In Conversation with Martin MacInnes


First in our series of interviews between writers, artists, thinkers and policy-makers is this in-depth discussion between writers Clare Archibald and Martin MacInnes. In this conversation, Clare and Martin discuss his novel Infinite Ground. You can also read Clare's review of the novel here.

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CA:

I wanted to start by asking you how you mapped the novel out, what your process of writing it was? I was struck again and again by the depth of thought but also the lightness of touch that retraced and integrated themes and ideas, and genuinely in awe that you made it pretty much seamless even at proof level. Did you have a clear plan in mind, how many drafts did you go through and how did the coordinates of Infinite Ground shift as you rewrote?

MM:

It took a while to settle on the form. I started with the office interview transcripts and then left them for a year or so. I was working on three stories that would be about 30,000 words each and that would only link thematically: a noir-esque missing person investigation in South America; an absurd forensic and anthropological account of a destroyed office worker; and a travel narrative about illness breaking out on a small tourist ship in Antarctica. I eventually prioritised the missing person part and tried to fold the other two inside it. Antarctica got further away; I'd left a single chapter recounting the inspector's experience on the ship but took it out as the tone was too different, more expansive and garrulous.

The main thing was to write a novel that was absorbed by biology and not just about biology. I knew it would begin in the city and end in the forest, that there would be two parts, and that I would interrupt them with anthology stories. The low-key third person voice for the inspector helped get things going. Once I'd established this the writing and rewriting was quick. I worked through a few drafts with my editor, concentrating on one aspect each time. The only real problem was the ending, which I changed a few times; the evacuation of Santa Lucia was a late decision.

CA:

I love that you talk about folding the two inside. For me folding was one of the ideas that ran throughout and also how I would describe my feeling reading it – it felt like being folded in a narrative where the edges of you as a reader are unclear in parallel to the biological absorption being felt. Yes, I agree the Inspector’s voice although low key is highly effective and think the short lived narrative shift to first person towards the end of the novel works particularly well because of this.

MM:

Again, such a sensitive response, picking up on things I wasn't aware of. There is a lot in the novel about containment and its failures, about lines permeated in and on the edge of the body, about failures of imagination and empathy, about our shapes as things, about the impossibility of separating mind and body. I was trialling some of these ideas, and some of the anthology techniques I used, in the story 'Boxes' in 3:AM Magazine.

CA:

I read your interview with Jack Little in the Ofi Press and thought there was an interesting juxtaposition between you thinking that you don't have a strong identity and the fact that the voice that comes through right from the start of Infinite Ground is really assured and assertive in terms of the politics of place and nature, and presumably some of that strength comes from your own personal opinions? Very early on the reader has to confront ideas of, and collusion in, gentrification of place and negative co-opting of the private and community spaces by corporations (certainly as a Western European reader) As an add on to that where do you see the author's voice and experience generally in 'placing' their work?

MM:

With the Corporation I was definitely thinking of imperialism, in fact and attitude. The conquest impulse, the certainty that the world is not just for man but a particular type of man (i.e. regionally specific), and that the land can be charted, understood, and harvested. The lack of empathy and curiosity, in that whole project, is staggering. In Colombus's diaries he writes generally and vaguely about the plants in the new world; it's like he doesn't even see them, he hasn't even left home.

CA:

I think there is a strong moral undertone and shaping to the book in that it is not afraid to ask the reader to confront ideas of self and shared reality and the distance of sight we have from others. The section in ‘The Forest’ where the inspector feels uncomfortable with the level of manufactured cultural voyeurism will resonate with anyone who thinks they have travelled ‘authentically’. Also the idea that a manufactured reality is easier to consume and participate in is such a strong one throughout both the ‘Corporation’ and ‘Forest’ sections I think.

MM:

I was guilty of some of those travel experiences when I was younger, though less extreme than those featured in the book – such a weirdly artificial situation, this really uncomfortable colonial theatre. The apex of that is the 'first contact' tour; I can't believe people would do that. So obviously ignorant, wrong-headed, offensive. I think you can watch videos which tourists have uploaded on YouTube. You're absolutely right about empathy, or lack of it, and acknowledging different perspectives.

CA:

In the same interview you were very clear that you set out to include references to writers like Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges, and that your choice of the South American setting was in part to facilitate this? Personally I found some of the literary nods quite playful and thought that they offered some light diversion at times then at others served to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and not being able to step outside what has evolved before. What was your thinking in so deliberately wanting to pay literary homage? There are two bits in the novel that I thought referenced Rebecca Solnit and I wondered if you had read and also included references to writers strongly associated with ideas of place and space?

MM:

I was mainly thinking of Lispector, who was a revelation for me, particularly the novels The Apple in the Dark and The Passion According to G.H. There are nods to her with the suggestion of Brazil and of eating insects. I've always thought she was a brilliant philosopher of science and engaged with the natural world in a really brave and honest way, really challenged her own ego, risked losing herself. So different from the still dominant tradition in English writing, where 'nature' is something stable, beginning in the garden and useful for indicating a person's' state of mind. I haven't actually read much Borges - with the anthology parts I was probably thinking more of Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is incredible, and Edouard Levé's Oeuvres. I've read several of Solnit's essays but didn't deliberately make references.

CA:

I haven’t read a lot of Borges either but isn’t it interesting that we have visual and literary motifs planted in our minds by cultural osmosis anyway. Yes, I find it quite incredible that nature is seen as such. You use the word flux at numerous points in the book and I think it’s an important one.

MM:

Yes, you almost don't need to have read Borges anymore. Flux is a great word: instability and movement. A more specific meaning in biology being the movement of molecules across and past a membrane. Writing about Carlos's illness, I wanted to have him shocked and exposed, as if the last layer of his skin had been removed. Writing or talking about any of this, it's so clear how many psychological correlatives there are to this kind of biology, or at least to the way we talk about this kind of biology. You can't get away from it, but at the same time I don't want the biology to be seen as secondary, there to merely illustrate what's happening in the mind. That's what I've been trying to criticise in novels! That knot, of psychology and biology, is so deliciously, impossibly twisted; I think I alluded somewhere to shock, and how the immune system in those moments can be temporarily weakened, even suppressed, making you more open, more vulnerable to injury – at the same time you experience duration differently, are more sensitive to details, you take in more - what's happening? Why is that happening? The body's reserves temporarily redistributed to allow a different, more immersive kind of experience in the present moment? A focus on attention and perception at the expense of identity? I'm speculating from a position of total ignorance and sheer enthusiasm. And these moments have always attracted writers, from Wordsworth's 'spots of time' to Woolf's 'moments of beings'. I don't think, even in fiction, you cheapen or lessen the account of shock-moments by incorporating biology in the text. It just makes everything more interesting, I think.

CA:

A huge part of the book on many levels is the act, various stages and experiences that come from walking. Would you say that you have a walking practice that played a role in the writing/shaping of the book?

MM:

I'm happy you saw this! It wasn't something I really thought about, which is maybe apposite because one of the things I like about walking is not thinking. Watching a crowd walking is interesting because it's almost seamless, there's almost no contact, despite the limited space and the fact almost no-one is thinking about how they're moving. Walking's humble. I've never been able to get my head around driving a car, have had no interest in that at all. I know it's practical etc., but the whole thing's ridiculous, isn't it?! Isolated, elevated, powerful etc... I enjoy walking – one of the reasons I live in Edinburgh: the freedom and the natural pace, the things you notice you wouldn't otherwise, the fact that there is no chance of accidentally killing someone.

CA:

Ha, I also don’t drive and have a piece coming out soon where I finally acknowledge to myself that this is partly due to my fear of the recklessness of others, even though I rode a bike in London for years – cars are an additional level of remove maybe from the natural rhythms and feelings you get from the self- propulsion of walking and I’m aware of that disconnect in driving. Personally I agree with the quote from the inspector that ‘questions and walking encouraged each other’.

I found the fragments from the handbook of the interior really compelling when talking about sitting and walking – it seemed as well as making important and sometimes moving points that the handbook was fun to write as a book within the book – was it?

MM:

I've just read over some of the handbook parts and was struck by how much of it is about walking. I'd totally forgotten. Walking and then details on other body-arrangements, like sitting, lying. This preoccupation with the body as an object. There's a line I love from Leslie Scalapino, describing skin, I think, as a 'self-analysing surface'.

The handbook parts were incredibly fun to write. There was a lot more of that material to begin with. It was so easy and satisfying. I remember sitting in the library, in a kind of fog after being there a while, looking stupidly at people sitting, seeing the roughly equal-lengthed three lines at right angles and how that looks like stairs seen in profile. Looking stupidly, naively can be a good thing sometimes – that's what I tell myself.

I could never ride a bike in London. I won't even ride a bike in Edinburgh. I won't even walk wearing headphones – too dangerous! I write in the library, usually after a fast 70 minute uphill walk, and find it much easier to get started and to do productive work that way, than if I'd stayed at home or gotten in a vehicle. I just feel stupid sitting in a vehicle. I hate the feeling of lassitude. The investment of making an effort to get somewhere adds a certain pressure to do something, as well. I'll normally arrive dry-mouthed and sweating at the library, determined, after all that – and after padding myself down - to do something worthwhile!

I rarely have interesting thoughts while walking, and I've always been a bit jealous of people that do. I imagine Will Self composing great essays while he walks. I'll just think about things I need to do, and then I'll stop thinking and just relax. I spend five days a week writing, and that's when I find out what I'm thinking; walking is almost time-off from that.

I find something quite moving about the routines that people walk in, tracing the same steps, going over the same ground. The ground's a record, where the vast majority of our non-ambient 'contact' is made. For a while I had particularly repetitious and redundant days, which I got around partly by thinking about microscopic records, traces. [This was how the forensics part started.] Even if I did nothing with my life I was still there on the ground; that didn't mean anything, but there was an odd sort of comfort in seeing the ground as proof. I was really, in that period, when I got going on the novel, stuck in an interested stupidity: I'd done the same little so much, again and again, that I was fascinated by the most taken for granted things. Speaking, walking, breathing, etc. I'd rationalise that passion by thinking of other time frames, macroscopic perspectives – the sum of human activity a brief and frenzied hallucination over much longer, quieter and balanced periods on the Earth. Which logically made everything interesting, everything that was happening now, and made it so difficult to comprehend that everything was passing, and yet I was still, relatively, doing nothing!

CA:

Thematically the novel picks up on so many huge themes but the obvious ones are loss and absence. In addition to the premise of the disappearance of a corporate worker Carlos, we are very much drawn into the disappearance of the investigating Inspector's sense of self. I loved the way that the reader is drawn into the realms of sifting thresholds and sense of collusion and acceptance in an unstable reality. What was striking for me about this also was how you create an apparent sub plot of loss in terms of the inspector's wife. She's only explicitly mentioned five times I think in the whole book yet the level of empathy that we feel for the inspector who we largely come to know corporeally via his sweaty oxters etc. far outweighs any level of characterisation (of which I think there is successfully very little). Do you think that the repetition and retracing of ideas and motifs if you like helps create and sustain empathy?

MM:

I'm glad you felt some empathy for the inspector. There's obviously a risk of alienating readers if you don't set out to portray characters conventionally, but that's not the type of book I'm either interested in or capable of writing. The lack of characterisation goes along with the search for missing persons and the inspector's increasing loss of self. 'Part One: Corporation' was also a pun on the body and the self, a dig at the idea of stability and isolation in either. I like the idea that a non-human intelligence might look at us and not primarily or even ultimately see a single organism, a single thing.

Repetition of ideas and motifs is about all I have, so I didn't have much choice in that!

CA:

I actually got a sense of humour throughout. One of my favourites was when the Inspector introduces himself to Mengano and Beltrano as Caballero. Although the repetitive elements reinforce serious points there is for me as reader a real joy in seeing how and when they next appear, I find this way of writing much more interesting and imaginative than a detailed description of what someone looks like and how pretty the landscape is. One of the repeated ideas is of repeating itself, the retracing of memory and the eternal palimpsest and one of the striking images for me was the disappearing redrawn outline of one of the possibly staged air crashes. My mind folded in on itself at this and several other points!. You use the idea of reversal as well, the unmaking and the never creating to good effect as well and we get lines like ‘the smell of him broken and reversed’ and refer more than once to childbirth, miscarriage and children that never are, the nuances of this linking implicitly to the inspector’s loss – it feels like a novel that takes on creation/being in its entirety on so many levels and for me the inspector was the stable place although very unreliable as a narrator. At one point we hear ’the amazing thing was just how easy it was to become utterly unconscious of location’. Given you deliberately chose the Amazon as a setting what are your thoughts on this? How much do you see it as a novel rooted in ideas of place, whatever that means to you?

MM:

I'm really glad you saw the humour. There are a few silly jokes, puns and reversals. The English tourist Charlie being a kind of double and opposite of Carlos: loud, impossible to lose, and someone who actually retrieves the inspector after he loses himself coming back from the bathroom!

How much do I see it as a novel rooted in ideas of place? I've never been to the Amazon. After I'd drafted the book I went to live with my brother and his girlfriend in Mexico for a few months. I was supposed to go with them to Colombia and then travel on south myself. For some reason I was really reluctant to. Maybe it felt like too obvious a thing to do? I thought I'd hold off anyway. We went to Calakmul, camped out, and I was devastated when they saw a pit-viper and I missed it because I was having a nap. I've been to rainforests before, in West Africa and in S.E. Asia, and I was drawing on that when I wrote about the forest. In that sense it's counterfeit as a novel of place – I don't name the country, I refer to Spanish and Portuguese, I'm not representing the landmass the blurb on the book claims it's set in. I think the idea of the Amazon is maybe too big for me. I was fascinated enough by the microbia along empty corridors. But part of the story is that both Carlos and the inspector are drawn to a biological core, so it makes sense for the Amazon to be there.

CA:

As a novel it is both a physically and psychologically immersive experience. There is a real focus on the liminal, and there have been few books that I've read and felt on such a sensory level. Was this important in the blurring of perspectives, lines of vision and thresholds of acceptance or was it more a reinforcement of the anthropological core of the book, or maybe both or neither?

MM:

This is quite difficult to talk about succinctly and coherently. I wrote in the way that felt best, and intuitively I enjoyed writing about non-verbal signs – sounds, smells, the marks that bodies make. I suppose I wanted to express different kinds of communication, and not prioritise speech. I definitely wanted to imply other spatial and temporal perspectives than the human. There's a weird draught system in my flat; in some rooms, at certain times of day, a cough, a sudden movement, a raised voice will rattle a door – I find that fascinating. It affects the way the flat looks, as well – where the dust falls, etc. So even when we're doing something as apparently rarefied and exceptional as speaking, completely regardless of the content of our words we are affecting an exchange of matter in the space; participating, I mean, in an exchange with other orders of life. And I don't mean this as reductive; I think it is beautiful.

CA:

I agree and think that your sense of it as beautiful (and in fact sensual I would say) comes across very strongly in the book when you write phrases like ‘trailing multiple breaths across and over each other’. Your use of language generally is pared down and I really enjoyed how you interwove repetitive ideas, so for example when you write of the inspector sweating and say ‘he sweated more and smelled like crab’ for me it reinforced in a very simple but effective way the evolutionary human link to the sea and wider ideas of origin and shared existence. I think that you write intuitively is evident as there is an assertiveness in your simplicity that is hard to stylise. I loved the huge amount of thinking that can be elicited re human culpability and personal responsibility from simple sentences such as ‘none if it existed anymore – it had been unmade’ and ‘their words were a disease and their mouths would be broken and reset’. I think when you have the Inspector saying things like ‘he used to think he could see language where it fell’ you’ve definitely got me as a reader wherever you want to go really.

MM:

So pleased you think that, and also that you noted the repeated links to evolution and the sea. The first word is 'walking' and the last word is 'swim' – that wasn't deliberate but it's neat. There's the note that Carlos's employee number inadvertently references 'counter-progressive' DNA patterns in land mammals; a desire for the sea again. There’s the office routine paralleling tide motions. There's the bacterium that hijacks host organisms and leads them to burst at the water edge. I'm fascinated by all of that, the ideas themselves and the stylistic effect of juxtaposing 'bio-writing' with 'literary-writing'.

CA:

In writing Infinite Ground did you have a strong awareness of debate around the Anthropocene and the Symbiocene periods? Certainly I felt that symbiosis was a central theme throughout as was the need for a retracing to find the truly cooperative roots of humanity/nature in a wider sense?

MM:

Symbiocene is a new term to me. I've read Lyn Margulis, on symbiosis and the origins of life. James Lovelock of course. E O Wilson writes reverentially, beautifully on natural cooperation – he's one of my favourite writers. To most people, in my experience, these ideas are completely alien and strange, and humans are seen as fundamentally exceptional. Writers of fiction are as culpable as anyone else. People patronise domestic animals, admire zoos, and are afraid of anything else. I wouldn't be optimistic of that consensus changing.

CA:

It’s interesting then that I read the ending as one of hope, is that how you see it?

MM:

Hmm. My editor wanted a clearer ending but I wanted it ambiguous. If you mean the very end I say he 'could' swim, which could be interpreted various ways. I think what he feels at the end is positive.

CA:

You said in the previous interview something along the lines of that Infinite Ground is a thriller only in the very loosest sense, there were however a couple of moments where I was genuinely taken aback - did you find keeping the balance of this with the bigger issues at play if you like, hard to do? MM:

I'd be interested which moments you mean when you were surprised. Again, I worked intuitively, and didn't necessarily work at producing a balance.

CA: I thought that the film references and how you use them for effect actually worked very well too and that you toy with the reader's expectations quite playfully but in a way that made me think about how we place experiences and memories in terms of visual culture. This is further extended in the filming/dark room sections - is visual representation something that you're particularly interested in?

MM:

Film references – I can only think of one direct reference? I'm fascinated by natural history documentaries in particular - the weird interplay of control and abandon, how the narrator only reluctantly seems to mention the political territory featured, how there is little trace of humans, and yet there's still this comforting, usually paternal voice surveying and presenting it all.

CA:

I won’t say here the surprises as I think they work very well as wee moments of suspense and would hate to ruin that for someone.

Yes, one directly, which I’m pretty sure everyone will get!. I meant it also in terms of the filming act itself and the process of developing it. I thought it was interesting that the description of the light and darkness and the smear of bromide in the developing process could easily have been applied to your writing. For me the idea of the act of writing and narrative construction was very present throughout and this came through in these visual processes. I did a workshop with the poet Michael Symmons Roberts recently and he talked about stock nature images used in documentaries no longer being allowed at Channel 4, I think, as there’s a new sense of the integrity of visual narration and narrative nonfiction. We do still mainly hear the paternalistic voice interpreting what nature means for us all I agree.

On a related point how much research did you do for sections where you describe scientific processes – is it all factually accurate or were you creative with the accepted scientific truths?

MM: I did a lot of research, over years, on the microbiology – not for a book, but just because I was interested. And when I started writing the forensic stuff, for what I thought would be a novella, it was all easy because the research was just a beginning, the hard science was to be a base, I would invent and the whole piece would be absurd. When I later 'folded' forensics into the missing person novel, I had to take out most of the invention. I've still left absurd parts, obviously. The report describing the life-cycle of the bacterium is wholly invented, for example. Parts of Isabella's reports – especially in how much she claims to be able to read from so little – are invented. I did worry that microbiologists might laugh or be outraged at how badly and inaccurately I've presented things, but it's fiction and I'm not claiming verisimilitude. I did have a doctor friend read over parts of a chapter and I changed a few of the terms. I think, really, I've taken a lot of fun out of that chapter by stripping away most of the invention. And probably to no point, given that what remains is likely wrong anyway... I read recently that Jim Crace invented all of the microbiology in Being Dead – which I first read at 16 or so and loved.

Smear of bromide in the writing – that's nice, I'm going to use that! The interruptions to the prose and the plot, the fadings and blurrings... Really interesting to hear that stock nature footage has been banned! I don't know if the footage itself was recycled, but a lot in the Attenborough films seem cyclical, the same things happening again and again. Sometimes I'll fall asleep when they're on, and be sure I've already seen that later part, never able to find my place again. Like the first few times I watched Blade Runner – and Philip K Dick was one of the writers I was thinking of when I began the original noir novella – and fell asleep, could never find my place, couldn't discern what I'd dreamed and what I'd remembered...

CA:

I think that sense of not quite knowing but really wanting to think about something properly and by extension perhaps understand comes across really strongly. It’s such an interesting and provocative book and your answers have certainly given me a list of other writers that I will now check out and indeed other things to think about. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak about it so openly and fully. It’s not conventionally structured and requires the reader to really think, but Infinite Ground is still exceptionally enjoyable (and I think surprisingly accessible given the depth as well) and I really hope that lots of people read and think hard. Thanks Martin.

Infinite Ground is published by Atlantic Books

ISBN: 9781782399476 Martin MacInnes can be found at www.martinmacinnes.com.

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Clare is a writer living in Burntisland on the Fife coast in the East of Scotland. She has been nominated for The LiftedBrow/RMIT international non/fictionLAB Prize for Experimental Nonfiction. Clare has also presented work at Manchester Metropolitan University’s public humanities event, Digital Re-Enchantment: Place, Writing & Technology and been made an associate artist of the Digital Institute for Early ParenthoodDIEP.

Her work has previously been chosen for reading at Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of their Storyshop for emerging writers, appeared in the Project Afterbirth art exhibition that premiered at the White Moose gallery in Devon, 2015 and been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her piece ‘Meandering Route of the Muscle Memories’ was selected for inclusion in the Journeys anthology produced by Scottish Book Trust for Book Week Scotland 2015, and she was asked to write a leader piece for the Secrets & Confessions 2016 anthology call out. Twitter: @Archieislander Blog: https://clarearchibald.wordpress.com/

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