Author Interview: Simon Okotie


Photo credit: Evgeniy Kazannik

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Simon Okotie, author of In the Absence of Absalon, which is published by Salt.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in east London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. We moved to Norfolk in the late seventies – seemingly one of few black families in the region at the time. I moved back to Norfolk last year.

2. Can you tell us about In the Absence of Absalon?

It is the second book in a trilogy. My editor, Nicholas Royle, recently described the first book, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, as about ‘a man travelling 200 yards on a bus’. In the Absence of Absalon is somewhat less dramatic: it is the story of a man taking his keys out of his pocket – that’s the first half of the book, at least, as he does actually enter a townhouse in the second half. The third (as yet untitled) novel – forthcoming from Salt in 2019 – is about a man walking down a ramp; rather, it is about a man taking precisely four-and-a-half steps down a ramp leading to a pedestrian underpass (which I think is excessive – I am currently trying to edit out one of those steps).

The plot of the first book has been described as ‘slight’; whilst ‘In the Absence of Absalon brings us to a later stage in the emerging non-plot’, which is ‘wafer-thin’. Nicholas Lezard said, in the Guardian, that the whole of In the Absence of Absalon is largely a matter of qualifications, of trying, in tightened and tightening circles, to get to the essence of what it is to be alive in a contemporary city. And of course it is also a joke about the very nature of the detective’s search for clues. For here everything is of equal significance: that is, immensely significant on its own terms, and yet, when placed against the wider backdrop, of absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

I would say, though, that there is more to the plot than has so far been reported!

3. What inspired the book?

The books were inspired by a black man, known as Marigold, who was often seen in Norwich during the ‘80s unofficially directing traffic on the inner ring road wearing yellow rubber gloves. The original Marigold is still well known in Norfolk. He died in May 2015.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

The latter (although with my current work-in-progress – my fourth novel, a thriller – I am attempting to incorporate more of the former).

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Strange to say that I don’t really think of myself as ‘a writer’: I prefer to say, simply, that I write. After all, I can only produce meaningful work when my sense of self-identity (as ‘a writer’, or as anything else) is at its thinnest (although I’m not saying that identity is unimportant, or that issues of racial, gender or other strands of identity are absent from what I write). Fredric Jameson, writing in the London Review of Books about fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude, says that, at its best, to write (and to read) is to ‘lose ourselves in [a] precisely situated oblivion’, which nails it, I think.

And to answer the question, my favourite part of writing is where it takes me in my reading.

6. And your least favourite?

Poverty!

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I’m with Franzen:

“Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you towards content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended. The result is a silo in which, whatever side you’re on, you feel absolutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

Yes. I think it is readers, in a sense, who create books. I am grateful when people engage with my novels – whether on-line or in print – and am fascinated by the different interpretations of the so-called ‘action’, regardless of whether people like the work. Reviews always feed in, somehow, to my work-in-progress.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I am a public transport enthusiast, and like nothing better than a good bus or train-journey (outside of rush hours): an ideal place, often, to read, write and reflect.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I have just finished Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which is devastating, as was Philippe Sands’ East West Street.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I would love to have spent time with the Buddha.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I find it impossible to compute this question, as a highly introverted, private person!

 

Thank you Simon for providing such interesting, and entertaining, answers to my questions. 

You may follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonOkotie 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about In the Absence of Absalon. 

In the Absence of Absalon is published by Salt Publishing who I previously interviewed here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

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In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, published by Salt

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, which is published by Salt.

 

This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many by Wyl Menmuir and recently received a Costa First Novel shortlisting for The Clock In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

In the Absence of Absalon is a sequel to the brilliantly original Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?, a lengthy book but one whose plot could be reproduced in its entirety in a brief paragraph:

Marguerite is investigating the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor. He starts in a hotel where he has seen Harold’s wife Isobel entering a lift, he climbs the stairs to the floor where she alights and observes her eating in a restaurant with her baby and a friend. Ejected from the hotel, he then follows them and seeing her hail a taxi, and realising she has spotted him, he boards a bus and goes to the top deck. Concerned that Isobel may be on the deck below and that some of her associates may be following him in another bus he decides to leave the bus. He lets the passenger beside him stand up and walk down the aisle, and then follows him down the aisle, pausing to allow another passenger (a businesswoman) enter the aisle between them. That lady appears to pay his bus fare. At the next stop he rings the bell twice in the manner of the conductress so as to cause the bus to set off again – and while the bus is still accelerating away goes down the stairs and leaves the bus. As he is exiting he sees Harold through a window of a showroom the bus had just passed.

Clearly the author has decided that the pace of that book was inappropriate and has slowed it down for this book. The sequel features an unnamed detective carrying out “his investigation into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s transport advisor, who had been missing”. At the start of the book the investigator is approaching a townhouse, owned by Richard Knox, who Harold was known to have fallen out with before his disappearance. He believes he is being closely followed by Harold and that the house holds the key to resolving the mystery of his disappearance. By the book’s end he has walked up to the gate of the townhouse, looked for and found in his trousers the keys to the house, found that the apparently padlocked gate is not secured, walked up to the door which is opened by Harold’s wife Isobel, walked towards the stairs resisting the distraction of a ringing phone by then changing his plan when he hears a baby crying.

The narrator has been trained and mentored by Marguerite and is similarly meticulous in his thoughts – unlike Marguerite his thoughts are typically more focused on the actual case in hand though and (with the exception of rare Marguerite digressions into areas only very tangentially related to his investigation (one particularly entertaining one starting with a reference to whether Isobel is free to leave, quickly departing by route of the ease of leaving a non-dinner party into a four page discussion of what the concept of cooking and preparing means in the context of the three types of pizza (take-away, shop bought and home-made))) are often related to his physical progress and the motions of his body.

Overall a hugely enjoyable and at the same time thought provoking book and one very much in the unique style of its predecessor. Comparing it to that there are negatives and positives.

On the negative side, at times the physical descriptions shaded at times into a level of tedium I did not experience in “Whatever Happened …”. The book also makes, like the paragraph above extensive use of brackets, but, unlike the paragraph above does not seem capable of correctly un-nesting them, by omitting the use of double (or triple) closing right brackets. Only a mathematical pedant would notice this – but of course this is exactly the type of book a mathematical pedant enjoys!

On the positive side, the much stronger aspect of this book compared to the first, is the greater sense of meta-narrative in a number of senses: the unnamed narrator refers at times to what the investigator may be doing during chapter breaks; the investigator himself is aware (without understanding the mechanisms) that his thoughts and actions are somehow being monitored; the footnotes relate even more closely to the case than before; the narrator himself starts to get involved in the book, in particular as it ends following the investigator into the room where they baby seems to be crying “determined, once again, to understand the circumstances of his disappearance”. As a result the real conceit at the heart of this series – examining the very idea of sheer complexities of life and how they can be rendered in fiction, comes out more strongly.

This and its predecessor are highly recommended.

GF

 

You may read my review of In the Absence of Absalon here.

Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with Simon Okotie, the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: In the Absence of Absalon

This post was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, is a book unlike any other I have read. Its protagonist is an unnamed investigator who is looking into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor, who has also disappeared. The reader is regularly reminded of these core facts.

The story, if it can even be called that, opens with the investigator standing outside a townhouse. By the close he has negotiated the entrance gate, traversed a small area between this and the front door and entered the house. The means by which he succeeds in these feats, and the digressive thoughts that go through his mind as he does so, are described in assiduous detail.

The investigator is confident of his ‘unsurpassed experience and training’, putting to use his ‘superior knowledge and deeply felt instinct’. The task on which he is embarking – gaining access to the house – must be achieved under pressure as he believes he is being pursued.

There is a thread regarding Absalon’s wife and possible links to another colleague, Knox, who owns the townhouse where the action, such as it is, is taking place. The investigator’s relationship with these characters may be pertinent, although little is made clear. This is despite his determination that all thoughts and considerations should be fully understood. His obsessive punctiliousness takes up much of the narrative.

The investigator observes, makes a point, offers clarification, explores other potential meanings and digresses to comic effect.

“people die all the time but let it never be said that he brought anyone’s death forward significantly by not taking an extra moment to define as precisely as he possibly could, the terms he was using to express himself during his thought processes.”

These thought processes include a consideration of how one can tell that a car is facing the wrong direction: a field study is suggested to ensure full and proper understanding; advice is offered on safe and visible clothing for such an undertaking; detailed instructions are provided on driver etiquette when traversing narrow roads.

“Satisfied that the point had been made adequately clearly, even when judged against his more than exacting standards, he terminated this illuminating interlude so as to engage, once again, more directly, with his investigation.”

There are outpourings on the meaning of dead when applied to a bolt or a leg, a pondering on who can be said to cook a pizza that is prepared elsewhere, the means by which a key may be located and removed from the pocket of a pair of trousers that are tight fitting. The urgency with which the investigator approaches each of his tasks retains reader engagement despite how little is actually achieved.

Any Cop?: This is sapient, daring writing that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. It is convoluted, at times dense, and often absurd. Such inversion and introspection may not be for everyone. Those who engage will revel in the wit and perspicacity of its circumlocutory perambulations.

 

Jackie Law