Author Q&A: Tim Etchells

Endland (And Other Stories, £11.99) 

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A comical and brutal collection of parables gone wrong, Endland holds a broken mirror on our country and reveals a world shaped by Thatcher, Google, Brexit and Big Brother. Aging bikers, ghost children, cut-price assassins and wannabe celebs inhabit these nightmarish stories that feel both improbable and hauntingly familiar. Tim Etchells is an artist and writer based in Sheffield and London. He is leader of radical performance group Forced Entertainment and a professor of performance and writing at Lancaster University.

Endland is an idea you explored in stories in 1999. What did it mean to you both then and now and why return to it 20 years later?
I started on the Endland stories as a way to talk about England. I’d written other things, some more realist, some more cartoon-like – but when I wrote the first of the Endland stories in 1995 the approach I chanced on seemed to hit the spot. It grew out of Sheffield, that particular landscape and political situation, but embracing fantastical elements. Endland became a space where I could write about what was happening, but through a strange distorting mirror. It’s an alternative reality, always reflecting the place it comes out of.

The first collection was published in 1999 but I’ve kept writing the stories, sometimes by invitation, other times just for myself. In that time Endland itself has changed – reflecting changes in the situation here in England, and in the wider world, and in my own interests and writing. For me the world of Endland – partly real, partly fantastical, pub anecdotes mixed with fairy tales, a kind of grimy urban realism mixed with science fiction – is a way of speaking about what this place is like, not literally, more like speaking to the heart of it, the odd bundle of reality and illusion that England is.

Is Endland dystopian fiction?
The stories present an unstable reality. There’s harshness to it, certainly, and a strange comedy. The characters are often down on their luck, in the grip of forces and situations beyond their control. They’re muddling along, blown on the wind. The environment they inhabit is weird and tough. But for me they’re not all about bleakness. There’s anger in the stories but also some optimism. The characters find ways to survive, they’re inventive, wry – they subvert situations. And there are alliances – loves, connections on a human level – people find each other, among all the unlikely and catastrophic mess. Finally the stories are funny, at least I hope they are. Humour has its bleak side but I think there’s also deep joyousness to how it works in the stories, an energy of inventiveness, a positive enjoyment in calling bad things out.

Does literature allow you to express something that art and performance doesn’t? And what themes transcend your chosen medium to tie your work together?
As well as writing I work in different areas – as a performance maker with Sheffield-based collective Forced Entertainment, and making visual art for exhibitions and public sites, often in the form of enigmatic, provocative neon signs. Each of those areas has its own very different possibilities. In writing fiction I can explore the sustained relationship with readers, drawing people into a world I create in language. That space is very different to theatre’s social space, or even the mobile, three-dimensional experience of a gallery setting.

Language itself is a big theme across all my work. How what we can say or write shapes, limits and invents the world we experience. Often I feel I’m pushing, playfully perhaps, against language – trying to break it, to trip it, to open something new.

More than anything, I’m interested in the strange alchemy of connection with other people – the way encountering a story, an artwork, a performance, can open something unexpected in us, in dialogue with others.

Can we ask you Jarvis Cocker’s question from his intro to Endland, on you moving to Sheffield in the 80s: “Why the fuck would anyone move to a shit-hole that everyone else is trying to escape from?”
Funny. Well in my mind we [the Forced Entertainment collective] were the ones escaping! We’d been down south for some years, studying in Exeter (we met at Uni) and I was keen to head back north. Sheffield was a pretty random choice but I’d known the city earlier in the 80s, and liked the energy, the music scene especially. The desire was to get out of the South West, avoiding London at all costs, to go somewhere with different kinds of thinking. Sheffield at that time we moved (‘84) was in full-on People’s Republic of South Yorkshire mode and a focal point for the push back against Thatcherism, a city trying to make itself in a different way. Of course there was lots we didn’t know, and Sheffield wasn’t a haven for easy arts funding that’s for sure. But the energy was good and we slowly found a place in a
pretty varied scene of artists, musicians and performance makers. What was possible for us in Sheffield – living under the radar and getting on with the early stages of Forced Entertainment’s work – would have been harder elsewhere, so the choice made its own strange sense in the end.

Jeremy M Davies compared your work to a mix of JG Ballard, Spike Milligan, Mark E Smith and Derek Jarman. Who would you say are your literary influences?
All of them would be in that list somewhere, Smith’s work especially was really important to me. All four had a relationship to England of course – the landscape, the mythologies, the absurdity, the poetics and the strangeness of it. I read a lot of science fiction as a kid – Ballard, Moorcock, Phillip K Dick. Later it was people like Burroughs, Kathy Acker – people with that experimental relation to language, and a rather confrontational relation to narrative. Comics were important too – 2000AD, Alan Moore, and Raw comics’ Mark Beyer was definitely an influence, William Gibson and Jack Womack too. I read as much as I can, it seems to go in waves, but is always eclectic. Lately I’ve loved Annie Ernaux’s* The Years, M John Harrison’s You Should Come With Me Now, Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest, Lara Pawson’s amazing This is the Place to Be. I’m re-reading Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren at the moment too, which is taking me a while… another book that’s like a distorted mirror to a reality it’s trying to address.

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