I recently read No Exit by Dan Holloway, a dark novella. There are a lot of books that feature the dreaming spires of Oxford, but this one offers a very dark and different viewpoint.
Alice is drawn into Petrichor, a group of Parkour enthusiasts who portray decay as beauty, and death as just another choice. When her friend Cassie is bullied into suicide, Alice makes a choice that will change her life. The writing is poetic in places, shocking in others, and the length is just right for a short, twisted tale. Fans of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, and my own Desecration, will enjoy.
Here's an interview with Dan Holloway, based on my questions from the book.
So many people only see the tourist side of Oxford, tell us about some of the darker sides that you perceive, places that inspire darkness in your writing?
There are so many sides to Oxford. I started out as a student, and that’s the world I wrote about in The Company of Fellows. But even then I was more interested in the underbelly of ego and hidden perversions and desires that I sensed the tips of in my student days.
Since then I’ve come to know Oxford best through its rich cultural life, in particular the spoken word scene, which has very little to do with tourist Oxford. Oxford is home to Hammer and Tongue, one of the UK’s oldest poetry slams that’s been going for over a decade, and the best bookshop I’ve ever been in, The Albion Beatnik. These are worlds of political activism, from LGBT rights and Reclaim the Night through incredible projects with the homeless community like the Old Fire Station’s Crisis Skylight Café to guerrilla campaigns against climate change. It’s a world where the people you meet are as likely to live on a boat as in a cloister.
It’s not necessarily a dark world – though as recent news stories have shown, Oxford has that. But it is a world the tourists don’t see – and most of all it’s a world of passion and creativity that’s raw, flawed, and brilliant – everything tourist Oxford isn’t.
I love Petrichor and the theme of the beauty of decay – what drew you to that?
Oh that’s such a hard question and I need to tread so carefully because the answers come from the world around me as I grew up, and I don’t actually want to imply that Stroud is a rotting carcass of a town…
As a kid, I loved crumbling concrete. There were plenty of disused warehouses near us, and I just loved them not just as sites to play, but in themselves. My mum was also obsessed by ruins, and I think I grew up thinking on the one hand that buildings had souls and on the other that ruins layered with detritus and decay were wise spirits that had so much to tell us if we would only listen.
Then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, my wife and I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe exploring vast, glorious Brutalist slabs of deserted Soviet Bloc buildings. More recently, that has found itself channelled into a fascination with urban exploring – I would thoroughly recommend Bradley Garrett’s Explore Everything – for me that kind of record of fleeting moments caught between past and future is the closest I could get to a psalter or a hymn book.
I love almost anything urban – from street art to boarding to parkour to offline dead drops. The dark spaces of cities are the most beautiful things I know and I have always written about them in poetry and prose. I like to write leaning on graffitied walls and sitting on dirty pavements. Concrete is the repository of our collective consciousness. We can learn so much by melting into it for a moment to listen.
Some of the writing is poetic and you have even included a poem from Cassie – how do you balance poetry and prose in your creation cycle?
I’m 100% not a planner, so I’m afraid I can’t give a helpful answer to that! I write what I need to write to keep whatever I’m doing fresh.
What I can say is that I have always been obsessed with the notions of rhythm and cadence in my prose. A sentence needs to sound right. To use a musical expression, it needs to resolve – or it needs to be made not to resolve in interesting ways – that’s a wonderful way of creating suspense, to make the structure of a sentence itself carry the expectation of a conclusion that never comes. The very best thriller writers like Thomas Harris and Val McDermid do that instinctively, and it adds an extra level of edge on top of the content of the words.
The theme of suicide and choice to die is clear – how have those themes intersected with your own life?
A lot of the exchanges between Alice and Cassie in No Exit are autobiographical, based on conversations I had with a very dear friend who had tried to kill herself four times. It was an absolute precondition of our friendship that we could talk about anything but that it would be without judgment and without interference. Many people I know don’t understand that kind of relationship at all, the idea that if that’s what it had come to I wouldn’t have intervened. Much of the time I don’t understand it myself, and I’m very wary of even talking about it or writing about it because I in no way want to put ideas into vulnerable people’s heads, but somehow the notion of interfering would have felt like the ultimate act of violence against someone who had spent their life battling against a society that wanted to control her.
You write strong female characters, and in fact, Alice plays a role more usually portrayed as masculine in No Exit – how does feminism play a part in your writing?
Hmm, now this is a very tricky question – if I may, I’ll refer people to a much longer answer I wrote a month or so back (http://danholloway.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/being-a-man-writing-about-womens-books/). In short, on the one hand I am very much aware that I am a part of the problem. I’m a straight white man. The literary world needs fewer of my kind, and I see it as a large part of my job to ensure I get as little of the limelight as possible in favour of those not already privileged in the industry.
On the other hand, feminist politics matters a lot to me. My doctoral study centred on French feminism and its reading of make-female subjectivity in early modern marriage sermons. Strong, subjective women interest me as characters. I like reading them in literature – from Anna Barton in Damage through the mother and daughter in The Piano Teacher to the remarkable narrator of Ministry of Pain.
I also feel uncomfortable writing men. In part this stems from internal battles with my own gender. Maleness as it is commonly constructed frightens and bores me in equal measure. I don’t understand it and I struggle to want to understand it, and I am aware that can leave my male characters flatter than I’d want them to be.
I loved the book and you can find No Exit here on Amazon.
Dan Holloway is a poet, journalist, speaker and novelist. He has been a winner of international spoken word phenomenon Literary Death Match and his thriller The Company of Fellows was voted favourite Oxford Novel by Blackwell’s readers.
He was named one of Mashable’s top writers on twitter after writing the novel The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes interactively on Facebook. That novel, a dark exploration of the role of pain in the modern world, will be reissued this summer after winning the Harper Collins First Line award from over 1200 entries. You can find Dan at his website http://danholloway.wordpress.com