4th December 2017 // Cultural // Interview // Local
Time spent with Russ Litten is never less than illuminating. You always learn something in his company. Whether it be about yourself, himself, writing, books or the world in general. The Hull-born writer is like a more well-read Shaun Ryder; unabashedly working class, charming, with a thing for letting rip with stream-of-consciousness observations that go off on tangents as they enter his head, and as befits the writer, an insanely keen eye for detail that triggers an often-surreal take on life. He has a unique way of phrasing, and is mesmerisingly captivating. When you study how to write creatively, they tell you to ‘make every word count,’ and Russ does this effortlessly both in his writing and in conversation.
I’d never really given it much thought, but the app I use to record our conversation shows a two-dimensional image of a reeling cassette tape. This immediately triggers our ‘way in’ to the matter at hand without me even noticing. He harks back to the days of cassettes, and of vinyl, and connects it to books and writing. Although having little time for the pretentiousness that goes with the resurgence of tapes and vinyl, he concedes that people have an innate need to touch something. To own it. People long for the act of putting a tape on, or putting a record onto a turntable. Likewise, we enjoy the ritual of sitting in our favourite chair with a book. A real one. With pages. We talk about when CDs and mini-discs came out. They were sold as the end-game. Replace your vinyl collection with CDs, because there’ll be no format that’ll ever surpass this cutting-edge technology. Which leads us seamlessly into modernism in literature; the period of late 19th/early 20th century, when writing changed radically.
How did he go from observing this minute detail, to unwittingly ushering us along the path that we are here to follow? Reading and writing.
‘Every generation wants to have the last word, don’t they? They can’t bear the thought that their generation will one day be outdone. They don’t want to miss out. Modernism isn’t modern in any way now, but they wanted to put a full stop after what they achieved.’ He’s talking about the literary movement, spearheaded by writers such as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, where there was a very conscious shift from traditional writing. Romantic writing was overturned and something new, representative of the time, was invented. Society was changing, the horrors of war brought about fear, alienation and displacement, and the human condition was examined to great effect.
A bit like now.
‘The modernists wanted to create something new. It’s similar to today’s middle-aged angst. We’re more reactionary, we feel that standards are slipping. Then comes the realisation that you’ve made no difference whatsoever and your life’s been worthless,’ he deadpans. ‘Once you accept that, you can be happy.’ He laughs his booming laugh, but he’s not far off the truth. Which is why we need books to escape into.
Two minutes ago, we were looking at a computer-generated image of a cassette.
Russ has been writing since he was seven, when he got a story printed in The Yorkshire Post. It was a competition in which school kids from across the region were asked for their thoughts on Christmas. Russ wrote a story about an angel who lost his halo. It gave him his first bit of encouragement. Another would come years later when he went to university as a mature student to do American Studies and Creative Writing. He had a choice. Write an essay on Raymond Carver or write a short story. He wrote the story, and his tutor was enthusiastic with his praise, so he realised there was something there. All he remembers is that he was into jazz, liked the cut of Russ’s jib and dyed his hair with Ribena. Job done. Vocation found.
What drew him into wanting to write was his love of music primarily. As a teenager, he was in awe of The Clash, The Jam and Ian Dury, whose songs weren’t normal pop songs, they were about something. There were stories there, and the lyrics fascinated him. He subsequently formed a band, Looking For Adam, in the 80s, because he wanted to exercise his lyrical chops, and they tasted success locally and nationally. It was the brevity and the confines of the song that appealed to him. A novel was far off at this time; the impatience of youth propelled him, and the process of writing and getting it out there immediately. It’s come full circle in the last couple of years as his peerless work with electronic music god and studio wizard, Steve Cobby, has showcased his singular voice and taken his writing career on a totally different trajectory. This culminated in their unofficial Labour campaign song, For The Many, being performed in front of Jeremy Corbyn, who was so taken with it, that he asked if he could use it at all his rallies. He already had it on his phone. To the fiercely political duo, this endorsement meant the world.
So, Russ started with lyrics, excelled at the short story, but the hunger and ability were there. He wanted something a bit more ambitious. After university, he started to get regular work: writing articles, short stories, radio commercials and high-profile screen-writing; he wrote the scripts for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Rocknrolla. He even spoke to Madonna. But the novel eluded his growing canon until 2011.
Scream if You Want to Go Faster, his first novel, published in 2011, began life as a collection of short stories all set around the last weekend of Hull Fair just after the floods of 2007, which devastated the city.
‘I just wanted to write something like Sherwood Anderson’s Williamsburg, Ohio, a short story collection based around the same locale. When I gave it to my agent, he said it should be a novel. I said, “I’ve just written twelve short stories.”’ He feigns exasperation. ‘So it wasn’t a conscious attempt to write a novel. I had to go back and join them together somehow, copying and pasting, piecing it together like Frankenstein’s Monster, and it became a novel.’
His first conscious attempt at a novel, Swear Down, followed in 2013. It was his own inimitable take on the crime genre, but with his own twist. Crime books sell. He thought it would perhaps have commercial appeal. But, being Russ Litten, he put his own spin on it. He doesn’t really entertain the idea of writing for a specific genre, preferring to step into it and mess with it, which, he says, irked some purists, as they felt it was messing around with the formula unnecessarily. He goes on to say he wouldn’t knowingly write a book which had widespread appeal. He doesn’t know how, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to be wilfully obscure or difficult to read.
He writes ‘literary fiction,’ but is aware of the transient nature of people’s tastes.
‘It’s difficult to sell a book that’s about some kid in Hull who’s having a bit of a hard time. People haven’t time to invest in something that’s completely alien to them. They like to know what they’re getting themselves into.’ I smile as I imagine Russ, with his thick Hull accent, on the phone to some posh kid in London who’s struggling to penetrate the ‘ull brogue, never mind show enthusiasm for the subject matter. That the subject is invariably riveting from Russ is irrelevant. Nowadays people need to know what happens before they read a book. Which defeats the object. Think of Hollywood at the moment; the big films are all superhero films where you know what happens. Reboots with better effects. Historical films where everyone already knows the story; it’s been drilled into their skulls since school.
‘No one reads novels anymore, do they? People have short attention spans,’ he bemoans. ‘People read, but they’re glued to their phones and tablets, mostly scrolling through their social media feeds. It’s commercially a bad time for writers. Unless you reach a wide audience, and write with that in mind, there’s little chance of living solely off writing. Which is a good job I don’t do it just do it for the money. You don’t get into writing for money anyway, you do it because you have to. I write for myself, it takes time, and you know you’re always going to write, so writing a novel can take more than a year. There are other ways of making money, and I don’t mind that.’
He’s influenced by every book he likes, but he cites Raymond Carver, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Movement writes as major influences. Carver’s ability to plant all those pictures in the head with so few words was intoxicating for Russ. Another favourite is Goalkeeper’s Revenge by Bill Naughton, a collection of short stories centred around street kids growing up in Lancashire. Similarly, Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave was groundbreaking as it perfectly captured the essence of working class life in the north of England.
I mention that after school, the joy was sucked out of reading for pleasure, and I only really got back into reading when I read Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh in 1993, mainly because it was about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll at its least glamorous. It blew my mind and I was hooked on reading again. It was about us. Minus the heroin, but he articulated what it was like to be young, carefree, a bit naughty and loaded with vices. Every now and then, we agree, a book comes along and shakes it all up. Trainspotting was that book for my generation. In the 50s it was On The Road, the 60s, Last Exit To Brooklyn, the 70’s Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and so on. Books that upset the status quo. Harry Potter dominated the literary world for ten years between 1997 and 2007.
What’s next? What’s going to tear people away from their phones and back into the world of books? I suggest that the short story, as a medium, is ideal for these times, where short attention spans are king, and time is scarce. Bite-size, manageable chunks are tailor-made for the post-millennial reader.
‘Short stories have been a thing in America for a long time, and they’re becoming more popular here, but going further than that, a lot of people are reluctant to even pick up a book these days. It’s all YouTube and podcasts, things that are short and require minimum effort from the individual.’ Despite what this means for writers, Russ doesn’t seem agitated by this trend. More resigned to the fact that it just is. ‘We’ve got to accept that’s how it is. Books aren’t the full stop in the world of literature. Podcasts are the new short stories. Audiobooks are thriving. Get some famous actor reading your book, and your work is getting out there, the medium has changed. It boils back down to modernism again. People will always want stories, but the way you present them is evolving constantly.’
I ask when we can expect the follow-up to Kingdom, his last book, published in 2015.
‘I’ve got a book coming out early next year. It’s actually a collection of short stories set in and around Hull. It’ll be coming out as an audiobook too,’ he says, as if to reiterate the need to roll with the now. ‘I’ll be getting a different writer from Hull to read each of the fifteen stories, I’m looking forward to that. One of the stories shouted out at me as needing to be revisited, so I’m turning that into a novel. You’ll see that in probably a couple of years from now.’
He doesn’t have much time for the current vogue for fantasy books, even though it’s getting people involved in reading again.
‘I don’t get it. There’s enough magic, mystery and drama out there.’ He nods out of Pave’s window onto Prinny Ave. I cast an eye across the road towards Sainsbury’s and I’m in total agreement. ‘Spend 30 minutes on this street. It becomes a theatre space with an amazing cast of characters; it becomes a stage. Look at him. Where’s he going? Where’s he been? What’s he up to? What’s his name? You know what I mean?’
I do. As part of my uni course, this is exactly the patch I’ve chosen to observe every day for a potential story. There’s loads going on, way more bizarre than dragons, breasts, dwarves and evil queens. I tell him about a homeless lad I talk to, and the fact that he was reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden last time I saw him. It blew my mind.
‘That’s his escape. Reading gets you through rough times. So does writing,’ he laughs. ‘It’s a form of spiritual nourishment, you feel less alone. It can heal psychic damage, I believe that. Writing’s like a form of prayer; you’re basically talking to yourself. Inspire means to breathe in, put life and spirit into the body. Respire means to breathe out. That’s the original meaning. It was all about god and divine intervention in them days.’
Every day’s a school day. I ask what he thinks the next big literary sensation will be.
‘I’ve no idea, mate. Impossible to predict. Basically, most stories are the same. What’s this?
It’s Star Wars, innit? And it’s Harry Potter. They’re the same story. Most stories are variations on this, going all the way back to Greek Mythology and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But whatever’s next, it’ll be along those lines.’ He laughs, finishes his soup, looks at his phone, then at me.
Having a fine eye for detail myself, I don’t need to be told he’s on his way. I ask him if there’s anything to add. Any advice for wannabe writers. His answer is typical of the self-deprecating scribe.
‘Forget about doing it for the money, do it for yourself. If you write with a ‘target audience’ in mind, you might as well flog towels on a market stall. Just turn up and put the hours in, write summat every day and it’ll come. You’ll bin 75% of it, but it’s like if you go to the gym every day, you’ll get bigger muscles. Same with writing.’ He stops to think. ‘I’ll always write. I can’t not. But I’m tired of hustling for the next project. It’ll always be there though. What I’d love, is to be to be a postman. A bit of normality, and you’d see all sorts. Time on your own, but with a bit of structure to it. Time is the most precious thing in the world. You should only give it to someone or something you really believe in. And especially don’t give it away so other people can make loads of money. Books will never go away, and they take time. Time I’m willing to invest in.’
And with that, he’s off. It’s always a pleasure. The man is generous with his help, encouragement and time. If he believes in what he’s doing of course. It takes time to digest all the things we’ve covered. It’s only been about an hour, but as with Ernest Hemingway, who we discussed, a lot of information is covered in a relatively short time. As if to ram home the writer’s mantra, ‘make every word count.’ Russ just did. I glance at the cassette voice recorder app on my iPad, I think of how that triggered all of what followed. I press ‘stop.’ And realise the writer can’t stop. And that’s a great thing for us.