Simon Holloway’s new novel, The Words We Use are Black and White, is released today. Simon Holloway is, in no particular order, a novelist, short story writer, poet, critic and academic. He’s written many poems, three novels, a screenplay and co-written two sitcoms, under several different names.
I have a penchant for lakes, beauty and Jacques Brel music, so his book is high on my reading pile. I was lucky enough to grab a few words with Simon as he begins his promotional tour for the book and talk to him about his work:
When you sat down to start the novel, what did you want to write about?
Before I wrote the first word I decided that I wanted to write about how we communicate with each other, about the gap between what we say and what others hear. The story started with Lucy, and once I had her, in the airport café, I knew I wanted to write about how and why she was there, and what it might suggest about her life and personality. From there I went sideways, to her family and friends: the novel before this one was very plot-driven – quite possibly too much so – so very early on I made a conscious decision to write a book which concentrated on the characters, and have the narrative driven by what they needed to do rather than what I wanted to happen.
Why do so many of the characters have such similar names?
I knew that when Alain spoke to (or about) Lucy he would call her Lucie, to emphasise the difference between how he sees her and how she sees herself. There’s something too about how names affect readers, about whether characters (and people) have similarities and differences in the way we use language – there are some words we all agree upon, and many we don’t, so I thought it would be fun to see how folk with similar names can have such differing perspectives.
What do Alain’s eyes really look like?
What, indeed? That depends entirely on who’s asking, why they’re asking, what mood they’re in, and what they think of him. We use adjectives to describe ourselves and our own views as much as to describe what we’re talking about, surely?
What is it about airports that makes us – and allows us to – feel so alone?
In an airport you are one of thousands, identified only by your boarding pass. You have no personality, no features or peculiarities unless someone looks at your passport. If you want to be alone it’s the perfect place to be! And if you go at night, when there are no or fewer flights, then you can be even more invisible, ignored and abandoned, as most people would not choose to spend time there unless they were taking or meeting a flight. In effect you can be yourself, with no one watching.
Why do you write such strong female characters?
Because there are strong females in my life and in the world. To represent them in fiction is as natural and important as representing anything else which might exist, such as a chair, a table or a lake. To define the female characters as strong is to imply that it is unusual for women to be strong. This may stand out either because I’m male, and it might not be expected, or because literary gender stereotypes sadly still exist. And whether my female characters are strong or not is irrelevant: they are female characters, and they are neither strong nor weak – they, like everyone, have strengths and vulnerabilities, and it’s a writer’s job to explore them.
Do you really think are lakes pointless?
Everything is pointless until you give it a point. Or, everything is important unless you say otherwise. In this novel it would be very difficult to state that Lake Geneva is pointless, for example, because it’s present in every scene, whether mentioned or not. Similarly, for these characters, at this point in their lives, you could say that Lake Titicaca is pointless!
The music of Jacques Brel seems to play a large part in the novel – which came first, Brel or the story?
Brel. I’ve loved his music for many years, but more importantly his need to communicate shows itself in every phrase and gesture. To ‘give’ his music to Lucy seemed obvious, in that she feels the same need and the same problems in fulfilling it. There’s also an intriguing connection I wanted to play with between his grand statement that he never wrote a love song and the characters’ inability to express those emotions.
So would you say it’s more of an anti-love story than a love story?
I think it’s both, perhaps. If we want to talk about love then we need to consider its absence, too. But it’s certainly a love story, in that it’s a story about characters and love, whatever that may mean (or come to mean) for each individual.
Do you consider yourself a story teller or people watcher?
A people teller! I’m much more interested in characters than narrative, and I firmly believe that characters will tell you their own stories if you know them well enough, and have the grace to let them. We all like action narratives from time to time, of course, and a good thriller is hard to beat, but I think in this story it’s far more important who it happens to, and why, that the event itself: for these characters, in their current situation, that’s probably as it should be.
There is a narrative at play here, along with an exploration of issues deep in the human condition: what would you like readers to take away from the book, the story or the ideas?
The novel’s about issues so central to being alive that hopefully readers will consider how these things apply to them. Naturally I want people to enjoy the narrative, but I’d also hope that the characters linger in the mind after the book is over, causing you to think about how you interact with those near to you. If we can’t express how we feel accurately, and end up not trying, then perhaps we need to look again at what we do, and maybe try to show our feelings in small acts as much as in everyday words – for if the words themselves are black and white then where do we find the colour?
The Words We Use Are Black And White
‘On essaie de trouver les couleurs qu’on a rêvé.’ – Jacques Brel
In Evian, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lucy sells tickets at the cinema. In the hills above the water, her brother believes himself happily married to a woman he once tried to find by swimming across the lake. Their childhood friend, Fabrice, is returning from the quiet confusion of Canadian trees and the brief memory of his girlfriend in Toronto. Into this relative stillness comes Alain, escaping Geneva’s necessity of human contact. But a budding relationship between Alain and Lucy forces them all to reconsider the ways in which they try to talk to each other.
To the songs of Jacques Brel and with the lake as a constant presence, Lucy, her brother Jean-Luc, and Fabrice struggle to make themselves heard among the clamour of failing words and misconceptions, leading to potential crises for them all. This interwoven story of love, family and our inability to make ourselves understood leaves you wondering if language can ever be more than guesswork, and if so whether anyone can ever be heard. And for Alain, tangled somewhere in the middle, “Lakes, of course, are pointless.”
‘A compelling story of human relationships. Holloway’s intriguing characters struggle to communicate in a world steeped in images of language. A hugely enjoyable read.’ – David Crystal
‘A novel with poetic undertones that explores the tensions between communication and miscommunication, between narrative drive and inertia, to produce and expose a rich pattern of interconnections.’ – Nigel McLoughlin, Professor of Poetics & Creativity, University of Gloucestershire
Purchase your copy from Amazon today:
Find out more about Simon at his website ~ https://sjholloway.wordpress.com/
or follow him on Twitter ~ https://twitter.com/SimonJHolloway