“To me, a writer is a person who writes – meaning – one who has a passion for it and will come to the page with the intention of writing a novel, a short story, a poem, or whatever else. It’s a drive, a need, a compulsion, almost. It’s something one has to do, like any other artist, whether you’re a musician or a painter, it’s this need to express yourself, to be creative, to say something via the creative process. A very human thing to do and one of the most important qualities that make us human beings.” – Julian Gallo.
When can you call yourself a writer?
This question was running through my mind after reading an article by Jean Hannah Edelstein in which she wrote, “Are you a writer the first time you call yourself a writer in response to a stranger at a party who asks you what you do for a living? The first time you get paid some money for something you’ve written? The first time you write it on an NHS form when you’ve come to your GP to seek treatment for the anxiety induced by your chronic underemployment?”
The question of when you can call yourself a writer comes up now and again and I’ve heard a few different responses but one of the recurring responses I’ve heard from certain people, who usually aren’t writers, is that you can’t call yourself a writer until you earn a regular income from your writing and are able to support yourself financially. To the people who equate earning money as the defining value, not the writing itself, it wouldn’t matter if a person had spent their entire life writing books, poetry, short stories, blogs, articles, etc. If you haven’t earned from it then you’re not a writer in their eyes. This would mean that Poe, Blake, Kafka and Fante were not writers because none of these now famous writers found much recognition or wealth from their writing when they were alive.
Oscar Wilde’s line (a writer who did find recognition during his life but died penniless) about those who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing comes to mind when I hear people claim that you’re not a writer until you’ve made a pile of money from your writing.
I asked writer Julian Gallo this question to kick off this interview and he gave a good reply when it comes to combatting those who are afflicted with and spreading the insidious Naysayer Syndrome.
“You will find many people out there – too many, in fact – that have this notion that you are only a ‘real’ writer if you are published by a major publisher, or make lots of money, or if you receive the accolades from those they deem “important”. They want that validation that “okay”, if you will, that they can be declared what they already are.
That’s why I hate the term “aspiring.” One is “aspiring” if one wishes to do something but hasn’t yet done it. If a piano player composes original work and plays them only for him/herself in their apartment and never in front of an audience, is he/she not a musician and composer? If a painter paints but never exhibits or even sells their work, are they not artists? Same with photography, say. Only writers seem to jump all over one another as to whether or not they’re real or legitimate based on whatever criteria they want to throw at you. And it’s sad because there are many talented, creative people out there who don’t believe in themselves because someone else doesn’t deem them “legitimate”, as if they’re waiting for permission to be “allowed” to be what they are.
If you ask me, a lot of this comes from people who have doubts about their own self-worth as an artist and they project that onto everyone else around them in order to feel better about themselves, as if blowing out someone else’s candle makes theirs shine brighter. They spend a life time waiting to be something they aren’t aware they already are. And it’s a shame.”
Fortunately for readers, most writers don’t usually give two shits about other people’s definitions of this imaginary milestone that must be reached before you can call yourself a writer. Many writers, artists and musicians do not live lives dictated by other people’s values, and the world has been culturally enriched because of this.
Gallo has just released his fifth novel Europa, a dark, densely layered and often brutal story with the theme of, as Gallo describes it, emotional and political fascism. Set in a snow-covered Budapest, Europa follows the lives of a group of twenty and thirty year olds who have reached a crossroads in their lives. That crossroad is different for each character and there are outside forces at work and obstacles to overcome in order to reach the other side. This is a story that deals with following your own path, making a transition and claiming your own life even if it goes against the desires and demands of those closest to you.
The political fascism works well within Europa and the far right fascist group in the book is very relevant to what is going on throughout Europe at the moment. Political agendas and the fear based philosophies from the leaders and followers of the far right are on display reflecting the reality seen around the world today. You only need to turn on the news or read a newspaper to see how the far right’s sickening agenda is infecting the world today, just as it always has. Using fear to control and motivate people is a tactic that has always worked, and certain political leaders are well aware of this and will easily stoop that low in their pursuit of power.
It’s only been a few weeks since I took part in a protest against the far right SDL and the EDL in my home town, and to come face to face with a group of men and women so infected with hatred and anger was to see just how easily certain people can be emotionally led like sheep with fear as the guiding force.
Gallo uses the political fascism in the wider context and relates it to the emotional fascism taking place within the group of characters until you can barely see the difference between the two. Themes such as, abusive relationships, sexual identity, drug addiction and the use of manipulation in relationships are all explored in Europa. Many of the characters in Europa are allowing other people’s values to determine their life and this too is an issue many people encounter in the world today. As Gallo himself says during the interview, “It’s getting to the point where you can’t talk to anyone anymore because every gesture is filtered through their ideological prism. They’re not thinking. They’re regurgitating. The sort of thing that is ripe for fascist attitudes to take root.”
I caught up with Julian Gallo not long after the release of Europa to talk about his new novel, writer’s doubts, independent publishing and the writer’s nemesis, Naysayer Syndrome.
Could you tell us the main themes within your new novel Europa?
I wanted to explore the link between political fascism and “emotional fascism”. What I mean by that is that political fascism – psychologically – relies heavily on a sadist/masochist dynamic. Those who support this sort of system feel they are a part of something larger than themselves, something to belong to, where individuality is subject to the dictates of the mob. It’s the willing surrender of the self to the supposed larger and “greater” whole. “Emotional fascism” is the same dynamic only between individuals, whether friendships, relationships, but particularly relationships.
There are those who also get off on the dominant/submissive situation in a relationship and will also use selfishness and manipulation in order to get what they want; and in the most extreme cases, want to also rule with an iron hand. Sometimes people are lonely and they want to feel wanted, important, belong to something, and will sometimes submit to all kinds of brutality – either physical or emotional (especially emotional) in order not to feel alone. Sometimes they will even surrender their individuality, their Self. So I wanted to explore this commonality.
With reports of the far right increasing in numbers across Europe, Europa certainly contains timely subject matter. There are politicians that rely heavily on racism and homophobia to bring in an audience, both of which you tackle in Europa. Do you think certain politicians are simply jumping on these fears as simply a way of increasing their voting audience?
Absolutely – but I think what drives them more than anything else is their lust for power and control. Some of them may not even care about these things – or even act hypocritically – but they will use people’s fears of “the other” in order to manipulate them for a desired end. Whatever it takes. The ends justify the means. In Europe now, especially in Hungary and Greece, there has been an alarming rise in extreme right wing attitudes – Jobbik in Hungary, The Golden Dawn in Greece, for example.
In bad economic times, when things are uncertain, it’s always easy to put the blame on “the other”, whether it be a foreigner, a homosexual, a feminist, a liberal, or whoever else these folks deem “the enemy”. They play into people’s worst fears, exploit it, manipulate it in such a way to make it seem that the cause of their suffering is the one sitting right next to them who isn’t “quite right” – and each culture has their own nuance they exploit and unfortunately, it tends to work.
You didn’t hold back in this book in regards to sexual or violent content, there are some fairly graphic scenes. Was this a conscious effort to push it in terms of realism?
When you’re dealing with a subject such as this it tends to be a little brutal, I guess. We all know how violent these folks can be and their lust for violence is just as insatiable as their lust for power. In relationships, sometimes sex is power. People will use sexuality in order to manipulate, dominate and control another as well. They, too, will use it to exploit people’s fears and insecurities, whatever they may be, in order to get what they want, whether it’s a specific end or merely the feeling of being in control, the one holding the reigns. And in a way, the two points of view merge over the course of the novel, where the emotional and political fascism become one in the same, particularly in the character who’s in charge of the hate group, where his lust definitely extends way beyond political power.
The characters in Europa are all searching for something, battling their own fears and doubts, and in a lot of cases other people’s hatred and fears to find their identity. It’s a popular topic for writers to explore, the fears that hold people prisoner. Do you think people today are less likely to allow other people’s values to determine their life or is it a case that for some this will never change?
The characters in this story are all fucked up in some way. There really isn’t anyone to root for, except for maybe Ferenc, but he has his own demons he’s trying to deal with. Even though they’re all damaged, I tried very hard to make them sympathetic, human. Most of them are in their twenties or early to mid-thirties and I think this is a time in people’s lives where they’re searching, trying to figure out things about their lives, where whatever previous notions they had suddenly change and thus their way of thinking about things.
I think this is a popular theme for writers because many writers are doing this very thing via their work, in some way, anyway. There are always topics they want to explore and I think a lot of the time they’re topics that they may obsess on themselves. Of course, no one really knows the answers but writing, especially fiction, is one way to try to explore these ideas. I don’t think fiction should supply the answers to these questions but instead generate discussion about them.
With regard to allowing other people’s values determine their life, I think it depends on the individual. A disturbing trend I see in America right now is this almost cult-like devotion to political affiliation, where people’s thinking is done for them, where their very identity as a human being is totally immersed in their ideology. It’s getting to the point where you can’t talk to anyone anymore because every gesture is filtered through their ideological prism. They’re not thinking. They’re regurgitating. The sort of thing that is ripe for fascist attitudes to take root, interestingly enough.
You’ve written five novels now. How do you feel about writer’s doubts, does it get easier the more you write?
I think every writer always has doubts about their work and abilities. I most certainly have mine. Whenever I sit down to write a story, there always comes a point where I feel that what I’m doing is of no interest to anyone but myself. And to a large extent, this is probably true. When I write, I write primarily for myself first. I have a story I want to tell, ideas I want to explore, and I hope that story will resonate in some way with whoever decides to read it.
As to whether it’s harder or easier? To me, there are an infinite number of ways one can tell a story and I think there’s this formulaic structure that people have gotten too used to so that anything that strays from that course causes all kinds of problems for writers. I think in terms of music, which is what I did for years before I came to writing, and I approach my writing the same way I approached my music. A song didn’t “have to be” a specific way any more than a piece of fiction has to be.
I read on your blog recently that you abandoned a novel you were working on. How can you tell the difference between writer’s doubts and something just not working?
I think it’s a matter of “feel”. I’ve always approached everything I do using my music days as a reference point. With music, you can feel when something just isn’t right, even though it might be acceptable. You might come up with a decent song but when you play it, it just feels “wrong” for some reason – it doesn’t move you in any way. This is what happened with that novel. I tried to keep working on it, rewriting, editing, changing things but it just no longer felt right to me. I just couldn’t get too excited about it.
The novel I’ve just finished feels like a departure for me, personally. It’s very different from all the others. There’s no “transgressive” elements to it at all and the story is far more serious. It’s also structured differently than the others and I just felt that I crossed a personal creative threshold of sorts and now there’s no going back. The abandoned novel seemed like a step backward to me and it just wasn’t working.
I suppose, in the future, I can salvage bits of it for something else – maybe break it up into separate short stories or something – but for me it was just a matter of ‘been there, done that.’ I want to keep trying to move forward, try different things and the story behind that one was more or less in the same vein as the others – which is fine – but I feel that the one I just finished is a forward step and when I went back to the old one, I felt like I was taking a step back. That’s the best way I can explain it.
Naysayer Syndrome, a very real complaint. With the success of independent publishing is Naysayer Syndrome over IP decreasing or are there still many who simply won’t accept writers who publish independently?
I think it was Stephen King who said that no matter what you do, whether you write, or paint, or make music, there is always going to be someone out there to make you feel lousy about it. He’s absolutely right, and it’s unfortunate. It’s something that’s never going to go away. The question isn’t who is going to criticize you but how you deal with the criticism. Is it constructive, helpful, or is it simply mean spirited, designed to fill you with doubts about yourself? I’ve had experiences with both, as all writers and artists in general do. There is helpful criticism and then there’s the type of criticism where it becomes increasingly less about the work and more of a judgment of you, personally. And the latter is what I’ve been seeing more and more of lately and it’s truly disturbing.
With regard to changes in self-publishing – I’m beginning to see two things: one is the lessening of the “stigma” associated with it, and second, this “us versus them” thing happening too, which I don’t like at all. The choice to self-publish should be because you want to do what you want to do, that the vision be yours and yours alone. And depending on the type of fiction you write, you’re probably better off. For me it’s always been a matter of seeing my vision come to life the way I want it to. Whether it works for people or not, I can’t control that. Right now, I enjoy total freedom to do what I want, for better or for worse. Once you start dealing with people who are going to pay you a lot of money, then you lose that total freedom. At the very least, you’ll have to make compromises. At worst, you’ll have to submit to the dictates of the one writing the check. It’s something I struggle with all the time, believe me.
You’ve recently expanded into creating video trailers for your books. Marketing is a major part of independent publishing and reaching an audience. How effective do you think marketing is in trying to get your books seen when people today are using tactics such as paying cash for book reviews on sites such as Amazon?
There’s definitely no magic bullet. It’s extremely difficult for independent authors, like it was for indie musicians. To me, it’s always been the same thing. It’s easy to get a book out there. The extremely hard part is getting the word out, getting people interested. Book trailers were something I hadn’t really known about until I saw one for one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Niccolo Ammaniti, for his excellent novel “As God Commands.” Then I began seeing them popping up all over the place and I thought it might be a good idea to make them in order to try to draw attention to the novels. It’s just another promotional tool, really.
I think a lot of writers think they’re just going to put a book out and it’s immediately going to start flying off the shelves. Easier said than done. Most mainstream writers have a hard enough time selling their books through a large publishing house. Imagine the plight of the indie author. With each book I know it’s only going to sell so much, though I do try to get the word out and for me, that’s not the primary motivation, anyway. Gaining a readership is great but writing the thing, seeing the vision come to life, the creation of it is my main goal. If others come to it and enjoy it, fantastic, but I try not to think about that too much. It’s easy to get distracted by bullshit and it effects what you ultimately want to do, creatively.
Regarding the tactics a lot of indie authors are using – some of them I just wouldn’t do, especially pay someone to write a good review for your book, which many indie authors are doing. It’s horrible, in my view and a sign of desperation, this craving for validation. Recognition for your work is always a wonderful thing, wherever it comes from, but let it happen. Let it come to you. Sending books out for reviews and hoping for the best is fine and most authors do that. For one, it helps promote the book but it’s no guarantee you’re going to get a rave. You may just as easily get butchered. It’s a chance a writer – or any artist takes.
This year has been a good one for me with regard to features and interviews but I allowed it to come to me. My attitude is if someone is interested, they’ll come to you. Promote, yes, but browbeating people over the head, “Buy my book! Buy my book!” that doesn’t work and it can actually backfire on you. There is a very fine line an indie author has to walk between promoting his/her work and being nothing a walking commercial. Be human. Engage. Let it happen. Don’t force it.
What’s next on the horizon? You’re going to be talking at Blogger Interactive at the end of October in Austin, Texas.
Yes, I’m very excited about this and also very nervous about it as well. This will be the very first time I’m doing anything public with regard to my writing and I have no idea what to expect. I was invited to participate by Jen Sharp of Sips of Jen and Tonic and Becca Cord of 25 to Fly who organized the whole thing. True to the indie spirit, which is why I love the whole idea. I’m very excited about meeting them and others who I’ve been in contact with via social media over the years and it looks like it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun. I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to take part.
As far as new projects are concerned – I just finished a draft of a new novel. It was originally intended to be a short one but it ballooned into this massive thing – well over 100,000 words. Spent the better part of the year writing it. Right now, I just want to focus on the writing, trying to improve, trying out new things, learn more, and try to become the best writer I can become.
About the Author: Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal and Orato as well as business writing for US and UK companies. br> Garry has two sets of short stories available on Amazon entitled The Last Busker in London and Other London Tales, and A Relationship, in Pieces. br> He says - "Never sleep with your arm hanging over the side of the bed. Have you never seen Paranormal Activity?" br> They say - "A bear of scotchman with little brain" - An insult that made Garry's year. br> View My Profile