Having studied philosophy for part of my degree I was so intrigued that J.D. Dixon, author of The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle, is currently studying for a degree to include that discipline that I had to ask him onto the blog to tell me more in interview.
The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle is published today, 12th October 2017 by Thistle and is available for purchase here.
The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle
In a Scotland beset with depression, Willem is one victim among many. He loses his job, his mother dies and he is forced out of the flat they shared. Seeing no other option, he takes to the streets of Edinburgh, where he soon learns the cruelty felt outside the confines of his comfortable life. Stories from his past are interwoven with his current strife as he tries to figure out the nature of this new world and the indignities it brings. Determined to live freely, he leaves Edinburgh, hiking into the Scottish Highlands to seek solitude, peace and an unhampered, pure vision of life at nature’s breast.
The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle is at once a lyrical, haunting novel and a set piece in the rage of an oppressed, forgotten community. J. D. Dixon’s sparse, brutal language captures the energy and isolation of desperation, uniting despondency and untrammelled anger in the person of his protagonist.
An Interview With J.D. Dixon
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag James. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Hi Linda, thanks for having me. I’m a novelist based in Edinburgh, originally from London. I’m twenty seven and I’ve been writing for about five years now. I enjoy reading philosophy and am midway through a part time degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics with the Open University, which has begun to influence my writing to a greater degree of late.
A couple of years ago, in the summer of 2015, I had the idea for The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle and wrote a first draft over a couple of fairly intense weekends. I had a workable copy by November, at which point I sent it to David Haviland of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, who happily agreed to take me on. We’re currently working together to finalise a draft of my next novel.
(I think many authors would envy you that speed of process James!)
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
Early, I think. I wrote lots of terrible poetry and a few short stories as a teenager. I wrote my first novella at twenty. But prior to this I was part of the generation who grew up reading Harry Potter and Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials. The power of literature was always evident, from the earliest age. And I always wanted to take part in that.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
The planning stage through to completing the first draft is the easiest bit. The macro-editing is hard but enjoyable, as I try to bring the narrative together. And then I get quite bogged down obsessing over the micro-editing: sentence structures, chapter heading formats, etc. And that’s the point I know it’s done.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
When I have an idea, I spend a while reading around the subject, both factual accounts and fiction by writers working on similar themes. When I have enough source material I set out a very in-depth plan, usually detailing the narrative in its entirety on a scene-by-scene basis.
Once the plan is in place I spend a few hours every day writing until it is done. No breaks – it becomes quite obsessive as I try to work through my plan while it’s fresh. I try to hit between one and two thousand words a day (any more and my writing becomes very stilted as fatigue hits) and within a couple of months, or even sooner in the case of The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle, I will have a workable first draft.
As to where, I can usually be found hanging out in one or another of Edinburgh’s many cafés, hidden behind my laptop.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle?
Of course. Willem is a labourer in Edinburgh. Oxygen deprivation as part of a complicated birth has left him with thought processes that are slower than others’. He is laid off a few days before suffering a bereavement, after which he is forcibly evicted from his flat. He takes to the streets.
By novel’s end he has grown disenchanted by humanity and turns his back on the city, hiking into the Scottish Highlands to seek solitude, peace and perspective amongst Scotland’s vast mountain ranges.
The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle is out today. How are you celebrating?
Honestly? My dog had to have her annual jabs today, so that was first on the list. Aside from this, it was my second wedding anniversary a few days ago and my wife and I had a weekend in Vienna. And this weekend we’re having a launch party at our flat in Edinburgh (I have a big pile of copies of the novel to sign!)
Why did you choose what appears to be quite a depressing subject matter initially as Willem realises what life on the streets is like?
I grew up in London, and so was no stranger to witnessing homelessness. However, it was nothing compared to what I witnessed in Edinburgh. To Holyrood’s great and enduring shame, homelessness seems almost ubiquitous in Scotland.
(I think that might surprise many of your readers.)
I wrote The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle two and a half years after moving to Edinburgh: I spent much of those years mulling over the issue of such widespread homelessness centred in a city which contains really quite breath-taking amounts of wealth.
How did you create Willem?
He very much evolved as a facsimile. In part he is based on the titular character from Martin Amis’ short story Bujak and the Strong Force. The story is part of Einstein’s Monsters, and the character Bujak has a well of strength inside himself which Amis likens to nuclear power- reserves of anger and sheer, brute power that most men don’t have. In part he is the naïve, poetical yet misunderstand soul of Frankenstein’s monster. In part he draws on the idea of every gentle giant any of us have ever met, but one who has suffered a great betrayal and is beginning to realise his own power.
He isn’t (I hope!) too much of an alter ego. Although I think there is a degree of gratuitous violence in the novel which is there both from, and to please, that part in all of us that wants to let go, think fuck it and watch the world burn around us. Every avenging angel you’ve ever seen on TV or read of in fiction is there; every character who is liberated by having nothing left to lose.
These are the things I had in my head as I wrote him – I think (never trust a writer who claims to know absolutely, retrospectively where their ideas came from!) These ideas fed into the narrative, and the narrative in turn helped me to develop him from these base elements.
Willem seeks solace in nature. To what extent do you think nature has the power to heal and restore us?
I’m a city boy through and through, so it’s more of a hypothetical dream than an iron hard belief. However, I have spent time touring the Sottish Highlands. I used to go hiking and camping with my dad in the south of England. I find the many varied numinous sights to be experienced in nature don’t heal in the conventional sense, rather giving a perspective which helps to diminish any sense of one’s own personal traumas. They expand the tea cup and show how small the storm really is. It can be both daunting and refreshing, but either way you come away with a fresh viewpoint and sense of scale.
How far was it your intention to explore the theme of transcendence in your novel and how far did it arise naturally as you wrote?
It was there from the beginning, in quite an inverted way. With regards homelessness, I have often wondered at the idea of betrayal in terms of Rousseau’s The Social Contract. The idea that drove this narrative was that living on the streets is to be relegated to a class in society derided by most – those deriding them and allowing the problem to persist willingly separate such people from the rights they should enjoy under the social contract, thus breaking it. They are effectively freed from its restraints, and this was the transcendence I set out to capture – Willem realised that he no longer had a duty to abide by standard norms and could, in his mind, fulfil his true potential because of this.
(Gosh – you’ve just taken me back almost 40 years to reading Rousseau at university.)
It seems to me that writing The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle may have been quite a cathartic experience for you. How far would you agree?
Completely. 100%. Whilst I was writing the initial manuscript friends kept asking me how I was going to be able to write about a man living on the streets when I had never done so. Many reviewers and readers have since said similar things. But for me the novel isn’t about a man’s struggle on the streets – it’s his struggle with himself. That was my entry point into the narrative, and into the character. It’s more a narrative about the intertwining of despondency and rage which I imagine isn’t alien to too many people. That is the driving force of the man Willem, and it was that which I was letting out, in fits and starts, from my own life.
So why do you write?
This answer must necessarily refer back to your previous question. I would hesitate to trust any thinking person who didn’t at least occasionally feel angry, oppressed, and depressed by the world around them, by the fact of being and the conditions attached to that fact. For me, writing is both the place into which I can tidy away these emotions, both little and large, and an attempt to come to terms with the world. I have always felt this as a reader, since my earliest memories. You mentioned catharsis before – as much as it is a stereotype both easy and ponderous to turn to, the whole writing process is my catharsis.
How did you go about researching detail and ensuring The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle was realistic?
If I’m honest, realism in its most brutal sense has never been a great priority for me. I grew up hooked on Salman Rushdie as a teenager, and the idea that things never need to be quite as they seem, or even follow the strictest logical pattern, has always appealed. Using a slight subversion of reality to make a broader point about our own realities comes with its own charm, and is an invaluable component of a writer’s toolkit. For instance, Willem in the novel has an ever so slightly exaggerated well of physical strength and resilience – I begin the novel by claiming that he has never felt the need to see things clearly, and it’s very much his own subjective reality that the narrative explores.
However, there is of course the need to portray homelessness both with a degree of accuracy and, I hope, sympathy. Ben Judah’s remarkable This is London helped me out, tracing as it does the lives of people living below the radar of middle class respectability in the nation’s capital. The Shelter webpage also contains numerous accounts of people’s experiences of homelessness, as do plenty of other websites. Aside from these, one of the main reasons for writing this novel was my shock when first moving to Edinburgh at how many people there are living on the streets here. Unfortunately, there is no lack of source material, especially in the years post the 2007 financial crash.
The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle has a cover that suggests a man invisible to society to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
Are we not all invisible to society? I once watched an interview with Stephen Fry in which he said that he always felt life to be a party to which he didn’t get an invitation, and that literature serves the part of that invitation. I don’t think the idea of being overlooked is foreign to many people, and so it’s one that is very easy to put into prose. The artistic team which designed the cover tapped into this perfectly, I think.
(I agree – I think it’s a perfect cover.)
If you could choose to be a character from The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle, who would you be and why?
Jap, Willem’s pet dog. I set him up as the foil to all that would eventually turn Willem against humanity, and he never experiences anything but the purest joy and excitement. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
If The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle became a film, who would you like to play Willem and why would you choose them?
Perhaps he would be a little old, but part of Willem came from Tom Hardy’s performances in Peaky Blinders and Warrior. He has the physical presence to make those hidden reserves of strength seem natural.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I read a lot of philosophy. Particular Locke at the moment. And I read The Economist every week.
In terms of fiction I’ve mentioned a few names already. I enjoy Rushdie and similar writers – Garcia Marquez, Bulgakov. Realists such as J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy have a great influence on my work. My main aim at the moment is to learn German so that I can read Herta Muller in her own language, both prose and poetry. Poets such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Derek Walcott are up there in the list. And if ever I want to read a perfect example of written English I turn away from the above writers’ weightiness and crack open some Wodehouse.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle should be their next read, what would you say?
If it’s not too pretentious:
This will be an issue by which our generation will ultimately be judged – please, read.
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.
And thank you once more for hosting me.
D. Dixon was born in London in 1990. He studied English Literature and History at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before pursuing a career as a writer. He currently lives with his wife in Edinburgh.
You can follow James on Twitter @James_D_Dixon.