Andrew Cowan Interview Part 2

Questions  for Andrew Cowan on the novel Crustaceans by Kouhei Furuya, Yuko Kato, Jun Ohashi, and Takuya Osada.
Part 2

Tokyo University, 7 December 2003

First of all, many thanks for your generous response to our previous interview.  Your answers were very helpful and informative, we felt, though with one exception.  It was hard to understand your method of writing. As well as writing and revising each line, do you come back later and revise every line again?  Once you decide on the nature of Euan’s accident, for example, there is clear foreshadowing earlier on.  Why bother with so much earlier revision if you have to come back and revise again later?

On the whole, I don’t come back and revise later.  One reason I write so slowly is that I am constantly trying to think about what will (or might) happen 100 pages later.  I do write rough notes for later; I constantly think about what is to come. So there is a lot of foreshadowing going on. Occasionally I will realise I must go back 50 pages and alter something. I HATE it when this happens.

Related to the last question, there’s a sense of fragmentation in the novel. One finely crafted sentence and then another (you use very few conjunctions between sentences). How far is this deliberate, and what effect do you think it creates?

A key working idea for Crustaceans was fragmentation, the idea that this man’s life had been shattered. The narrative is then an act of piecing together. 

But Paul is in a way a reluctant narrator. He is still half in his shell. So he speaks in short (-ish) sentences. It was half-deliberate. I did also try to substitute for conjunctions with rhythm and cadence – the rhythm of the prose is supposed to ameliorate any fragmentariness in the writing.

In my current work-in-progress I find I am writing much longer sentences than is normal for me.  Lots of conjunctions.  Perhaps this is a belated reaction to the prison-house of the style in Crustaceans.

We noted many instances of replicas, imitations, otherness.  What is true for Paul is often true for other characters, as life stories seem set to repeat themselves. Borges said that every story will be repeated. In what ways would you say Crustaceans is exclusively your book, and could only have been written by you?

There are many parallels and recurrent motifs in the book. This again was a deliberate thing, to offset (or compensate for) the fragmentariness, to give an underlying unity. That’s one thing.

The Borges idea is another thing entirely. If you pare down Crustaceans so that only the ‘story ‘ remains – man loses child – then yes, I’m sure this will and can be repeated.  But the novel is so much a product of my sensibility, my noticing, my way of punctuating, my own life experiences, it could only ever have been written by me – for better or worse.

Were you disappointed by the commercial reaction to the book?  Or is it enough for critics, students, and translators to value it? What, in fact, do you think of readers?  If you liked them more, wouldn’t you write an easier book? Or are readers simply too stupid to understand?

I was and am very disappointed that the book hasn’t sold more copies.  Every writer wants to sell lots of copies, especially if his livelihood depends on book sales.

I’m also very pleased that those who have read it do mostly seem to value it.

As for readers, it would be crippling for any writer to try to anticipate what ‘they’ will think or want.  Who are ‘they’?  ‘Readers’ is such a generalising concept. There are thousands of potential readers, all completely individual. How can a writer hope to please them all?  Some will be stupid, some will be highly sensitive and intelligent, some will find Crustaceans ‘hard’, some will think it ‘easy’. A writer can only write the book that he or she feels it is necessary and vital for him or her to write, otherwise it won’t be an authentic act of self-expression, and it won’t be a distinctive (ie individual, unique) piece of work.

Of course, it can be ‘distinctive’ and bloody awful. But far better that than a book which is written to be ‘pleasing’ and ends up indistinguishable from a thousand others.

We were very impressed by the sufficiency of the word ‘enough’ on the final page.  Did you feel this novel is enough?  Is there anything, in retrospect, that you’d like to change, to delete or add?

The book is done and gone now. The last time I re-read it there were sentences I wanted to rephrase, but too late.  I am pretty happy with it.  (My second novel, Common Ground, was written in more of a hurry, under more pressure from a publisher, and I feel that that book is one third too long.  If I had another life I would begin that book from scratch, and it still pains me that I can’t.)

And if this is enough, what type of book can you write next? Can you write in any other way?  How do you stop your next book being the same type of novel?

I wouldn’t write another book like it, because I’ve said enough (for me) on that subject in that style.  My present book is set in summer, concerns a private detective, and is written in longer, more generous sentences, and has more dialogue. The underlying sensibility is no doubt very similar, but the ‘product’ is quite different.