Leitmotifs And Dark Beliefs

The Second Revelatory Interview - part three
By Phil & Sarah Stokes, 24 September 1999

Clive : "Poetry presents a particular problem... a problem, a challenge, to these kinds of definitions. Because in one sense it's very structured, obviously, and you have the meter and feet and so on to deal with, and rhyme, perhaps, but in another sense, as you rightly said, Sarah, there's an element of prayer, an element of something devotional even about the simplest of poems... and one of the things that happens in my novels, I think, often is... it happens at places I choose so carefully... is that they aspire to the condition of poetry. When Maddox has a vision of Caesaria's origins, you could break those paragraphs down in a completely different way and make it a piece of, not rhyming poetry, but rhythmic poetry very easily. And the first person who taught me that I did this naturally, and it was a revelation to me, was Norman Russell - who I thank at the front of the first Book of Blood (he was my English teacher) - and he did something extraordinary: I wrote a story, I was about fourteen, I wrote a story. Instead of compositions we were allowed to write a story, and he did two, actually, extraordinary things. One was he refused to mark my stories after a certain point - he simply said, 'I can't mark these, they move me,' which is an extraordinary thing to hear, for a fourteen year old - it was amazing. And the other thing he did; he took one of my stories and he wrote it out again, and it was written in blank verse. And I had no knowledge of doing that, and it was almost completely accurate blank verse. And I know why - we'd been studying Shakespeare, we'd been studying the 5-footed line, I had it in my head, I'd probably been reading it before I started to write and there is an element of mimicry in me, which is very dangerous and one of the reasons why I don't read fiction when I'm writing is because I'm a lousy mimic!"

Revelations : "If you're going to be a plagiarist, you might as well do it well...!"

Clive : "Exactly, exactly, but for instance, reading Moby Dick before writing a page of text would be disastrous, totally disastrous for me, because I - even when I do my researches what I would tend to do would be to take the research material and then write out the salient points so that I'm not reading a piece of text. For instance, there's a fellow called Shelby Foote who is the great writer of Civil War books, a Southerner, and he wrote 4 or 5 books which are really the history of the Civil War, and the style of these is not to be believed! They are amazing works, amazing works, in which he simply tells the truth, there's nothing fanciful about them at all. Did you ever see the Ken Burns series about the Civil War, did you ever have that over here? A biography about the Civil War, a CBS show, it probably would have been on Channel 4...? It's a magnificent thing..."

Fiona : "No, I've seen the book, but I don't remember it on the television over here."

Revelations : "It's like what you've said about your own knowledge of the Civil War before you started researching it."

Clive : "Zero."

Revelations : "Well, it's those same blank faces you're getting now."

Clive : "The thing about the American Civil War is it's bloody fascinating. It's very recent, the last survivors of that war have only passed away in the last thirty years. 1865 is when it finished, you know. There were people born in the Civil War who were alive and well in your lifetimes, so it's... not when you think of the American Civil War... you know like Abraham Lincoln... it's very fresh and clear in the minds of the people in the South, where 'the late unpleasantness' as they call it - which says a lot, doesn't it? - is still a thorn in the side of the culture, no question, they were poorly done to, poorly dealt with (this would be their opinion). I'm sorry, this went off... I cannot read Shelby's texts and then go and write because it's just too good! I defy anybody to pick up to read the first two chapters of, say, Genesis, and then write a letter to the gas board, because your gas has been turned off..."

Revelations : "Dear Gas Board, let there be light..."

Clive : "Exactly, exactly, 'Yours sincerely...' We're making a joke of it, but you see what I'm saying? It may be easier to read something flat, maybe an account in the Times. Cadence and tone and rhythm and music. You know, every writer worth his salt has a different music and, if you are reading attentively and your heart is open to the reading, then the music goes in and when you put your pen to the paper it's like toe-tapping. I could not write to music because if I was playing jazz or Sibelius they would have completely different effects upon me, and so they are bound to affect the kind of text that I am writing. I very strongly feel the same about other people's writing that, if it's worth a damn, I have to be careful of its influence."

Revelations : "Do you read other people's texts aloud, like you read yours?"

Clive : "Yes, very often. Good texts. Yes."

Revelations : "Because those are musical - you say you envy music..."

Clive : "Yes. And you know, one of the sweetest things, one of the things which made me feel so great was Armistead talking about the symphonic quality of my text. I had not thought of it that way before, but I do realise that I attempt to write symphonically. I do attempt to bring leitmotifs through and let things go and bring things up again and have chapters where the tempo is short and sharp and swift and then move into longer, more generous sentences."

Revelations : "As you speak, you're conducting with your hands..."

Being Music

Clive : "I suppose I am. Right. What I was thinking of in particular was that album which EMI invited me to do, 'Being Music'. I chose a piece from Sibelius' Second which I adore because there is this theme which comes through and is very strong and very certain. It comes up beneath this more frivolous surface and eventually it rolls into view and this more frivolous surface is required, as it were, to retreat before it. I'm very conscious as I'm writing of attempting to do things like that without, please God, the reader ever noticing. My job is that the reader never notices. This is not an exercise in showmanship. This is an exercise in how I can show something massive - philosophically massive or metaphorically massive - rise up dark and powerful and triumphant and beneath the surface of regular description, chit-chat between people, so that you find that when the large stuff starts to happen my sentences simply change. They become biblical."

Revelations : "Sounds more Wagnerian than Sibelius."

Clive : "Well the Sibelius piece I chose was interesting because it has what Wagner doesn't have, which is contrast. The reason that I chose that as an analogy is that you do have this lighter thing going on in Sibelius and then this dark theme. The truth is, in Wagner all you've got for five hours is the large dark theme. I find Wagner totally resistable most of the time. Mozart does this brilliantly, I mean you'll have sudden tonal changes. Now the idea for the leitmotif is Wagner's, so in that sense I think you're right. You can place, say, a sort of nuancing of tone in a passage because it connects to something that happened earlier or something that's going to happen, but I try to hide all that stuff. I don't think anyone should have to try and think about it."

Revelations : "Do you encode things? Do you enjoy having things which need to be sought out? Not just themes, but particular ideas?"

Clive : "Yeah. It's hugely important to me."

Revelations : "How do you work that with trying to show the monsters?"

Balthus - Therese Dreaming

Clive : "Well, I think part of my job is to make the thing as layered as possible. The first thing is, are people connected to the human beings? The second thing is, are they connected with what the human beings are doing? You know, plot... The next thing is, how do you connect up the plot with what the plot needs? And when we get to meaning, then how can you slide things in which don't need to be found in order to take pleasure in the book, but are there if you want them. The meanings in themes - the meaning in Project Blind Boy, which is the name of the project which creates the aphrodisiac in The Age of Desire in the Books of Blood, is named because Cupid is blind, 'Love looks not with the eye but with the mind and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.' I did a version of that in which nobody ever realised what the quote was, and I thought, 'That's just too fucking willfully obscure!' Someone eventually put it in and it's there in the text, but there's lots of times that I don't really reference what the source is. It's there if people want it."

Revelations : "Do you want to guide people towards the people who've influenced you by borrowing the best bits of someone like Bataille and say, 'Go read the erotic fiction that inspired Son of Celluloid..'?"

Clive : "Absolutely. And something like that with Bataille would be a great example of someone who is scarcely known at all. Hans Bellmer's painting would be another place. Balthus' paintings - erotica again - which are underseen, underrepresented in major galleries but no more obscure truthfully than Bataille... Actually, I take that back I suppose, only in the sense that Bataille has seen a resurgence in the last few years. I think that it is important for me to celebrate people who influenced me and who gave me the gift of their own imaginations. You know, I talk about Goya, I talk about Blake. I talk about these folks in part because they're huge influences on me on a daily basis and in part because I want people to just go and look at these paintings. David and I went to the British Museum when we first arrived. David's never been before and I've been lots and lots of times over the years and sort of take it for granted. You know. It's the British Museum... a little fusty, a little staid."

Bellmer - La Poupee

Revelations : "And it can't be any good because it's free.."

Clive : "Free - the worst thing! But then you get in there and there are things there... and I was like a child again and I realised I have seen reproductions of these things in books and here's the real fucking thing, here it is right in front of me. Just this wonderful sense of imaginative empowerment that I remembered again that I'd forgotten that art galleries and museums give. There's a painting called 'The Annunciation' by Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian painter, at the National which used to be in a small room in which this picture dominates. There are three or four other Crivelli's in the room. And it's not a room where people tend to linger - people have mixed feelings about Crivelli."

Revelations : "They don't put out too many chairs in that room."

Clive : "No, not too many chairs. But the painting itself, and I urge you to look at it because it's a magnificent thing, is a painting filled with ideas. The strongest idea of which, which I adore, is that the angel which is announcing to Mary - it's actually a dove - is in the top left-hand-side of the painting and there's a streak, an elaborately rendered but a totally fantastical streak. So there's a dove up here and there's light coming through the picture, breaking the plane of the picture and, here's the smart thing, breaking the immaculately set up sense of perspective in the painting to strike Mary who is in the bottom right-hand-side of the picture. And there are two angels outside her house, one of whom carries an immaculately rendered model of the City of God. What's extraordinary about it, besides the fact that it is as completely invented as anything in Fellini or Terry Gilliam and should be seen in that light and should be celebrated in that light, is this magnificent idea that God's gift to the world breaks the reality of the painting, because that's what God does. I've always tried to enthuse people about the idea that you look at these paintings and you look at these things and you hear music not in the light of something which is hard to do, something which is a sweat, something which is like being educated, but you look at them in the way that you pick up a painting, pick up a book that you want to read or you turn on a television programme, and I think we've been educated largely into, unfortunately, feeling that this stuff is hard work."

Carlo Crivelli - The Annunciation

Revelations : "There's an interview we've read with Doug Winter following an American Film Institute gathering where he was getting quite cross because the fans didn't know the directors and film influences you and he were talking about. It was important to him that everyone should know who Franju was and he was cross that no-one was putting up their hands to say that they knew who these people were. Obviously, you like to enthuse, but do you get irritated by people who don't understand all your background influences?"

Clive : "No. I think it's my job to enthuse with significant passion that people will go to look at the Carlo Crivelli painting or see Andre Rublev, who I was talking about last night with the Tarkovsky movie, and how passionate I feel about that film. It's there on DVD and laser and it's hard work. You can't just sit in front of it with a bag of popcorn but it is massively rewarding. I don't think we expect to be rewarded by art anymore."

Clive Barker - After Crivelli, 1977

Revelations : "It's something that we do to art, rather than expecting art to do something to us."

Clive : "I think that's certainly true, but I also think that we feel in some sense, this is disposable, and if its worth a damn of course it's not disposable and works on you hard, deep, it's going to stir you up, you're going to feel things you haven't felt before. Your world's going to be changed if it's worth a damn. People say, 'What are the best parts about being on tour?' and it's very clear. The best thing that happens on tour is when someone gives you a beaten up copy of a paperback book and says, 'This changed my life. Sign it for me, this changed my life.' And that happens actually all the time. It happens with people who just give you a book and say, 'Because I had this book in my life at a certain time, I am alive..' You'd be surprised how often that is said. A painter, a writer, married, in love. All kinds of things the books can do, the painting can do. I am a different person because I knew William Blake. I am a different person because I once went to see a Carlo Crivelli painting and sat and entered that world and understood something I had never understood before. Again, going back to poetry, could I actually say what that thing in action was? - probably not. I would like to think that sometimes those things can be very simple things, I'd like to think that 'Brother Plato, right or wrong' in its six lines could suggest something to someone about their confidence in their sexuality or the importance of allowing yourself to be open to another human being, to the sense of saying, 'I am half, be my other'. That's a big thing, and if it takes a little thing to contain that big thing, just for a few moments, then all the better. There are wonderful satisfactions to be had from hearing a reader say, 'I am changed'. That's the most you can ask for."

Revelations : "I think it's impossible not to be changed, it's more a question of how long it lasts, how deeply do you let it penetrate?"

Clive : "Right. And some of it's also about where you are in your life as to how much of that change you will actually allow. There's also a sense in which this change is a two-way street, because we need also to be willing to say I am open to the idea of change, I am open, I am not fixed."

Rockwell Kent - Illustration for 1930 edition of Moby Dick

Revelations : "And the person who picks up an 800 page novel is more open than the one who walks into a movie theatre."

Clive : "I think that's quite true, but if that 800 page book is The Hunt For Red October... I think a Tom Clancy novel is likely to reinforce in you things you already believed about commies, homos, you know, whatever it is. Tom's great skills as a storyteller, and I think he has great skills, is to make a series of events which simply reinforce a bunch of things you knew at the first page of the book. Interesting for the time, but you don't think of the journey of a Tom Clancy novel as being one which is in any way illuminating. You see it as being a wonderfully plotted ride.
"What I'm asking for from art is that it shake me up, churn me up, distress me sometimes. But more important than distress, much more important than distress, it make me sense something larger and more extraordinary in the world than was there when I first began.
"When you attach the word 'burning' to a tiger and then you put that burning tiger in the 'forests of the night', you are putting into Rockwell Kent - Illustration for 1930 edition of Moby Dick my head an image which will never go away because every time, every time, I look at a tiger from that point on, the flow of its body and the sheen of its surface remind me of flame. And you've changed the tiger, you've enhanced the tiger, you've made the tiger more extraordinary than it was moments before.
"Poetry. You know my idea about whales and Moby Dick, there's actually a wonderful Rockwell Kent edition, an American illustrator who did an illustrated version, of Moby Dick, with, oh man, such a magnificent illustration. It shows a cross-section of the sea, as it were, with the top surface of the sea at the very top of the page with the flukes of the whale just sticking out of it at the top, and then Moby Dick diving down through the rhythm of the page, and here's the great thing, he's pulling the stars down with him! So that all those stars, these five-pointed, rather stylised stars are being pulled down by the sheer power of this animal into the dark, and it's an incredible thing. For me, when I think of Moby Dick and the image of the white whale, I think of that illustration, I think of that sort of incredible power. Just as I think of Blake's illustration of the tiger - which is a soft, gentle-looking tiger."

Revelations : "Very downbeat."

Clive : "Yes."

Revelations : "But it's always going to be more understated than a Rockwell Kent, who is very stylised."

William Blake - Jerusalem

Clive : "Yes, very stylised, very graphic-y, but what I guess I'm saying is that part of that is somehow being open to it. I remember when Doug Bradley got married he wanted Jerusalem to be sung at his wedding. We were all Blake fans, Lynne - his wife - is a great Blake fan, and the vicar said, 'No, no, no, no, no. It's a Women's Institute song...' Doug was very assertive about it and rightly so. He said, 'Look at these words, just look at these words.' and I guess the guy had heard it sung so often that he just wasn't hearing it anymore. 'And did those feet, in ancient times...' you know, it was the song everyone sang at the Last Night of the Proms! It was something that no-one was even hearing anymore. "

Revelations : "He'd probably have liked it even less if he had analysed the words - this searing anti-establishment polemic..."

Clive : "Absolutely right!"

Revelations : "He hated it for the wrong reasons."

Clive : "Absolutely right - hated it because he thought it was bland, and in actual fact if he'd listened to it with his heart he would have found, as you rightly say, this incredible dark..."

Revelations : "'You're not having that in my church...'"

Clive : "Right, right, exactly."

Revelations : "Thanks - I can't tell you how much fun that was."

Clive : "Good, good, for me too, thank you. How is the website?"

Revelations : "Not enough time - unmanageable!"

Clive : "But in a good way, right? Tell me about the response from around the world. I think the interesting thing for me, is that a lot of the mechanical questions, putting aside the practical questions like where can I find Pidgin and Theresa, and we will certainly solve those problems, a lot of the practical questions are being answered and now I feel like it's time to start to engage in the kind of discussion that we've just engaged in - a philosophical and a metaphysical conversation, because that's where I feel the really interesting things and the radical things can start to happen."

Revelations : "Well, I expect in 30 or 40 years' time, great artists to be saying, 'Well I really loved the late Clive Barker - not the early stuff which was really derivative, but where he moved to eventually...'"

Clive : "Right, and the problem for me always is the tension between what the publishers want and what I want to put out."

Revelations : "There will always be commercial pressures. When Stephen King was over here in the UK late last year he said that he could never imagine not writing, but he could certainly imagine not publishing."

Clive : "I saw that, that struck me as very strange."

Revelations : "I guess he sees that as the downside; he writes for himself and then the downside for him is the tours, the signings..."

Clive : "Well..."

Revelations : "It's not unreasonable, I suppose. I remember standing with you in Liverpool last year at the end of the evening when all the people you really knew had come along to say hello, and one of them said, 'Clive, I can't believe you still do this!' and you said..."

Clive : "Neither can I! Right. Well for me there's an element of just wanting to, and we're talking about this for the next book, find a new way to do this, so that the travelling part, which I find the most problematic, is reduced in amount. What you guys are doing is, I think, the way of the future. I mean very plainly people are going to be looking to things like your website as a source of information. It may be one of the reasons why I get asked, at events like last night, a lot less mechanical questions. It may very well be that you guys are answering all of them."

Revelations : "Well, I hope that is the case - though it makes it tougher for you..."

Clive : "Well, in one sense, yes, it makes it tougher, Phil, but it actually makes it a lot more interesting because I feel that I'm not having to simply answer the same questions over and over again."

Revelations : "Right - what scares you, Clive ?"

Clive : "Ugh!"

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