Author Q&A:
Aidan Cottrell-Boyce

The End of Nightwork

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Aidan Cottrell-Boyce’s debut novel draws together a 17th century prophet, a man called Pol who has a mysterious illness that ages him years overnight and the rise of a movement that pitches young against old. Packed full of inventive, funny and sometimes disturbing ideas and imagery, The End of Nightwork is a prescient book about an oncoming apocalypse but is also a moving love story. Son of writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Liverpool-born Aidan has had a variety of short stories published and once ran as a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party. 

Tell us a bit about your main character Pol, and where you drew your inspiration from for him.
I’ve always enjoyed books which explore feelings which are familiar to all of us but in ways which are surprising or even fantastical. The seed of the story of Pol’s life came from feelings and thoughts that I was having about loss and loneliness and failure. I think that for many people those feelings are reflected in an experience of the rapid passage of time. You wake up one morning to discover that a decade has disintegrated. It was a short step from there, really, to the idea of somebody experiencing that in a more empirically real way: ageing decades overnight.

Secondly he inhabits a world which appears to be ending and again, I wanted his feelings of personal apocalypse – avoiding spoilers – to be mirrored in the world around him.

In the book we see the rise of something called the Kourist Movement. What are you exploring here?
The Kourist movement is an imaginary political movement which proposes inter-generational conflict (and particularly old people’s envy and hatred of young people) as the cause of all the world’s ills: from the climate crisis to the housing crisis. I think the concept of Kourism serves a few functions in the book. Firstly I hope that it feels plausible enough in our current climate to be compelling. Second, the claim that the young must overthrow the old brings to mind the apocalyptic trope of fathers at war with sons, mothers with daughters, and apocalypticism was definitely a feeling that I wanted to fill the book with. The third thing was that I wanted to externalise the feelings that Pol has about the experience of growing old as a kind of besiegement. The mere presence of people who are younger and more hopeful than you can feel like a siege when you have fears about the passage of time, about having made a fiasco of your short time. So I tried to turn those fearful feelings into something more real seeming.

There’s an apocalyptic feel to the novel. How does the book relate to the climate catastrophe that the planet is facing and how governments are dealing with it?
I wanted to capture the loneliness of apocalypticism, which I think is analogous to the feelings of loneliness that we all have. People often talk about apocalyptic beliefs as meaning making, but they are also meaning destroying. The things that give meaning to people’s lives – relationships, ambition, justice – become meaningless when you see yourself as a protagonist in a cosmic drama and when you undergo the renunciation of coevalness which apocalyptic belief necessitates.

The second thing that apocalyptic literature speaks to me of is a very quiet form of despair. The thing that most induces that feeling for me at this point in time is the climate crisis. We are faced with an unimaginable catastrophe and the people charged with leading us through it have turned out to be unwilling to shoulder that responsibility. It is clear to many people that we require leadership to usher us into a new dispensation: a new way of imagining the way that we dispose of our vast resources to the benefit of all. Instead we have small cadres of unimaginative zealots desperately trying to jump-start the long-deceased old Robin Reliant that is free-market capitalism. The result is that we as ordinary citizens live our day-to-day lives huddled on the hard shoulder, in a state of quiet panic. That’s what I wanted Pol to be: a quietly panicky man.

The structure of the novel is very interesting, written in short paragraphs that sometimes leap about in time and space. What was your reason for structuring the novel like this?
I’m not sure that I really planned to write the novel like that – it just sort of came out that way. I suppose partly it has to do with the way that I experience life or, more specifically, my interactions with people. I’m not very mindful and I find myself quickly flitting from one thing to another in my head. It might have felt phoney to me to write through the eyes of a narrator who is always studying paint flaking from porticos and creases of alarm in people’s faces and quavering voices in the way some narrators seem to. Also I guess that some of the writers that I admire most – I’m thinking of Denis Johnson, Donald Barthelme, Flann O’Brien, Nell Zink – have that seat-of-the-pantsy way of writing which I may have been trying to emulate.

You’ve completed a PhD in theology and have written two academic books about religion. How did your interest in religion inform this book and its characters?
I think reading lots of apocalyptic literature from the seventeenth century gave me a sense of humility regarding the ways that we try to make sense of being human in our own culture. Whether it’s prophecy or ethics or literature, it’s all about looking towards the horizon of our experiences and trying to photosynthesise the light that comes teeming from there. Drawing these two characters – Pol and Bartholomew Playfere – into closeness with one another was my way of trying to explore that: to show that the language might have changed but that we’re still all doing the same tasks in trying to figure out how our being in the world – and particularly being in encounter with one another – makes any sense at all.

What was the process of writing this novel like and how did it compare to writing short fiction?
It’s hard for me to compare because this experience was so different from anything else I’d ever written. I think everything that I’ve written before, I wrote because I wanted people to think that I was a writer, whereas this felt more like something that I needed to write. One formal thing that is different is that I see the short form as usually something in between a painting and a story. My favourite story writers usually show us an image or an idea in paralysis so that we as the readers can examine it from all angles. A novel requires a lot more movement, I think.

What are you working on next?
For a recent project I had to read a lot of nineteenth century esoteric literature, particularly the kind that forms the basis of what today is called New Thought: the belief that positive thinking can change your body or even the world around you. I think that way of viewing the world is really fertile material for a novel and so I’ve been putting together some characters and stories with that at the back of the mind.

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