During their interview, Nicola Kalinsky, director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, asks Charlie Hill, “Why do you write?” The author is taken aback, and after a loaded pause he responds with “I think…you just gotta, really.”
Here to talk about his new satirical novel, Books: Read it and Die, Hill looks distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, and is quick to self-deprecate. The interview format of the talk is a clever one, for the confidence and enthusiasm of Kalinsky facilitates Hill’s momentum, and encourages the author to express some thoughtful and subtle perceptions on the culture of literature.
The novel’s origin can be traced to Hill’s days working in Waterstones, spending hours gazing at the ‘3 for 2’ section. In the late 90s the idea came to him to write a short story, aptly titled ‘3 for 2’, which was published in ‘Ambit’, and would later expand to become Books: Read it and Die. On the topic of his own success, the writer has a dark sense of humour: “A part of me rather hoped my book would be picked up by a big publisher and end up languishing in the ‘3 for 2’ aisle”. Upon this quip Kalinsky is quick to point out that Hill’s dark comic timing lends itself brilliantly to the bleak satire of the book.
The crux of the plot-line is the idea that consuming mediocre literature can be detrimental to the reader’s health. At one point the story’s anti-hero and heroine witness the death of a publicist, and the protagonist flippantly remarks, “I’m not surprised she nodded off, reading that rubbish!” This is a topic that Hill is clearly passionate about; with some coaxing from Kalinsky the writer is very expressive about his abhorrence for mediocrity. “Life is too short to read what is pushed at you, to listen to what you are told you must listen to. We need to push ourselves.”
He finds it hard that so many writers are content to churn out the same mundane material, purely to make money. When asked to define ‘mediocrity’ Hill need not hesitate, and states with certainty, “The reader needs to be moved, have their perspective shifted, even slightly. There needs to have been an impact, rather than simply reflecting a person’s life back to them.” He is just as quick to discount his own opinions though, and jokes, “Hopefully what I write isn’t quite as dogmatic as what I say.”
The audience’s interest has been piqued, and Nicola’s praise sells the book in a way one suspects Hill, himself, would be uncomfortable doing. From the beginning it is clear that this man is an author, not a salesman. He discusses the novel objectively, without the need to bolster its content. Books is written as a series of first person accounts: from the main character, who stridently preaches about the problems of mediocrity; to the villain, Gary Sales, exemplar of someone responsible for such problems, but who is so human in nature that Kalinsky can’t help but sympathise with.
Despite Hill’s jaded attitude towards our contemporary cultural diet, he remains frankly optimistic about the future of books. “People have been saying the novel is ‘dead’ since the 60s, it’s ridiculous.” “Everyone loves to panic,” Kalinsky agrees. On the ‘kindle craze’, the author does not see cause for alarm, saying paper publishing and kindle publishing are not in competition with each other, so different are their markets. What he is less certain of, however, is what contemporary fiction will stand to be the classics of tomorrow, as it is so difficult to challenge a society that has already seen and heard everything. “The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is excellent, but I just don’t know if it could be a classic.”
Whether Books: Read it and Die will stand the test of time is a different issue. Though if the author’s obvious passion for writing flows through its pages as eloquently as Kalinsky says, then it is guaranteed to be thought-provoking and as far removed from mediocrity as one could imagine- not to mention, beneficial to the reader’s health!
by Susie Dickey