Neil Randall is the author of our latest novel Bestial Burdens. We sat down with him to talk about the book, his writing process, and inspirations:
Where did the inspiration for Bestial Burdens come from?
The idea for the book was the product of a number of conversations I had with a friend who – over several years and many of these discussions – was training to become a psychotherapist. The nature of our conversations focused on intimacy and modern relationships and, how, increasingly, the two concepts were becoming mutually exclusive. At heart, even though my friend probably wouldn’t have agreed, I felt – then and now – that we as people all strive for intimacy, romance, to make a real, deep, lasting connection with another person. Whether that’s possible in a society based on instant often gratuitous gratification is probably what’s at the philosophical heart of Bestial Burdens as a book.
Why is this story relevant and important now?
For the reasons I touched upon in the first question – the changing nature of our relationships with each other, how intimacy has, in many ways, become an almost frivolous gesture. I don’t quite know when it happened, or if it’s something which happens to every generation, or every person when they get to a certain age (I just turned 45), but it seems that everything in life as I once knew it no longer exists anymore. And I know that might sound like a hysterical reaction to the current times we’re living in – with the coronavirus sweeping across the globe, quarantine, self-isolation (which, by the way, I’ve been practising for years with very mixed results). But I’ve found, in the last ten, fifteen years that people have become a lot colder and harder towards each other, every relationship has been turned into a transaction. Sex, romance, love, are commodities, with ever dwindling value and importance attached. Everybody seems far too knowing, full of preconceived ideas of what a relationship should consist of, and what they can or should get out of it. Nothing develops naturally or organically anymore. Everything proceeds at an almost perversely quick pace. You can be mad about someone one day, and the next day not give them a second thought. And I think, ultimately, there’s a specific type of person, a gentler, more inquisitive soul who has been completely swallowed up and/or left behind by this. And for all its controversial subject matter, I think this book is relevant and important to those very people. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wildly off the mark, and the idea of wanting to be important to another person and vice versa is no more than a self-delusional conceit.
What do you think people can gain from reading Bestial Burdens?
Before I answer that question directly. It’s worth mentioning that I actually wrote the book eight or nine years ago. Naturally, in that time, it’s undergone some pretty heavy editing, refining and revising (not to mention the exemplary work the Cephalopress team did in an editorial capacity – another set of eyes is always invaluable). For that reason – and I’m not blowing my own trumpet here – but from a purely reading perspective, the writing flows incredibly well, especially for a literary novel. Most beta-readers have rinsed through 300 plus pages in a day or two. So, people will get a dynamite reading experience if nothing else! On a deeper level, I think there is a message at the heart of the book – and this is a novel that contains graphic scenes of bestiality, rape, sexual violence, drink and drug addiction, a deranged stalker, disfigurement, self-loathing – about treating each other with much more kindness and consideration. That people aren’t just objects to be used and discarded.
In terms of crafting the novel, how did you go about it? What was important to you?
In all honesty, I have very little techincal skills and certainly no literary background to speak of. I always loved reading and thought it might be a better job than working in factory or
waiting on tables. Also, I’m incredibly impatient. I’ve always found plotting and planning impossible. That’s why I doubted whether I’d ever really be able to write novels – that shorter form fiction was better suited to my temperament, perhaps. But with Bestial Burdens, I had the idea, through my friend, the idea of a therapist, the sessions themselves, how I could incorporate creative writing into a story (with the creative writing therapy classes one of the protagonists attends), that would paper over the cracks of my pretty rank deficiencies, my lack of techincal skills, that I could very much write this book like a series of interconnected short stories, rather than approach it like a novel. In that way, it was an exercise in form as much as execution. But, as the story developed, I probably realised for the first time that that’s how any writer writes a novel, bit by bit, day by day. In turn, I got a quite unexpected buzz out if: “Jesus, I’m actually writing a proper novel”. That, ultimately, was very important to me, on a personal level. But in terms of the story itself, I wanted to perhaps set up a completely odious, unappealing yet nonetheless compelling character for a quite startlingly dramatic and violent fall, where his whole life is turned upside down, and have him being so conceited and self-centred that he doesn’t even notice. But – but the reader (hopefully) certainly does. And takes away from the book the very real reasons why.
Who are some writers you look up to? And what did you take from them?
I love all the big Russian novels – they were my first literary love. Kafka is a massive influence on me. Along with the Beat generation writers, Bukowski. One of my favourite novels of all time is The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jnr, the story of an unlikely friendship between a street kid and a holocaust survivor and how people have to let go of hate or it will swallow them whole. Recently, I read a Richard Brautigan novel that had somehow evaded me for years called Sombrero Fallout, which is probably the most beautiful bittersweet heartbreak book I’ve ever read. With each story I write, I seem to steal more and more for Roberto Bolano – an incredible storyteller. Olga Grushin’s The Dream Live of Sukhanov is a very beautiful thing. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever. Blindness and The Double by Jose Saramago – not just incredible concepts: every person in a big city suddenly going blind, a man coming across his doppelganger, but because Saramago writes each story to a final of final conclusions (which not a lot of writers do, even with their best ideas). In terms of more contemporary writers, I’ve always loved Michel Houellebecq. To write books that tap into the incredibly complex world we live in, the contrast between scientific advances and our crumbling societies, and make them so, so easy to read is an incredible feat. I’ve probably missed out some of my favourites. And I know it’s a cliché and everyone says it, but you have to read deep and wide if you want to read deep and wide.