“Dad’s been writing forever. He’s a sixth form teacher, and during the Easter holidays he’d lock himself away and we’d know. He wrote, put on plays for students and ex-students. And he’d write little stories for me and my brother and sister, it was part of family life.” But while he always received encouragement, he wasn’t specifically encouraged to write, there’s no sense of anything other than his own path. “We were supported in whatever we wanted to do. I was aware I was doing what Dad was doing. When I started writing properly, at University, I was naturally drawn to it, I liked it, and I had a skill for it.” It occurs to him it “leached naturally from Dad.”
David was evidently very involved with his Dad’s creative work early on, seeing the productions or being involved in the rehearsals; “Oedipus, Shakespeare, his own plays. It was magical.” Writing didn’t come as a challenge, however. “We’re different enough. Dad was always a playwright, and I did drama, acting, I enjoy that side of things, but I’m not as interested in...” and David struggles for the word. That side of the process seems outwith how he generally thinks about the work he does. He settles on “stagecraft”. The logistics of production don’t interest him. “I’m happy to be background, led rather than the leader, I find the pleasure for myself in writing.” There’s not necessarily even a comparison, although David suggests they share a sense of humour; instead there is a clear distinction; “my Dad’s work is aimed towards performance.”
So it’s incumbent on me to point out that David’s work is underpinned by performance; he laughs like he’s been caught out. “That’s what’s been interesting.” It was after university when he started to explore the spoken word scene of Manchester “I very quickly thought I need to get up on stage. I was incredibly nervous at first, but I enjoyed it and in the background my writing started to transform.” David writes what he calls Flash Fiction, which is not [necessarily] to do with the speed at which it is written, but while he’s toyed with other terms like short-short-story and microfiction, it’s Flash Fiction that’s struck a chord with audiences; “it’s a very sculpted story, boiled down to its bare essentials, an interesting medium. One of the things I found challenging was fitting neatly into the time allotted on the spoken word stage, I had a lot more success with the shorter, snappier short stories.” This has developed his practices; “I’m increasingly conscious whether I’m writing for the page or for the stage.” One of the Spiderseed stories Trust The Tiles becomes a performance, involving the use of the Scrabble set ‘and audiences like it, it’s like a magic trick, I use a bit of sleight of hand, how I take the tiles out of the bag, it’s sweet, there’s a magic moment.” Or like Most Haunted, as micro as microfiction comes, “I really take my time over it, and while it’s not just about laughs I can get maybe three laughs in a performance. But the longer ones work better on the page.”
So I ponder on the distinction between Flash Fiction and certain forms of poetry. “I never call myself a poet, but there is a poetic feel. I’m very conscious of the rhythms of a sentence, always geared towards telling a story.” He thinks back to some of the Christmas stories in his collection Merry Gentlemen, which he feels get quite poetic due to the carols and seasonal songs going round his head when they were being written. He remembers one performance when he was approached afterward to be told “stick a few line breaks in, you’ve got a poem there.” It’s about how the work sounds.
David always writes at home and he starts by just writing until he reaches a natural break when he’ll go back and read it out loud. He’s found it’s a good way to editing himself and he’ll make a point of doing it, and if he’s writing for performance he’ll do it a lot. He’s glad that the sense of the rhythmic comes through the performance, powered by the meter under it. “I wonder if that comes from my Dad,” he reminisces. “I used to act quite a lot, drama, A-levels was Macbeth. There was a period of time late high school and A-levels when I was doing a lot of line-learning, reading, scripts, acting. There’s a logical link.”
“My writing flows quite naturally. It’s sometimes a curse, overwriting. I have a three-line beat, I’ll say one thing, then say it again slightly differently with an extra metaphor, then say it again with an extra simile. I know I do it, I’m very conscious of it.” His writing group ensure he’s aware of when it happens too often.
His writing starts with a concept, an idea that he wants to write about linked to some unusual angle. He grabs at the copy of Spiderseed on the table and looks up Trails. “I wanted to write about my least favourite animal. I think it’s a slug. How can I write about a slug that makes me change my mind? I wanted a way in.” I suggest that his work has the feeling often of an extended metaphor, and he agrees, there’s something behind the story that’s never made explicit while David gets to present only what he wants. Or occasionally “sometimes a story will come together, and I don’t even know how.” The title story of Spiderseed came from the image provided by an internet submission, the image of a tree breeding spiders which came to be about a father-son relationship utterly unlike his own with his Dad, and using “that weird idea of spiders growing out of trees.”
The way David’s stories end seem to reinforce their metaphorical nature, but of course the endings of stories wholly depends, and sometimes he has what he calls the “bad habit” of abandoning stories when he can’t get it to the ending that satisfied him, if he’s trying to hit out, create an effect for an audience. Spiderseed didn’t have the ending until he reached it and he says he’s learnt to write out until the story forms itself. It’s become evident that David doesn’t always start knowing the length of the piece, although there’s often parameters, and often it’s to do with stage time. But with longer fiction he won’t know. Many of his animal stories reached two to three-thousand words, one about five thousand, while a couple in Spiderseed wouldn’t get to that length. “Rather than abandon them, I turned them into Flash Fiction. Don’t let people think about it too long.” On the other hand, “I’m getting better when I sit down, I’m writing longer.”
I take the plunge and ask about the Novel. First draft done, couple of friend’s have had a read, it’s been tucked away for nine months. He says it’s been an arduous process, that there’s a lot he needs to change, and that he’s finally keen to get back to it. End of the summer, perhaps. It emerged from a project for his creative writing module that he hung on to and which involved epic fantasy, world building. “Quite a big thing to take on. But I know my writing has vastly improved, I’ll go back with fresh ideas, fresh concepts, and see where its flaws are. I feel like it’s slightly held me back, I had to get it out of my head, it’s been nice not to look at it for nine months.”
The Fourteen Stations of Blasphemy was written for performance, “sort-of”, when David knew he’d have a ten-minute slot to fill, so needed something hefty. He’s written non-fiction in the form of regular blogging for some time, but this idea was something different; “it’s real life in a way that feels like fiction is written. I’d been thinking about it, and wondering what are the stories I would tell, and this was one of them.” Yet this was a very different proposition to anything else David has worked on, as if there was a danger, a threat that the piece could pose that required mitigation. “I had to find a safety blanket, and I came up with the structure.”
Structure in an explicit sense is rarely present in David’s work. “I don’t give myself a fixed structure. It goes back to the rhythm, and I trust my instinct and use the natural breath points.” He has on occasion played with structure, rules or restrictions, such as writing a story exactly 150 words long. In one project fifty ghost stories started with fifty words, and reduced by one for each subsequent story. “In performance it becomes quite exciting as it got faster and faster.” Usually, however, his experiments with structure came about when underconfident or struggling, “and then it becomes like a brace.” With The Fourteen Stations of Blasphemy the piece had been started and there were anxieties around how accurate it was, what were the facts. “When I thought of the stations of the cross, it fell in naturally. Then,” as he decided to up the ante, “I tried to match them up to each station, taking the structure to extreme, trying too much to shoe-horn it in. But you’ve got a natural guide, and the crucifixion imagery, it’s like anchors, those things climbers put into walls.”
I am not, in this interview, going to be able to illuminate any more than any other piece of writing in the history of mankind, the notion of how an author finds their voice, when there is so much about a writer’s practice that is about taking what they feel has worked previously and experimenting with things they’ve never tried. For some it may be the grammar they use, or the length of the sentences; for others it could be the types of characters they create and the worlds they inhabit. For all the time I’ve known David and followed his work, animals have created the trail that leads him through. Yet David thinks of this as a phase. “Yes, I do. When I came out of uni and I decided I wanted to give writing a go, I had ideas for lots of wacky stories, grand themes. Then some things changed. I volunteered for the RSPCA, I still do it, not as much as I did, and the influence of my partner, we got pets, and I became vegetarian, then earlier this year vegan. All this time I’m still writing, having these experiences, trying to find my own voice. I wanted to find something I really cared about, that I could write with anger, write with venom.” His experiences with the RSPCA, dog-walking and at community events, taught him much about the way the British public treat animals, the myths they hold to, and how they can care but in quite misplaced ways. This lead to Tyson/Dog, which was accepted by The Alarmist magazine, “and I knew I was writing something I was passionate about.” It’s occurred to me that all the stories I know are of quite small animals. David laughs with recognition. “British and domestic, animals you come across. More recently I’ve written about an elephant, and that came about through a conscious effort, I wanted to write about the exotic.” He repeats the word to capture it. “Something I didn’t know.” He wanted to write about hunting, and apart from fox-hunting that would take him abroad to big-game hunting. To his evident pride, perhaps even relief, it has been published by Ambit; his most high-profile to date. “And, interestingly, talking about structure, that has a very clear three-act structure; things happen, things happen again worse, things happen again and it’s catastrophic. The magic three. That one just gelled, I wish they were all like that.”
When I ask David about his relationship with narrative, it would be wrong to say he hesitates; I don’t think David hesitated at any point in the interview as the thoughts flowed out of him steady but at times unstoppable. He doesn’t speak quickly, he doesn’t use esoteric vocabulary or sentence structures that are difficult to follow. There is a seeming inevitable purpose to David’s delivery, so that even when he’s speaking to something he’s not thought through before or over which he’s not got a clear sense one way, what he says rarely breaks up to reflect that. “With narrative fiction I guess I am less interested. If you’re trying to convey a whole narrative into three hundred words, it feels false, doesn’t feel quite right. I prefer to drop in on a moment, let the weirdness of that set up point towards other things.” I don’t think it’s quite about pulling the rug out from under the reader but maybe tugging at it a little. “Yes. The whispering in the ear. The uncanny, the unknown, the strange, surreal. What you never quite see. Film studies was a big part of what I did at uni, that’s often about what the camera sees, what the camera suggests, what you cut away from.”
There is not a lot of description in David’s work. “This is something I struggled with writing the novel, it’s a big world building thing. To describe the world there were descriptive passages and they were beautiful and flowing, but the writing group said there was too much of it. I needed to be getting the fucking story moving. There’s definitely a place for it but Flash Fiction allows you to get rid of it unless you use it. I do avoid description.” He doesn’t like to force a complete picture on the reader, and it can be incorporated into the mechanics of the story, being clever with it, doing it through the dialogue, or in how the characters interact with their environment. He likes to take advantage of the baggage that his readers will come with, so that the concepts, landscapes, creatures are pre-loaded. He has written stories based on Metamorphosis and Animal Farm, “and then a lot of the work is done for you. Even just saying Scrabble.”
It’s time for David to head for his train, and while there’s more I want to delve in to I try to wrap things up with the last ten minutes. But David is now in his element, there’ll be another train, and honestly just doesn’t look as if he can be bothered to move. We’ve been talking of performance and how David has never had his work read out by anyone else – rumours of a new spoken-word night in town that might mix this up a bit – so I wonder about the Speak Easy. He was asked by Annika of the Sip Club in Stretford if he’d be interested in running a night, simple, stripped-down, spoken word. No microphone, twelve to fifteen performers a night, five minutes each. It’s become about discovering, uncovering creative people in the area. He talks about the Sip Club being very community based, knitting Stretford together, and he wanted to tap in to that; so small-scale, no headliners. One guy came to an early night, very nervous but performed and has performed every show since and David can see how he’s grown in confidence. “It has a very loyal local contingent. It kicked off nicely, it’s flowing nicely.” It has a sense of scale that comes from the space itself, and because it’s a bit out of the way. That can be a bit of a problem when people have difficulty finding the place, but David sees that as part of the attraction. “There’s always a few intrigued faces in the audience, people who just come along because they’re intrigued. Some people have mis-fired. A couple of musicians, musicians can go on too long.” I’m always reluctant to perform the first time I attend an open-mic, preferring to visit simply as audience first, and I think David understands that urge. “I have a lot of respect for people who come along to watch, and then come back.”
My first experience of David’s work was a collaboration with his musical brother Rick, which I loved and which struck me as different from a lot of work I’d seen locally. “Rick’s very talented, very hardworking, he’s available, and he does what I say.” The twinkle in his eye reveals this isn’t the whole story. There’s a creative energy that David acquires from his collaborations with Rick that’s pretty unique, and that informs both his enthusiasm for making work and the texture of the work itself. “We did Tether together, it was good fun, there was a lot of energy particularly in performance. He sent music over, his music influenced my writing, a couple of times we flipped that around.” There was the challenge of filling a half-hour set for the launch of Spiderseed in what David was anxious to be a creative way, so he thought to do it with Rick, experimenting on stage. Especially reminiscing one story that Rick accompanied with the snare drum, David excited performs a little air-drumming and appears slightly in awe of what his brother did during that performance. “It all ties back with poetry and rhythms. I listen to Rick’s music a lot when I’m writing. I listen to music when I write, people say that’s unusual.” He shrugs, I don’t comment because I also often write to music. “I have a specific set of albums that will help me get into a frame of mind. But it’s a lot of Rick’s music. And the beats and rhythms enter the piece that I’m writing. Tether was wordy at first, performing it to Rick’s music helped get rid of a lot of that stuff. He’s not very good at self-publicity, part of the reason why I wanted to collaborate with him, like at First Draft. He’s got a new band now, as well as productive at the moment, four or five track EP a month of his own solo electronica project Rickerly. But he’s a constant source.”
It seems apt, somehow, that we finish with David focussed on a collaborator, a creative force, and a family member who has had such an influence on the way he writes, the words that he chooses. I’m not sure what’s next, but as David wraps his bag around him and strides off for the train, I’m putting Speak Easy into my diary for the first Thursday of each month.
conversation with David Hartley took place at Java Oxford Road on Thursday 9 June 2016 from 5:30pm // @DHartleyWriter // Spiderseed is currently available from Sleepy House Press @ZzzHousePress // Speak Easy is hosted by Stretford's Sip Club on the first Thursday of the month