Structo talks to Steven Hall

“If you start trying to chase what people want you would end up watering yourself down. It’s best to go with the excitement and see what happens”

This interview first appeared in issue eight, published July 2012.

The plot of Steven Hall’s début novel, The Raw Shark Texts, is rather a difficult one to explain. You can get through most of it without blinking: the protagonist’s name is Eric Sanderson, and he has memory problems. The book begins with Eric waking up in a state of amnesia on his bedroom floor. So far so good. He finds a note from himself attached to his front door, telling him to visit a certain Dr Randle. He does, and the doctor fills him in on his recent past, including the accidental death of his fiancée Clio and the nature of his disorder, a condition Randle calls ‘dissociative fugue’. Later that day a letter is delivered to Eric’s home. It appears to have been sent by Eric himself and hints that more is going on than meets the eye. The next day a cat arrives. Over the next few days — and under the decidedly unimpressed gaze of Ian (surname: the Cat) — Eric receives more letters and tries to piece together his shattered life. This continues until late one night, when his living room dissolves into a great ocean, and Eric realises he is being hunted by an enormous creature: a shark.

The rest of the novel is a journey taken by Eric and the reader both: a journey to discover just what the hell is going on. Even the text doesn’t appear to be on his side, as it has a tendency to take on other forms — a variety of conceptual fish, codes, a map — and at those moments The Raw Shark Texts doesn’t feel much like a book, it feels like a living, swimming creature. — Euan

Was the nature of books something that had interested you for a while before you wrote the book?

Yeah. I started out as an artist and I was interested in books and working with books before I was writing fiction. I think the text imagery predates my writing fiction. I was interested in that first. Exploring that in a visual way, and exploring ideas about language and the evolution of ideas and language in a visual sense, and that predated the book.

How much of a plan did you have for the book itself? It’s such a complex, but apparently internally consistent, book that it must have required — well, I imagine a wall of post-it notes…

Not a lot written down. I think I did some bullet lists, but a lot of thinking, a hell of a lot of thinking time. It pushed a lot of other things out of my head! I think when I first started to write it I had an hour bus journey to work and back, so that became dedicated thinking time, but with the second book – which is bigger and more complicated – I’m having to make a lot more plans. I think there’s a sweet point between planning and understanding what you’re trying to do because if you don’t already believe the world you’re planning to write about, when you come to write about it then it feels fake. The shark had to be fully realised. I had to convince myself that it wasn’t ridiculous before I even wrote those sections. Hopefully it has a strange logical sense, which is the idea. There’s a logic to it. Something I’ve said before, one of the things that created the shark was this idea that water terminology is deeply embedded in what we talk about when we talk about ideas.

Why is that?

I don’t know! Whether the language came first and it became connected in our thoughts, or whether the language grew out of an older connection between those things, but there’s certainly something about the idea of a flow from somewhere to somewhere else that feels as much about ideas and language as it feels about water and movement.

And the shark was found in those waters.

It just became a thought game. We already have this idea set up, where there’s this network of not physical flows but flows of information – of thought and ideas – then what could conceivably live there? And then it was a game of building the different types of things that could live in that kind of environment.

Was it always going to be a novel?

Yeah… yeah it was. It wasn’t always going to be the novel it turned out to be because Eric and Clio’s story was going to be a different novel for quite a long time. I didn’t realise that this idea of losing the one person who really understands you and the one person who reflects back what you are – if that mirror disappears are you even anybody? – was really interesting. It took me a little while to realise that was the same story as the shark, but flipped on its head.

And is dissociative fugue a real thing?

It is. It very rarely works in the way that I have it working in the book. It doesn’t tend to expand to absorb more and more, I kind of invented a progressive version of it, but yes it’s a real thing that just takes a bite out of your life. It just goes.

Is it trauma-driven?

Yeah. Usually it’s the moment of trauma that’s totally lost, but it can take a person’s whole sense of identity and they are left with no idea of who they are.

You mentioned that you would have trouble selling something as abstract as The Raw Shark Texts. Had you written it when you sold it? How did that work in the initial stages?

The main problem was before I’d written it, when I talked to people about it they thought I was insane. I was really lucky in that my agent is also Scarlett Thomas’s agent, and she read a couple of chapters of it. We just got talking online, and she passed it straight to her agent and he took a chance and signed me up after just a couple of chapters. Then we went out with it to Canongate and they wanted it, which was awesome. But even after it came out there were a lot of people saying, ‘will you tell us what your book is about?’

How long does that usually take?

I got it down so that you could get the idea of the story across without getting bogged down. I know some people at my publishers developed a process of telling the emotional character story, and then saying, ‘and then there’s this conceptual shark’, and then push on as if they haven’t just said the word conceptual, and just watch people slowly work out what that means. But, yeah, it’s an unusual book.

The Raw Shark Texts has emerged onto the internet in the form of the ‘unchapters’ and the ‘negatives’. Can you explain a little about what they are?

For every chapter in The Raw Shark Texts there’s an unchapter, so 36 of them eventually, and some of them are offshoots or continuations of the story, little bits that have been missing. Some of them are indexes or lists. There’s a prologue, one of them is an entire encyclopaedia of unusual fish. Just lots of things one step removed from the book. There’s one about the origin of Ian and Gavin, and there’s one about Gavin the Cat. There’s one about one of the villains in the story which was printed and written as a one-off and left out in the world. It was taken but has never resurfaced, so that one’s lost now. The idea is that there’s an ‘unbook’ for the book.

Was that conceived along with the original novel, or has it emerged since?

It was conceived alongside it. Towards the end of writing Raw Shark, and really understanding the kind of book I was trying to write and what I wanted it to do. One of the big things in the book is about loss and incompleteness and about some things that a person can move heaven and earth to get hold of but will slip through your fingers. I just loved the idea that the book is not quite complete; that there are some things you don’t know, some things that would help you understand the book, but which are lost.

Is there much you can say about the next book?

It’s not a case of not wanting to talk about it, it’s just that it’s almost parental. What are the best choices I can make for this little thing that will give it the best chance? What should I say that people will be interested in, what should I not say until people get to see it? Either way, it’s bigger and more complicated than the last one.

I think the people who enjoyed Raw Shark would appreciate that.

I hope so. The thing with Raw Shark, the only guiding principle I had, was, ‘is it something I’m interested in?’, and I think with the new book it’s even more so. I think it’s interesting, and really that’s the only steer you’ve got. If you start trying to chase what people want you would end up watering yourself down. It’s best to go with the excitement and see what happens. This one spans over two hundred years and it’s about time and narrative and God and the death of print. It’s very much about books. I think there’s a lot in there about my feelings towards the waning power of books. About what it means to lose print books, the definite beginnings and ends you get with print books. It’s about finding stories for different media, isn’t it? When I’m writing I try and stay away from certain kinds of books. I try and stay away from people who are writing things that might have the same concerns as mine. Sometimes I can’t resist though, sometimes I just jump in. I’ve been reading Melville and Dickens pretty much nonstop for a year or two. Moby Dick is great, it’s like Jaws, but the shark wins. [Laughter] Because of the kind of stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of things I wouldn’t read normally. And kind of like we were saying about Casablanca and Citizen Kane, finding books everyone says are classics and thinking, ‘oh, I’d better have a look at this… hey this is fucking amazing! One might even call it a classic.’ [Laughter]


And will it just be a paper book?

I think I’d like to do an app with it.

Has that been done before?

Faber released one for The Waste Land which is supposed to be amazing. The next book is really designed to be held, but I’m thinking the one after that I might design specifically not to be, because there are certain things you can do with electronic text that you can’t do with print. I’m quite excited about the idea of mutability — that the book can change on you — if you went back a few pages everything you thought you’d read wasn’t there any more and something else had taken its place. I’m not anti any format, but I think that at the moment an ebook is a translation, and people don’t quite see that at the moment. It’s probably the closest translation to another format you can have, more so than audio, but it’s still absolutely a translation.

Are you involved in the screen adaptation of Raw Shark that’s ongoing?

Not really. They keep me posted on what they’re doing, but no I have no creative involvement in it. If you make a decision to sell the film rights, or the option, for a certain length of time then you’re beholden to either help those people when they ask for help or else leave them to it.

It must be an nightmare trying to adapt someone like Murakami, but Raw Shark is more narrative-driven, so might be a bit easier.

The film people did say that, ‘it’s helpful that your book is about people going places’. It is difficult because the book was written to be the kind of story that would only work as a book and so you have to make some brave and interesting stories to adapt it to screen, I would have thought. It’s funny though, I was sat talking to my agent when the book was finished, and he said, ‘we’re really happy with the book, it’s really different, and no one will be crazy enough to want to turn it into a film because it’s all about words and pages’. Then three different people tried to buy it before it even came out. Best of luck to them!

But I’d say the things that are closest to it are films, in terms of tone. I can see a bit of [director Michel] Gondry’s playfulness in discussing something outside of the realms of normal experience.

It intentionally uses a lot of cinematic language. I made some people quite cross when it came out because I think they misunderstood and thought it was a glorified screenplay, that it was something that was written to get some kind of Hollywood blockbuster. It does use a lot of cinematic language, but if you look at the mechanics of it, it’s fundamentally un-filmable. Even looking at just the first part of it. The first part of the book is a man sitting on his own in a house with a cat. They’re a bunch of really smart people [at FilmFour], and the producers who have it really love the book and are working really hard on it and they have a vision for it. It’s just great that people care so much and get so excited, and think that this is great and we want to do x with it. But I think while it belongs to other people, it seems wisest to let them get on with it. For my sanity as much as anything else.  It seems like a strange kind of magic that any films ever get made at all, from what I understand.

Speaking of film, Casablanca features quite heavily in the book. Why is it so important?

It’s my favourite love story is the main reason. I think it’s so smart as a love story, kind of accidentally ahead of its time. It’s a story about people in love who can’t get what they want because life isn’t like that. They have moments of happiness in that film, but the line, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’ is just Casablanca in a nutshell. I love that film because there are no good guys in it; everyone’s a villain more or less and everyone’s morally corrupt. I can’t think of another black and white film in which the world encroaches to such a degree on two people’s happiness. The movies from that period tend to focus mainly on the lead characters overcoming adversity in order to be together, and Casablanca is the opposite: the world is bigger than we are and you’ve just got to roll with it. It fit the feel of the book.

Another striking influence is Jaws.

If you’re going to have a story with a shark in it, you can’t pretend that Jaws doesn’t exist. This is a story not really about a shark, but about the collective cultural idea of what a shark is, and how that manifests as a totem of other things. I think you have to go to those images; it would have been such a big swerve to pull to avoid it. It was one of those things that I always knew that’s where it was going. It always made perfect sense to me, and I couldn’t imagine it going any other way.

Do you think many people realise that the last however-many pages follow the structure of Jaws?

I think a lot of people see the Jaws influence on it, that archetypal narrative, and a lot of people don’t know what to do with that. It’s a little like I was saying: there are bigger and bigger jumps to make in the book as you go along, and you have to suspend more and more disbelief to support Eric in what he’s doing, as the story goes on. Or you can give up on him, it’s your choice as the reader. And that affects what the story is in the end, depending on how much you were able to go along with what happens. There are five actual doors in the story, and every time someone goes through one of those doors things change. It gets more and more abstracted from the real world every time they pass through one of the five doors.

Were you consciously trying to break away from the idea of what a book could be?

Looking at how to tell the story, as far as I’m concerned you have so many pages, so much ink, and the letters of the alphabet, and anything else you have to help you tell the story is all up for grabs as far as I could see. I don’t think I’d ever work with typesetting like that if it wasn’t fundamental to the story. Everything has to work with everything else. I hate the idea that everything beyond straight, left to right text is somehow a gimmick. Sometimes it can be, sometimes people put things in books just to be eye-catching, but the entire story is about what happens to the text, the fact that the text can morph into something else. It’s the text itself that’s dangerous and unreliable and tricksy, and it’s unreliable in every conceivable way: Eric is unreliable, and the book is unreliable because it can turn into a fucking shark and come straight at you. So that is the book as much as the story is the book, or as much as the characters are the book. The visual aspect is the book. Sure, it could work without Ian or Dr Randle, but why take them out? Why take any of those aspects out? Hopefully there’s nothing there that doesn’t need to be.

What was the publisher’s first impression of the flick book and so on? Did they take some convincing?

I was really worried they would. That was my big worry; that they’d want to flatten it into straight text, but it never ever came up in discussion. I think the manuscript went to them complete with all the images, and I think they understood that it was an intrinsic part of the book and I suppose from their point of view it was something that stood the book apart. I think they’d have been crazy to fight against that. The first thing my editor saw was the flipbook, my agent sent them the flipbook and none of the rest of the novel.

It’s been translated quite a lot, even into languages which don’t use the Roman alphabet. How the hell does that work?

It depends a lot on the translator and typesetter. There are some editions which are astonishingly good. The German version when it came out had all the sharks rebuilt perfectly in German. It was beautiful. For the Hebrew edition I worked with the typesetter, and for things like the map we created new words for it, and she created a whole system of word puns for all the different fish which only work in Hebrew. There’s an extra page in that version, there’s a black page, which is another of Eric’s dreams. So one of the negatives is in that version. Then in the Italian version — which is another that I worked quite a lot on — there are an extra six or seven pages.

Where did the name ‘ludovincian’ come from for the shark? Ludo is Latin for game, but any other clues?

Lots! It’s also the name of the technique they use on Alex in A Clockwork Orange — it’s the Ludovico Technique. There’s also a philosophical theory on the nature of holes called the Ludovician Theory. The whole theory is concerned with whether or not a hole is an object in and of itself or simply an anti-shape in the world around it.

I can see why that would be of interest!

Sometimes a name just seems right from three or four angles. And it sounds great as well, right? The great thing was I remember Googling it and finding nothing. I think there’s a type of squirrel. [Laughter] There were a couple of pictures of a type of squirrel, a couple of academic pieces about the reign of Louis XIV, and that was all there was under that word.

I wonder how common that is now for any new thing you want to name — whether it’s a character or a band — you Google it first to check it hasn’t been done to death.

I think there’s a certain amount of smarts in that. Partly it was concerned with making sure I didn’t settle on a word which already had a life of its own that I didn’t understand, but it’s quite good to find a word that’s mostly empty and put something in it, especially in the age of the internet, which is very ludovincian.

One last thing. You probably get asked this quite a lot, but you worked as a private detective for a while?

Very briefly, for a few weeks.

Does this come up every interview you’ve ever done?

No! People hardly ever ask. It was just one of those crazy coincidences — I was working as a photographer’s assistant and there was a private detective agency on the floor above. I said, ‘Wow, it would be great to be a private detective’ and ended up spending a few weeks doing private detective type things — it was great! I’d got a place at university to study art, but decided not to go as I was having too much fun where I was, but then did a few jobs then decided to go back. The private detective agency was a random few weeks flowing back to university. It was amazing playing with all their gadgets: fake plug sockets with recording devices in them, manuals on how to work a single or double man tail… it was fantastic.

Was it for companies or individuals, or both?

All of the above. I did a job for a company checking for bugs — they were worried that their marketing campaigns were being stolen by a rival — and it was great, we had fake names and pretended to be doing things we weren’t actually doing. It was amazing, and it was playing with the world in a way that you’re not supposed to.

Can you remember your fake name?

It was Tim Estuary. Yeah, thanks a lot guys.