Author Q&A: Jim Gibson

The debut author talks to Alexander Garvey Holbrook about the ordinary lives that populate the less ordinary short stories in his new collection, The Bygones

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Jim Gibson grew up in the ex-mining Midlands village of Newstead. In the shadow of Lord Byron’s grandeur, he was part of a hand-to-mouth existence that was and is largely ignored by the media. Through his debut collection of short stories, he tries to encourage the lesser voiced truths of our society and speaks of a world where the strange and the mundane come together to form life.

The book opens with the idea that the Midlands is a place where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are porous. Is there a particular reason the Midlands has this quality, in your view?
Having grown up in the Midlands, you really get a sense of the wealth of mythology attached to the area, with its links to Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest and the plethora of pagan sites of interest that litter the surrounding countryside.

I guess geographically, the Midlands has always been a place of ‘other’, neither North nor South and with an accent that you don’t hear very often in the media. I think of the area as quite elusive and it has managed to hold its cards close to its chest, so to speak.

The particular village that I am from is located beside a woodland and there are many different spots of pagan and folkloric importance within its vicinity; the Robin Hood Hills, the Druid’s Stone, even a local holy well, thought to be the birthplace of the river Leen. This entangling of history, folklore and nature makes the area feel closer to the more fantastical elements portrayed in the collection.

I can’t help but feel that modern built-up areas have, in a way, rejected their historic sites of interest and in turn distanced themselves from the stories, the folklore and the magic that underpin the character of different locations and build a sense of place.

The passage I use to introduce the book is from an old text on the history and folklore of the area. I chose this excerpt as it allows the reader more freedom to perceive the stories with a loosened grip on modern reality. I would argue that this sense of magic actually feels more realistic once you remove yourself from the illusion of modernity. This way of storytelling opens the work up to three main elements that, for me, form the whole picture: solid reality, the characters’ internal reality and atmospheric or spiritual reality.

The stories vary in the extent to which they are rooted in reality. What does the more surrealist writing allow you to explore that realism didn’t? 
I really enjoy playing around with surrealism, realism and where crossover can happen between the two. The surreal elements allow the stories, in a way, to become more allegorical, whilst at the same time the realist elements ground them in a way that is known and familiar to many. A lot of what ties the whole collection together is this idea of modern day folklore. The characters are telling you their stories directly and almost in the form of a spoken tale, passed down to you through their own colloquial vernacular, creating modern folk myths. Much like olden day fables, we can’t guarantee the stories to be truthful or not, it depends on whether we believe the narrator, or if their character has some kind of influence on our understanding of it.

“The stories are often underpinned by having their roots firmly in reality. Sometimes stark, sometimes funny, sometimes subtle and with an emphasis on humility.”

The surreal elements also play a role in helping to really delve into the minds of the characters, helping to create the atmosphere and portray mental dispositions by utilising how the characters interact with them. For example, in Fag Ash the narrator hears music that’s not really playing, and that signifies the last hopes of his community. He can hear a part that he would have once played along with, like everyone used to do, but he can’t see the point in doing so; signifying his attitudes towards his life and what it has become. Or in The Pond when the characters end up turning into the frogs that they were trying to entice at the beginning of the story. This signifies their complete transformation from obsession to full-blown madness whilst also showing how people will do anything to dull themselves from the realities outside of their own boundaries.
That being said, the stories are often underpinned by having their roots firmly in reality. Sometimes stark, sometimes funny, sometimes subtle and with an emphasis on humility. This rendering of the characters allows me to tackle some more serious subjects in a manner that is honest and appropriate whilst also all being stylistically pulled together by the same narrative voice.

Your stories are littered with the details of small-town English deprivation. What is it about post-industrial towns that prove themselves open to imaginative fiction?
I think more than anything, post-industrialism and “small-town-inertia”, to quote Jim Mortram, tends to underpin my writing, even on a subconscious level, because it’s what I know. It’s what’s familiar to me. In many ex-industrial villages like my own, you can’t ignore the fact that the modern day communities exist entirely in the shadow of their former selves. Villages like Newstead were purpose built almost 150 years ago to serve the needs of the working colliery, its fleet of miners and their families. The geography, the housing, even the surrounding natural landscape were all shaped to serve the needs of an entire industry that for many years now, has ceased to exist. I think this fact in itself holds some very loaded, emotional and atmospheric questions of belonging, community and finding place and purpose in the world.
In my experience, I watched as the youth run away as soon they left school, to bigger towns with more amenities, to jobs in the city and prospects that the village just doesn’t have to offer. I myself left for three years to study in Sheffield, returning swiftly after I’d graduated. For the most part, people come and people go, but what I find really interesting are the solid groups and communities that never left, and have stayed for generations – the sons, daughters, grandchildren of the miners, left forgotten here by wider society, by local government and their hollow schemes and initiatives, by city money, capitalism and infrastructure.

My intentions have been to be honest and compassionate, to show the positive qualities of people whose circumstances in life could have, for one reason or another, been different.

I’ve done a lot of different work over the years, had a lot of different friends and experiences. I’ve been a maintenance man, a bus driver, a community college English teacher employed by the local job centre, and through this work I’ve met a lot of different people, from all walks of life. Those you may describe as being effected by ‘depravation’ and let me tell you, those are the real characters in our communities. The storytellers, fablespeople, actors, actresses and artists of everyday life.
I hope that The Bygones shows these characters in a different light and offers an alternative perspective to that of the media. My intentions have been to be honest and compassionate, to show the positive qualities of people whose circumstances in life could have, for one reason or another, been different. I think one of the themes underpinning the book is fate, not only in a holy, religious way (although this is touched upon in the bookending stories The Devil and God) but by way of societal fate also.
I hadn’t really thought about the term ‘deprivation’ in terms of the characters in the book until now and I find it interesting to contemplate. I guess what I’m trying to show is that this is just real life. The people, places and themes you meet in The Bygones are yes, fictitious, but they are based somewhat loosely on our friends, our neighbours, our coworkers, that mad bloke everyone sees walking up and down the bypass everyday without fail, rain or shine. These are the stories of real life, whether they are true or not. Deprivation is real, people are living now, every single day in poverty, some are drug addicts, some are nurses, some are children and some are bat shit crazy. One person’s description of deprivation is another person’s normality and I’m not here to fix it, to even comment on it really, just to tell stories and all I can tell you is what I know.

The opening story, The Devil, symbolises the end of childhood innocence right at the beginning of the collection. What does this signal about the rest of the collection? 
This is a good point. The Devil was the best story to start the collection for a variety of reasons and these all come back to this bildungsroman or coming-of-age idea that has been a classic narrative even throughout the history and folklore of the ages. However, in traditional storytelling, these would have been heroic tales. In modern romanticised renderings the characters might learn to be a morally good. In The Devil, our protagonist learns to not care about the truth and instead follows the crowd and to feed his ‘id’, the selfish part of the self usually represented by the Devil. So through his encounter with the Devil, this coming of age asks where the Devil actually lies in our society. By asking the reader to consider these questions at the start, I am setting them up to ask the right questions as they progress through the book. It is a world that lacks innocence, with each character just trying to make the best of their specific situations. On the surface, whilst the situations should seem hopeless, there is an underlying spark of something that could be ignited at any moment, even outside of the boundaries of these stories.

One of the running themes of the stories seems to be secrecy and isolation. What is it about these concepts that fascinates you as a writer? 
We’re all on our own in this world. No matter how many bonds we may have, when you close your eyes you’re just left by yourself and when you’re on your own you have to confront who you really are. Often, people will do anything to keep who they really are to themselves, so by isolating the characters you can sit in on their internal monologue and find out who they really are.
But it’s more complicated than this, in the story ‘You’ for example, the second person narration means that you are the character and you are an elderly person struggling with their memory. There could be people coming and going and you wouldn’t even know. So the isolation is used in this story to create the atmosphere of their reality rather than their physical reality. In other stories, I try to bring light to the fact that people are a lot more complex than we give them credit for. The secretive aspects of people are usually where their personal qualities lie, especially the ones that have been squandered or hidden, often underpinned by shame.

The people who populate your stories are, more often than not, the invisible members of society – cleaners, the unemployed, addicts, market vendors and housewives. Why are ordinary lives more compelling to you as a writer, and is literature doing a better job of representing them in recent years?
Well, I suppose the people you mention here are part of my community and everyday life, and therefore, they’re anything but invisible to me. In fact, these are the people that make up the real world for many of us, and what goes on everywhere else in the news and on TV could arguably be portrayed as the shared fiction for many, as it’s not the ‘cleaners, the unemployed, the addicts, market vendors and housewives’, like you say, finding representation in films, books and on TV. Yet these are the people around me. It’s undeniable that they are invisible from the point of view of the media and it’s interesting to consider how the lack of representation may impact on these lives.

My intentions have been to be honest and compassionate, to show the positive qualities of people whose circumstances in life could have, for one reason or another, been different.

For me, although I do think that these characters are more interesting both as a reader and a writer, I would struggle to write about more affluent characters much in the same way as I would struggle to write a novel set in the Himalayan mountains. You can only achieve a real closeness to the characters with the kind of insight that comes from living within its community.
However, with regards to industry representation, I can’t see the wider world of literature ever doing a good job of representing these characters. The act of writing a novel or collection of stories is something that most of my characters would either struggle to have the time and energy left to do or, unfortunately, having been let down by the education system, some of them would potentially lack the skills to represent themselves even if they wanted to. This is the first hurdle that would stop the majority of ordinary people from writing their stories and doesn’t even touch the issues that such outsiders have within the industry.
So then it is left to the anomalies, oddities and outsiders to portray in one way or another what they see and, apart from some of the smaller independent publishers, such as Tangerine Press who took on The Bygones, it’s difficult to find places that are open to listening to what new voices have to say.
There has been a lot of emphasis lately on ‘working-class voices’, yet in reality it’s all come down to virtue signalling and whatever the equivalent of ‘greenwashing’ would be with class. The problems, however, are deeper rooted than anything that can be fixed overnight or through a catchy campaign and bandwagon, it comes down to the fact that society needs the invisible people to stay invisible or they’ll get ideas above their station. There’s no quick solution as it is part of a wider political motivation.

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