I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of James Wells’ debut novel Hack when I received a preview over email from Clinicality boss Stuart Bateman, accompanied by a request to provide artwork for the cover. Parts of it made me laugh myself silly: others frustrated me beyond belief. Others still made me feel like I needed to take a shower. It’s the grubby, sordid story of a music journo, who on the one hand is such a scabby scum-sucking, double-crossing pondlife deserves everything he gets, yet on the other hand, as a part-time freelance music writer myself, couldn’t help but sympathise with some of his grievances – and he has many.
The first-person narrator, Rob, is a man who’s torn between his integrity and his libido. he’s not dumb, but he behaves it – and often has to act it just to get on with his job, but then one has to wonder how much of his shameful behaviour and how many of his diabolical opinions are the drink and drugs talking.
I should perhaps point out here and now that I don’t identify with the lifestyle aspects of the story, and while, in the event, the book incorporates subtly edited versions of reviews I myself have written, the book isn’t in any way based on me or my work. However, being the observant sort, I’ve spied more than enough sleazy music journos who think they’re the scene while at gigs that the tale Wells relates through Hack seems more than credible enough for me to buy it. And therein lies the book’s double-edged sword: it makes for uncomfortable reading, but is also compelling, a complete car-crash of a story. As a novel, it’s superficial and trashy, but also brilliantly observed, but I still couldn’t quite decide how to take it, so when Stuart asked me if I’d like to conduct an interview with the book’s author, I jumped at the chance, if only to find out just what kind of sleazy tosser this James Wells guy was – or if, perhaps, I should remember my own first principle of separating narrator from author…
The following exchange took place over the course of a couple of weeks of emailing.
CN: Hack is a pretty grubby book that paints a pretty messy and unpleasant picture of bands, reviewers, the music industry and the world as a whole. How much of it is drawn from experience?
JW: Well, some is, some isn’t. It’s a mish-mash of stuff I’ve observed first hand, stuff I’ve read and stuff I’ve imagined. It’s certainly not a realist work. It’s mostly supposed to be a bit of fun, with a fairly dark, twisted and dirty sense of humour pushing it along.
CN: It certainly is dirty. What’s the narrator’s obsession with ejaculating over breasts?
JW: It was just a bit of a gimmick, really. I was just messing with formula, really. It started when I was reading Bukowski – Women, it might have been, one of his really filthy works that’s really sordid – it just had a sort of cumulative effect, every few pages it’s the same scenario. He’s humped some broad and it’s ‘I rolled over, wiped myself down’, then he goes to the race track and gets wrecked. After while it all gets a but nauseating, but I actually liked it and found it funny in a sick way, and I was going for that. It was a long time since I actually read those book’s but they stuck with me, that matter-of-fact gutter eloquence and the way scenes just seem to play out again and again. Then there’s the whole process of pulp writing, the endless rehashing of scenes, plots and phrases, and I just recreated that in the context of a low-down, seedy music hack on an endless treadmill. Mostly, though, I wanted to keep the formula basic: sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
CN: To what extent is Hack autobiographical?
JW: Not very. At all, in fact.
CN: The book’s set in Leeds and presents itself as being based around the Leeds scene. Are any of the characters based on real people?
JW: Yes, quite a few, but I wouldn’t like to say which ones.
CN: Are the opinions expressed about music and bands your own? By which I mean, to what extent can we align the criticism and musical tastes of the protagonist with the author?
JW: Yes, I agree with many of the opinions expressed and like the bands the narrator Rob favours, and when he’s slagging a band, like Kasabian or whatever, I’m using him as a cipher through which to express my opinions. And so the distinction between fact and fiction, author and narrator continues to blur.
CN: With some of the running themes – in particular the CDs accumulating in Rob’s room – I got a sense of Chuck Palahniuk. In Fight Club and Choke, there are threads of the stories where the characters just endlessly collect, until the amassment of things – it’s rocks in Choke – takes over their lives. And then, of course, Palahniuk makes considerable use of heavy repetition. Was that intentional, or purely coincidental?
JW: It was entirely intentional. I’m a big fan of Palahniuk’s books and I thought that the way he addresses that idea of obsession with physical objects, that kind of obsessive gathering and accumulation was really appropriate to the music fan, and from the research I did it seems to be a common problem with reviewers.
CN: Well, it certainly is in my experience. So with regard to the music reviews in the book, you ended up using slightly altered pieces of mine after Stewart at Clinicality suggested there might be a few problems with the manuscript as it was. What happened?
JW: In my attempts to a) keep it ‘real’ and b) churn the book out quickly – I wanted it to be a piece of hack-work in itself, in the spirit of the narrative because I wanted it to be raw, immediate, unedited in feel, as though written to meet a deadline like so much journalism – I lobbed a bunch of reviews I found on-line and changed them a bit. But while editing the book, Stuart decided he didn’t want to take the risk of using ‘stolen’ reviews, even though the chance of getting stung for it was pretty negligible, and that’s when he suggested seeing how you felt about some of your reviews going in – with a few small alterations.
CN: As the ‘author’ of THE PLAGIARIST it would be hypocritical of me to refuse. Besides, I’m getting used to seeing chopped-up versions of my own reviews cropping up in all sorts of places on-line so I figured ‘what’s a few more’? I suppose this also tied in with the ‘spinning’ element of the story…
JW: That was exactly it. The part of the book where Rob can’t sustain his output so takes to lifting other people’s reviews and changing them slightly and then altering a few words here and there so one single review could end up yielding a dozen or so, I wanted to make it authentic. It’s a practice known as word-spinning. It’s insanely common, it’s how a lot of sites get just masses of content on-line so they appear up in the lists on search engines and I thought ‘this is proper hack work, 21st century style’ so I went for it and wanted to integrate it into the story. As it turned out, it was only semi-authentic, but still, I think the effect’s there.
CN: So aside from Palahniuk, Bukowski, and me, who and what influenced Hack?
JW: I’m not really all that keen on saying that I’ve been influenced by anyone because it sets up an expectation for the reader, and if they’re going to pick up my book because they’re expecting it to read like Bukowski or Palahniuk, then they’ll probably be extremely disappointed or annoyed. But I suppose I have taken bits and pieces from various other writers and sources, without really thinking about it, it’s impossible not to. Obviously, the music press was a big ‘influence’, and I know you do what you do reviewing wise and I generally like your approach, but there are some really awful reviewers out there, and forums too. Fans think they’re the best critics, and anyone who criticises ‘their’ band is in dangerous territory – and they seem to think that they’re the only people entitled to slag off ‘their’ band, too. it’s very strange that they’re so previous and so critical at the same time. The press blurb Stuart did also mentioned the John Niven book Kill Your Friends and I suppose that’s a fair comparison, but it wasn’t an influence. What else? Hard to say. I didn’t sit down and think ‘I’m going to write a book that incorporates elements of whoever and whoever’, so apart from the parts that were consciously based on Buk and Chuck, any other similarities in terms of style or plot to anything else is entirely coincidental.
CN: As with Kill Your Friends – which is a book I really enjoyed – there aren’t many – any likeable or ‘sympathetic’ characters. Why is that?
JW: I wanted the misanthropy of the narrator to feed through the narrative. Most of the characters don’t really have much depth to them so the reader doesn’t get to know them very well, but that’s not what they’re there for, they’re just there for the story, they’re functional. The main characters aren’t very deep either, but then I never wrote Hack as a literary novel with emotionally-engaging character development at its heart. In fact, it doesn’t have a heart, and that’s as intended, reflecting the nature of the business itself.
CN: That’s a very harsh view. There are lots of nice people who are in bands and put bands on who are in it for all the right reasons.
JW: That’s true, but they wouldn’t have made for such a fun book. Besides, the narrator Rob isn’t supposed to be completely unsympathetic. He’s not an out and out bastard, more a bit weak and a victim of circumstance.
CN: Aren’t we all?
JW: Absolutely, and that’s why I think Hack has a universality that extends beyond those with an interest in obscure music and music more broadly. Of course, some readers won’t get all of the references, some won’t get any of them, but it doesn’t change the underlying plot – thin as it is – which is all about systems of interaction between people, the way those interactions are based on mutual use and abuse, and told in a way that while perverse and dark, is also intended to be humorous.
Hack is out now on Clinicality Press, and yes, it is extremely funny (although I didn’t laugh quite hard enough to shit my pants). Buy it: the cover’s ace.
And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk