Harry Gallon’s debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, is one of Dead Ink’s New Voices 2015. The book concerns a hungover bartender and his campaign against a perceived canine conspiracy to domesticate young professionals in Hackney. We sat him down with Dead Ink Publishing Director, Nathan Connolly, to discuss some of the ideas in his book.
Why would there be a canine conspiracy to domesticate people? Do you think people have lost their desire for domesticity?
The idea itself is absurd, and that’s the point. Underachieving or discontented people often look for someone or something else to blame for their problems, and the narrator identifies what he considers to be an imbalance in the number of young people getting wasted and sleeping around (which is what he thinks they should be doing), and settling down. Really he’s just projecting his discontent, which has lead to a fear of adulthood, onto people his own age who’re achieving more than him. The dogs are merely scapegoats.
I don’t think people have lost their desire for domesticity. I think people fear it, but, as the narrator finds out, it’s part of life’s natural course.
I see The Shapes of Dogs’Eyes being very specifically about our generation, the current lot of twenty to thirty year olds that is. Do you think that is true or do you think it has a reach that expands beyond that?
It’s certainly about the Y Generation — those who are privileged enough to move around the world in a relatively free manner and who have endless career opportunities, but who all too often find themselves bogged down by the myriad paths they could take, and end up wasting their chances. The themes I chose to write about — identity, national identity, love — are transferable to any generation. But not every generation has lived in a world so accessible.
There’s a sort of running joke throughout the book that your narrator avoided university to go straight to working in bars. He avoids a whole lot of hassle and debt but ends up in the same position as many who do go to university. Everybody else is aspirational but he seems content to sleep on people’s sofas.
This arose out of my own hesitancy to go to university when I left college. I took a year out, working on farms and in bars and offices before I decided I had to go. Entry level work is shit. Working, in general, is shit, if what you’re doing means nothing to you. University provides what is essentially a free ride for three years that can lull you into a false sense of security. When I graduated, I panicked and enrolled on an MA course because I wasn’t ready to leave. But even postgrad study has been devalued by saturation, and for a long time I was working in bars again, failing to get interviews for positions that were related to my degrees, but which I didn’t really care about. So it’s easy to resent spending a lot of money to get qualifications that may not get you much further. Wanting to be an author requires a desire for experience, and though my professors helped develop my writing, I wouldn’t have this book if I hadn’t spent so much time behind bars.
One thing that stood out to me as I was editing the book was your love for the ensemble cast of Hackney inhabitants. There’s a vibrant gang of misfits who come and go. Is that what draws you to the place and made you want to write about it?
Again, this is down to being a bartender. It’s a shit job, basically, but it’s got one thing a lot of work hasn’t, which is soul. You get to meet a lot of cool people and hear a lot of cool stories. What drew me to write about Hackney, or the people who live there, is that so many of them were trying to make it as artists but needed part-time work to stay afloat. I could relate to that. But I also found it funny, as well as sad.
At the same time there does seem to be an issue with the characters and their location. None of them are from Hackney and none of them seem intent on staying. They’re as transient as your narrator, in a way.
Exactly. They consider themselves locals and yet they’re willing to uproot their lives if they get tired of it. They have that in their power. Meanwhile the real locals, who’ve been there their whole lives and who’ve years dealing with social change both good and bad, go largely ignored.
We were discussing the issues of gentrification in Hackney and how it relates to the book just a few days before the attack on the Cereal Killer Café in Shoreditch. Has the problem started to reach a boiling point, do you think?
No. What happened to that café and a number of other premises on Brick Lane were mindless attacks on easy targets. Sure, I’ve noticed some sort of divide between lifelong London residents and people, like me, who’ve moved here in recent years. But focusing anger on a local level is misguided. £4.00 for a bowl of cereal? So what? Go to the corner shop instead. All bars, restaurants and cafés mark up their stock. It’s how they make money. I once served a pint that was £9.00. I warned the customer beforehand and he still bought it. Real problems lie with larger companies who exploit people and avoid taxes, I guess. Is there a Starbucks in Shoreditch? But they’re less easy to egg than your neighbour who only has one store.
This novel began as notes on receipt paper?
It began in my notebook. I used receipt paper at work when I wasn’t serving customers. When I thought I had enough notes there was a small shopping bag full of receipt paper on my bedroom floor. It’s behind my desk now.
I was reminded frequently of Burroughs when reading the book. Perhaps because of the way that it is pieced together it almost resembles his cut-up technique. That said though, you do maintain a very linear narrative despite the chaos.
I went on holiday last year and took my bag of receipt paper notes with me. I sat on a living room floor with a stapler stapling notes together, pulling them apart, stapling them to other notes. I wouldn’t call it the cut-up technique because I wasn’t blending sentences. My notes were written in sections that were designed to be standalone, and that’s what the finished manuscript looks like. You can take almost any part out and it reads like a piece of flash fiction or a short story. I just worked chronologically to make the narrative linear.
You mentioned that one of your lecturers described your work as domestic un-realism. We’ve been banding that around Dead Ink since you said it but what do you think she meant?
That was during my MA. We’d been reading The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, a book which features fantastical elements in a more subtle way than straight Fantasy Fiction. Literary Fiction, which is what I was always trying to write, is meant to tell greater truths than real life, so I think what my lecturer meant, when she said I write domestic un-realism, is real life fiction, almost plot-free, with an ambiguous reality that makes my narrators unreliable, often because its ambiguity is their own creation. I like flawed narrators who make their own problems then can’t figure out how to fix them. They’re human, basically.
Hackney and its characters don’t lend themselves to realism I suppose?
My narrator described Hackney as a fable. It has a rich history and a distinct chimerical element to it. I read a lot of books about and set in Hackney while I was working on The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, one of which, called Marshland, by Gareth E. Rees, features short stories based on local legends that transcend time and reason, and offer speculative insights into the origins of Hackney’s weird past, fictional or not. The characters in my book are as unhinged as the borough and I wanted to play on that, because real life is weird and stupid and, as far as we know, pointless.
Your narrator is possessed by the idea that he has either testicular cancer or an STD. It adds a strange sort of domestic threat to his journey that is reflected in the setting as a whole. Not only are the pubs damp and rotting but the characters seem to be too?
His problem is one of information, and it relates to what you asked earlier about The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes being for a certain generation. We’ve got all the information on every possible subject available to us all the time, and when it comes to matters of health, Googling something always seems to lead to cancer. I used my narrator’s medical concerns as a tool of mockery. He’s a frightened idiot and he’s got to carry the weight of everyone else’s frightened idiocy on his shoulders.
I found your use of technology in the novel remarkable. At times iChat conversations seem to become detached from reality; they take on a sort of prophetic or revealing tone. At many points they seem to exist outside the narrative and come in from another plane. Characters’ personal lives are splintered across these different communication platforms.
I tried to use phone messaging as a way to speak through two parallel narratives at once. Loneliness is a consistent theme throughout The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, though the narrator’s friends are always at the end of a message thread or phone call. I suppose it’s meant to enhance the position of Hackney as quite a cut-off place, not singularly because it’s barely connected to the tube network, but because its residents have a superiority complex and don’t want to venture past its boundaries into what they consider the more boring and less cultured parts of London. That, and the fact that London is a fast, expensive and potentially dangerous city, adds an element of isolation that, while self-inflicted, is overcome in the parallel narrative of text messaging.
Harry Gallon is an author and freelance reader from the South of England. His short fiction and poetry have featured in numerous publications, including The London Magazine and Forward Poetry. In 2013 he was a winner of the first annual Storgy Short Story Competition, and was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize in 2014. He lives in London.
Harry’s book, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is crowdfunding now on Dead Ink’s innovative new Publishing the Underground platform. You can support Harry and his book by ordering it here:
You can read an extract from The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes here.