Meet Dan Holloway, a novelist, performance poet, and journalist. He is the MC of spoken word show The New Libertines which has toured festivals across the UK, and was winner of Literary Death Match in 2010. His new book, Self-publish With Integrity, helps writers to discover why it is they really write, and then achieve it. I invited Dan to The Z-Axis to talk about his upcoming publication, why he loves literary fiction and poetry, and what success means as a writer.
You primarily write literary fiction and poetry, and on your blog you describe your writing style as “quiet,” “atmospheric,” and “not very commercial.” What draws you to that kind of writing?
My first creative love is art. I am drawn to things that do what my favourite art does, pieces like Picasso’s Guernica, Tracey Emin’s My Bed, Renoir’s Umbrellas, anything by Frida Kahlo. What they all have in common is the ability to produce an incredibly deep emotional response. To me that matters above all else. I want to move people.
What writers and authors inspired you to pursue that style? What are your favorite books in the genre?
Well, art is my number one inspiration but there are many books and writers that move me and inspire me. Haruki Murakami and Banaa Yoshimoto have an incredible way of creating depth of feeling from the sparsest brush strokes. Milan Kundera’s Immortality is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. Philippe Djiann’s Betty Blue is a gloriously uplifting yet tragic tale of the desperate need to cling onto what is beautiful in life at all costs. Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher is a book that’s so raw it’s almost unreadable – that’s something I’d love to be able to achieve one day. In terms of poetry, Adelle Stripe’s Dark Corners of the Land is a visceral experience, and any performance poetry by Vanessa Kisuule or Anna Percy will move you in ways little else can.
Film is also hugely important to me – especially the films of Krzystof Kieslowski – Three Colours: Blue is the most perfect evocation of the dignity of the human spirit I’ve ever known.
On your blog, you talk a lot about staying true to the original reasons you chose to write. What were those reasons, and what keeps you going as a writer?
More than anything else, I want to help people to discover and to be heard in their own voice. I want to give people the strength to believe that their voices are worth hearing, that their lives matter. It’s a political thing, but it’s also a deeply personal, emotional thing. It’s about the deepest emotional connection. It’s very very hard not to get distracted, especially as you start to build a profile, as people become aware of you and opportunities come your way. A lot of the chances you have seem like wonderful opportunities, but they can take you away from what really matters to you. I make myself refocus and evaluate what I’m doing every six months to try to keep myself on the right track. It can be incredibly flattering to be asked to do things and very hard to say no, but sometimes you have to.
Your upcoming release, “Self-Publish With Integrity: Define Success In Your Own Terms And Then Achieve It,” seems pretty unconventional for a book of publishing advice. While it seems like every other publishing book these days is selling some set of big-sales-and-moneymaking tips, you talk about ‘resetting the compass’ away from traditional notions of success. What qualifies as ‘success’ for you?
For me, success is touching people in the ways outlined above. If one person reads or hears my poetry and has the confidence, as a result, to stand up and tell their own story, or I connect with someone who stops thinking they are alone or abnormal, that would be a success. I know that has happened. People have told me after a reading that I’ve given them hope because they know there is someone else going through what they are with depression, others have told me I’ve made them believe what they say matters, that the minutiae of a normal person’s life are worth hearing. That is the most success I could ever wish for. For others it will be something else – it will be something different for each of us – the point is that no one should define what success means for you except you, and if you achieve that no one should be given the right to tell you you’re not a success.
You’ve written and published quite a few works since you started self-publishing in 2009. If you had to pick one of your books that would stand the test of time and still be well-known two hundred years from now, which would it be, and why?
Almost certainly the one I least expect. I think it’s hard to say which books will last beyond the time they’re written, but possibly those which are most unlike anything else, so possibly Evie and Guy, the novel I wrote wholly in numbers. I don’t think there’s anything else like it, so maybe if someone in the right place connects with it emotionally, it could gain a cult following – certainly of my books it’s the one whose fans are the most passionate. I’ve had people tell me it’s made them look at the world differently, that it’s inspired them and moved them to tears, which is an incredible response.
I downloaded a PDF of your book “i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry” and read through some of your poems, and I’ll admit I was quite entranced. One of my favorites was the poem called Narwhals, which begins: “I am a poet.” My favorite stanza was:
I will lay out trampolines to catch the confessions of jumping hedonistic penitents on acid trips.I will rock the words in cradles.I will pocket them and whisper “I cannot absolve you.”I am not a preacher.I am not a politician or a teacher or an angel-headed hipster.I’m just a guy who spits his heart out through his lips.
Now, I’m no poetry critic, but it seemed to me this was a poem about writing and inspiration. Could you talk to us about what drew you to poetry as an artistic medium in the first place, and why you think words need absolution?
Yes, this is my “why I write poetry” poem. For me, poetry is direct in a way many other forms of writing aren’t – its cadences and rhythms and lyricality mainline it into our emotions in a way that art and music do but prose rarely does, though it should do. I am also drawn to its performance. I’ve always loved reading to an audience. There is no way like it for connecting with a reader, watching the whites of their eyes as you lead them on a journey. Often at a reading, you can feel the audience travelling with you, you are literally their guide, a Virgil or a Beatrice leading them through their own Divine Comedy.
Why do words need absolution? I think, as writers, we often feel apologetic for what we say, We want to hedge our bets. We make pronouncements and then step back from them. We open our hearts, but then close the gate partially. I wanted to say that when the words are out there, that’s it. There’s no taking it back. You owe it to the world not to pull your punches.
Everyone likes to talk about great writing advice, but I prefer to talk about bad writing advice (it’s more fun that way). What’s the absolute worst piece of advice you would give to any aspiring writer?
That’s a brilliant question. Probably I’d say “Do what everyone else is doing and think that it will work for you.” Or “Write to please someone else” – whoever that someone else is, even something really well-meaning like “the reader,” that’s terrible advice!