to be a slender and obscure surrealist work, so when the 500 pages of The Vorrh appeared I was astonished. When it grew into a trilogy I was shocked. When the next five others books followed it I gave up pretending that I knew what I was doing and gave in to the tide.
LK: CREATIVE SCRUM. As one of the few but growing numbers of Texans that played Rugby, I am familiar with that phrase on many different levels.
As for Inspiration and Enragement as motivators, I can relate; “best selling author” tends these days more to be about marketing than anything else. With self-publishing there is a lot of noise, a lot of volume for readers to sift through…which is both fortunate and unfortunate.
What did you find different about the creative writing process vs. the process/method you pursue in these other areas?
BC: The writing of fiction wiped away the video work, because it was direct and had a kindred narrative potency. It hushed the poetry because it drank deeply from the same blood of mystery and enigma. The sculpture and performance work evolved sideways, so that my obsession with making things and bringing them to life was not compromised by description and the need to explain.
The bow I carry with me, I made of Este.
She died just before dawn, ten days ago. Este had forseen her death while working in our garden, an upcapping of mementum in the afternoon sun.
Este was born a seer and lived in the experience of her departure, a breeze before a wave, before a storm. Seers die in a threefold lapse, from the outside in.
Her long name was Irrinipeste, and she had been bron to Abungu in the Vorrh, the great brooding forest that she said was older than humankind.
We said goodbye during the days leading to her night. Then all of my feelings were put away; there were more important rituals to perform. All this I knew from our first agreement to be together as it had been described, it had been unfolded.
I stood before our wooden table, where her body lay divided and stripped into materials and language. My back and hands ached from the labour of splitting her apart, and I could still hear her words. The calm instructions of my task, embedded with a singsong insistence to erase my forgetfulness. The entire room was covered with blood, yet no insect would trespass this space, no fly would drink her, no ant would forage her marrow. We were sealed against the world during those days, my task determined, basic and kind. (pg. 9)
LK: The ‘making of the bow’ sequence (note: this is the scene that Alan Moore refers to in the prologue excerpt at the beginning of this post) and the title of the VORRH….which came first? I assumed the VORRH came out of Roussel’s poem, but is that the correct assumption?
BC: The making of the Bow and the title were simultaneous . The seeds from which all else grew. Yes the VORRH is from Impression of Africa. Roussel had no real interest in the forest, just a savage backdrop the the events that he invented there.
LK: About the Vorrh (the forest/jungle where the story takes place) itself: The Vorrh appears malevolent, only taking, not giving. Is this related to the Adam myth that permeates the book, that the ultimate gift was thwarted and now taking is now the only way to balance?
BC: A damn good question and a reasonable answer. A few years ago I travelled in the red heart of Australia and came across landscape so ancient that it had not even noticed that humankind existed. A vast total indifference. A system that dealt with itself . I think the VORRH is about like that. Adam, the Tree of Knowledge and Guardian Angels being a graft that did not set. The anthropophagi are closer to be indigenous and even they might be seen as new comers by the trees. I think the balance was never noticed by the VORRH.
LK: What is the time period in which the story takes place? The boatman who takes Williams is described as having been a bargeman in “the Great War half a century earlier”. I assumed that was WWI, and the time was the 1960s. But the historical characters would place it in the late 1800s.
BC: The 1/2 century bit for Paulus is a mistake. I don’t know how I missed that. Thank you for pointing it out. The boatman is a little thumbnail homage to the memory of my old mate Paul Burwell.
LK: Most of the female characters in the book (with the exception of Este I guess) are somewhat trodden upon by the male characters. Is this again a reflection of the VORRH’s malevolence and vindictiveness (Eve forcing Adam to be the “graft that did not set”) or a sign of the timeframe of the book?
BC: It’s both , but I think the men are week and reflecting a time. The women grow in strength in the next two books they shine and take over.
The graft was not the rib but Gods implanting of generation without knowledge.
Charlotte is treated like shit by Roussell , but I don’t think it makes her weak, the opposite.
LK: The historical characters populating your book are an interesting (and not very well known) lot: Roussell; Eadweard James Muybridge; Sir William Withey Gull (who I believe was not only a noted doctor but also a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders). Is there a common thread in your career or research that had you bring this eclectic group together in your novel?
BC: You are certainly right about Gull. He also invented the term Anorexia nervosa. I had always had an interest about him. In an early book of Iain Sinclair poems I even used his (then) obscure name as a nom de plume for the drawings I made there. When I was writing the VORRH I told Sinclair about my usage of Muybridge and he dropped the bombshell that it was Gull that Muybridge visited about his head wound after his stage coach accident. That warped the plot and opened a vein into Whitechapel and forced me to extend the surgeon and the photographers relationship. There are suggestion that the Muybridge machine was used in his absence in the Whitechapel room in book 2.
Roussel, Muybridge and Gull overlapped and each created their own version of the time in which they lived , and each invented a disturbing lens in which to view it.
LK: Dr. Gull and his anorexia patients, and his actions to push those patients into that state, made me want to invent time travel just so I could go back and beat the snot out of him (side note: one of those closest to me suffers from Anorexia, and the thought of a physician experimenting to put women into that state of mind pushes me towards violence). Were those experiments real occurrences that you found in your research, or did you create them? If you create them, what did you use as your point of reference?
BC: Gull had a series of “private wards” that are not spoken of in biographies but were mentioned in some of the less “official’ ripper books. some of my best ever students (and friends) are anorexic. There is no record of Gull’s research.
LK: The Cyclops, Ishmael, is a fairly central and transformative character. I saw this from one of your performances:
Is there a particular reason for this interest in Cyclopses?
BC: My Cyclops thing first started in the Hungarian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. In the dental section, in back from was the tiny head of a human Cyclops birth. Red haired and pickled. A tragic, haunting abnormality that did not survive ( or was not allowed to ) birth. Some years later when making a performance in the London Library a camera caught my reflection bisected in a glass case and I saw the Cyclops again, I could become it. So its mentality, speech and isolation grew from there.
LK: What can you tell us about the next two books? What are the titles and which characters continue?
BC: V2 is The Erstwhile, V3 The Cloven. A lot more people and things enter the cast list including Hector Schuman a 72 year old Heidelberg academic who accidentally becomes the seeker of the Erstwhile angels that escaped the VORRH. Ishmael , Ghertrude, Cyrena, the Mutters, the Limboia, Nebsuel, Sidrus and Wassidrus go on. joined by the once living: Max Linder, Leo Frobenius, Eugene Marais. The magic gets blacker and the pace gets faster.
LK: In the introduction to this interview, there is a snippet of the foreword from Alan Moore. How did that acquaintance come about?
BC: Alan, Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock and myself had been doing a reading in London. Alan asked what I was working on, and asked to read it, so I sent him the MS.
Months later he made a blog interview in which he was asked ‘had he been reading anything interesting recently?” He then raved about The Vorrh.
That’s when the telephone starting ringing.
The publisher asked me if Alan would consider writing the forward. So I modestly asked him. His response was and still is overwhelming!