Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?
David Heidenstam You can do the writing anywhere. Yes, at some point you’ll probably have to type it up on a computer. But the creative part, that can be sitting at a café table with pen and paper. Or talking into a pocket recorder as you walk – or when you wake in the night.
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
David Heidenstam Only do it if you have to. Some can make a living from it: but that’s mostly if you’re in contract writing, or (for a successful very few) creating genre fiction, or working in some non-fiction genres – business, health, self-development. Thanks to modern self-publishing & self-promotion, you can bypass the old gatekeepers. But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to read your stuff. So then it’s a lifestyle choice; sometimes a driven one. Which is fine if you can fit it into the corners of a life that makes you happy in other ways. But if not, you may be facing unhappy choices.
Q: Where did you get the idea for Tales for my dog?
David Heidenstam The individual stories came in many different ways. Some years ago, I started trying to tap the unconscious by setting out to write stories in five minutes – with no ideas beforehand… That worked. “The moondreamer” came about in that way, at a hotel café table on Djerba. One minute it didn’t exist, and I had no inkling of it; two minutes later it unalterably did.
Many of the stories in Part One happened like that. Others came deliberately, from memories I wanted to explore. Sometimes the two things came together. The title “The archipelago of the dead” came out of nowhere – and was too good to waste! At first, it seemed it would have to be some kind of fantasy about the afterlife. But then I realised how it could bring together experiences both from sailing and from childhood – with only at the end a nod to the looming consequences of age and to those who’ve gone before.
As for the overall concept, “Tales for my dog” – that started as a jokey title (and a potentially dangerous one – since people might expect them to be stories about dogs). And the justification only comes in the very last words of the last story – with the claim that most people might have had happier lives as dogs… Which then allows one to look back, and see the stories as a kind of education, for, perhaps, a canine audience, in the various strange psychologies of humans.
Q: How would you compare your treatment of men and women in Tales for my dog?
David Heidenstam Well, I’m clearly pretty hard on the men! Their portrayals range from old cultural distortions (the man who talks about “keeping a ‘mistress’”) to sudden violent domestic insanity. In between, there are the stupid, the naively optimistic, those ready to beat people into submission or to death, and those happy to have embarked on world conquest because it’s finally made them feel loved… The women are not shown in such positions of power, because that’s still usually untrue to people’s observations, including my own. Instead they are mostly shown trying to deal with circumstances with intelligence and sensitivity – including turning the tables on someone who’s using authority to threaten them. But, to even things up a bit, there’s a woman with a very emotionless approach to marriage; and – humorously – another who tries to turn a profit from her ex-lover’s heart!
Of course, there’s always the danger that some readers may not be well attuned to satire – e.g. in the case of the man who thinks it’s easier to keep a ‘mistress’ than a dog, because you don’t have to walk her every day… They might like to remember Swift’s bitter satire, in A Modest Proposal – suggesting that the Irish can deal with poverty by selling their children as food to the rich… As a writer, I have to guard a carefully ambivalent attitude to ‘political correctness’. Changing what words are acceptable has clearly played a vital role in changing attitudes and behaviour. But changing what writing is acceptable can distort truth-telling. There are two overlapping dangers. One is a modern version of Victorian bowdlerisation, where some topics are censored. The other is a modern version of Stalinist literature – in which the job of the writer is distorted by the importance of presenting favourable role models.
Q: How would you defend your portrayal of Christian theology, in Tales for my dog and In the Beginning…?
David Heidenstam Oh, I don’t think I would! I happen to be religious, in the sense that I think that the material world is superficial. That consciousness is the underlying nature of the universe, not a rare result of a physical brain. But Western attitudes to religion – both favourable and critical – are grossly distorted. They are distorted by the Abrahamic tradition of God as an all-powerful person – who then has, ridiculously, to be capable of being everywhere and knowing everything. And they are distorted by Christian theology – driven into a cul-de-sac by the issues of the divinity – and parentage! – of Jesus of Nazareth. Which requires that people commit to believing unlikely things – and that they must do so by the exercise of faith. So then religion becomes something necessarily at loggerheads with science. I don’t think Westerners realise how odd Christianity is, how much of an outlier, in the spectrum of world religions. And one which clearly has nothing to do with anything that the historical Jesus actually taught. For a start, Yeshua ben Joseph – Jesus of Nazareth – was clearly a social anarchist: telling people to leave their families, not worry about the next meal. And you can’t build a structured religion on social anarchy.
Q: How can you possibly defend the story “Keeping a dog”?!
David Heidenstam Well, yes, this one does tend to cause outrage. Some stories in Tales for my dog are meant to, for some readers. “Bargain”, for those uncritical of Christian theology. “Winning hearts”, for those enthusiastic about Western military intervention abroad to ‘promote democracy’. “Keeping a dog” is a bit different. It belongs to a valid tradition of wry jeu d’esprit; but whether that’s appropriate to the subject is another matter. The outrage arises when the speaker in the story switches from pet dogs to paid female partners… – and uses exactly the same words: “… they try to take an interest, and yawn, and don’t really have the concentration, not for your things anyway, why should they?” And for just a moment it could be taken that the reason is the same; but of course it’s not. To take the analysis further, let’s remember the joke about the man who goes to a library, and asks the librarian to tell him where he can find books about young women being attracted to much older men. (A frequent theme in Hollywood movies a few years back.) “Certainly,” she says. “In the fiction section.” In “Keeping a dog”, the ‘voice’ of the story is clearly both older and fairly wealthy. “Keeping a ‘mistress’” is an old-fashioned phrase. And it implies inequality of wealth, like any long-term monetised sexual relationship – whether it is a rich man gaining a trophy wife, or a young woman deciding that accepting a ‘sugar daddy’ is a bearable solution to paying off iniquitous education costs. And in all this context, the ‘voice’ of the story is actually refreshingly honest – within his limits. He doesn’t imagine that the woman is going to love him, or even share his interests. He uses the exact words he did about keeping a dog – but now the issue is not mental capacity, but the unlikelihood of a younger poorer woman being unflaggingly interested in the day-to-day perceptions and preoccupations of an older man who’s bought her companionship. But the provocative transition allows the man a conclusion that is simultaneously practical, psychologically acute, and somewhat thoughtful: “But you know they’ve got plenty of other lives they don’t tell you about, so you don’t feel guilty about it. Not like you would if they were a dog.”
* * *