Welcome to Dean Lilleyman – this week’s indie debut author who is here talking about his novel, Billy and the Devil, which I really liked a lot. I completely engaged with the troubled narrator, Billy, who we stay with from childhood to middle-age, and was swept away on a wave of different emotions as he self-destructed and ruined all that was good in his life. As I said to Dean – I wanted to shake Billy then hug him. Despite how dark the novel is, it also had moments of real laugh-out loud humour and a vein of hope running through it, and it’s one that’s going to stay with me for a long time.
Dean, despite some of the terrible things he does I found myself unable to dislike Billy. How did you approach writing a character that remains sympathetic when behaving really badly?
That’s encouraging to hear. I don’t think Billy is one ‘self’. Especially when the story gets past the halfway mark. Young Billy sees the beauty in things, is happy in his own company, and despite what’s happening around him, there’s an unquestioned hope. Then comes the drink, an ever-increasing habit that sets up a rhythm of separation, a pattern that to begin with retains some glimmers of the real Billy. And then, over time, Billy becomes split from whatever he was.
Throughout, there are repeated images of him seeing himself outside of himself, a dark mirror. For me, that’s what alcoholism did. The night-before version of me, hurtful and inexplicably uncaring towards those I loved, who loved me, this self-destructive cycle that filled the morning-after version of me with absolute disgust, with self-hatred, which is certainly the main thing I wanted to show in Billy and the Devil. This is why ‘when behaving really badly’ as you put it, I wanted to make the reader feel the same sense of disgust that I felt for myself back then, and while Billy’s acts are not necessarily my acts, the truth is in the repulsion, which is why I chose not to turn the camera eye away. And yes, I understand that this might put some readers off. But it was a gamble I was prepared to make.
When I came off the drink for real and started reading, watching films, I leant towards stories that featured alcoholics, maybe to try and understand something about myself. I got very frustrated with some of these stories. It was mostly a tell through a prettied lens. Oh dear, they’ve lost their job. Oh dear, they’ve lost their husband or wife, etc. The frustration was, of course, that there is so much more to it than that. The disgust, the self-loathing, the losing of self-respect, the losing of self. Because, what do you have left if you lose yourself? I wanted to show that, as vividly as I could, and if it meant people stepping away from me for writing this book, not seeing the reason for using such a device, not understanding the importance of gambling on such a fiction based in truth to tell a truth, then so be it. Thankfully, there are people that have read Billy and understand, that see what I’m doing. And for all the possible misunderstandings of such a ‘dirty’ story, the responses I’ve had so far from people who have had similar experiences, or have lived with alcoholics, has given me much armour.
There are elements of us as writers in every character we create so which characteristics would you say you share with Billy?
There’s a lot of me in Billy. But Billy isn’t me. We share our alcoholism, obviously. Our waves of depression. Which for me is near-manageable now I’m not drinking. But for Billy, as it was for me back then, these waves get massively exacerbated by drink. Up, down, up, down, and on it goes, until he hits the point, like I did, of down, down, down. In terms of structure, the novel is certainly built to emphasise this cycle, these concentric circles, much in the same way Dante’s Inferno travels. What else? A love of the woods. Of nature. A cynicism of gang mentality. Of self-appointed hierarchies. Of not dealing with rejection too well. But perhaps unlike Billy, this seems to act as petrol for me now, pushing me further to do my own thing anyway.
Geographically, me and Billy share much. All of it, really. And yes, that self-destructive nature. This has caused me trouble at times. But then again, sometimes it seems to work for me. Smashing things up puts me in a place where I have to put things back together again, and more often than not these things get put back together better, stronger. But that’s the thing with Billy, isn’t it? He doesn’t put these things back together. It’s an anger that’s fired outward, but really, it’s always inward, towards himself.
Once, I read such a chapter out at a spoken word event in Sheffield, the chapter where Billy pours scorn on the people of a working men’s club in the pit village where he lives. He’s pretty hateful towards them, really petty and self-righteous, arrogant. He takes the piss out of them for playing bingo, for living under the cosh of working class life. Of course, he’s stereotyping them terribly. The chapter ends with him climbing on a table and telling them they’re wrong and stupid, and that he wants something better than they have. The irony is of course, that he’s falling to pieces, that the hate he pours upon them is hatred for himself, at their contentment, a contentment he sees as a subservience to a lesser life.
After the reading I was cornered in the toilet by an angry ‘poet’ in a flat cap, who shout-asked me if I’d ever been to a pit village, insisted sideways-on that I had no idea or experience with what it means to be working class. I couldn’t answer him. He was too angry to listen, had already made his mind up, had already decided that the writer was the character, that Billy’s opinions were my opinions, mistook show for tell, missed the point that his anger meant that I’d done my job right, that I’d made him feel like he was there, listening to this gobshite drunk stood on a table ranting against himself. And you know, here’s the thing. Like Billy, I come from a poor working class background. You can’t fib that stuff. I spent the first few weeks of my life sleeping in a bottom drawer because we were so skint. I still have no money. And frankly I don’t care if I ever do. Happiness is the single most important thing to me. And happy is writing, making, my family and friends, my cats and chickens, a book, music, a movie, home. This is where me and Billy differ considerably. But really, it’s all that Billy wanted, happiness, love, and it was right there in front of him, waiting, but drink took him away from that.
I recently read about a study done on addiction that argued that it stems from emotional need rather than a physical addiction to the drugs, or alcohol, themselves. Do you think love is all Billy really needs?
I haven’t read that study so I can’t really comment on that. Instinct, experience, and from what I’ve read, would lead me to disagree with that statement to some degree. But saying that, I would probably agree that the two, the emotional, and the physical need, are linked. My own feelings on the matter are that determinism is the biggest factor, in all senses of the word. We know for sure that genetics play a big part in addiction. I think I can vouch for that. Unless of course, it was all just a bad joke of fate, a trick played by some fuck-awful prankster gods. My terrible drunk of a grandfather did indeed stick a knife into my grandmother’s chest, as happens in the novel. From everything I know about him, from the outside looking in, he was an erratic mix of wanting her and wilfully destroying their relationship, along with that of his kids. I do not believe for a moment that he would have been so destructive without the drink.
Thankfully, such dark violence wasn’t in my make up, but I believe, through reading my grandmother’s diary, that I inherited both his condition and his hurtful mouth when pissed. Was there some emotional need in him? I don’t know. I never met him. But I know for me, drink became a way to a more confident self, initially. As a kid I kept myself to myself. As a teenage drinker I became loud and centre-stage. I enjoyed this. Flash-forward ten years and I’m coming downstairs in a posh hotel after a works do, and my co-workers are eating breakfast, avoiding eye-contact with me, mumbling into their bacon and eggs, because, apparently, Dean climbed on the buffet table last night, dropped his trousers and underpants, did some improv hip-shaking, karaoke tipping the table up, landing bare arse on the MD’s wife’s lap knocking her flat to the floor, before pelting the room with assorted desserts. Funny. From here.
I’ve been incredibly lucky. I hit a point in my thirties where I was waking to drink. Where life was wholly the bottle. Everything else emptied out. Sound clichéd? I’ve been incredibly lucky. I did what Billy did not. I came to in my bed after an apocalyptic three-day walkabout, my wife and two kids stood looking on, a doctor mouthing words at me I didn’t understand, and I knew that was it. Done. I had to stop. Emotional need? Well, for days the walls crawled with small insects, and I tried to pull my tongue out because the itch wouldn’t stop. And then I sat in the garden. And then I started writing. If this thing was an emotional need, then the writing, the reading, filled something of that need. And love? Billy loses sight of what he’s got. He sees love as a fuck. That’s his bridge to a lie of love. Which is why the sex in the book isn’t sexy. It’s a fake paradise, a palace on sand. Like the drink. A loveless fuck isn’t making love. Fifteen barley wines isn’t the path to real happy. I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The story is written as prose, poetry, screenplay and transcripts – is this how it came out at first draft?
It is, with a few exceptions. I decided early on that the format for each episode should declare itself, should be the most effective way to present what’s happening, what’s being said, and let the whole go on and form itself. For example, in the Punch and Judy scene, apart from the bookended descriptive passages, the main thing was what was being presented on that little stage in front of Billy and his daughter, a time-tested puppet show about domestic abuse that slips so easily into our culture that we laugh when the wife gets beat with a stick, ha-ha, funny isn’t it. No. And in terms of format, the script does all the work here, adds a dark sense of threat to the stories around it, no need to dress it further.
Likewise with the sometimes short poetry-driven episodes, the form chose itself. How to describe something that is near impossible to describe logically, in concrete prose? Like depression. Sylvia Plath’s Sheep in Fog says nothing of logic, of a concrete ‘this is how it feels’. But it does. Because it’s the thing itself. And it carries.
Which writers’ work do you enjoy and who would you say has been the greatest influence/inspiration when writing Billy’s story?
The first writer that started me off was Raymond Carver. Clean, unadorned, to the point, and very selective in what he shows. Less, is more. Suggestion everything. Leave on the half-step and let the reader walk it from there. He opened a big door for me, and several of the pieces in Billy are heavily influenced by his writing. Another big influence was Hubert Selby Jr, especially Last Exit to Brooklyn. Not afraid to show the vulgar realities of things, of how the ugly can produce the beautiful, that Disney morals are not the way to get the reader thinking for themselves.
Likewise Robert Browning. Put the reader in that space, let them listen to this speaker, let the reader decide what’s going on. For the music and travel of some of the more ethereal passages, most definitely Dylan Thomas. Clashing concrete un-fussy words together to make a hard poetry that has the music of a bird in flight, the imagery very clear, yet the whole a dense undergrowth that spits. And on that same note, Allen Ginsberg. Dangerous, risky, truth-telling writing that has no fear of an authoritative naysayer stood over his shoulder, the music, the music, say it out, no censor.
Novels that had a big influence on me and Billy were Camus’ The Outsider, Kafka’s The Trial, and most definitely Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Camus for the stripped back stark defiance of alone; Kafka for the gnaw of guilt from a source unknown; and Sherwood Anderson, a novel of short stories, all interlinked, all with a heavy profundity that’s delivered almost fairy tale light at times, all the dirt of what it is to be human, to be driven by animal needs, a massive influence. Aside from these, there are quite a few other influences: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Sillitoe, Nabokov, Bukowski, John Fante, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, Kelman, Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller, the British new wave films of the late fifties, the films of Lars von Trier. I also read deeply into devil folklore and scripture, of which several of these tales are riddled broken glass scattered within the Billy stories.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished writing my second novel, which is due out next summer. I’m very excited about it. An isolated Derbyshire village, carnival day, two timelines, 1979 and 1999, characters crossing over, nothing quite as it first seems, a complex shape that reads surprisingly easy. At the core is a love story, with several other strands bouncing off it, all coming into dialogue with each other as the story progresses. The whole thing reads in pseudo real-time, one day, morning til just gone midnight. And there’s disco. It’s strong.
A huge thank you, Dean, for your unflinching honesty and telling emotional truths both in the novel and in this interview. I’m very much looking forward to your second novel.
You can buy a copy of Billy and the Devil here and connect with Dean on Twitter.
Next up on Year of Indie debuts is Ben Johncock talking about The Last Pilot.