Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Adrian Barnes

THE world has had a rough night. No one has slept. From China to Chelsea, India to Indiana, Austria to Australia, from sea to restless, insomniac sea - the whole world has been laying awake counting the hours till morning. And that's just day one of a global phenomenon that moves very quickly from a 'well, that was weird.' to full-blown psychosis. Imagine it: a sleepless world, a world without rest. That's going to be a world all fucked up big style in short order. And, actually, you don't have to imagine it, because Canadian writer Adrian Barnes already has in his terrific debut novel Nod.

This is a book with explosive narrative propulsion. Nod is not for the squeamish - not being able to sleep turns the mildest people into monsters (ask any parent of tiny sleepless babies)-  but it is also a book with huge heart as well as linguistic daring. The hero, Paul, is a one of the few Sleepers in this new world (a fact he very quickly learns to keep quiet) and is also a professional lover of words and everything from the title on resonates at a variety of levels (Nod - for instance, is the land where Cain fled after he was expelled for killing his brother). Of course Nod is a metaphor for the way the frenzied activity of mankind is mostly pointless, and often dangerous - but it's also a damn fine terrifying helter-skelter of a modern horror story. The sort of thing John Wyndham might appreciate, or HG Wells. And Adrian is coming over from British Columbia to promote Nod (a book I fully expect to cause stonking hard-ons in Hollywood film studios - it has 'potential blockbuster movie' written all over it) - and I asked him a few questions... And he is, I think you'll agree, a thoughtful, intelligent bloke. Now go and buy his book.

Can we have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words, please? (not 49, not 51...)

First poem, in grade one: "A mother's a mother/Skinny or fat/She shouts loud and long/All through the day/But I like her that way". Got a reaction and thought 'hmm'. From there it was Dr. Seuss then comic books then sci fi then punk rock then Dante then Dickens then NOD.

Where did the story for NOD come from? (are you an insomniac for example?)

Yes, I'm something of an amateur insomniac, which has given me time to reflect and consider how insomnia may well be the defining metaphor of our era and not just my own life. 

In what senses is Nod a Canadian book do you think?

I think Nod contains a trust in nature that's very Canadian. The problems in the book are all 'First World' as the kids say, and fairly universal, but the solutions are all out there waiting in the woods. Canadians love nature and even rely on it as a corrective to civilization. That confidence in nature stops Nod from going completely over the edge in terms of despair. I have a thousand kilometres of unbroken forest right behind my house. It's got my back.  

Nod possesses huge narrative propulsion, and it's also graphically violent at times. Did you surprise yourself in writing these scenes?

No. I pretty much just inhabit what I write and don't think about it too much, if that makes sense. I didn't realize Nod was so intense until others read the ms and said so. Odd because I've never written violently before and have no plans to do so again...but it is about an apocalypse, so no one can say it's gratuitous!

The hero of Nod loves words - indeed, he is a professional explorer of forgotten and ancient words. How far do you share his fascination?

On an amateur level. I teach English and will often stop a class for fifteen minutes and talk about the etymology of 'okay' or 'cool'. In the same way that metaphor adds depth to words, so too--I think--does knowing their histories.

What's the next project?

I've recently begun working on a comic novel titled "Dickensian" which is about a sort of post-modern uber-hipster who finds his life slowly transformed into a Dickensian orgy of the emotions.  

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire and why?

I admire people with the guts to tell the truth and not gussy life up too much. Most of my heroes were musicians when I was younger: John Lennon, Morrissey, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, even Paul Weller. Those who dug right through the bullshit around fame, which is a form of mental illness for most famous people--and for society as a whole. In a literary sense that translates into George Orwell, GB Shaw, Noam Chomsky, and Socrates. In a personal sense, my father's mother and my mother's father as well as both my parents, who've always striven to be honest people.

Anyone you despise? (and why?)

No one. I can't despise because I'm too despicable to be qualified. Ask Jesus or Buddha, maybe!

World getting better or worse?

Both. On the one hand, I judge society by how it treats the marginalized--and on that front we're way ahead of the Middle Ages: gay people can now often live freely and in some places openly; people with mental and physical challenges are increasingly welcomed into society; women are now, at least in our part of the world, mostly masters of their own fates. That's progress. On the other hand, our governments and corporations are nightmares and we're headed for a big fall unless--and I can't in good conscience put it another way--there's a revolution.

Tell me something I don't know...

Two things. 1. For every year a coke dealer gets sentenced to in the US a crack dealer gets 100 years. Yes, 100. 2. Barack Obama defines as 'enemy combatant' anyone within drone strike range of the 'terrorists' he unilaterally sentences to death each morning over coffee. That includes many, many women and children.

Nod is published by Bluemoose tomorrow (october 31)


  1. As an amateur insomniac myself, I'm really looking forward to reading this book, which sounds like a real imaginative tour de force... and congratulations to Adrian.

    But I'm interested that he feels that 'people with mental and physical challenges are increasingly welcomed into society.' Tell that to anyone with mobility issues trying to access most forms of public transport, or the parents of a child with special needs desperately battling to get a legally enforceable 'statement' that will, allegedly, enable their child to access a meaningful education. Yes, it's undoubtedly better than it was in the middle ages, but disabled hate crime is on the increase and often goes unchallenged. Frankie Boyle, anyone?

  2. This book is fantastic, and we were lucky enough to meet Adrian at a uni lecture yesterday. He is fascinating and quite inspiring.

  3. Nod was fantastic - great premise, great writing. Congrats Adrian and thanks for the recommendation, Steve.