I gave this interview back on August 2, 2012.
I had recently finished reading COWS, and was determined to interview the person responsible for it!
Luckily, he’s an awesome human and was willing to participate.
It was originally published on Suite101.com, but that site has since become a graveyard.
But here we are and there you are, and I’m happy to show this interview once again!
I’m fascinated by the talking cows in the story, is it an amalgamation of both literal and metaphorical ideals or is it something different?
Well, when I started writing Cows I didn’t have any idea where it was going to go. I had the idea for a guy with a horrific mother, both of them living in a dreadful apartment. So I have this guy and then he goes off and gets a job at the slaughterhouse and he’s sitting at his station there and then I think….he hears a Cow speak to him through a ventilation grate. And I think are you fucking serious? A talking Cow? And then I think, fuck no, that’s good. Then I worry about how to explain the Cow’s ability to speak, and then I think fuck it, the cow speaks because he speaks, get on with the book. And that’s where the talking Cows came from, a starburst idea between one second and the next that ended up shaping the whole book.
Some people have tried to pin an anti meat-eating meaning to the cows – sorry, even though I think I was only eating white meat during that period, the idea of making that kind of statement was the furthest thing from my mind.
If there is any metaphor in play, it is that the cows embody a desire which I think is pretty universal – that of the need for fulfillment. And, of course, for the necessary freedoms to enable this. One reviewer described the book as a ‘will to power’ story and I think this is quite accurate, both for the cows and for Steven, the central character.
How did your style develop?
Style-wise I’ve never really had any trouble. My style was born fully formed – well, sort of – obviously it evolves with each book – but it’s not like I wrote a whole bunch of short stories and tried out a load of different styles. I sat down and wrote Cows, and that’s the style that came out.
On a more useful note, perhaps, my style obviously owes something to books that have impressed me with their style – notably Last Exit to Brooklyn, Nelson Algren’s work and, of course Raymond Chandler. Almost always, I think what gets me is a lyricism, a kind of poetic beauty in language where just a few words, if chosen correctly, can rip your guts out with sorrow or make you want to shout with joy. When I pick up a book to read, style is the single most important thing that will keep me reading it. I’ll read the first sentence of a book and if it doesn’t have some beauty in it (and it can be a terrible beauty) I won’t bother reading anymore.
What inspired COWS?
Cows was inspired by the years I spent living in London during the eighties through to the mid nineties. At the beginning of this period, Britain was in a pretty bad state and I lived without much money and saw so much ignorance, lack of education, poverty, violence, homelessness, drug addiction etc. that I guess it found it’s way into my writing. One of the statements Cows makes is that the consequences of subjecting people to these kinds of stresses is that some of them will become warped and engage in activities that are diametrically opposed to the smooth functioning of that (fucked up) society.
How did the plot broaden?
Day by day. Cows is the only novel I’ve written so far that I haven’t written an outline for first. I didn’t know what the story would be beforehand. It evolved each night when I came home from my shitty job and sat down to write. Sometimes I’d be walking around thinking, what the fuck is Cripps going to do next? What the hell am I going to do with Steven? But the more I write, the more I’m convinced that the novel is already there (in some form) in the subconscious. The task of writing is to bring it across into the conscious mind. Novels are just so complex that I’m not sure the conscious mind could come up with everything that ends up in a book.
Do you mimic your favorite authors?
No, no intentionally, anyhow. I can’t understand why any writer would want to mimic another. If you haven’t got your own voice, then you’re probably just writing for money and you won’t have much to say.
What state of mind were you in when you wrote COWS?
I had a lot of time to myself. My girlfriend at the time was away traveling for most of the year I spent on Cows. I was working full-time at a day job, but my evenings were pretty much free of distraction. I guess I was lonely, also worn out from living too long in London and not being able to see my family in Australia, or my son who lived at the other end of the country. Apart from that, as far as I can remember, I was reasonably ok. I wasn’t drinking or doing drugs.
Are there any characters in COWS that you derived a bit of yourself from?
Or characters that I derived from a bit of myself? To a certain extent the main protagonists in all my books are either some version of myself, or embody traits, needs, desires or questions that I have or that interest me. Steven in Cows allowed me to explore the sense of alienation I felt at the time and which I also saw all around me in British low income society.
What is your method of execution when finishing a novel?
Well, as I mentioned before, Cows was written day to day, without any plan. For all my novels since then, I have written quite detailed outlines – a chapter by chapter breakdown of the plot. Some of this changes as I write the book and hit upon ideas that didn’t present themselves during the outline phase, but the outline serves as a map to follow when I’m wondering what the fuck to do next.
After the outline is done, I start writing the book and work on that until it’s finished. During this phase I very rarely go back and read over what I’ve written – if there are any problems I don’t want to see them – writing’s tough enough without that kind of demotivation. All I want to do is get to the end.
Once I have the first draft, then I start rewriting. And rewriting involves fixing plot problems and also cutting out a lot of what I’ve written – the manuscript for Empty Mile, for instance, was 560 pages long – I cut it down to 280. That was an extreme case, though. So, I rewrite and then I do it again, and I keep on doing it until I’m happy with the book.
What are your hobbies when you’re not writing disturbing addictive literature?
I don’t really have hobbies. When I lived in New Zealand I got into skiing, probably the closest thing I ever had to a hobby. Does drinking count?
What prompted Australia as the place to call home?
When I was young I didn’t have much choice – my family immigrated from England when I was about six. Later, after I’d gone back to England etc. I went back by choice. Sydney is a great city, the harbour, the architecture….The city has a lot of old stone buildings which I love, particularly after spending so long in Auckland, New Zealand, which really has some of the most soulless pre-fab architecture I’ve ever seen. I think sometimes there’s a little bit of a similarity between Sydney and L.A. – beaches, big spaces, lots of cars, warm climate, a sense of potential.
What are you working on now?
I’m just about to finish a new novel called Colony of Whores. It’s set on the periphery of the Hollywood film industry and follows a bunch of characters who all have their own reasons for pursuing revenge. There’s murder, there’s a screenplay, there’s incest….
Matthew Stokoe is the author of the novels: Cows, High Life and Empty Mile, and the short films: Rock (Dir. Brian Challice) and Dog (Dir. Paul Kwiatkowski) .