Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read John Saul’s fiction piece, This Place Is An Inspiration
Sommer: The magic of this nontraditional piece is how it both inspires and creates associations to things that aren’t actually in the story (the sinking of the Titanic, WWI, Tudor barons, corn mills, British royalty, Irish football, the art of Camille Pissarro, etc.), but, paradoxically, become a part of the story through association. Your piece acts like a circuit board for the reader’s imagination—it causes disparate parts to light up, as in, à la the title, “inspiration.” How did this influence your creation of the protagonist, Zachariah Star, and how he would relate to the reader in the telling of his story?
John: My intention is to present the protagonist as a real person, real in the way he thinks and acts. I in effect gave him a purpose, to bring together the elements you describe. Primarily, I wanted to tell of the gathering of starlings and have him take the tale to that point. Relate to the reader? Beyond the telling of this fiction, he makes no other, special effort to relate to the reader.
As I read, I was immediately reminded of James Joyce’s Ulysses, but then Faulkner is brought up in the story, and I was reminded again of how Faulkner liked to combine words just as Zachariah does. What was the attraction for you in bringing into your story the influences of these titans of post-modernism?
I wasn’t conscious of James Joyce, but now you say that I do notice a small something of the feel of his fiction. It’s probably difficult to avoid altogether some echoes of the major contributors to literature, if you’ve read them of course. Generally speaking, Joyce, Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez have had a huge effect; Kafka is still everywhere. As for William Faulkner, as is said towards the beginning of the piece, this is a tale of gatherings. So I did this at a word level too, gathering up words in the way Faulkner does. Other than that, the attraction for me? It’s fun.
Why is Zachariah looking for a denouement and not a climax?
Does he have to look for either? I wanted to show the starlings and make a fiction out of that. The starlings, the place, are an inspiration.
If a reader would like to read more stories like this one that push the boundaries of traditional storytelling, which stories and authors would you recommend?
These could form a long list, fortunately. I would look at BS Johnson (Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry) for a start. He looked for what fiction could do, rather than should. The French nouveau roman is not traditional; Marguerite Duras wrote its most accessible novels, while Robert Pinget wrote wonderful innovative fiction, which I was reminded of when I saw the form of the piece from Wales by Thomas Morris in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018 (where I make the contribution from England). More recently: Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna. Increasingly now, many authors (Ali Smith for example) break up texts in ways that look like I have here. At the same time you could maintain there is such a thing as traditional content, as well as traditional forms. To get beyond traditional content (e.g. death, sex, love, violence, families, people in danger; this list would be relatively short) I would recommend turning to W.G. Sebald, Donald Barthelme, Samuel Beckett.
What is some of the best advice you have ever received?
None of it was about the writing of fiction.
It is such a pleasure to do another interview with you (see John Saul’s other short story published here, Alhambra), and congratulations!