Name: Mark Rae
Occupation: Author, producer, label founder
Current publication: Mark Rae has just published his debut novel, "The Caterpillar Club", along with an accompanying soundtrack. Already available digitally, you can pre-order physical formats on Mark's bandcamp page.
Recommendations: "A Matter of Death & Life" - novel by Andrey Kurkov (1996); The Stranger LP by Billy Joel (1977)
If you enjoyed this Mark Rae interview and would like to find out more, visit him on Facebook, Soundcloud, Instagram and Twitter for information, insights, updates and sounds.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I started writing lyrics with my musical output on Grand Central Records in the mid 90’s. Eventually, I felt that I couldn’t express myself fully with songs and music alone. I moved to America in 2006 and started writing screenplays in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. The first book I loved was "Papillon" by Henri Charriere. I read it when I was twelve years old, standing up leaning against a bunk bed. Something inside me knew that the story was true, with added embellishments from the authors creative source.
I think by creating a safe enough distance from ourselves with fiction, we get closer to our own truth, it becomes a body to inhabit, allowing our experiences and the subconscious to collapse into each other.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I would say that I learned about the timing of storytelling through DJing, the way a convincing narrative has to be created to keep people interested. There are many factors that control how a book is expressed, it takes a lot longer and music is more immediate to make. Pace, cultural reference, structure and finally delivery of the end point. These are the same in both forms.
As regards writers who I have learned most from, I would say Andrey Kurkov and Kurt Vonnegut. My own voice needed controlling at first and I had to transition back toward the real after too many dances with surreality. My editors Jack Ramm and Elizabeth Allan helped me greatly on that journey.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My debut novel deals with the concept of an identity crisis in the main character. The struggle to adjust to changing times, in Simon Radcliffe’s case, from vinyl to digital, from big shows to small shows.
I think it’s pivotal and a very strong force that must be mined. The world is now entirely driven by the idea of individual identity and society is coming apart at the seams because of it. That dissonance is always good for creativity. Bad times, good art.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
At first, I wanted to loop records and put sampled drums under them. The equipment that allowed you to achieve this at home, arrived at affordable prices when I was falling hard for music in my late teens and early twenties.
Now, I may worry about changing a chapter or throwing two of them away. At first, with naïve creativity, you feel that everything you are doing is worthy and must be kept. As time moves on, you feel happy to throw thousands of words away, just as I may throw away a song that is not working in 10 minutes (experience aids quick decisions). In the beginning you waste time on weaker ideas, but this is called ‘learning the craft’. The only solution to this, is to put in the 10’000 hours and then some. Eventually you learn to be lots of different people in your own mind, and you pick this up from absorbing other people’s skillsets.
The way I see it, is that it takes a village to make a novel. The feedback stage near the end allows you to pull out final tweaks. It starts with editors and should include friends in the final process. If your friends think you are mad, all the better.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
This is a clusterfuck of importance, they could be thrown onto the ground like pick up sticks, pick any one and it could be argued that this aspect was the key element.
For style, I think you should be born with it. It’s the way you talk or mimic, what you find funny, how much your heart hurts. For form, I would say that this is like an instinctive sense of how best an idea is delivered. Can a short story become a novel? Even more important, can a novel become a short story? All stories should be scalable if the idea is good enough.
Which leads us to plot, perhaps the biggest weakness for a lot of good ideas. Plot needs mechanics and architecture. This is the skeleton which will not become a functioning being unless every bone is in place. Sometimes plots take a few eureka moments, found in silence on long walks. Storytelling is, in essence, the ancient art of describing a man shitting into a rabbit hole and making it into masterpiece through the application of style.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
Two roofers came to work on my flat last year. One was late fifties, dark bushy hair, strong as a bear and a master of lead work. The other was in his mid-sixties, full mop of straight blonde hair and the slim build of an aged athlete who liked rolled cigarettes. For the month they worked at my place we talked about the older man’s career as an MMA fighter in Thailand, safe cracking, growing up on an RAF base, the use of pensioners as decoys in jewellery raids and how much his ex-girlfriend’s collection of U2 memorabilia might be worth. To quote Werner Hertzog “It is the artists job to never look away.”
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
I believe the keys to creativity belong as two maps that are interwoven in the brain, the conscious map is outsized, plagued by rules and filled with quite a lot of boring towns. The map that forms in the amygdala has its origin in the limbic system and is concerned with memory processing and emotional responses. It’s a subconscious map, riven with psycho-geographical lay lines. If the mapping in the amygdala can be entered into calmly, then it can open up connections in thinking, set boring towns on fire or join them together in a subterranean vortex. Making music can sometimes create this space, walking alone and dreams can also reveal story links.
With regard to ending a story, I have had to achieve connectivity between the conscious needs of map one and then I have tied things together with subconscious answers that came in my sleep from map two. I have always had a very strange relationship with the dark. Night terror and sleepwalking plagued my younger years.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
When in creative novel mode, I like to write for at least one and a half hours every morning. I wrote in a coffee house down the street in west London for a couple of years at the first draft stage, then I moved the project back home, to start infecting the musical soundtrack directly with the words. I would jump between music making and writing whenever the steam was lost on either.
If you go into that writing place that opens the map to the amygdala, it is physically as well as mentally taxing. This is why just hitting 90 minutes of writing is good for me. I may edit and research for a couple of hours more in a day. I keep it fluid.
Towards the end of a book, at around the third or fourth draft, it becomes a very interesting game. For one you have used your conscious self to work your story into a position where the whole house is nearly built but you still need your unconscious memories to find the final answers. That’s why my doors are always open and creaking.