Interview with Mazin Saleem, Author of The Prick

Manchester-born Mazin Saleem, a contributor back in 2013 to Litro’s Mystery issue, has since crafted various fiction and nonfiction pieces that have appeared in Open Pen, The Mays, Little Atoms, Talking Book and The Literateur, among others. Today he talks to us about the recent release of his novellette The Prick, a humorous narrative that revolves around a rescue, guilty friendships and stereotypes.

Litro: Often your writing has held interesting philosophies – I found “The Utopia of Sleep” and “The Empire Cashes Back” most intriguing and now with The Prick have you brought another satire to the table? What was the inspiration behind the novelette?

Most of my favourite books are funny. Not “The Big Bumper Book of Jokes” funny. But they have a sense of humour. So they were my inspiration in the sense that you like to write what you read. Though I’ve written more serious stories – “Then Somebody Bends”, for example, in the same series as “The Empire Cashes Back” – there needs to be a formal reason for adopting such a tone. (Not an extrinsic reason, such as an expectation of what good or grown-up writing is meant to be like.)

The idea of a satire is tricky, because it implies an overall point, that deep down the jokes are being serious. The Prick has some serious parts, but its main point, I hope, is aesthetic: have I done something fun and interesting with the story?

Litro: Roland almost sounds like Will’s antithesis. Could you tell us a bit more about the two characters and the nature of the strange bond they form?

Will and Roland first meet when Will is about to drown in the sea, but then Roland saves his life. For one character to rescue another, especially a man rescuing a man, you already have an angle to their relationship, an “in”, as well as a steep, acute power dynamic.

What having one character in debt to the other does is that it gives you a certain amount of sublimated hostility to work with when writing their story. Debt and guilt share a long history – you used the word “bond”. The way their relationship starts means they have a reason to be connected, to keep orbiting each other, despite the bad behaviour that ensues, in the days, weeks, years to come.

Litro: Your chapters are named as “That Day”, “A Week After that Day”, and so on and so forth, establishing an awareness of the passage of time for the reader. It also seems like they wish to draw attention to the “everyman” quality of the narrative. Would you say that the eponymous protagonist in the novelette is more common in the real world than we think?

I like everything in a book to be pulling its weight, chapter titles included, if you’re going to have named chapter titles. With each expansion of the time-frame being highlighted, the reader is not only placed chronologically, they’re continually reminded of “That Day”, as Will is. And there’s a bit of exasperation, too, on the book’s part towards the characters.

Because Will and Roland together are meant to form a microcosm of one of the key drives in people, I’d say they’re pretty common. But the Wills pass by unnoticed, maybe even by themselves, while the Rolands more obviously and intentionally stick out.

Litro: The novelette form isn’t the most common of formats but you used this for The Prick. How do you feel this complements the narrative?

A longer book would have probably entailed more sympathetic characters. Acid flavours are better in smaller amounts. Sympathetic as opposed to likeable: I think any story can last for a long time with ‘unlikeable’ characters, meant in the sense of ‘would I like them in real life?’. What I mean more is that the longer a story, the more the need for varieties of tone, whether in the writing itself, in the characters, and in how you want the reader to feel about them.

The length also gave me a chance to make more noticeable structural choices. You might spend ages building some architectonic grandeur to your 1000-page novel, but I think most human brains struggle to take in or detect structure at that level, not unless you’re rereading and studying the book. With a short book, patterns are hopefully more visible: how each chapter is similar or different to the others, what the narrative transitions are, who is active now and who passive, and why.

Litro: Your style is very descriptive and visual – how difficult is it to find a balance between writing just enough to paint a picture for the reader but not go overboard so that the text retains its element of humour?

The best is to combine the two. TV’s trained us to find most humour in dialogue, which is definitely a great way to do it. But you can have funny description or tonal shifts, or paragraph breaks as the humour version of enjambment in poetry.

Question is, what will the long-term impacts of the internet be on writing fiction? It’s not long now till almost all of a human life, from the banal daily details to the most emotional stuff, will be able to be told through the text you composed in some form or other, lives defined by the written (more properly, the typed) word in a way that’s never happened before in history. On the other hand, there’s the visual side of the internet, let alone of TV and film. Like John Berger said, the rise of mass-reproducible imagery was a paradigm shift. So, in this context, can a writer still write descriptively well? Is there any point?

Litro: During the course of writing The Prick, what did you find most challenging? 

Most challenging was staying under the word-limit, haha, that’s for my editor. Habits as a writer I wanted to work against with The Prick was my habit of writing summary rather than scenes (the book is seven long scenes with some extras), or, when I do write scenes, writing them blow-by-blow, like a lot of us do, as if we’re transcribing a TV show we’re watching in our heads. The challenge instead was to write the scenes in ways that only prose can do.

Litro: Can we expect more such novelettes from you in the future or do you find yourself more inclined towards other formats?

Some from column A, some from column B. In Eleanor Coppola’s book Notes, about her experiences during the making of Apocalypse Now, she describes her husband Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas waxing lyrical about the future of films, how we’ll one day break out of the stricture of “feature films” and “shorts”, that there’ll be films of 50 minutes long or 70 or 30 seconds long. And the democratisation of distribution in films/video has allowed that, anything from Vines to four-hour YouTube film essays.

That these categories still apply in literature, though, that a publisher won’t see the financial point in putting out a book that doesn’t fit into a standard novella/novel limit only takes a successful proof-of-concept to be dismantled. Open Pen provides one.

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