13 Questions with Zack Wilson

by HST UK on March 23, 2012

Zack Wilson is a chronicler of the mundane. A writer who has opened his eyes, pricked out his ears, paid attention and scribbled down all the absurdities he has seen and heard. In the build-up to the May release of his novel ‘Stumbles and Half Slips’ Zack answered our 13 Questions….

HST: Hello, Zack. It is a great pleasure to be able to ask you a few questions about your writing. I’ve just finished reading ‘Stumbles and Half Slips’, and was astonished by your ability to translate the drab life of a delivery driver into an absorbing collection of everyday anecdotes. As someone that has been a ‘drivers mate’ in my youth, and up to this day still working a low skilled job, I’d like to ask you about why you decided to write about work, as opposed to creating a fictional fantasy world?

Really, it was an accident. A friend of mine had a job as a driver in a pallet yard, and every day he would unload to me on the phone about these incidents which happened to him. I was working in a place which purported to teach basic skills to the long-term unemployed at the time. The two things seemed to dovetail, in that he would provide me with this framework of events onto which I could graft characters. Originally, it was just intended to be a series of sketches, then it just kind of developed.

HST: Ray Doyle appears to be an author character, is he your equivalent to Hank Chinaski?

No he isn’t, definitely not. He’s a created character, with elements of me in him, as well as a few other people. I like to use first person narration, but Doyle really isn’t me at all. I’ve never driven for a living. All my shit jobs have been in call centres, or meaningless clerical jobs in offices.

HST: Do you see scope for a sequel to ‘Stumbles and Half Slips’, maybe a collection of short stories which focusses more on the other characters in the book such as Martin Brown, James Tattoo and Stewart the Landlord?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve already started making notes for a book about Ray’s early life called ‘My Two Dads’, which deals with his childhood, his father and his step-father. I like to use characters in different stories as well. A few people from this book and ‘Lescar’ may well turn up in future work.

I’m also really interested in genre fiction – I’d love to write a historical novel like something by Bernard Cornwell, and I really want to do a western. I’d love to write a spaghetti western novel. It would amuse me in that context to put people’s ancestors in the story, though that does sound a bit Blackadder!

HST: I was on a date with a Student last week, and noticed how out of depth I was as the conversation descended into scholastic deep water. I came to the conclusion that working dead-beat jobs had dumbed me down somewhat, as had working with fools. I was wondering if believe it is important for a writer to have one foot in academia to remain intellectually engaged?

I wouldn’t say so. I worked as a teacher for about five years and I hated it, largely because of the people I worked with. I always found the people in the low status clerical jobs I’ve done far more interesting and stimulating. I went to university, and I couldn’t stand it. I spent most of my time there wandering around Hull, ducking into rough pubs. I’ve never really been able to get on with academia, as such, I find it alienates me. But that’s me being an anti-social type more than anything else I think.

HST: There is a good running joke in the book about Ray missing meals, or getting served up some of the most delightfully dreadful culinary snacks, most of which end up thrown to the birds. Having eaten on the road in petrol stations and motorway rest stops, what was the worst snack/meal you ever had the misfortune of eating?

Tough to say, but a Pot Noodle is undoubtedly the very worst thing I have ever eaten. Apart from when I was in Florida in 1995 and ate a Taco Bell fajita or some such. That tasted like vomit wrapped in bad chapati. I also once had a double burger at the football that was rank, but I was really stoned so it tasted heavenly until about half an hour later.

HST: The Green Man is an important location throughout the book. What are your thoughts about the decline of traditional drinking establishments in the UK, with pubs closing down on a daily basis?

I think it’s terrible, awful and profoundly depressing. I don’t drink any more myself, but I hate these boozers we’ve got now, that serve proper meals and don’t allow smoking. That lovely pub odour when the doors would open on a winter evening has all gone now, thanks to the smoking ban. Wetherspoons has a lot to answer for too. But it’s that shift to them doing proper food that really is crap – when I were a lad you had crisps and nuts, with the nuts on a cardboard holder on the wall which was decorated with an image of a lovely young woman. As the punters bought the bags of nuts, her beauty was revealed. Little things like that let you know where you come from, and they’re all disappearing. But the decline of traditional industries has altered the whole way people use pubs now.

But it’s these fucking coffee places like Starbucks which get me, costa fucking Coffee and all that shite. There’s a type of person who goes to those places rather than the pub now, and that, in my view, is bad. Very bad.

HST: ‘Stumbles and Half Slips’ is your first novel, obviously Epic Rites are going to promote the hell out of the book, but I was wondering about the role of the writer post-publication. Do you enjoy doing interviews like this one, or reading reviews? Are you keen to roll on to writing the next book, or are you going to embrace the promotional merry-go-round?

I haven’t got a clue about it, to be honest. I’ve no idea what to do really! Interviews are always fun, but I’m a bit out of the loop when it comes to networking with writers and all that. I’ve too much else to do at the moment to think about the next book really, but there are ideas floating and notes being made occasionally.

HST: Tell us about the previous two short story chapbooks you’ve written ‘The Mirror’(Erbacce Press) and ‘Lescar’ (Blackheath Books). How did the process of getting these chapbooks published help you when it came to working with Epic Rites on ‘Stumbles and Half Slips’?

The Mirror was my first attempt at putting a book together, just to see if I could do it really. I was pretty surprised that I actually managed it, and managed sell it some people who I knew. After that I did Lescar as another challenge to set myself, and it came off. There was some disappointment though, in that Lescar 2 was meant to come out with Blackheath too, but they decided they had better things to do, which was a shame. I’d like to get Lescar 2 out somehow one day, maybe on Kindle or something.

Neither of those things ‘helped’ with ‘Stumbles…’ so to speak, other than giving me the confidence to keep going. I tend to move on straight away once something’s out there and finished, I’m thinking of what comes next. And worrying about it.

HST: What about influences, let’s not focus on writers that you admire, more musicians and filmmakers. Your work recalls early nineties Mike Leigh films, and there is a certain amount of deadpan observational humour that might come from Mark E. Smith, John Cooper Clarke or Jarvis Cocker. Who inspires you?

As a youngster, it was Morrisey and then Shane McGowan, two Anglo-Irishman, like Doyle. The Irish literary thing has been a big influence on me actually, as has Scottish writing. It was really Scottish writers like Irvine Welsh and James Kelman who convinced me that writing fiction was still worthwhile.

But, back to the question. It’s flattering that you mention those names. Jarvis, in particular, being a Sheffielder, uses a tone I find very appealing. It’s that deadpan quality you mention. Northerners often describe the most outlandish things in the the most mundane way. It’s like: “Ey up, how’s tricks?” “Not bad, ta.” “Oh yeah, owt happening?” “Yeah, I’ve got to have my foot took off otherwise I’ll have a fatal illness.” That kind of thing is often excruciatingly funny, to me anyway.

I like to mix that with David Lynch really – that deadpan surrealism he often employs and his methods of storytelling are fascinating, along with the darkness which lurks under things.

Mark E. Smith is someone I admire as a character rather than for their work. He’s got a great persona, but I only like about three Fall songs really.

HST: You write about working-class life, but what does the term “working-class” mean today in the UK? Is it now a redundant term?

Not at all. Owen Jones wrote an excellent book recently called ‘Chavs’ about that very thing. It’s more relevant than ever. There’s been this cultural shift where somehow if you’re not in the top 10% of the country in terms of income then you mean fuck all, yet also they’ve convinced everyone that they’re middle-class. It’s bollocks. More people work in supermarkets than anywhere else in the UK – that’s hardly white collar bliss is it? The majority of us work in call centres, shops, we’re not professionals. The wages in those jobs are appalling as well. Sadly, the consciousness of class has largely disappeared with the old industries and their tradition of organised labour. Everyone thinks, after Thatcher, that they’re part of some kind of American style individualistic dream, which is just shit. The term hasn’t become redundant at all, it needs a redefinition – the working class isn’t in the steelworks anymore, it’s in an office or a cubicle, cold calling people about charity contributions, or flogging newspaper subscriptions door to door.

I’ve never felt more alienated than when I worked in a call centre, although the most depressing job i had was with a company called CTS. These characters were one of those ‘welfare to work’ companies which are paid to find jobs for hopeless cases. Without saying anything that would get me into legal trouble, the operation stank. The stuff that’s just broken about A4E reminded me of it so much, but people will have to look that up for themselves if they’re curious!

What has changed is that the nature of working class jobs means that no one has any pride in their work anymore. A miner might have had a vile job, but at least he could say he was a miner. A KFC employee has a vile job, and they get laughed at if they admit working there. It’s like the term has gone from being a badge of pride to a badge of shame. I mean, both my parents were born in council housing, but they did their damndest to hide it and change their accents and whatever, but you can never get away from the class you were born into in Britain, it never changes. I began life in a tiny terraced house near Hull, and wherever I went later in life, to university or wherever, and met people from wealthier backgrounds, I could always feel this sense of inferiority. To some people from the upper-middle classes, it really does not matter whether your dad’s a salesman, like mine, or a cleaner – you’re all the same, you’re all shit. What really worries me now is that there’s this idea, even amongst young people, that somehow wealth can be equated with virtue and work ethic. That’s a vile thing to think, and promises a really unhealthy society in the near future.

HST: You used to write about Football for goal.com, so I thought that I’d get on to asking a few sports related questions. First of all, who do you think is most qualified to be the next England manager, and how poorly will England perform at the European Championships, given the usual unrealistic hopes and expectations seem completely dampened? Secondly, as a supporter of Derby County, a team in the Championship, would you say that the gap between the standard of the Premier League and the Championship is closing, and if anything, the Championship is more of an entertaining league to follow for the neutral observer?

Well, I’m a Scotland fan due to my blood and ancestry, so I find the whole England manager thing quite amusing really. I’d give the job to David Moyes, myself, who is Scottish, so probably wouldn’t want the job. But he would be the best choice, him or Roy Hodgson. I personally wouldn’t want Harry Redknapp near anything, he couldn’t lie straight in his coffin that man. The real problem with the England team is that they’ve got a generation of knobheads as senior players. Lampard, Gerrard and especially John Terry are just wankers with a massive sense of entitlement and no idea how to really win things, along with an aversion to any kind of hard work or self-sacrifice. Pah…

The championship is much more entertaining as a whole league, but I’ve stopped going to football now because it’s just too expensive for what you get. £25-£30 a throw to watch something that is often quite dire is just not sensible any more. The gap has closed though, look at Swansea City and Norwich City – both teams with good, sensible managers who build teams with few egos and lots of modest hardworking players. There could be a lesson there for someone, but football mirrors life in England. We all say that something’s wrong and there’s a big fuss, and then a load of greedy, right wing tossers who are in control just carry on doing the same things anyway, because it suits them. Then it all turns to shit again, and there’s an uproar, and then you can guess the rest.

HST: Let’s talk Rugby League. Why do you think that the game hasn’t taken off south of the border, despite the speed, athleticism and physicality of the code which makes it a more breakneck spectacle? What do you make of the increasing League influence in Rugby Union, with League legends like Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards offering their expertise, and players such as Joel Tomkins and Sonny Bill Williams deciding to spend their peak years where the money is?

Class and money. Rugby League has for years endured a covert war, waged by Rugby Union, against it. There’s a great book by a Hull academic called ‘Rugby’s Great Spilt’ which is a superb account of why, basically. Theirs is a game played by influential people who go to private schools, largely. Outside of South Wales and parts of the West country, rugby union is played by poshos. This means that it has access to corporate finance and expertise which we struggle to match. They’re also disparaging about us at every opportunity, and helped in this by a craven southern media which sees Rugby League as some kind of thug’s game. Which is ironic, because although much tougher and harder, it is a much cleaner game than Union. There’s a famous quote from a London Evening Standard hack where he described rugby league players as “ape-like creatures” who were watched by “glum men in flat caps”. There is so much snobbery and fear in those statements, it’s unbelievable. Secretly, they know we’ve a better game played by superior athletes, but they’d rather not face that fact.

There’s actually only a very few League players now who can make a go of it in Union, and vice versa, the games are very different now. Joel Tomkins can piss off and play with his mates at Saracens, there’s another five or six centres already emerged who are better than him anyway – I’d rather see Leroy Cudjoe or Zak Hardaker or Kris Welham in the national team than that Wigan pie eater anyway. But its money that took him, as well as Farrell and Edwards to Union. How long that situation will last remains to be seen though, the money is already running out at club level in Union in England.
League will always survive though because it has many things that Union doesn’t. For a start, regional identity associated with local clubs going back a century – very few professional Union clubs have that, most don’t even have a proper home ground. That means that League clubs are rooted in the communities they represent, there is an organic feeling there that is difficult to create artificially. We are also the underdog, and that fuels our fire and sense of self. We know that them down south don’t like us, but we don’t care and we’ll keep going.

Sonny Bill is coming back to Rugby League, by the way, he’ll be at Sydney Roosters very soon in the NRL. He’s also a champion boxer though, so he’d probably be good at almost anything really.

HST: Lastly, London 2012, the Olympic games. Colossal waste of money, or potentially the sporting event of the century?

Colossal waste of time, money and effort. A disgrace. And yet again, it makes the mistake of conflating what might be good for London with what is actually good for the whole country. I hate London, it’s an overrated shit hole.

You can advance order ‘Stumbles and Half Slips’ through Epic Rites Press –

If you are interested in answering HST’s 13 Questions then hurry up and email us at: aprilmaymarch777@yahoo.co.uk

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