Literature

2007 - 2022

Disnaeland: An Interview with author D.D. Johnston

Imagine the power goes out and doesn’t come back on. At all. What might happen in your community? This is the question author D.D. Johnston explores in his latest novel, Disnaeland. In a review in Scotland on Sunday, Stuart Kelly writes “Disnaeland has verve and intelligence – I hope he writes more like it. D.D. Johnston’s novel is wildly imaginative.” 

As a reader of a great deal of speculative fiction, I found Disnaeland to be something very special indeed. This beautifully crafted novel embraces comedy and tragedy, trauma and healing, intellectual breadth and spiritual depth. In short, Disnaeland embraces life and invites us to do the same.

I’ve been lucky enough to sit down with D.D., in a way, through an email exchange over the past few days where we’ve explored the questions of utopia & dystopia, spirituality & politics, the value of Scots language to the world, and inspirational authors including James Kelman, Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson & Irvine Welsh. All this and we only just barely touched on the richness of subjects expressed and explored in Disnaeland.

Q. Thanks so much for taking time to discuss your wonderful new book with me. I don’t read many novels cover to cover in 24 hours, but I just couldn’t put Disnaeland down! Could you tell us a little about what inspired you to write this somewhat unusual story?

A. About a decade ago, I started thinking that if some future society reflects on our civilization, what they’ll find strangest is that we so relentlessly predicted the end of our world, and yet we did so little about it. At that time, it seemed to me that our culture was overwhelmed with stories about the collapse of civilization, and yet if anything it was accelerating towards that collapse. I knew I wanted to address that paradox somehow, but for many years I was stuck.

Then, in February 2020, me and my then partner were on a commuter train, down on the south coast of England. She was pregnant and there was nowhere to sit, and when I looked down the carriage every person was staring silently at their phone. It was the weekend of storm Dennis, and the land was still flooded from storm Ciara. That February was the wettest ever recorded, and Covid was just beginning to dominate the news. And I had this sudden realisation that dystopia was now. The commuters on their phones, the epidemic of medicated depression, the CCTV cameras, the climate emergency, the robot voice warning us to report things that didn’t look right – this is how 20th-century writers imagined a dystopian future. I realised my power-cut story wasn’t going to be about how we might fall into a dystopia; it was going to be about how we might escape from the one we’re in.

And then things got worse, right? We were soon confined in our homes, rarely going outside, avoiding others when we did. On the day they imposed lockdown, I ran around shops trying to get supplies for a new-born, because we had no idea if we’d get another chance. It’s easy to forget how frightening and disorientating that first lockdown was. For months, video links were our only contact with friends and family – even antenatal services. But, at the same time, we started to speak to our neighbours. We checked in on each other. On warm Thursday evenings, we gathered outside our homes, waving beer bottles, singing songs, clapping, clattering pans.

That sense of solidarity in a time of crisis isn’t unusual: there’s a good book by Rebecca Solnit called Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. It looks at disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, highlighting the difference between popular and media perceptions of how people will behave in a time of crisis (violence, chaos, savage individualism) and how people actually behave (solidarity, cooperation, mutual aid). So I wanted to write a disaster novel in which people don’t turn to cannibalism as soon as the telly goes off.

Q: I love how you’ve blended dystopian and utopian elements in Disnaeland, really bringing to life the contrast between dominant society and another world that is possible (even already existing in a way). Interestingly, George Monbiot wrote something similar in the Guardian today. “Society is a complex system, and complex systems can never be sensibly and benevolently controlled from the centre. A centralised, hierarchical system means concentrated power, and concentrated power favours concentrated wealth.” Like you, he points out how we’ve internalised our current system so strongly, we find it hard to imagine alternatives, even when, as you say, they already exist and work well. He also talks about participatory democracy, similar to what you offer in Disnaeland

As I read your novel, I found myself thinking it was, in a way, a kind of cross between Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I was reminded of Trainspotting because of the drugs, desperation and despair about what consumer culture defines as ‘life’ as well as because your novel is written so beautifully in Scots language. And I thought of The Dispossessed because Le Guin, like yourself, writes about the challenges of nurturing an anarchist society into being and invites us all to remember the importance of  imagination and spirituality for personal and social transformation. I see that’s more of a mini-essay than a question and would love your thoughts on any elements of this that might speak to you.

A. You’re right that Disnaeland is about utopia and dystopia, and I’m struck that both in fiction and history the two are often close. A wee while back I was reading a piece about Kim Stanley Robinson and utopian fiction and he said, “Novels are really about what happens when things go wrong. If you propose plans for how things go right, it sounds like civics, it sounds like blueprints.” And in all the great utopian novels – and, by the way, there aren’t that many, compared to how many times dystopia’s been imagined – utopia’s always in a dialogue with dystopia. Ursula le Guin was great at that. Similarly, in the real world, utopian endeavours usually emerge from conditions that are almost dystopian – war, economic crisis, totalitarianism – and then they launch like fireworks, briefly illuminating history; then, unfortunately, due either to internal or external violence, they quickly descend into darkness. If it’s not too much of a stretch, I’d say that a similar duality exists in Trainspotting and in all the best writing about intoxication: getting wasted can be beautiful, funny, and joyous; but sooner or later it usually descends into darkness.

Q: I’ve been watching reviews of Disnaeland with interest and particularly noticing how folk are responding to the Scots language. Can I ask you why you felt it was important to write the novel in Scots? How important is the Scots language to you?

A: The relationship between Scots and English is a complex one. I wouldn’t say the book’s written in Scots, but it’s written in a dialect that’s very influenced by Scots, and that surprised me, to an extent, because with anything more formal than a text message I usually write in standard written English – as I’m doing here. But the idea that I “heard” the story in my head isn’t just a literary conceit. I heard it, and I heard it in this East-Central Scottish dialect – so I wrote it that way too.

And why not? I think our language is beautiful. It’s got rhythm and wit. It’s light on its feet. But it also has this power – this harshness, sometimes.

Living in England, I often get speaking to strangers who are originally from Scotland. I’ve been away more than twenty years now, and sometimes I talk with people who left more than fifty years ago, and it’s always funny to notice how our voices change as we recognise each other as fellow exiles. Within a few seconds we’ll go from “What a darling little boy; I do love his hat” to havering aboot how it’s a braw day tae be oot oan the green scranning oor pieces – or whatever. I’m being a wee bit facetious, but there is this brief joy in remembering where we’re from.

Sometimes there’s still an assumption that anyone who expresses themselves in a way that deviates from hegemonic forms of English must be doing so because they lack any other means. That’s not necessarily the case at all – it could be that people actually just quite like their own forms of language.

So it wasn’t an overtly political choice. Nevertheless, I recognise the political implications of a literary tradition that at least since Scott has normalised writing dialogue in Scots and narration in English. I’ve long been an admirer of James Kelman – for his fiction, his essays, and his sustained political commitment. Like Kelman I’m suspicious of nationalism in all its forms, but, like Kelman, I can see how using your own language can be an anti-imperialist act. In that regard Scotland has two challenges: there are all the issues arising from the historical and contemporary centralisation of power in London; but, increasingly, the imperial power that dominates us – militarily, economically, ideologically, and culturally – is the United States. Over the last decade, the rate at which US military and economic dominance has converted into ideological and cultural dominance has rapidly increased, aided by the internet. We’re edging towards a global monoculture, with cultural diversity being destroyed – in a process that in many ways parallels the destruction of biodiversity.

Q: Could you talk a wee bit more about The Voice that shared the story of Disnaeland with you. When you say you heard it, was it an audible sound that you could hear with your ears or a silent voice that was like a thought not your own? Do you feel like the book was kind of co-written between yourself and The Voice? And has this experience transformed your understanding of spirituality or reality in any way? 

A: It was a voice in my head. I know that sounds a wee bit bonkers. It’s hard to explain, but it was like the whole story was there and it just kept coming and coming whether I wanted to hear it or not. In that sense, I felt like I was just the vehicle for a story that was emerging from something bigger than me, but perhaps that’s me just rehashing post-structuralist critiques of how we conceptualise an author. I don’t know.

Was it spiritual? I guess the simple materialist explanation is that I experienced an altered state of consciousness brought on by exhaustion and stress. In the first days of my son’s life, as his mum recovered from a monumental labour, I got so exhausted I started to hallucinate. I’d fall asleep and wake up convinced I was holding my baby; one time I even carried him round the bed, and it was only as I tried to lower him into his Moses basket that I realised he was already sleeping there and that in my arms I held nothing. So, you could argue The Voice was a similar phenomenon.

But maybe materialist and spiritual explanations aren’t exclusive. If some transcendent force was to influence our material lives, then it would have to do that through the material realm, right?

Although I have at times thrown myself into political causes, I have, like most people, spent most of my life pursuing my own selfish interests and pleasures. Isn’t it amazing, then, that this wee boy can come into the world, and, immediately, I would forsake my life for him without a second’s hesitation? I have never been unusually brave or selfless, and yet I would gladly take on any suffering if it would spare my son. That this is a normal experience makes it, to my mind, even more amazing. Is such selfless love not spiritual? Of course, you could say that for survival purposes we’ve evolved to have, I don’t know, cognitive and hormonal responses to reproduction, and I’m sure that’s true; but, again, how else would our material bodies process a thing such as love?

For many years I considered myself an atheist. My political background is in an anarchist tradition that for the most part has been fiercely secular. It emerged out of the Enlightenment and often fought violent struggles against oppressive forms of organised religion (the Catholic Church in Spain in the 1930s, for instance). So perhaps it’s surprising that I’ve written quite a religious book.

In part this came about through an interest in how we’ve come to abandon hope in the apocalypse. I mean, for thousands of years, apocalyptic visions gave oppressed people hope: The Book of Revelation promises the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. I got interested in medieval millenarian Christian radicals – Thomas Müntzer, Melchoir Hoffman, Jan Matthys, etc. – and the movements they inspired. I kind of like their belief that some apocalyptic purge will rid the world of evil and bring about the New Jerusalem.

But I’ll also add this – perhaps the point I’ll close on. For many years, I believed we could change the world through appealing to people’s rational self-interest: you should join the union because it will help you get a pay rise; you should lessen your carbon footprint so your kids inherit a tolerably inhabitable planet, etc. And that’s not true. Each individual’s material interests are better served by keeping their head down and letting some other poor mugs go on strike; it doesn’t much matter to you or me whether we recycle our rubbish, so long as most people do.

Similarly, I don’t think we can appeal to some rationally grounded morality – in many ways, I think Nietzsche’s right about morality. We should join the union because unionised workplaces lead to a more equal society – sure, but why should society be equal? We should save the rainforests so species aren’t made extinct – sure, but why should we care if other species are made extinct?

The answer – the only answer – is because we believe in these things. We believe in equality. We believe in preserving life. And beliefs such as these are transcendent and intransigent. They’re grounded in neither material consequence nor rational argument. They require a leap of faith.

 

DD Johnston is the author of four novels – Peace, Love, & Petrol Bombs (AK Press, 2011), The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub (Barbican Press, 2013), The Secret Baby Room (Barbican Press, 2015) & Disnaeland (Barbican Press, 2022). Born in Central Scotland, he later lived in Edinburgh where he once studied sociology, taught sex education, organised small revolutions and got into shenanigans we won’t go into. Some of these led to him escaping to France and then England. He now lives in Cheltenham Spa where he cares for his young son, Hart.

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  1. 220723 says:

    I’m just old enough to remember when the only power we had in our community was the power we made ourselves. We had no electricity; our heat came from fires and our light came from the village gasworks. We produced the power we needed on a domestic rather than an industrial scale.

    When I was a teenager (though that’s a bit of an anachronism – back in those days ‘teenagers’ had yet to be invented), I wrote a wee Marxian story in which some unspecified systems-breakdown obliged us to return to a reliance on purely domestic production. The tragic moment of the story consisted in the fateful outcome that, in so returning to the idiocy of rural life, the old relations of production from which industrialisation had liberated us reasserted themselves too. That’s the thing about history; there can be no going back.

    The ‘paradox’ of which DD speaks is what we dialecticians call ‘anomie’, which is the mismatch between our individual actions and the system of social norms and practices that defines our morality; for example, between our ‘carrying on regardless’ and our apocalyptic morality. It’s this anomie – the conflict between our ‘is’ and our ‘ought’ and its perpetual transfiguration of them both – that drives our endless spiritual evolution or odyssey between birth and death, the odyssey that writers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Kazantzakis explore in their novels.

    Anyhow: the ‘paradox’ isn’t a problem; as ‘anomie’, it’s an inescapable part of the human condition.

    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You might enjoy reading the book. Seems like it could be right up your street!

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