13 Questions with Joseph Ridgwell

by HST UK on February 8, 2012

“Joseph Ridgwell was raised in the East End of London and left school with no qualifications. Despite this he read his way through every classic book, underground writer, poet or philosopher he could get his hands on.

At nineteen he was stabbed in a bar brawl and decided to leave the UK, travel the world, and learn how to write.

Ridgwell has lived in Cuba, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Belize and finally Thailand where he ran a bar. During his travels he lived in a shack, a boat, a bar, a brothel, bedsits and with strangers from all over the world.

Ridgwell brings back stories from the edge, imbued with humour, sex, philosophy, hope, defiance, brutality and truth. He returned to London seven years ago and since then has published three poetry collections, a short story collection, two novels and a novella. He is a cult figure of the literary underground both in the UK and abroad.”

Joseph answered our 13 Questions…

HST: You’ve had several collections published by Blackheath Books. What do you admire most about the publisher? Do you concur with their traditionalist stance – which favours handcrafted, tenderly produced books over eWords that are crudely spaffed out into the ether?

There are many things to admire about artisan publisher Blackheath Books. Geraint, Head Honcho at Blackheath, wasn’t too keen on publishing me at first, but when I said I would break both his kneecaps suddenly I was accepted. From then on it was a marriage made in hell. The writing got better and better, the productions more and more impressive, and then they started paying royalties, what more can a writer ask for?

The only advantage a small press has over the big boys is the ability to produce unique, beautifully crafted books, containing quality maverick writing. (Aside from Blackheath, see Tooting’s Tangerine Press, Dunedin’s Kilmog Press, and Delaware’s Bottle of Smoke Press for fine examples of what I mean). The trouble with most other small presses is that they publish dross just as bad if not worse than the mainstream, thus negating any impact or point they might have.

HST: In another interview you were quite outspoken about the state of the corporate mainstream Publishing Industry, has your opinion softened at all, especially given that the eBook boom has opened up the market somewhat?

The Ebook boom has made absolutely no difference at all. The corporate publishing industry exists to maximise profits for its shareholders, owners, writers and employers. Anything else would be a dereliction of duty. And yet in my mind, there is something undesirable about applying the tenants of business to the arts. A writer has to believe in what they are doing without conforming to any market driven forces. If they are chasing fame and fortune, more often than not, they will end up disappointed.

HST: Must a writer live a little before he/she sits down to write? The spirit and verve of ‘The Buddha Bar’ presents a writer keen to sniff around, get clawed and scratched and live life with a handful of loose change in his pockets, a smile on his face and no regrets – is that an accurate summation?

In my opinion, a writer should have lived a little, before they try to get anything down. If you want to write about real life then you need to go and experience it at first hand. Of course this could have some serious consequences. The young aspiring writer might fuck up and get into situations he or she didn’t bargain for when they set out. The flip side to this is that the imagination has infinitesimal capacity, and if you possess some fucking cosmic brain cells, you can stay at home and just make shit up. Experience also tells me you can sail around the world twice, and have absolutely nothing to say about it. The budding writer has to make a judgement call.

As for the Buddha Bar, your summation is accurate up to a point. A writer always has regrets.

HST: ‘Last Days of the Cross’ published through David Oprava’s now defunct Grevious Jones Press dwells in misery, and reveals the hand to mouth existence of a man living within the paper fortress of his own crushed dreams. Why did you decide to write the book in such a brutally honest fashion?

Last Days of the Cross, for those who know their literature, is basically a homage to John Fante’s 1930’s L.A masterpiece, Ask the Dust. Fante was the master of transferring raw emotion to the page. As fortune would have it, I found myself in a similar position to Fante’s character, Arturo Bandini as a young man living in Kings Cross, Sydney, in the last years of the twentieth century. The life I was leading at the time was eerily like the events in the book, but to put it into context I was five or six years away from actually reading the book. All, I had to do after that was learn how to write.

HST: Would you consider ‘King’s Cross at 6:AM’ to be your strongest poem? If not, then what is the one poem that you’ve written, that you can re-read with greatest sense of satisfaction?

Kings Cross at 6AM is a poem I like a lot, but it has amateurish qualities, clunky phrasing etc. I’ve always treated poetry as a sideline to my novels and short fiction, which seems to infuriate established poets and the poetry establishment. To all young poets I say only this, first line, best line, every fucking time…

And being a true romantic my fave poem is this one:

More Beautiful than the Night

The clouds pass, the stars bloom
Blue moonlight across
A sparsely furnished room
Eyes flashing the eternal gaze
The graceful movement of slender limbs
Red lips pursed on a glamorous cigarette
An attractive plume of purple smoke
The flutter of mascara
Beer can held languidly
Chet Baker on the stereo
A slim volume of poetry by Omar Khayyam
And you, more beautiful than the night…

HST: Describe an ideal writing environment, where and when is Joseph Ridgwell most productive?

A darkened room, desk, chair, bottle of vino, or six-pack, or combo of both. No window, as views are a distraction, laptop, cigarettes, some music, anything 60’s, 70’s 30’s whatever. Then start burning…

HST: This interview came about when I noticed a post you made on a Charles Bukowski forum. What does the work of Charles Bukowski mean to you? When did you first come across Bukowski?

I first came across Bukowski in my local public library, Highams Park, which is in north east London. This library was small and suburban, but at the time it had an enlightened Librarian. I’m going back to the early 1990’s here. In this magic library, I found a copy of, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, South of No North, and Woman, along with stuff by Kerouac, Jack London, William Burroughs, Knut Hamsun, Dostoyevsky etc. Bukowski has had a great impact and influence on me to this day.

HST: It’s been a few years since you wrote a piece in the Guardian championing Mark SaFranko. Why don’t enough people care about his writing?

Mark SaFranko is a great contemporary American writer. The Max Zajack trilogy is required reading for any lit fiend worth his or her salt. Why don’t enough people care about his writing is like asking how long is a piece of string. My gut feeling is that Mark’s writing is probably a little too honest and masculine for the average reader. Readers of today appear to shy away from honesty in literature and would prefer to read badly written fairy tales.

HST: ‘On the Road’ has been mentioned as one of your favourite books. What do you think that the forthcoming film adaptation will do for the legacy of Kerouac? Do you think the film will be able to capture the spirit of the book?

One word, NO. As a book, On the Road, has no plot, beginning, middle or end. There is no driving conflict, or good guy/bad guy, or even a moral. Subsequently, I won’t be watching the film.

HST: You spent some time living in Australia. The country isn’t all Koala Bears and Boomerangs. What did you learn about Australia’s underbelly?

The Australian underbelly as you call it was a groovy place. Living in Kings Cross, Sydney in the late 1990’s was a defining time for me. 24hr bars, strip joints, danger, drugs, booze, even the fucking beach and the surf and sun, it had it all. Not many aspiring writers head for Sydney, preferring East London, or New York, Paris or Berlin. I think they are mistaken, but of course everything is in flux, and Kings Cross is not the same place as when I was there.

HST: Most travellers get all misty eyed when they recount how they found themselves abroad. Endless Facebook photo albums present the same smiley old beach scenes. You present a grim reality, a more authentic take on the pitfalls of travelling. ‘Oswald’s Apartment’ features tales that are enough to make any lily-livered gap year plum take a blow torch to their passport. In light of this, whereabouts in the world do you next want to suffer (and by ‘suffer’ I mean Western World suffering)?

Travellers and traveller tales are the equivalent of a pub bore. Nobody’s interested, least of all me. If I ever travel again, which seems unlikely in my current reclusive state of mind, it’ll be to somewhere cold, like Alaska. I’ve had it up to here with hot countries. Of course, being fickle of nature, I reserve the right to change my mind.

HST: How much have you enjoyed living as part of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’?

As an isolationist I’ve never been a part of any society, least of all a sinister Old Etonian’s. This might explain why I currently reside in Scotland.

HST: 2012 is a big year for the East End of London. Could the Olympic Games be the final nail in the coffin for the local economy, or the moneyed kiss of life needed to revive a flagging area of the Capital?

As a born and bred Eastender and genuine Cockney, I couldn’t give a fuck about East London or the Olympics.


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