Father and son discuss nature and the narrative

Me and my boy both write a lot of fiction. My other boy writes a lot of music. Being creative is both a blessing and a curse. Doing it can be difficult, but not doing it doesn’t appear to be an option. Is it something we inherited? David and I discuss how it begins and where it sometimes ends.


Whilst reading some of your stories (in the Incorcisms and Fauna collections) a sharp intake of breath interrupted the flow. It was peculiar moment of realisation, or maybe even of recognition, or imagined recognition. I wrote that, I thought, then no I didn’t. I might have done. I did not. Might have written something very similar. Sure I did. Probably not. Could have. Could. Would.

One example is, moonlight channelled, from Mayday, another is, he is nightflame, from Broadcast of the Foxes, and another, lagoon eyes, from The Bycatch, which is one of my favourite tales. There are also similarities with things like rhythm, style and, to a certain degree, motives and themes.

I found strong resonances in Daylight Savings, which is hardly surprising due to its play script format. The dialogue is commonplace, so it’s no shock if it has a familiar ring, but in this case, it wasn’t so much the vocabulary as the rhythm of the speech and the underlying premise which, I suspect, arose from the title. The story is an extended pun, as are so many works of fiction.

I would suggest also, that stories such as Betamorphosis, and Hutched are also pun-based. The treatment in each case is a prolonged wordplay giving rise to a new perspective. That enlightening is the blade of the pun idiom.

This is a device I’ve employed many times. Someone once asked me if I always started with a pun. I answered in the negative, but it set me thinking, and brought the realisation that I very often begin with a wordplay fuse. You never got to know my father, but his mirth weapon of choice was invariably the pun.

The pun is a much-maligned literary manoeuvre, but unjustifiably so. Eric Partridge in his seminal reference work Usage and Abusage writes:

Despite the epigraph, puns are far from being the lowest form of wit; but they may comport a wealth of connotation that raises them to the upper regions of wit and they may have undertones and buried meanings that spring – can spring – only from profundity.

And, with reference to Shakespeare:

Clearly the Elizabethans did not laugh at puns unless they were particularly amusing. They got a certain intellectual titillation out of the grotesque association of ideas that punning induced.

Seeing the similarities in the creation of the grotesque association of ideas in our creative styles kicked another thought ramble into life. It’s a variation on the old nature / nurture quandary. How much of our creativity is ancestrally donated? It seems like a good time to discuss it. Let’s talk about inspiration.


As you know, the bulk of my output has been drama rather that literature. At the peak of productivity, the most common question was always: Where do you get all your ideas from? To which the stock reply was: The same place as you. Where do you get yours from? This didn’t always go down well, but there really was no other response. Can we be more precise?

Can you give a specific example? How about A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs from your Fauna collection. Can you pinpoint what triggered that?


That question, where do you get your ideas from, always comes along with an expression of mystified amazement; the same given for a sleight-of-hand magic trick. But writers don’t like to think of themselves as magicians, because they’re not necessarily trying to trick anyone, but are instead hunting fresh ways to re-tell eternal tales. That’s why the question can be so wearying, and perhaps why your truthful response was sometimes so disarming. It saddens me to think that our society and culture have made human imagination something to be somehow embarrassed by unless you happen to have taken it seriously as a craft. Quite simply, to twist the meaning of the question somewhat, my ideas come from having trained my brain to operate pretty much constantly (sometimes consciously, most of the time unconsciously) in a mind-state of narrative creation. My ideas come because I let them come, and I let them play.

A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs was a very proactive invitation of ideas. I was well underway in writing my animal tales by that point and, being the owner of a number of guinea pigs, knew that I wanted to find a story-world for them. I was also concerning myself with the various wrongs brought upon animals, and one of the most puzzling and intriguing was the often furtive and shame-filled lengths that people go to in order to get rid of pets that have outstayed their welcome. The line of thought, as it often runs in my head, was: what is the most extreme thing here? What’s the furthest, most absurd location someone would go to in order to get rid of animals? Our first adopted guinea pigs were called Hera, Hebe and Attica and, as you know, I’ve long had a fondness for Greek mythology. So, the Underworld became the obvious choice, and Charon the ferryman leapt up in an instant to offer his services. That story was a dream to write – it just tumbled out almost fully formed and I enjoyed reimagining Charon as an old Yorkshire man, just doing his job. Curiously, Charon has an idea at the mid-point of that story. It’s an important turn in the tale, and it’s something that seems to surprise him. I supposed he’s not had much opportunity to have ideas in the past, so he lets it come in and he lets it play. And it moves us to the happy ending.


Hmm, I too admire Ancient Greek culture and have often taken a lead from it. There is so much in their thinking that is patently sound. It’s good that you continue to draw from it. How about Shooting an Elephant which is a particularly unsettling but in an astonishingly original way. What was the inspiration there?


The formation of Shooting an Elephant was a lot more wayward. I was commissioned by a Manchester-based spoken word night called Flim Nite who would chop up classic cult films and give them to creatives to inspire new work. The film that month was Jumanji, a beloved children’s film from my youth, and still a wonderful adventure movie that holds up today. I was given a sequence from the middle that featured a stampeding elephant and a colonial-era hunter.

This was right in the midst of me focusing my writing on animals, so the brief fit perfectly. I started to confront the ‘sport’ of big game hunting and began to imagine where it might go in the future, if it had one. I had read about how a lot of big game hunting was a bit of a theatrical farce – many of the hunted animals are brought up in captivity so that they get familiar with human presence, and then released near to the hunters and their big guns to get shot. It’s called canned hunting, and the hunting side of things is largely a lie. Instead, it is bloodlust, it is mastery over life, it is the power of bringing death, it is boys with toys – all those very human things.

I toyed with the idea for a while of an enormous and grotesque 3D printer. You would feed it flesh and bone to be reconstituted into a creature of your choice, which you would then pay to shoot. Like something out of a very dark version of Wallace and Gromit, an experience sold to frustrated bank managers and latent sociopaths. But I found there wasn’t much story in there, and it was populated by bleak characters I didn’t want to spend much time with. Instead, what I actually wanted was to get at the nature of the hunting-but-not-hunting paradox, so I needed an animal that was both there and not there. A play (a pun?) on the idea of ‘the elephant in the room’ (perhaps that should have been the title, thinking about it!). I tried virtual reality, but that didn’t feel quite visceral enough. So that’s when I landed on mime.

A memory came back. When you and Mum took us to see Cirque du Soleil in a circus tent just next to the Trafford Centre in Manchester, a mere skip and a hop from where I now live. The show was Quidam and I still think about the magic of that experience. There were acrobats in one part of the show who performed as animals. A sealion, I think, and a dog, and a monkey. It was one of those delightful moments of theatrical magic that I’ll hold on to forever. And I also remember feeling so thrilled that here was a circus that featured no caged or tortured animals, and how liberating that felt. So, the seeds of both this story, and my eventual veganistic leanings, were most likely sown right there, in that tent, a stone-throw away from where I would be sitting when I wrote the tale. Strange to think of it all in that way.


We felt it was always important to expose you to a range of culture whenever circumstances would allow. Quidam was excellent. I’m glad the experience lingers on. Your extraordinary male sibling Rickerly and I were discussing creativity – actually comparing sculpture and music composition – and he suggests they should each develop organically. He starts with a theme or riff, or sample, and seeks a natural evolution. Would such a process be particularly true of the emergence of any stories in Incorcisms and Fauna?

Rickerly is his natural habitat


Yes, this definitely happens with my stories. Turning Mermaid from Incorcisms is a good example. This tiny 100-word micro story was written in a workshop I attended where the facilitator, my lovely friend Tania Hershman, handed out random postcards. Mine was an image of a woman in a huge copper bath in a woodland. She had long flowing hair, and the immediate provocation was: mermaid. We had about seven quiet minutes to compose something from this pictorial prompt. I find I’m getting quite good at this little game: seeking and quickly alighting on some sort of narrative, especially when I’ve only got a tiny space of words to work in. The title came first: ‘Turning Mermaid’, which I loved for the lilt and rhythm and half-rhyme of tur and mer. One of my favourite things is to land upon a title. I don’t agonise over them; I let them jump in and land on the top of my page with fevered gusto. Same with opening sentences. Once those two things are down, I’m often well on my way.

A Time Before Horses in Fauna was another organically sculpted tale. All I knew was that I wanted to write about horses, and about their eternal indentured servitude to humans, but that wasn’t enough for a full tale. So, I tossed words around until A Time Before Horses stuck and let that be the first chip into the marble block. It was suitably grand and mythic, but also absurd and strange. My favourite combination. How I then got to a blind six-armed creature stalking a medieval inn while being theorised by three horses from different time periods, I honestly can’t remember. I had been so deeply lost in the sculpting, just following the fall of the stone.

Of course, Rickerly and I have collaborated a few times, our most comprehensive being our absurdist Soviet sci-fi tale ‘Tether’. That was a result of me listening repeatedly to some music he’d written, which was as epic as a space opera, and as intimate as the private dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. His composition sculpted my ideas, and together we carved the final thing. Still one of the stories I’m most proud of.


One area of common creative ground in our short fiction is the frequent presence of wildlife, though you tend towards the fauna, and I the flora – very broadly speaking. Ironically, this could be where nature is overridden by nurture, as we both had childhoods in which our parents frequently immersed us in that environment. That happens to millions of kids, however, and they don’t all regurgitate reams of bizarrely constituted tales. Is there an enthralment here beyond the purely observational or nostalgic? Can you pull it into focus?


A good question. There are a number of factors. Marrying a woman who had similar animal welfare concerns was a major one. Her as a literal force of nature when it comes to doing good by folk and fauna has propelled me into the same realms of thinking. It has been one of the defining cornerstones of our relationship and will forever be a vital component of our long-term love. While I was always fond of animals, and perhaps would have ended up vegetarian either way, it was likely the intensity of this entwining of romance and animal philosophy that gifted me the headspace to explore it in fiction.

But I think I also have to invoke my other extraordinary sibling here, Jenny. As you well know, she’s been on my mind a lot recently as I’ve been exploring her influence on my way of thinking, being, and imagining. There is something gloriously animalistic about Jenny that is not as present in the rest of us, perhaps. And I don’t say that to demean or dehumanise her – quite the opposite. She has a, let’s say, faunal connection (or attitude? Or instinct?) that is much maligned and suppressed by the supposedly more ‘normal’ humans of the world. OK, sometimes this is a good thing – we constantly invoke wolves, bears, sharks and so on to represent the horrors that mankind does to its own kind (much to the detriment of wolves, bears and sharks, it has to be said, who would be mortified if they knew the truth). But by pushing out the animal side of humans, we’ve also placed humans on the peak of an imagined hierarchy of creatures, and we’re now starting to witness the problem of that policy. The changing climate in particular is poised to topple that rickety pyramid.



Ah yes Jenny the fern slayer. She has inspired a great deal of my output, including several stories in The Atheist’s Prayer Book, and the play Unhuman Victor in which we both appeared, and which later resurfaced as a story in the Papercuts collection. Like you, Jenny made me think just how interlinked the various strands of nature are.


With Jenny, we get to neurodivergence, and I think I’ve been placing animals in that category. Perhaps animals are the ultimate neurodivergents. They do not think in the same way as humans. Sure, there are crossovers which never fail to amuse and amaze us, but we do them a gross disservice by our casual anthropomorphisms. Animals are not us; but we are animals. A lot of what I wanted to do with Fauna was expose this way of thinking. The animals I offer in the collection are anthropomorphized of course, but in ways that are pointedly absurd, like the Kafkaesque cockroach in Betamorphosis, or the elephant made of acrobats in Shooting an Elephant, and the shapeshifting fox in Broadcast of the Foxes. I want readers to realise that Wittgenstein (who may, incidentally, have been neurodivergent) was right: if a lion could speak, we would not understand him.


Yes, neurodivergence has been a feature of our family all your life. You could not fail to be confronted by it. What is it that drives us to share the progeny of personal observation and distortion? Are we the meerkat lookouts of the mind? Has our inheritance assigned us to alert the herd to the strange things we see in our mind’s eyes? Do you think our biological inheritance might compel us to inflict our imaginations on our fellow creatures? Is it a natural compulsion? Is there no escape?


I do think it’s a natural compulsion. I’ve been running a few writing workshops recently and I always start them by saying that humans are storytelling animals. While other animals undoubtably tell stories (birds in particular, I imagine), humans have made storytelling their number one attribute. We’re all storytellers, and we all have an insatiable compulsion to both imbibe and regurgitate tales. All works of art are telling stories. Poetry pretends it isn’t, but it always is. Postmodern art likes to think it has destroyed stories, but it hasn’t. Music is the most mystical and mysterious of all storytelling, and is the closest thing we have to magic, I think.

But what are writers? I like the idea of us being meerkats of the mind. Watchmen, lighting signals. But I don’t think I always write stories with the intention of sending up a warning flare. The stories of Fauna do have that urgency, but the stories of Incorcisms are less concerned, I think. They’re a little more anarchic and playful – more akin to the hefting of a big stone into a calm lake just to watch the splash and ripples. The last story in that collection, Different, Somehow, is a good example. It tells a small tale of a family returning home after a holiday who each sense that something is a little off with the house. Familiar sounds have changed tone, rooms feel a bit creepier than before. There’s a hint of an explanation, but it is fleeting and wispy and thin – spectral, perhaps. It’s a story designed to cause a ripple in someone’s day. A gentle disarming, a quick misdirection.

I think often about Trickster. He’s prominent in Broadcast of the Foxes in Fauna, as foxes are often tricksters in folklore. Trickster is a lord of misrule and chaos. Sure, he imparts important meanings and warnings, but he’s also just there to mess around in nonsense for a bit, just to see what gets kicked up. He’s there as the essence of storytelling. He’s the compulsion towards unreality – not the bouncer to the nightclub, but the excitable friend egging you on to show your fake ID and enter the forbidden realm (not that I ever actually did this, Dad…).

Well. As long as Trickster is there, which he always will be, then no, there is no escape. But I take comfort in that. We’re storytelling animals, that’s what we do.


Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about patterns. The patterns that you and I make are not the same, but are not without similarities, yet we’ve never really discussed the shaping of what we do. Perhaps all art is the making of patterns? Are we seeing patterns, imagining them or fabricating them? Is this the perpetual labour of the artist? Do you recognise this as what we do? Do you see the common shapes in what we each produce?


You’ve recognised yourself in my writing, which doesn’t surprise me. Your play-texts soaked into me over the years, and I think of you often when composing dialogue in particular. And yes, I see my patterns in your current output. I’ve just finished reading your remarkable new novel Jyn and Tonic and saw a lot of similarities and patterns that intersected with the ways I write, and the tones I’m concerned with. We both have a fondness for melodrama and myth, we both court ambiguity, we both like to throw in hints of strange things a-happening in our wider universes that remain at the edges. I also think we both strive to find the good in all our characters, despite some of the terrible things they do. The eponymous Jyn in Jyn and Tonic is a remarkable invention, deeply unnerving and chilling, but she retains a humanism, despite it all, and I have affection for her. In my title story The Incorcist in Incorcisms, I chose sweetness over darkness, perhaps to make that darkness more realistic and tangible.


Yes, as I’m sure you realise, your sister Jenny influenced several characters in Jyn & Tonic, but none are direct representations of her, the effect was more diverse and more generic. As you have intimated, living with Jenny forced all of us to deal with difference, and that is a major theme of Jyn & Tonic.

This leads me to a vital consideration with respect to inspiration. We are inspired by many things – but perhaps it is actually only one. It is not the person, animal, object, place or incident that triggers the creativity, but rather our reaction to it. In common with all first-time parents we had hoped for a conventional child. Adjusting to the psychological shape of Jenny was very demanding. She presented us with patterns we did not recognise. It took a lot of searching to find corresponding shapes. All parents do that, but those of us with children that have uncommon needs have trickier puzzles. As do siblings of neurodivergents. Which brings me back to patterns and artists. Creative people apply unique patterns. Surely that’s what art is.


Do I invite a certain pattern into my writing? Or does it just worm its way in? I think it is influenced by a number of factors; things that have worked before, the cadence buried inside me that transports ideas into words, and then into sentences. And I’ve always got half an eye (or ear) on the sound and rhythm of a piece, because I always picture myself reading it out to an audience on a stage somewhere. That’s the influence of a youth around theatres, but also the profound learning experience of being involved with the vibrant spoken word scene of Manchester over the past decade. I’ve listened to other writers and poets and performers and got a feel for their patterns – the ones that work, and don’t work.

I do think patterning is part of the labour of writing craft. It has to be or the whole effort crumbles. I’m reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s strata of wizards in her Earthsea novels and stories. One of the most powerful, and mysterious, was the ‘Master Patterner’ who only ever seemed to listen to trees, but they were clearly the most profound member of that clan. She believed in patterning as a fundamental element of nature, and hence it is at the core of her magic system in Earthsea, and everything flows from it. I can see writing in a similar way. A weave, a flow, a multidimensional tapestry, perpetually unfinished. Our job is to divert the pattern to creating new pictures – a task more urgent than ever in the present moment.


One final question (for now): Did a panda really appear on your street?


It did indeed. As described in the story A Panda Appeared in Our Street, there is a row of fencing opposite our house. One day, a few years back, a panda appeared on one of the railings and stayed there for days, unclaimed. Eventually, my better half (who was very much getting into her litter-picking phase at this point) strode over, plucked it off, and binned it. Turns out it was a novelty slipper in the shape of a panda (I had previously thought it was a teddy bear panda, hence the choice in my story). The other slipper never appeared, nor did any baby slippers.

We were fairly new to the street at that point. We were in that period when we felt we were being sussed out by the neighbourhood. Also, Brexit was in town, swinging itself around and tearing apart stabilities. I used the appearance of the panda slipper to tap into all these anxieties. The mentality of the ‘locals’ vs the pressure of national identity. New arrivals, welcomed but unwanted, perhaps. Litter, left out for days, unclaimed and unseen. And an animal, both there and not there, real and unreal, adored but disposable.

You began this discussion by reflecting on puns. There’s a joke bothering the edges all the way through Fauna. Britain likes to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, because so many of us have dogs or cats. Time and again through the collection, the humans are in service to these creatures we’re so enamoured by. The man buying all the upgrades to the rabbit’s prison. The person taken from the human wilds by the birds. The fishermen beguiled by their bycatch. ‘Fauna’ in the end its own pun. We fawn over our fauna – we are ‘fawners’, you might say. But we’ve been so lovestruck, we haven’t seen the reality. I hope the weird and the absurd might help lift that veil.


I hope so too Dave, or at least see through it more clearly. Perhaps the creative aspect that you and I have in common comes back to the patterns of difference. The pun is a pattern in which the wrong pieces perfectly fit. Artists see flaws and make them gemstones. We humans so often see difference as other when it really is just part of the same. We are all fauna, and perhaps flora too . . . eventually.


Dave’s recent publications can be found via the following links





More about Dave’s inspired brother Rickerly at: and at:

More about Dave’s inspirational sister Jenny can be read here: Outside of the thinking box

Jyn and Tonic will be available shortly

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