Alan Trotter is a writer based in Edinburgh. Muscle, his debut novel, was awarded the inaugural Sceptre Prize for a novel in progress. He has written short fiction for Somesuch Stories, Under the Influence, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the Electronic Literature Collection, as well as a digital story for phones called All This Rotting.
His remarkable debut novel Muscle manages to seamlessly mix both the style, tone and violence of the hard-boiled fiction of 20th century American literature, with a structure and existentialism that nods to postmodernist writing, and creates something entirely new, and genuinely novel in the process. In the words of the writer Daisy Johnson “Muscle unfolds like a series of Russian Dolls, each more Beckettian, winding, and wonderful than the one before.” After reading it, we decided to speak to him to find about more about his influences, and how Muscle came into existence.
Hi Alan! What is immediately striking when you first read Muscle is the mix of a Dashiell Hammett or even Ross MacDonald style with elements from postmodernism — the enigmatic character whose name is a blank line, the back and forth travelling through time, and the existence of possible pasts and futures relating to the lead character Box. I was just wondering, was this a conscious attempt to challenge the ideas behind classic storytelling, or was it more a convergence of two different influences?
I suppose it was about scrutinising story-telling. The goal was to use story-telling as a way to talk about things like certainism and morality and anxiety and depression and those kinds of things. The way I wanted to do that, or ended up doing it, was to have this located version of the Dashiell Hammett/Ross Macdonald/Raymond Chandler-esque style, it was about taking a fictional world tipped over in a certain set of rules and then disrupting them, as a way to talk about our ease, or our unease with things.
That was kind of where it got to, but I started writing it without knowing that. I wrote it for a lot of years and originally, I wrote a single page, a version of which is still towards the start of the book — the bit where the character without the name is thrown from the car and lands at Box’s feet. It already had this oddness to it, it already had some of the voice of hard-boiled noir-ish detective. That was a genre that I knew a lot of seeing the films of that era, so I ended up doing a lot of research and reading and discovering those novels. Part of it was procrastination I suppose, because when I’m writing I use a lot of ways to avoid writing. I wanted it to be: Here is a peripheral figure, someone who feels like Box feels, with a lack of autonomy in the world.
It’s interesting what you say about the disjointed element that you bring to the traditional hard-boiled form, because it made me think about approaches to violence in the novel. Obviously, there is a lot of violence in the book, but a lot of the time it’s approached from an unusual angle in that the characters don’t have the emotional connection to violence that you might think they would. People are very cold and detached from the violence. For example, the scene where Charles and Hector analyse why they don’t feel any emotion after pushing a man on to a train track.
The book is presenting this hard-boiled detective world, draining it of some of its more conventional pleasures, and making you sit with different aspects of that. The violence I think is part of that, where instead of being particularly exciting or cathartic, a lot of it is retrospective. In the bits with Hector and Charles and the train, you’re almost always catching them just after they’ve killed someone while they’re pseudo-philosophising about what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, and what they might hope to gain from it and how they should feel about it. And in the case of the main chapter of the book with Box, there’s a lot of him and _____ conducting violence, but they don’t know why they’re doing it, there isn’t an apparent purpose to it. They’ll decide to cut off someone’s ear and his ear is already gone, or they’re tearing apart a flat, looking for something but they’ve not been told what they’re looking for. It’s been removed from any meaning, which also means it’s been removed from the propulsion of a plot.
A lot of writing the book was written in resistance to the kind of fiction it’s referencing, I don’t know if hydraulic is quite the right word, but definitely propulsive… it was trying to write something that had the feel of that fiction without giving into it, without being carried forward into a detective story, into a crime story and thriller noir. It was more about sitting with Box as he experiences that resistance. He’s a violent man but he’s kind of good for violence, it’s the thing he does, but he finds it hollow. Part of the unpleasantness of the violence comes from the fact that the violence is not flashy and dealt with an off-handedness.
There’s this real sense of dissatisfaction — I suppose a feeling of pointlessness — that a lot of people feel about jobs that they don’t like. The way that plays against the hard-boiled style, which is normally so emotive and driven, is really interesting. Why do you think people keep going back to the hard-boiled style?
When I started out I didn’t know a lot, I’d probably read some Raymond Chandler for example, I’d seen some Dashiell Hammett, but I knew the film adaptations better than I knew the books, so I ended up reading a lot. The books that Muscle is swimming in, a lot of them are really very good but a lot of them are complete garbage, and that goes from Dashiell Hammett who I think is wonderful, to Mickey Spillane who is that hard-boiled fiction moving into caricature, a kind of self-caricature, gunning down rooms full of commies and the readers must be cheering him along.
I’m not saying this because I think all of this work is fundamentally clichéd, but I think one of the reasons it resurfaces and is used all over the place is about how it’s possible to condense it down to a couple of immediately recognisable traits. I think narrative voice is so specific that you can get a couple of lines of it and people will know what you’re referring to. So if someone’s sitting behind a desk and talking about dames, you immediately know where you are and that means that there’s already a compelling aspect to it. I think my first exposure to that hard-boiled voice was when I was eleven and watched the version of Bladerunner that has the Deckard voice over in it, the kind of noir trapping to it is more obvious because of that. As well as that reading Calvin and Hobbs’ comics where Calvin has these fantasies of being a detective. It’s so pastiche-able it ends up getting pastiched a lot. Some of the worst aspects that are metastasised to be everything that’s wrong with some of Mickey Spillane or whoever, are everything that’s wrong with a lot of twentieth century American culture: it’s about the one man with a gun who’s going to put everything right, with the misogyny and the brutality. I think that also appeals in two directions, in the same way that the general misogynistic culture has gone towards it because it sees misogyny there, and the things that you might want to critique about that culture because you might want to subvert it. It’s instantly recognisable.
There’s almost a sort of dream-like quality to a lot of hard-boiled fiction, in that it seems to exist in this intensified version where everything is much more direct, like in the work of James M. Cain for example.
Yeah, that makes sense to me. There’s a whole spectrum of people who use it in a really harsh good and bad kind of sense, and there’s a lot of people thinking of it more in the muggy area where the good guy isn’t all good. There’s still a vividness, it tends to involve a lot of morality tales and it tends to be really intense ones with guns. There’s something very punchy to that detective fiction and I think it’s infectious in that it appears everywhere.
In 2008 you won the inaugural Sceptre Prize for a novel in progress. How long did the novel take to write? Obviously the structure of the novel is quite complex, did you conceptualise that from the beginning of the process, or did that develop as you were writing the book?
It took about ten years to write. It wasn’t a planned novel, I stumbled through it, which is probably why it took so long to write! So, I started writing it in about 2007 and thought I would finish the book within a year, but I kept writing it for the next decade. Part of that was because I had to work, and, in that time, I ended up moving to London and quit my job and became a freelancer and freelanced for years and then I did a PhD and then I moved to Edinburgh. There were other things happening over the course of 10 years of course though, I wrote a lot of short stories, so it wasn’t the only fiction I was writing.
The way the book went was that I wrote about five thousand words, and it won the Sceptre Prize based on that. After that I thought ah, this won’t take long, but then six years later when I was still writing it, I got the chance to be funded to do a PhD in Glasgow, in English Literature with Creative Writing. The PhD required a dissertation, so for the PhD I was studying authors who make unusual use of the form of the book so people who use production weirdly, or type setting strangely, or illustrations or whatever it might be.
Because I’d been writing the book for so long and because I’d been writing it in this way where I didn’t know what it was, I hadn’t figured out what the book was going to be, what it was going to be about, or what was going to happen to it. It changed over the course of time and I worked only with what I could reach in front of me if that makes sense.
It does move about now but not unpredictably, but the first draft jumped about a lot. Actually it was a good night when my agent Chris saw a short story I’d published in a journal called Some Such Stories and then got in touch. It was really useful to the writing process to have someone reading the book who hadn’t been thinking about it for as many years as I had. I wrote this slightly larger, mad, monstrous thing, and then for the redraft I ended up making this workshop for myself, there were bits of the novel all over the place, but the difference at that point was that I knew what I wanted to make with them. It was about starting over and reaching for the bits where there were too many legs, and I would take the ones that were needed to fit in place, and that’s what later drafts were. Instead of planning the novel and writing it, I wrote it and then planned it — It’s not a quick way to write a novel.
After the ten-year writing of Muscle, what do you have planned next?
I’ve got an idea for a second book, I’ve started working on it, but I don’t want to spend ten years on it! I’m trying to approach it differently. I’ve been reading and planning a bit, and trying to do in my head what I ended up doing on paper with Muscle, trying to think that if this was the start of the novel, how would the rest of the novel go? Essentially I’m trying to do the crash test of the new novel in my head so I don’t have to live through every crash again, which is what I did with Muscle. So, I have a book in the early days of trying to write now which I’m excited for. Hopefully this way I don’t end up with a second book in 2040, but a bit sooner.
Interview by Robert Greer.
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