Top Of The Curve: Wayne Holloway Interviewed

Kit Caless, publisher at Influx Press, speaks to Wayne Holloway - author of Land Of Hunger, a book of short stories that could be (and maybe sort of is) a novel - about the value of sentiment, 'banging for Marx', and balancing left-wing views with capitalist reality

Wayne Holloway, author of Land Of Hunger (Zero), meets me outside a newly opened burger place in North London. We had arranged burgers but Wayne has changed his mind.

"I fancy some vino. Let’s walk down Church Street and see whatís changed in the last five minutes."

I’ve got my bike with me so it’s slightly awkward on the narrow pavement. Especially as Wayne, 50, is a compact whir of energy. It’s hard to keep up with his thought process; he speaks like an LP playing at 45rpm.

"You read that Marlon James book? Fuck me! What a book! I loved the language in that…" Wayne swings his arms punching the air like a punch-drunk fighter. "Bombaclaat! Raasclaat! Pussy’ole!"

I look around to see if any of the posh mums on the street were covering their ears.

"My wife said I’ve got Tourette’s at the best of times but after reading that book…"

As we approach a Spanish place with steamed up windows, Wayne is telling me that A Brief History Of Seven Killings is what literature is all about — opening up worlds to people, sucking them in and giving them a taste of what life is like somewhere else.

"This looks alright?" he says pointing at the restaurant, "you said you wanted to meet somewhere quiet without any cunts. I think it might be quiet, at least."

Wayne and I have met before, at the Cat & Mutton on Broadway Market, Hackney – which his Great granddad used to run way before you were going there for over priced chicken and craft beer. It was there he told me that he studied under Ernesto Laclau and took lectures from Slavoj Žižek at Essex University in the 1980’s. After University he worked as a music video director ("Simon Cowell wasn’t interesting, nice enough bloke but he just sat around in the edit suite in a camel hair coat chain smoking sobranis."). In the pub, he gave me a copy of his book, Land of Hunger.

I wanted to speak to him in a more formal manner in order to understand the origins of the stories in the book, hear some more anecdotes about Žižek, chat about the Arsenal. Holloway is an opinion factory, profane and hilarious. I’ve been interviewed myself a few times recently about the current state of writing and publishing, so I was looking forward to pressing record, taking a back seat and letting Wayne fly.

Land of Hunger is a proper good read. Roaming space and time; London on the dole and in the 1980s, Ukraine anarchism in the Second World War, racism on a Santa Monica film set in America, animal liberationists in Israel, French road trips and Jainism. The book is a novel but Wayne has called it a short story collection because he still feels "awkward about saying writing a ‘novel’ it sounds so lame, so pompous. Ideally can’t they all just be called books?"

The book is hard to define, difficult to pin down — much like Holloway himself. There are moments of heavy politics — most notably the first half, which reads like an eastern European anarchist’s diary and features real historical characters such as Nestor Makhno and Lenin. Then, later on, different characters profess a love of excess and a had-it-all-weariness in the USA. Money is a thread that runs through the book, tying disparate corners of Holloway’s fictional worlds together.

After l’chaim and clinking glasses, Wayne tells declares that, "money is the most seductive thing in the world because there ain’t never enough. You can always get sick and tired of drinking, sick and tired of drugs, but no one gets sick and tired of money, that’s a problem, its the USP of capitalism."

I suggest that indiscriminately making money can sometimes be seen counter to a certain kind of left wing politics, particularly anarchism. Holloway replies: "It’s a theme that runs through all our lives, how we negotiate peace with it I guess, and how we deal with the understanding that we are privileged enough to be able to do so, to have a problem with money…"

Holloway is currently working as a director/creative director for an emerging media agency. He professes a strong left wing out look – incubated during his time at Essex University in the 1980s. I ask if working for big brands and corporations compromises his politics.

"There are so many smart young guys I work with. Mentoring them is great, they’ve got great politics, great drive. Let’s look at the Hyundai Fan Film Fund. Hyundai, for whatever reason, love football, properly. We made a film for them about a refugee football team in Rome. I made some great contacts, met some great kids, it’s a great film; UNHCR loved it. But Hyundai sell cars. Are they a pernicious brand? Unless youíre some reductionist Marxist, and even not perhaps, if you understand that capitalism is still in the ascendency and brands exist you’ve got to deal with them."

It’s a fair enough argument, considering any real change doesnít seem to be around the corner. I’ve struggled with this myself — not wanting to write for certain brands, but also wanting to get paid properly for my endeavours. I am afforded some luxury with my decision-making because writing is not my full time job. But for anyone who wants to make it so, in today’s precarious work culture these debates are already over. There is no choice.

"It’s lower middle class people miss out the most, I think. They are the invisible glue of our society. No one really talks about them. They’ve left the comfort of having a working class identity, but they’ve never really been received into the cultural norms of the middle classes. They have to figure out all their shit independently. They’re not cool and in solidarity with the working class, but they’re not the enemy either — if you see things in those terms. Working class people who have made a lot of money are slaves to it; they have to buy every fucker in their family a house and what have you. I know many wealthy working class people, and middle class people who have become very reactionary the more money they earn. That’s not good enough, you know? Money doesn’t make you a sympathetic person.”

While Holloway’s time at Essex seems to have been an informative period, he hasn’t stuck with the dogmatic politics that were manifest there at the time.

"There is definitely a novel in there, in my experience of studying at Essex in the 80s. The funny thing about Land Of Hunger for me is the contrast between being a commercials director in my 30s-40s in LA and my education. It’s very unique combination. Essex in the 80s was a very interesting place. We had Žižek there, we had Francis Barker there, Ernesto Laclau; a great philosophy department. And I was 18, and started a PhD at 21! What a fucking idiot! I grew up in a house with no books, so university was like crack to me, that world."

Essex University, other than famous left wing staff, had a reputation for action and a frothing Marxist culture amongst some of the students. There were undercover MI5 officers keeping tabs on the place. Post-capitalist pin-up boy Yanis Varoufakis and other members of Syriza studied there during Holloway’s time. He remembers Varoufakis; "I was seeing one of his friends, this mad Greek bird. I mean they all had millionaire parents, who owned shipping companies and that, so they were king of the Marxists, of course they were! That didn’t take away from their politics you know, even though they were rich fuckers the lot of them."

The staff list at Essex might read like a credit sequence from the movie My Lefty Student Days, but the University also produced Conservative MPs Priti Patel and John Bercow.

"Bercow!", Wayne shouts to the restaurant. "Boy, he’s had a damascene conversion! Him and his mate Stuart Millson, the BNP cunt, we used to try and bottle them on campus. John was in that fascist Monday Club. But now look at him. He might be the nicest Tory in Parliament."

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So why didn’t Holloway carry on in academia? What made him leave a cosy future of tenure, summer months off, writing and lecturing?

"During the miners’ strike we all took half a year out and worked for the NUM. We went picketing, got violent, we all got nicked. At the same time, MDMA powder had just turned up from America and we were all getting off our nut. So we were hardly hardcore working class heroes: we were libertines, so selfish at the same time. I left university because when I was doing my PhD, my tutor – who I really looked up to – was just banging students for Marx; I got so disillusioned. That, and I ran out of money, my grant ran out. I felt disenfranchised by that world so I walked away from it. Otherwise I could have been a lecturer. But then, it’s more fun in the real world — working on a building site, shooting music videos, whatever bullshit — it’s more fun, and you get more money."

Land Of Hunger is also about the act of storytelling. It’s partly a fantasy of who the author is, where they come from, what is real and what isn’t. Each narrator seems to embody a different type of storyteller — a film director, a diarist, a pamphleteer, novelist, poet. We chat about writing as craft, and publishing as an industry. I run a small press and Zero, who published Land Of Hunger aren’t exactly Penguin Random House. Holloway tells me that the best things to write are the things that are beyond who you are.

"In Land Of Hunger there’s a story set on New Years Eve in Jerusalem, about a young, angry Israeli teenager; that’s the part of the book I love. Because it’s not me. To be able to write yourself out is a complete pleasure. You get sick and tired of yourself, right? But you can never get tired of being another character, another person."

I suggest that there’s too much of a trend towards realism in literature at the moment. Holloway agrees.

"This criticism of Matthew Enard’s book, Zone — "oh there’s no characters they’re just vehicles of his views." – who gives a toss, it’s still good. As if all writing has to be this Flaubert-esque realism. Flaubert’s one of my favourite novelists but the people who write and review literature, the old hacks, they don’t understand contemporary literature. People were writing books like Zone 100 years ago, and the critics didn’t understand it then either! And when you read something like Marlon James’s book and it wins a prize, you celebrate because it didn’t emerge from part of the literary industrial complex. It’s not Franzen."

I nod. Perhaps too solemnly because Wayne follows up immediately, in his now familiar rat-a-tat-tat, think out loud style.

"What I love about you and your generation is you find it much easier than me to talk about all this shit seriously. I’m too good at self-deprecation. My wife says, "Fuck it Wayne, you’re a writer, just be yourself." But I find it very hard. I feel too privileged."

"Privileged in what sense?" I ask.

"That I am educated enough to talk about things in a certain way that means I could take myself seriously if I wanted to. Or maybe it’s because my family are Jewish and we’ve seen six million go up the chimney – how seriously are you going to take anything after that? I guess I’m finding my way of doing it."

I find this notion fascinating. Social media has encouraged us to have instant opinions, to peacock our knowledge. The concept of personal invisibility takes place in Harry Potter books. Of course, structural othering, such as the silencing of black and Asian voices is pervasive, but this is a white man I’m talking to. Most middle-aged white men can’t wait to tell you what they think. The fact that Holloway has shied away from this suggests a distaste for pretension, for posturing.

"See I would never do any of this before interviews, featuring in magazines or whatever. I didn’t give a fuck because I couldn’t take myself that seriously — I wanted to be invisible. The older I get the more I realise you can write and be a writer and talk about books and be a publisher, and if the only audience that reads your work is people who are into that sort of stuff, that’s still good enough. See now, in this day where everyone is their own brand; everyone has an audience. It’s okay for us to talk about Žižek, Enard, Marlon James, me and you — if that’s what we like talking about then that has its own validity. It’s only now that Iím comfortable with it."

Reaching beyond a certain audience is something every small press struggles with. And most writers, for that matter. Selling books is not an exact science and there is sometimes a perception that certain types of literature, "high brow" or whatever you like to call it, are not written or marketed with a wide demographic in mind. A book like Land Of Hunger which deals with some complicated subjects and is published by a smaller press won’t make waves on the WH Smith bestseller list. This is not due to the writing, but due to the positioning of the book as "commercial" or not. Smaller presses struggle to get seen, we have to find audiences in different ways — through connecting at live events, or through social media.

"The way we can expand our reach," Holloway says, "as writers and publishers is through compassion and kindness. I think that’s where a lot of writers drop the ball. There’s a deadness in most modern writing, but a cleverness that disguises it. So many writers are afraid of sentimentality. I have this conversation with Lee Rourke, a good friend, he still worries about erasing sentimentality in his writing and I say, "mate, it’s there so just embrace it". Aspiring just to be clever is nonsense. It’s like my father used to say, "Oh you just read that in some book, Wayne." And you know, sometimes I hear his voice and think, "you’re right". Because being clever isn’t clever. Being kind is clever."

I studied filmmaking at college in Elephant and Castle in the early 2000s. We learned screenwriting, storyboarding, shot listing, silent films, dialogue, television vs cinema, all of that stuff. I didnít pursue a career in the film industry because I hated collaborating with actors and leaving too much responsibility with cinematographers, costume people and art directors. The one thing I did enjoy was screenwriting, though, which led me to traditional writing and publishing. I wonder how much Holloway’s work in film and TV has influenced his writing.

"There’s a great intercede between screenwriting and prose which people donít explore enough. I really like spare prose, and screenwriting is always spare. No metaphor, no simile, you cut all that shit out. But not in a clever clogs way. You do it because it’s efficient and emotionally charged. I love exploring the gap between telling a story with the barest means possible and doing it with dialogue. With the first six chapters of my new novel, you can interchange the order of them and it doesn’t change the story. That’s something from filmmaking. It’s about management of information, what you reveal what you keep back. That approach is very grounded in film."

Despite claiming he can’t take himself seriously, near the end of our bottle of wine we’ve approached writing from a very serious angle – the nitty gritty of why we write, how we do it and what it means to our culture. There’s a certain kind of intellectualism that threatens to spill out of Wayne’s mouth at any given time but never does. He always pulls back with a quip.

"Writing is as serious as cancer. Writing is a collaboration with yourself. You are collaborating with a memory of you and your other selves, that’s very difficult. Much harder than collaborating with some 28-year-old with a Canon 5D sticking out of his arse."

So what does Holloway prefer — writing or making films?

"Writing gives me a hard on, but being out in the world is more important than being in front of a computer."

Outside we smoke a cigarette and discuss Mumbai, a city I love and one that Holloway is heading to soon for a couple of weeks to shoot a promotional short for Manchester City Football Club. I promised to send him the details of friends who grew up there and can show him around in his time off. I talk about the sense of hustle in the city, the energy. Everyone seems on the make. Despite its many faults, Mumbai has an optimism coursing through it that seems lacking in London these days.

"We’re at the top of a curve here," Wayne declares to the cemetery walls opposite us, "which is not always the best place to be. It’s suffocating. Imagine being a young guy in Nigeria setting up a publishing company. It would be much more interesting than here. To be doing anything, anywhere. When I travel to growing places like India I always say, you lot are about to be in the driving seat. Enjoy the ride."

Holloway has certainly enjoyed his own ride so far and his teenage sense of wonderment with the world of books and story telling is still apparent. Infectiously energetic, Land Of Hunger should be the start of a fascinating literary career.

Land Of Hunger is out now, published by Zero Books

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