Michael Walters is author of The Complex, an unsettling novel about the human psyche and its relationship with strangers and virtual reality. I caught up with him to chat about isolation, Carl Jung, and the importance of subtext in creating atmosphere.
Hi Michael, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! So, how are you faring in these strange times? Do you find isolation a help or a hindrance to your writing?
I’m faring well, thank you. I’m very lucky — I have a job that I can do from home, the kids are safe, and our parents are healthy. Being at home all the time with a full-house is challenging sometimes, but some people are going through hell at the moment, so I’m not complaining.
The lockdown is definitely not isolation for me. I like being alone. Being alone is the only way I can let my mind wander. I’m an introvert, so when I have to turn on the extrovert afterburner, I do need to recover. That’s really hard at the moment.
Are you finding the opportunity to work on anything new?
I wrote a short story in January and February which I hope will get published later this year. After finishing that, I wanted to get into my next novel, then coronavirus hit. I’ve been able to flesh out some ideas — I have a map of the location in my head, some characters, a few possible scenes, a title — but I haven’t started the first draft. The momentum is building. I hope I can finish a draft by the autumn. That might be hopelessly optimistic!
I wanted to talk a little about your recent novel, The Complex, which explores the psychological effects of unfamiliar spaces, both virtual and real. Can you tell us about the premise and how you came to write on this theme?
I suppose the premise was — what if a family went to a remote place, a luxurious place where strange things might happen, and shared it with another family they didn’t know? I wanted the place to have special powers, but I didn’t know any more details than that. The rest of the book came in the writing of it.
I had been thinking about Carl Jung and his concepts of archetype and complex, but I didn’t want to make the story overtly about those things. It was important to me that the story was character-driven, and that the characters took the story wherever it needed to go. Each character has a different reason for their unnatural experiences. That wasn’t planned and I had to find a reason for that along the way. Which is a long way of saying that I didn’t choose the theme, I recognised it as I was writing. It wasn’t planned.
Having said that, the virtual reality part of the story was inspired by a previous attempt at writing this book. The main character of that story, which stalled, worked for a company that created virtual reality technology. So, perhaps it’s true that nothing is ever wasted.
Always good to meet other ‘discovery’ writers! I noticed that Jung was an influence of yours. How do you think his ideas played into the story?
I wanted to write a story that involved my shadow, and the characters’ shadows, and of course the shadow is a Jungian concept. A complex, in Jungian terms, is a constellation of thoughts and feelings that we are not conscious of, and energy to act, sometimes irrationally, or out of character. The shadow and complexes were key to the story. I’d also had four years of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, which wasn’t Jungian, but involved a lot of dream work. I am fascinated by dreams. Alternate realities in creative writing are a playground for images that might not make sense in more realist stories. I wanted to get at that energy without going full supernatural or fantasy in genre terms.
I certainly found the book to have a labyrinthine, dreamlike sense of foreboding throughout. Is that an effect you worked hard to produce, or do you find such a mood comes naturally when writing about the unconscious mind?
I think the foreboding is part of who I am! The labyrinthine part probably comes from the way I wrote the book. There were many times in the writing of it where I was lost and despairing of ever finishing. There were many complexities, but I didn’t help myself by writing the first three chapters in three different voices, and then having them interlink all the way through. Many times I wished I was an author with a detailed plan, but then, I could never have planned it to be as it is. It’s beauty came from the process. My unconscious mind was very much engaged with it.
I think it’s a book that leaves a lot open to interpretation. Much like a dream, you allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about how the fragments of experience fit together. Do you think this kind of ambiguity plays an important part in fiction?
For me, a book is interesting when the author has left space for the reader to do some work. When I was younger, I would love books that were adventures, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, but when I go back to them now, they are often disappointing, because my brain has moved on. It needs more literary calories. I don’t want to be told what characters are thinking and why, I want to work that out for myself. Give me subtext. Make me wonder at motivations and have characters surprise me. Not everyone likes that. I’ve had plenty of people say they enjoyed it but didn’t fully get it, and that bothered them. That doesn’t bother me at all. As long as you trust the author knows, I’m happy to have my version of it, knowing that if I read the book again ten years on, I might have another version of it. I love that.
I love that, too. I think it’s a book the reader has to bring some of their own psychology to – it forces them to consider their own biases and symbolism. Speaking of symbolism, the stag is clearly a central motif in the book. Does it have a special significance to you?
It didn’t before I started the book. The very first scene I wrote, back in 2016, involved a car hitting a deer, and from there it gathered meaning as the story unfolded. By the end, it had different symbolic meanings to each of the three characters — Stefan, Gabrielle and Leo — and to me, now I suppose it represents a degree of writing maturity. Ha!
Finally, something I’m asking everyone in these interviews: which 3 books would you recommend to readers on lockdown?
I choose books on hunches — I’m terrible at recommendations because I know I’ll very rarely read a book recommended to me. We all are coping with this lockdown in our own ways. My favourite read of this year so far is Stoner, by John Williams. I thought that was wonderful. The throttled life of an academic may or may not be what you want in your lockdown, but it does rise to some dizzy heights, especially the ending. I’ve just finished Alice’s Masque, by Lyndsay Clarke, which is about a woman fleeing to Cornwall to escape a bad relationship and meeting a distant relative with strange visionary powers. I loved how the real and dream worlds intersect, which I suppose is on point with The Complex too. The Sea Inside Me, by Sarah Dobbs, blew me away last year. It’s speculative fiction, and a crime-thriller love story. It’s written exquisitely.
Great recommendations. Thank you very much for your time, Michael.