You and I: An Interview with Michael S. Clark

Hello from the new and still somewhat under-furnished Inkling’s Quill headquarters, better known as my flat! What a busy few weeks it’s been, between getting Internet and energy supplies set up, unpacking boxes and building chairs (the last with Neil Gaiman’s “Making a Chair” providing an appropriate soundtrack). Now as I sit waiting for my washing machine to turn up, what better way to pass the time than by catching up on some writing?

Regular readers of this blog will remember that my most recent article branched away from the usual bookish subjects to cover a new music release by Amanda Palmer and Jasmine Power. Well, today I’m bringing my twin loves of music and literature together with the help of Dundee author, Michael S. Clark.

In collaboration with Glasgow singer/songwriter Stuart Kidd, Clark brings us his eighth book, titled You and I: A Story about Friendship and Fellowship, an all-ages illustrated story with – and this is where my mention of bringing books and music together may start to make a bit more sense – a musical accompaniment. Yep, You and I is effectively a book with a soundtrack; more specifically, it is a digital publication with a companion recording of nine tracks, fully immersing the reader-listener in the adventure of a young boy and his dog on a dark night in Glasgow.

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Alfie and Joe. Image sourced by the author.

You and I was released through Bandcamp and Amazon on 4th April 2018, so is readily available for anyone whose interest in this multimedia tale has been piqued. For anyone who may need a little further persuasion that this thrilling story is for them, or who is just curious about the book and its creators in general, I invite you to remain with me a moment longer and read on, as I present for your perusal an interview with Mr. Clark himself.

Q: Let’s begin with a little bit of background for those who aren’t familiar with your body of work. You and I is your eighth book, so before we delve into it can you tell me a bit about your previous books?

A: Well, my previous books largely sprang from unproduced screenplays and film treatments I’d written some time ago. I had an agent for a couple of years, but original screenplays are notoriously difficult to get into development, much less production.

I legislated for failure by structuring the stories so that I could re-write them as short tales and novellas, but they turned out to be longer, more involved pieces than most contemporary short stories. I feel justified in putting them out as inexpensive, stand-alone ebooks. I think that modern readers have a taste for ‘quick reads’, and it’s a good format in which to develop unusual ideas and redefine the extended short story as ergonomic reading.

I think that very lengthy, collected short stories tend to test the patience of readers who are looking for thoughtful, but succinct writing. H. G Wells’ short stories are almost unreadable now because they take so long to get to the point. Very short micro-fiction can be worthy but still unsatisfying. I think that there is a ‘sweet spot’ with short stories, and writers, like Dorothy Parker and Saki, who can hit that spot consistently are relatively rare.

I wrote Cast Away on Volcano Island for my son as a fantasy on the theme of human relationships with the natural world. It’s a modern, eco-fable but I hope it’s also a good read as a fantastical riff on Robinson Crusoe.

My collections of long-ish short stories (published in two groups of four) are based on various screenplays, while The Puppets, Exitland and Twelve Days are longer works that place vulnerable, socially isolated people in strange and challenging situations – a recurring theme in my writing.

Darkling Intruder is a gothic novella based on a rejected horror script. It’s about a tormented young woman who suffers from agoraphobia and claustrophobia. It’s probably more of a psychodrama than Hammer Horror, for it draws heavily on the gothic in film and literature, with ideas suggested by folksong and folklore.

You and I is a departure for me insofar as it amplifies everyday characters rooted in reality, rather than larger-than-life actors moving through invented worlds.

Q: In the book’s introduction, you mention that the story was partly inspired by a refrain in a Stuart Kidd song, and that song is itself a tribute to Stuart’s own dog. When it came to developing this project together, what was your process? Where there any particularly exciting moments or areas of conflict/tension that stand out in your mind looking back?

A: Yes, the line goes ‘You and I Can Make It..’, and it became stuck in my head. It struck me as an encapsulation of an essential storytelling element, namely togetherness on a journey through adversity. It seemed obvious to me that it should be the story of a boy and his dog who find themselves in a series of increasingly challenging situations.

I created some recognisable characters from just about any city scene, but made a point of visiting the real-life setting for the story (the Partick/Hyndland area of Glasgow) and walking the route taken by the principal characters.

Then, I asked Stu if he’d like to write some songs inspired by the storyline and the characters I’d created. He was immediately attracted to the prospect of writing songs to a prescribed brief, but we were both on the same page from the outset in terms of the feel of the music and the overall tone of the project.

You and I was initially set around Christmas time, but Stu thought that was unnecessarily restrictive in terms of deadlines and release dates. We needed our parameters for completion to be flexible. It was also a useful criticism because I can see now that it might come across as a little contrived as a Christmas story.

Stu also pointed out that I was writing in a Dundee accent, as distinct from a Glasgow one! In the end I opted for plain English with a few Scottish-isms here and there. I definitely didn’t want to create a story that could only Scots people would ‘get’.

So, a lot of conversation and discussion, but not conflict or tension. Re-drafting is always a pain, but as they say, ‘no pain, no gain’. The project took about eighteen months from start to finish, so I think that patience brought its own reward. Stu and I have been friends on Facebook for a few years, but we’ve never actually met in person! Perhaps, digital working partnerships are, by nature, more laid back as a result.

I left Stu to come up with the songs, but he was completely free to source the text for words, phrases and ideas and interpret them in any way he saw fit. He used the famous David Bowie method of ‘cut and paste’ lyric construction, and he think he got a kick out of seeing how that works.

I think that Stu only realised how strong his songs were when the work was actually finished. I knew from the first bars of his demos that this was something that would work, and it was really quite thrilling to hear the characters I’d created brought to life in nine original songs. I consider myself very lucky to have had Stu as a collaborator on You and I.

Q: Aside from Alfie the dog, are any of the other characters in You and I, such as Waldo or the growly old man, inspired by people in yours and Stuart’s own lives?

A: I have to acknowledge that the characters in You and I, including the dogs, are archetypes, albeit drawn from life as composites from my own experience. I’ve lost count of the number of Waldo’s I’ve encountered. They were all crazy and uncontrollable in exactly the same way. Their owners were almost always inept and ineffectual too.

Alphonse and his dog, Eyeball, are caricatures of the kind of street theatre entertainers that I find desperately unfunny and a bit too snippy to be likeable. People keep dogs for different reasons and the relationships between working dogs and their owners, like these two, always struck me as being more like master and servant than human and pet.

I think that Stu recognised those archetypes immediately, but he also brought his own refinements. For example, he’s a bit more sympathetic about those nasty gals, The Polka Dot Girls, than I am. He also emphasised the secondary theme of Joe’s questioning nature, and it became something of a leitmotif that appears in most, if not all of the songs.

The growly man and his dog are important to the plot as an unexpected source of empathy and assistance. They’re also a consistent feature of all the cities I ever lived in or visited, and I wanted to offer a kind of redress by giving them a heroic role. I also wanted to suggest a few things through them; things like ‘You can’t judge a book by the cover’ and ‘One good turn deserves another.’ I wanted to infer these truisms rather than declare them.

I would say, however, that there is a lot of me (or at least how I remember me) in Joe. I was a bit of a dreamer, curious about the passing parade of life on the streets, easily distracted, and prone to losing all track of time. Perhaps that’s simply a description of every young person, ever.

One minor character I’m fond of in the story is the girl at the tenement window. When Joe asks her what she can see, she tells him she’s looking at Vikings on Pacific Quay and Aliens landing at Glasgow airport. Her whimsical musings are, I think, a feature of Scottish storytelling that I wanted to acknowledge, and a suggestion to the reader that flights of fancy are the oxygen of an entertaining story.

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Polka Dot Girl. Credit: Hayley Hughes.

Q: On the whole, the concept of a tale of friendship between a young lad and his dog is something that should be pretty relatable, if not at the very least familiar, to the majority of readers. How important would you say that sense of relatability is to you in your writing generally?

A: Relatability is extremely important in my writing, even when I am off in the wildest realms of magic realism. I think readers ought to wonder what’s going to happen next, but they ought not to be confused by times, places and situations. They need to know where they are in the story, both as readers and as actors. I’d hope that anyone reading You and I could imagine themselves to be invisible observers in Joe’s neighbourhood, watching from a distance and bearing witness to the adventure.

I like my stories to inhabit a landscape that readers recognize from their own experience, or even from their own dreams of escape. Rosemary Leafe in Darkling Intruder lives alone in attic room above a bookshop. It’s a wild tale of an imagination running wild, but who wouldn’t want to live above their own bookshop, especially if you were a quiet person of independent means?

In many instances, I’ve set scene in places such as the out-of-season seaside resort in The Puppets. These locations, ‘far from the madding crowd’, are places where both reader and writer can hear themselves think.

My characters tend to be vulnerable and sensitive, but possessed of great inner strength and resolve. Their sense of self-worth is constantly challenged by forces that seem insurmountable, but they go out to meet those forces regardless, otherwise life isn’t worth living. I think those might actually be universally relatable aspects of the human condition.

Q: Having a musical accompaniment to an ebook is certainly a very innovative, twenty-first century approach to writing and publishing. Having done it now, would you advise other authors to explore it, and if so, what benefits would you outline to persuade them to do so?

A: Yes, but go cautiously. Think of it holistically as a project that needs equal attention paid to a disconcertingly long list of considerations. Among the most important of these are: recruiting a collaborator that you know will see it through; giving equal weight to all the components (text, music, illustrations, navigation, and polish; and thinking creatively about distribution).

Text-only e-reading is well established, as are audio books, but it’s still early days for enhanced ebooks. There are limiting factors for independent writers and publishers, but I think there are real benefits. One important benefit for the writer is that you have to get out from behind your desk and communicate your ideas to others who need to understand them completely. It was quickly clear that Stu comprehensively understood You and I. He could immediately articulate its sentiments in nine songs that each bore his personal stamp. As an independent writer, perhaps working too often in isolation, this kind of synergetic partnership offers reassurance that your writing is coherent and relatable.

My feeling is that enhanced ebooks will be just one part of immersive reading experiences expected by the generation now in nursery school. I’ve seen the way that infants interact with objects, books, mobile devices and television as components of a strange, new ‘infoworld’.

It therefore follows that creatives can’t rely on Amazon and Apple as sole distributors when we begin thinking about bundling different manifestations of our stories. That’s why we put the enhanced epub, text-only mobi, and PDF versions of the ebook on Stu’s Bandcamp page as free downloads. Only the enhanced Kindle version has to be distributed via Amazon because the file format isn’t portable.

At present, I feel that multimedia projects are a good way for collaborators to introduce each other to their respective audiences. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Stu’s listeners will become my readers, and making a sale is going to be as hard as it ever was. Nevertheless, we’ve set an example with You and I, and I think it’s a good one for creative people who are increasingly under pressure to offer their audiences added value in order to be noticed, much less seen or heard.

Q: There’s no doubt that ebooks have become, and are still becoming, increasingly popular for a number of reasons, although there are still many people who enjoy reading and collecting physical copies of books. Do you feel that by exploring and creating multimedia-style publications such as You and I, the digital book will eventually eclipse paper books altogether, or have we reached a point now where the two formats can co-exist peacefully?

A: My short answer would be ‘no, digital will not eclipse print’. I think that digital and print are two entirely different experiences, and ever more will be so.

Moreover, I think that the binary choice between the two is artificial because storytelling has already responded to the changes wrought by the digital revolution.

Telling stories began and developed as an oral tradition, and there has been a restored emphasis on live performance of the written word. This is manifest, as it’s always been, in libraries, bookshops, book festivals, and arts centres. I think it’s significant that it’s now an expectation, if not a pre-condition, of publishers, agents, and even readers that authors read their work aloud to an audience.

In ‘ebook-world’, the audio book, or even just a bit of narration here and there, is gaining traction, but independent writers can’t rely on that as a catalyst for enhanced appeal. The digital format offers the independent writer pathways to ‘uniqueness’ above and beyond the worth of their words. Ebooks are a natural centre of gravity for the re-telling and re-framing of a story using video, audio, print and even broadcast media. These media are mutually supportive, not mutually exclusive.

In terms of innovation, Amazon and Apple (for all their ubiquity) have done independent digital publishing few, if any, favours. Even the big publishers are a bit disgruntled with poor curation of the ebook selling environment. Some may even be losing heart. The website for Dorling Kindersley, whose historic catalogue lends itself to digital, merely points grudgingly to the iBook store, and even the Disney ebook portal is curiously difficult to navigate.

It’s also worth understanding that truly original, top quality enhanced ebooks from independents are rare. Tapocketa, an animation studio start-up based in Hertfordshire released Galdo’s Gift, describing it as a book/movie hybrid. For me, it stands out because it offers its readers the kind of engagement that is arguably unique to the enhanced digital book format.

There are still issues about reading apps and cross platform readability, but the holy grail has to be the independent development of a portable ebook format and/or reading app that is universal across most, if not all, all devices. Readium is just such an open source app, but it is a project in development rather than the finished article. We need something like that to break the Amazon/Apple duopoly on enhanced ebook distribution.

For the record, my view is that the most treasured stories, the ones passed through hands from one generation to another, will always be the preserve of the printed page. Books are objects of love and that is why they must endure.

Q: Now that you’ve ventured into combining literature and music in one project, will you be looking to create something else that combines them in the future – a sequel to You and I, perhaps – or do you have plans to branch out into even more media formats?

A: Not a sequel to You and I as such, but certainly more stories with music and song. I’ve been working on a book-in-rhyme for the young and the young at heart with jazz as the musical theme. I’ve also written a substantial outline for a modern ‘folk tale’, featuring a greedy giant, a fabulous pearl, and restless spirits. I know what kind of music would best illustrate a folky tale with a strong-willed hero at its heart, but the story always comes first.

I always envisaged You and I as ripe for adaptation, firstly as a podcast with narration, and perhaps, if there was the interest as an animated feature. I’ve since realized (or perhaps admitted to myself) that a concise script derived from the text needs to be written specifically for any prospective narrator. The story in its present form is too long if the songs are to be part and parcel of the audio experience. That task is on the back burner, but not forgotten.

Q: And just to finish off, a question that I always ask fellow writers: what do you enjoy reading when you’re not busy writing?

A: I used to read voraciously when I was young, beginning with Biggles and Tom Sawyer, growing up with Moorcock and Arthur Clarke, taking in Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, before graduating to Gunter Grass, Graham Green, Flann O’ Brien, Doris Lessing, Miles Franklin, and Heinrich Böll.

I’m making up for lost time with my writing and I read a lot (online and in print) for research purposes. I’m presently reading Jim Crace’s ‘Melody’, which is a little patchy to be honest, but absorbing nonetheless. It’s a good example of the things I’ve been talking about here. In his book, Crace creates an alternative landscape that’s given rise to a strange ecology, but there is enough that is familiar in this ‘different world’ to ensure that the reader is never lost.

I tend not to re-read novels, but I do frequently return to poetry and non-fiction. Most recently, I’ve been reading John Clare after years of concentrating on the usual suspects such as Auden, Eliot, Whitman, Frost, MacDiarmid, MacCaig and Dylan Thomas.

I’m discovering that John Clare is a very relevant voice for present times. He is disarmingly frank, quietly observational, and his grief for the vanishing countryside is authentic and deeply affecting.

Clare probably ought to be celebrated as a nature poet more highly than he is, but mental illness blighted his life, and unfairly prejudiced evaluation of his work. He’s a bit like Thomas Traherne and William Blake in that his writing has been judged too harshly in the past, but there are signs that contemporary readers are more receptive to his thinking.

I’m actually fond of finding really obscure 19th Century nature writing online, especially localized ‘notes and jottings’, and reading the scanned documents as PDF’s on the iPad. There is a lot of unusual writing in them that is both expressive and descriptive.

For more information about You & I, Michael and his writing, visit https://1320elements.wordpress.com/.

Emma McMullan's Picture

Emma McMullan

Writer, blogger, book hoarder, mug collector and language enthusiast.