the way to create art is to burn and destroy
ordinary concepts and to substitute them
with new truths that run down from the top of the head
and out of the heart Charles Bukowski

William Irvine Interview Published on: 30, May 2017

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? What inspired you to make the move to Bihar when you just nineteen?

I grew up in Hastings (which last made the news in 1066), on what is dubbed Britain’s ‘Costa Geriatrica’. My father was the Consultant Geriatrician - care for the elderly being the local growth industry. Because there were seven kids in our family, holidays abroad were out of the question. Instead, we used to do house exchanges with other large families in the UK, so before that first trip to India I had hardly been out of the country. As a teenager I found Hastings pretty dull, particularly during the long winters, and would stare at the horizon of the green-grey English Channel, wondering what lay beyond it. While I was still a boy, my eldest sister married a man from a British colonial family who had settled in Agara after the second Anglo-Maratha war in 1803. The last of this dynasty to live in India, he and his brothers arrived in London in the late sixties after their parents finally conceded that there was no longer any future in India for them. I found his tales from the Subcontinent riveting. When the opportunity to do voluntary work in Bihar came up in 1978 I didn’t need to be asked twice. Seeing, for the first time, the remote region of Bihar that I was to stay in, my reaction was one of terror. What on Earth had I got myself into?

What is one your favourite stories that your brother-in-law from India told you?

They were real ‘boys’ stories’. Many were about hunting in India’s forests (now largely disappeared due to population pressure). One tale was about a lone hunter in the forest with a rifle. The ground was covered in low-growing leafy undergrowth. A smoker, he took a break to light up his pipe, but fumbled and dropped his matches. While rummaging around beneath the plants in search of the box he felt something nip the back of his hand, and found the tell-tale twin puncture marks of a snake’s fangs (almost certainly an Indian Krait’s). He was dead in less than an hour. He told me another about a disgruntled servant at the family home in Agra. As revenge for offending him, a servant planted a giant centipede in his grandmother’s bed. When she climbed into bed the creature riveted itself to her thigh. Unable to shake it off, she screamed for help. Tearing it off would have left the (poisonous) legs permanently buried in her flesh. Instead, a red hot poker had to be applied to its back, causing its legs to curl backwards and the corpse to drop off.

What were some of your experiences working in the Leprosy Hospital in Bihar? What is one thing you learnt there that you'll never forget?

I’ll never forget the warm-heartedness of the patients. They were so appreciative if you simply visited their ward, shook their hands or spent a little time playing chess with them. These were people about as down on their luck as it’s possible to be. Shunned socially for having the disease - even by their own relatives – and poverty-stricken, they were usually staying at the hospital in order to undergo an amputation. The doctor, who became a good friend, used to conduct much of this surgery without anaesthetic – the patients usually having already lost all feeling in the infected limb, foot or hand. The resilience of spirit some of these people showed was awe-inspiring. However, I was deeply shocked when they confided to me that some of the orderlies and nurses used to demand bribes before they would give them their medication (necessary to arrest the progress of the disease which is not fully curable). I lived at the hospital and often visited the wards, but my actual work was in the villages beyond, collecting social and economic data about the locals’ conditions. In one particularly remote hamlet an old women circled me, looking me up and down. When she’d finished she exclaimed, ‘Eh barpari baap – ek dom safeet!’ [Incredible – he really is white everywhere!] Through her long life she had heard that there were people with white skin – but had never quite been able to believe it.

What gave you the idea for your book "The Polygamist"? What were some of your intentions when writing this book and have you achieved them?

I’d had a harem fantasy so often that at one point I even wondered if there wasn’t some way I could turn it into reality. Arranged marriages would probably be a prerequisite, and it would be necessary for me to live in a country where polygamy was legal, plus I would want somewhere to live that afforded plenty of privacy and so forth. In this way I had already done much of the thinking for the book’s setting and basis before I ever put pen to paper. One reason (of several) that I wrote the book was to make myself think through what would happened next had I ever actually gone ahead. Philosophically I believe that developing the right relationship with our desires is key, and I find the interplay of fantasy and reality of great interest.

Did you edit anything OUT of this book?

Not really. As a debut novelist I had a tendency to over-write, and this was pointed out to me by a literary friend who kindly proof-read one of the early drafts. It’s ridiculous, but I do get emotionally attached to particular words and phrases, so at first I found forcing myself to put a pen through many of the ‘baggage’ phrases agony. With hindsight, this exercise was invaluable. The book now has better pace than the earlier drafts. Feedback on the written style has been wonderful (eg Kirkus described the prose as ‘taut as skin’).

What sort of research did you have to do for this book? How long did it take you?

When friends discover what the book is about they always joke that ‘the research must have been fun!’ My curiosity about the East’s Taoist and Tantric approaches to sex goes back to 1979 when I befriended someone who was a serious practitioner. He and his two partners insisted they saw colours and had other unusual experiences during intercourse. They certainly spent hours in bed together. Intrigued, I read up on the subject, even spending a few weeks in the Tibetan Buddhist library in Dharamsala, looking for material on the subject. I also managed to gain some experience with the techniques. I have also gone into, though not nearly enough yet, yoga and meditation which also have a relationship. What I’ve discovered so far is shared within the novel.

Have you ever considered turning to Polygamy sometime in your future?

Only if it were mutually consensual, and freely and willingly entered into by all parties. I actually favour polyamory, believing this is the way we actually evolved to relate emotionally and sexually. Any ‘poly’ arrangement needs to be reciprocal and honest if it is to avoid being exploitative. This is where the likes of Mormon fundamentalist Thomas Arthur Green get it wrong i.e. by marrying a string of thirteen year-old children too young to make a proper decision, they cannot claim the arrangement to be genuinely consensual.

Who are some of your favourite philosophers?

My favourite is the ancient Greek, Diogenes, famous for choosing to make his home in a barrel and his disregard for the things that concern most of us. Alexander the Great was an admirer, and sought Diogenes out one day. Finding the philosopher sunbathing in front of his barrel, he asked: ’Diogenes, I’ve always thought highly of you. Is there anything I can do for you? Something to help in some way?’ Diogenes replied: ‘Actually yes, there is. Would you mind moving to the left a bit? You’re blocking my sun.’

Besides stories, what other kind of writing do you do (poems, songs, etc)?

I adore children and have dabbled in stories and comic poems for them for years, but never published any of them. I will at some future date, bit this won’t be for a few years. I have plans to write a non-fiction work on monogamy, looking at why many of us find it hard to adhere to it. I have also made a start on my Mother’s life story which makes fascinating social history.

Where is your ideal vacation spot?

India. I’ve never stopped hankering to go back ever since that first stay in 1978. I’ve made several return trips over the past forty years, but the Subcontinent is so vast and multi-faceted I’m far from being done.

Was it difficult making the switch from Philosophy to IT? Why or why not?

I enjoyed the logic of programming and the problem-solving aspects – both of which have similarities, so switching wasn’t difficult. Unfortunately, my career progressed into management, particularly of large multi-million pound projects, high pressure roles I’ve never enjoyed as much as the actual programming. Corporate inertia, and trying to achieve things in spite of it, often feels futile, tedious and frustrating.

What makes your writing, your book stand out from the crowd?

Most books about sexual relationships are either ‘erotica’ or ‘romance’ i.e. lightweight sexual or emotional escapism. I find this extraordinary given that sexual relationships are of such concern to most of us. The subject deserves proper assessment and insightful thought – but not necessarily some turgid scientific study. The only other novel to take an intelligent look at sexual desire that I’m aware of is Erica Jong’s 1973 feminist classic Fear of Flying.

What are some emotions that you try to channel when writing?

I dislike, but often get into, emotional and moral dilemmas because I don’t always know what’s right or wrong in a particular situation. In this regard I slightly envy people who strictly adhere to religious or political doctrines – it must make this aspect of life so much simpler. Moral and emotional dilemmas are useful for creating tension within a tale. Many people are familiar with such dilemmas, helping them to identify with the character in the novel who is experiencing them.

What are some problems or issues concerning the book industry that you never considered before you published your first book? Any advice for budding writers?

I had what I thought was a reasonable draft of the book in 2014, and approached a few agents with a vague idea that a publisher would then help me finesse what I had into a more polished work. How naive! Unless you’re a celebrity or an established author (and therefore ‘money in the bank’ for the publishing houses) they’re unlikely to be interested – plus they definitely won’t consider anything that’s not 100% ready to go out. It’s down to you to get your book (including paying for copy-editors, proof-readers and cover designers) to the point where you can say to yourself ‘that’s the best I can possibly do. Nothing further can be done to improve it.’ It took me two more years to get to that point after making those initial approaches. I read somewhere that ‘the good news is everyone can publish a book. The bad news is everyone can publish a book.’ This means that whilst there are now unprecedented opportunities to get your book into print, the marketing challenge is greater than it has ever been. Most indie books sell circa 200 copies and then die, simply because there is so much competition. Throwing money at marketing - if you have some spare - can help, but ultimately your book will never go far unless it’s well written and worth the reader’s effort to read. My Advice to anyone is to edit and rewrite, leave your work alone and then revisit it, endlessly until you finally have something you believe to be great. You will then, even if it doesn’t sell, have something you can always feel proud of.

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