Dean Lilleyman is a good guy and an enviable writer. I'd followed his work around various brilliant zines (Paper and Ink, Hand Job, PUSH) for a while prior to the release of his first novel, Billy and the Devil. I was so excited about the book coming out that I accidentally ended up pre-ordering it from two different places.The book, somehow, was even better than I’d expected. It had the feel of an author totally in control of his writing. That it was Dean’s debut made it all the more remarkable. The fact that Urbane Publications chose to put out Billy and the Devil made it particularly special for me when they also chose to take on my novel too.
In Billy and the Devil, you often switched perspective and style e.g chapters appearing as scripts etc. Was this a decision you made early on about how the book would be structured?It started as an accident. The beginnings of Billy were in short stories and poems I was writing twelve years ago at college. The only glue between the pieces back then was a semi-fictionalised me, really. Sober, I wanted to start again, but it felt like I couldn’t, at least not fully, until I’d figured some things out, and writing seemed to be a walk towards that. Seeing what I was trying to write, someone nudged me towards Raymond Carver. It felt like a light-switch had been flicked on. Stories of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, and yet, underneath, an emotional weight that defied the simple delivery. And, the more of his stories I read, the more it occurred to me that sometimes, there isn’t an answer, and to pretend one doesn’t reflect real life. It seemed no accident that Carver’s stories often exit on the half-step, a paused stride towards the character understanding something about themselves. A device, I learned later, that Carver gleaned from Chekhov. So, if there was an answer here, it was to write without seeking to find an answer. Because, if nothing else, writing made me feel better. By the time I was at university, Billy had become a character, and any creative piece I made, he was in it, or, someone who might be around him in the fictional household that was constructing itself. At that point, Billy wasn’t something I saw as a novel, until I read a book called Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. And once again, a light-switch was flicked. Short stories that weave together, a village of characters that feature in each other’s stories as well as their own, a criss-cross of happenings and moments that, much like Carver’s stories, offer spaces for the reader to fill in the gaps, this wonderful device that makes you feel strangely involved with the characters and acts, a handing over with that most respectful of gestures: what do you think? Anderson’s book made me see a very natural way to deliver the story I wanted to tell, or more precisely, to show. University was an absolute blessing. I wrote prose with novelists and short story writers, poems with poets, scripts with script writers. I was put in a position where I had to stand in a room in front of people and read out what I’d written. Every piece was a test. Every workshop a tournament. This wasn’t about ego. It was me doing what I wanted to do, in the way I wanted to do it, and proving to myself I could. By the time I was given a writing scholarship, Billy was now Billy and the Devil. Some chapters in script because the dialogue was the most important thing. Some chapters as short story because the scene was the most important thing. Some chapters in prose-poetry because the music was absolutely necessary. First, second, third person. Whatever got the moment over strongest. The stages of Billy’s descent from child to man framed by the gaps, illuminated by the form, why he does what he does: a question left to you.I’ve read a couple of interviews where you explain your past relationship with alcohol. Do you see Billy as your ‘alcohol’ novel? Or do you think you will have more to say about drinking in your future work?Well, Billy was a certainly a novel about my relationship with alcohol. Protagonist, antagonist. The drink became a character in itself. An entity. A devil that seeks to fuck Billy over and drag him to that place of no return, no reason given, because there isn’t any. My own experiences definitely echo here. But, I need to say this: I’m not making a stand against alcohol with what I wrote. Billy is a very personal commentary. I have several friends who are wonderful to be with when they have a drink or six. And whatever it is that they are as people, seems to become even more so when they drink. Warm, tactile, funny, loving: great to be around. In vino veritas, in wine, truth. Yes. But me? No. The opposite of. During, and after the fact. Repeat. And repeat I did, because. And here’s the thing. I’m not on my own with this. For some people, no matter how well they might keep it hidden, alcohol is a one-way ticket to a self-loathing pit of fuck-awful misery. And no, I’m not talking about the occasional oh I made a right tit of myself last night. I’m talking about an incredibly self-destructive cycle of up/down up/down down/down/down, and none of it makes sense. Why would I do this to myself? Why? Well, because. And here’s where I do make a stand. Addiction is sly. It starts in early, hides until it owns you. And when it does? Some will snide oh it’s your own fault. Well, no. It isn’t. No-one wilfully walks into that. No-one. So yes. With Billy I had something to say about it. And I think I said what I needed to say. Done.Your second novel, The Gospel According To Johnny Bender, is coming out this year. I was curious about the description ‘one day, two decades apart’. Will the entire novel take place across the space of one day? Was it a challenge as a writer to get the pacing of the book right when it’s compressed into such a short period of time?It was surprisingly easy to write Johnny as one day, which, yes, is what the story is delivered in, in something like real time. The happenings span from just before eight in the morning to just after midnight. The trick was to keep the happenings happening, to keep the momentum and avoid any dry bits. This was solved by the fact that it isn’t just one day, it’s two separate days blended into one: a village carnival day in 1979, and again, in 1999. Same village, mostly the same characters, plot-lines intercutting to feel like single lines. Sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. The different plot-lines bounce off each other too, mirror in a way that progresses each. When I was plotting it out I was a little concerned how it would read, whether it would flow as easy as I wanted it to. But it does. Very much so. I think this is helped by having an intercutting narrator. Johnny Bender. He speaks in something like riddles, but under the seeming madness he points to some big truths, leads us forward, a guide. Like a Shakespearean fool. Can’t lie. I’m very excited about this novel. A love story, a thriller, a murder-mystery, a ghost story. Perhaps somewhere between Hitchcock, Kafka and Under Milk Wood, but me.I was wondering about your experiences lecturing in creative writing. Do you think this helped you with your own writing? What sort of a teacher were you?Lecturing was most definitely an important part of my learning, of understanding what makes me tick. I loved working with the students, and I loved the seminars, which was basically me dancing about the room singing about stuff that got me off. The best part of the job was seeing the students make better things, of saying what they wanted to say, in a way they wanted to say it. The downside was the system. For me, university is all about realisation, of finding your voice amongst contraries, because, contraries are a good thing, as long as there’s a respectful and considered debate between the opposites. The problem is that not every tutor will agree on what is seen as artistic value. This is where the idea of an objective marking system fails. And of course, we don’t all like the same things, read the same books. Mix that with hierarchy, not that any institution will admit to such things amongst the hallowed halls, and the chances are, you might see potent work shouted down by a blinkered fuddy who thinks any story with the words fuck shit arse littered around the page as nothing but a cheap piece of filth. I would say to any student that has experienced this to ask themselves one question: did I make what I wanted to make, in the way I wanted to make it? If the answer is yes, then move on two fingers raised and make more, because there is no petrol like it. The old is important to lean on, the new, important to make.Finally, what was the last thing, book, song, artist, place etc that you totally fell in love with?Thing: a cat called Derek that wandered in off the street and adopted me. Book: The Gospel According to Johnny Bender. Song: Discover Who I Am by Blossom Dearie. Artist: Lars von Trier. Place: my loft. Etc: me, always me.
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