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The January Interview:

Clive Barker


He likes to shock people. I don't know why this should surprise me about Clive Barker the man, but it does. I'd expected -- I don't know -- someone less flamboyant and larger-than-life than the work he creates.

I was wrong.

"You're like total renaissance guy," I say. We're in the lounge of Vancouver's stately Hotel Sylvia. The light is subdued, the atmosphere quiet and elegant. "You make movies, you create books, you paint. Any other creative things you do?"

And he looks at me -- wide set blue eyes in a youthful and somehow oddly innocent face and says, "Fuck."

From the source, then: Clive Barker fucks creatively.

Later and we're taking photos outside the hotel. Barker insists that the publicist who he's spent much of the last three days with must have her photo taken with him. He plunks her onto his knee. "I'm not hurting your lap, am I?" she chirps innocently.

"Not at all," he replies. "Just my penis." The publicist blushes prettily -- the desired effect -- just as the moment is captured. And Barker is pleased. You can see that he's pleased. Clive Barker likes to shock people. Even in groups of ones and twos.

Shock value alone does not a character make. Perhaps no one knows this better than Clive Barker. Barker himself is frank, charming, incredibly lucid and literate and owns an aura of happy sensuality that defies easy categorization. Barker recently announced his homosexuality, simultaneously debuting his latest book -- Sacrament -- that the writer himself says is largely autobiographical and whose main character is a gay man.


Linda Richards: How far into your book tour are you.

Clive Barker: This is the last interview in six weeks.

LR: I know. I did that on purpose. I thought if I got you right at the end you'd be relaxed. And you've been in Vancouver two days. Do you like it?

CB: Yeah. I've been here lots of times before so I'm pretty familiar with it. You have the cutest boys. [grins]

LR: We have beautiful people in this city.

CB: Yes, I've noticed.

LR: One of the things I really loved about the main character in Sacrament, Will Rabjohns, is that he's just who he is. He's not like, 'Hi. I'm Will Rabjohns and I'm a homosexual.'

CB: No, right, right. That's absolutely right. I think it happens less than it used to. I think the issue of queerness is less than it used to be. Honestly. And I think that's happening in the culture in general. I mean, there are queer characters in sitcoms and dramas: god help us Robin Williams is playing one. It's just much less of an issue. Having said that, yesterday I did a radio interview with someone who was seriously freaked by being asked to identify with a gay character. Then he was brought round by the novel. But he said there was a moment there when he realized what he was in for.

LR: My take on the novel -- and I feel very arrogant in saying this to the author...

CB: You can say it.

LR: I felt that homosexuality was a sub-text in the novel. It was part of his life and it of course brought him to the decisions he was making.

CB: Yes.

LR: It wasn't here [indicates in his face] all the time.

CB: Yeah well, it's not right here any more than your heterosexuality is right here in front of you all the time either.

LR: That's my point. Yet that's unusual in fiction.

CB: Well that's because very often gayness -- and actually sexuality in general -- is seen as a problem. An issue. Instead it's simply a fact. A movable fact, a shifting fact. A malleable fact. We're protean beings. We're not fixed. Right? I mean we're not even fixed in our sexuality, we're not fixed in our gender identification, I don't believe. I've had girlfriends and I don't doubt that at some point or another I may stray again. How boring to be fixed.

The other thing is that fiction is about entering into other people's lives and entering lives which are different from your own. I wanted to be able to allow the readers into a world which is not going to be primarily their own. But a world which was closely observed enough that if they wanted to go to the Castro and visit the sex club they could go to it. I thought that was kind of fun to do.

LR: And there are some beautiful love scenes in the book. Some beautiful sexual scenes.

CB: Sure. And all that stuff about Will when he first goes to Boston as a 19 year old. That's all me. That was me in Boston when I was 19 and 20.

LR: Yeah, I was going to ask you how much of the book was autobiographical.

CB: Well, that stuff all was. And -- uh -- when I was 20 I had a... hmmm... how am I going to say this? I had an older admirer that facilitated a lot of things. And so I went to Boston and I spent a lot of time in America when I was young.

LR: Is the book out in the United States yet?

CB: Yes. It's in its fourth printing.

LR: And how are the prudish Americans taking it?

CB: It's interesting. The reviews are great. You probably know more about the Internet response than I do. Because I don't have a computer, I don't access any of that stuff. So I don't know what the fans are saying out there. I know there's a larger gay presence at the signings I do. Or, a more visible gay presence at the signings.

LR: A lot of people are saying that Sacrament is a really big departure for you. Do you feel it is?

CB: No. Not really. I mean, the concerns of the book are human concerns. I've always tried to write out of human concerns. People have said that they thought the style was different. I suppose it's more poetic in a way than some of my previous books. There's a trade off. The more realistic the fiction the more I wanted to express it poetically. When you're writing fantastical material -- very fantastical material -- it becomes a stylistic necessity, I think, to be very plain. The more fantastical the book becomes, the plainer it needs to get. You don't want readers to feel you're hiding an insecurity about what you're describing behind a little firework display of language. Do you see what I'm saying?

LR: I do.

CB: You want to be able to say, 'I see this plainly in my mind's eye. I'm witnessing this plainly in my mind's eye. Here is the scene I am seeing. Here is my language. It's clean. It's clear. You can trust my vision because I know it inside out. I know what the back of the thing looks like. I know what the front of the thing... here it is.' So what tends to happen with the language is it tends to simplify in relation to how extreme the fantastical elements are. When the setting of the thing has been real, I can go! I can go. 'To every hour its mystery.' I mean I'm off, you know? The freedom to be poetic! One of my very favorite chapters of a book is the Whiteness of the Whale [Moby Dick] which is a celebration of the whiteness of whales. Some whales are white and we see them poetically. You know?

LR: Sacrament is a lovely book. I've been enjoying your books for many years and I agree. I don't think it's a huge departure. I think all of your books have been huge departures from each other.

CB: Right! And that irritates the hell out of any publishers. Because the way to stay on the bestseller list is to actually repeat yourself. To just do again what you did last time. To establish that the audience is in place and then just do it. That is a creative graveyard for me. I mean, I understand that for other people that's something they want to do and I respect that. For me, I just can't go to my desk for 14 months and do something that I did before. God knows how Daniel Steele gets through those books.

LR: But Cabal and Imajika and Weaveworld -- just to take a cross-section -- they're all really different and could perhaps have been written by a different author.

CB: Right. Because they were written by different authors. They're written by different human beings. I keep changing. Here we go back to the protean qualities of our natures. Picasso's Blue period doesn't look like his Cubist period. 2001 doesn't look like Paths of Glory. People who are growing and enriching themselves need to tell different kinds of stories.

LR: I guess I personally will keep reading because I enjoy your prose. There are people who genre-fy it, but I like your work because it entertains and moves me.

CB: Right. I think it is really hard to genre-fy.

LR: Put it in one.

CB: Imaginative fiction. Book stores, particularly the large book stores: the chains -- are very concerned with finding little niches where you put a certain kind of book. If it was translated from the Portuguese it would be Magic Realism, you know.

LR: Which it will be, probably.

CB: It will be translated into Portuguese, yeah. But if it were translated back from. If I had a three barreled name and were living in Rio, it would be Magic Realism.

You know, some of the books are in as many as 23 languages. The Russian response to these books is passionate. The Korean response to these books is passionate. A lot of that is to do with, I believe, a kind of mythic commonality. Something which proves Jung right. That the images which move us at root are common whatever culture you live in. There are Eden stories and there are flood stories and there are crucified god stories. And there are stories of animal spirits, there are stories of journeys taken into fantastic cities and so on and so forth across the planet.

One of the things I try to do in my fiction is strip it of particulars. Like there are no references to what kind of cigarettes people smoke. What kind of booze is going down their throats. There are very few references to movies. I hate it when writers stoop to, as I see it, something which is so particular that it's almost as if they're making a cultural reference to give you shorthand to the feeling.

LR: Like Ian Fleming.

CB: Yeah, yeah exactly. But let me give you a -- for me -- much more intense example. Are you familiar with Angels in America? You know the plays or you know of them? Seven hours of amazing theater. It's in two parts. At the end of the first half of the play, the angel comes to find the man who has AIDs and imparts a vision. It's extraordinary. Read it! Because it's great on the page.

His name is Prior and he's dying and the angel has come with this transforming vision. He's lying in his bed in a night sweat and he hears the voices from heaven. And the angel descends. Three and a half hours of theater have led up to this revelation. And it's halfway through the play. There's going to be a second play the next night that's going to be another three and a half hours. So you've gotten to this moment and your eyes sting with tears and he looks up and he says, "Very Stephen Spielberg." And I hated that. It makes me crazy. And of course the audience loves it. It's complete playing to the gallery. But it's cheap, you know? It feels like a shorthand. And I swear that Kushner will regret it. I swear that at some point he'll rewrite it. Because, for one thing, that's not going to mean anything in 20 years and for another thing he completely makes the moment trivial.

I try really hard to avoid that. Now that means sometimes that the language is denied a kind of colloquialism which would make it more comfy. And there's a trade-off. There's a reason why you go for a Grisham or a King or a Clancy or whatever. You find these books are filled up with brand names or movie titles because it makes it easy to say, "Oh, I'm there."

LR: Like a plot device, or a characterization device Because you don't need to explain the Marlboro smoker...

CB: No. Exactly. There he is. And it's an easy piece of shorthand. And it makes these things disposable, I think, in a way you absolutely don't want them to be if you're writing fiction. You know, if Madam Bovary had been described in terms of the very particular cigarettes that she smoked or carriages she drove in or perfume that she wore and those were ways that we had understood who she was, she wouldn't be the wonderful, extraordinary, mythic literary character. It makes characters subject to the travails of time.

There are wonderfully colloquial writers who write in their own inventive vernacular. Chandler is one. He invented a voice which is completely his own and he's stripped bare of the kind of hip references that we're talking about. Our culture loves that. If I see one more reference to the hamburger conversation in Pulp Fiction I'll scream. Right? How hip can that be? "You know what they call a hamburger in Paris?" It's very hip. It's of the moment. Incredibly clever. Incredibly clever. But disposable? I think so.

LR: So that type of literature, once it becomes historical might become a kind of curiosity?

CB: Right. There's interest in curiosity. You know, Blake says "Eternity is in love with the product of time." So maybe the eternal loves the particular. But there is something about fantastic fiction that for me needs to be able to move effortlessly from the particular in this moment to another place; to be both natural and supernatural, both visible and invisible: needs to partake of two worlds. And the ease of that process -- back and forth -- is facilitated, I believe, by not making this place too much about right now. Enough about right now for us to feel that we understand the character: that we can smell the air. One of the reasons that in some of my books I can take these huge jumps into other dimensions or whatever is because the reality into which the characters are leaping and jumping is not too particular.

The tide of our imaginations moves out from the real to the unreal. And from the visible into the invisible. From the natural into the supernatural. And the backwash comes back at us. And the backwash takes and informs the world. One of the things I want to do as a writer is from the first word -- from the first sentence -- I am describing a reality which -- even though you as the reader may not realize it -- is already informed by this backwash. So that the first paragraph of Sacrament "To every hour its mystery" and all that stuff, says, 'here is the human day seen mythically.' That's the level which I'm going to ask you to read this book. So now let's get into the particulars of a man on a doorstep. Right?

Weaveworld. We start with something which is about what storytelling is, and then we go into the story. It's the equivalent of what happens at the beginning of many Shakespearean plays. A character effectively comes on and says 'Listen to this extraordinary tale. Let me tell you about poetry and dreams,' and so you're predisposed to partake of poetry and dreams. One of the things I think we've lost is that leap. Movies are to blame. And TV is to blame. It's because our popular culture is all about moments. It's all about particulars.

LR: It's all delivered.

CB: Right. It's all delivered. And it's all delivered in a way that makes us recognize it as being right.

LR: There's no participation.

CB: Oh forget participation. I mean, it's passive. Completely passive.

LR: And you have a hand in that. Because you make movies. How's that for a segue?

CB: Well, it's a good segue. Because the movies are a great hobby. But I don't take them seriously. I mean, they keep me in a kind of public eye that frankly is useful for sales of the books, no question. A lot of people turn up for a signing because they've seen the movies. No question. I'm sufficient enough a fan of Karloff and Legosi and the great horror movies of the past to feel flattered that a couple of characters that I've written about or have appeared in movies [I've made] have joined some kind of dubious halcyon of beasts. And that's very fun. But that's all it is. It's not books. It's not real stuff.

LR: Do you see Sacrament as morphing into a movie?

CB: No. Into a mini-series, maybe. But, no. There's not a two hour movie in this book. And movies are dumb. And movies are getting dumber. And the audiences are getting dumbed down as a consequence. I have less and less patience with movies. I love painting. I love writing. And I like movies.

LR: You're like total renaissance guy too because you do all these things. You make movies, you create books, you paint. Any other creative things you do?

CB: Fuck.

LR: (Laughter) That's the only way to do it.

CB: Ummm. The model is Cocteau. My great hero is [Jean] Cocteau. Because he made movies, wrote plays, painted pictures, wrote novels. But what he said was it's all one business, it's all one process. It's all being a poet. And what I would say is though I do all these things, it's all doing the same thing. It's breathing with my eyes open, it's being an imaginer. I see something shamanistic about the process. As the shaman goes out into the dream side and comes back to the tribe and reports what he or she has seen in that space. So I think that novelists go out into a space that is essentially a psychic space -- a commonly held space -- and report back and say, "That's what I saw."

I want to be a witness. I want to be a good witness. I want to be a good journalist. And I want to set myself in a place where I can simply see the vast view of the psyche. And then report. And get out of my own way. I mean, the problem for most writers is being in their own light. Is being too present. Is being too concerned. I wish someone had told me as a kid that all you're doing is being a journalist. I wish someone had said it's not about style, it's not about effect. It's about listening and seeing and speaking in the clearest way you possibly can what you saw and heard. On a day to day basis all you can do as a writer is make a report of where you are on that day. If you've done it properly, by the following day the very process of making the thing has changed you. So when you look back you should not be the following morning the person you were before. Do you see what I mean?

LR: I do.

CB: Because the process of having lived the fiction should have changed you to some degree and that means that the report that you make the following day is going to be a different report. I wish someone had told me to leave it alone. Because there comes a point where you're not making it better, you're just making it different and you're actually grubbying up or over intellectualizing or over-polishing something that -- if you were doing it properly -- was speaking from the heart. If we're taking our journeys as beings of spirit, as thinking, creative human beings with sufficient energy and intensity and feeling then we're transforming. And we're churning things up, and then we don't have it to churn anymore. And the very fact that we no longer have it to churn means we're not the people that we were before.

LR: Are you working on something right now?

CB: Always.

LR: Are you at a stage where you can talk about it?

CB: No. (laughs) Because it's 14 months from delivery. Nobody is going to see it for 14 months. So it's in a very sweet and private place.

LR: And you're a technophobe. I've heard that you describe yourself as such.

CB: I'm a terrible technophobe. Nothing mechanical.

LR: Not even a typewriter? You write in longhand?

CB: Yes. I begin. I write a draft without ever looking back. Without ever touching what's gone before. Because I think it will be shit, so I daren't look back. I write a draft. I start again. I have the text when I start the second draft and then I do the same thing a third time.

LR: And then someone types it.

CB: Yes.

LR: Because editors don't read longhand. Or maybe yours do?

CB: Editors don't tend to touch my work. They don't even read them, you know? There were 14,000 hand written pages for Imajica.

LR: Do you have a favorite weapon? Like, do you have to have perfectly sharpened number two pencils, or...?

CB: No. It can be any kind of paper and it can be any kind of pen or ink. It doesn't bother me much. I mean, I'm not even seeing it. You know, it's not there. You know that feeling.

LR: Are you working on a movie right now?

CB: The sequel to Lord of Illusions is in the works right now. But I've been away for six weeks now, so I haven't really focused on any of that stuff. I've been doing 12 interviews a day and a signing.

LR: Are you exhausted? You're drained, huh?

CB: I am. I am wiped. And yet, we are in a marketplace now where a huge number of books are published every month. Every week. You have to get out there and talk about the thing you made. You have to go and talk about it. It makes a difference. It puts books on bookseller lists. It gets them review space. It does all of those things. We're competing with an incredible amount of information, you know? I feel the need to jump up and down and holler and yell and say 'Here's the thing that took 14 months of my life.'


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and several novels.

Photographs by David Middleton