As the name would imply, experimental fiction can be something of a hit or miss affair. In striving for originality, an author can too easily present a work of literature that displays a triumph of form but a distinct absence of content.
A large part of this, perhaps, is to do with a wish to satisfy the ego at the expense of the audience’s enjoyment.
Occasionally, however, a new novel arrives that dares to be different, but does so in a way that is still relatable to the average reader. It breaks the mould but without spilling all the meaning and interest in the process.
HOWUL: A Life’s Journey by David Shannon is just such a book.
That’s not to say that David doesn’t enjoy positive attention. Being an actor by profession — having appeared in a wide range of theatre productions and films such as cult hit Werewolves of the Third Reich — he is the first to admit that there is a part of him that likes to “show off”.
But this is not the first time that David — who also runs a successful murder mystery events company, Murder Mystery Games — has tried to make an impression in the literature world.
An earlier work, a “cosy” whodunnit-style crime novel, was completed in the early 2000s but failed to hook the attention of agents, publishers or readers.
He said: “As I am in the murder mystery business I felt that I could create a novel rooted in that genre but it didn’t really hang together. I sent it to literary agents but they said it was too cosy and it kept switching the narrative point of view, which some found disorientating and frustrating.
“I wasn’t too disheartened as I was kept busy with writing, running and acting in murder mystery events up and down the country, but I still had that burning desire to write another book eventually.
This time round, he knew that more would be required of him to deliver something worthy of shelf space.
“From my experience with the first book, I knew that it just wouldn’t cut it having a novel that has been done a million times before. You have to have the bravery to be different, while ensuring that ‘different’ still tells a great story.”
In addition to the lessons learned from his first novel, David had also by this time met a woman who would go on to become his wife, and who happened to know a thing or two about effective fiction writing: Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evariso OBE.
David, 64, credits Bernardine — whose 2019 victory with Girl, Woman, Other went down in history as the first time that a black woman, and black British author, had scooped the coveted prize — for “reigniting” his drive to be published again.
And it was Bernardine who helped him get started by picking out his idea for HOWUL as the best to pursue.
“I started HOWUL in 2006 and one of crucial triggers was Bernardine. She had read my first novel and, while complimentary, said that it needed work.
“I shared ideas about what I might write next and she immediately got behind HOWUL. She was so encouraging, and having seen her approach to writing, working so incredibly hard at it, I knew what was needed to get there.”
HOWUL takes place in the future and is set in North Wales. On account of an unspecified cataclysmic event, society has devolved to the point that the technology we all take for granted — computers, the internet, mobile phones and so forth — have all disappeared.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ summation of human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” certainly applies in the fictional world created by David. Except that his also contains plenty of humour.
“50% ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, 50% ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’,” is how David has described it.
Born into this savage environment is Howul, who stands out from the rest of the inhabitants of Blanow (or Blaenau Ffestiniog, as we know it). While they view books as dangerous, filling the head with drivel and of no value as firewood or food, he sees things differently.
Gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a natural curiosity, he wants to understand the purpose of his life. In secret, he journals what goes on in his community, noting the xenophobia and the harsh treatment he and his daughter receive. His search for answers comes to the attention of those in charge, who promptly banish him. That’s when his journey really begins.
David said: “HOWUL is about the bad things that people do to each other and how to cope if they happen to you. Although set in the future, it serves as a commentary on what’s going on now.
“In particular, how people behave when times get hard, when there are shortages and when those in charge are only looking out for themselves.
“The humour is there to rescue it from being overearnest or preachy. I want readers to be entertained and amused by it so that any political points it makes hit harder.
David sees the novel as an “adventure story” as much as a work of literary fiction but this belies the sheer amount of work that went into realising it. Not least, creating a new language for the people of Howul’s time to speak.
He added: “The language of the book, ‘Howlish’, is unique. It’s how I imagine people may speak in the future, but in a way that we can still understand now.
“Language doesn’t stand still so I needed to consider how people in this time of shortage, of zero technology and totally reliant on the natural world, would express themselves. Like their society, Howlish English is more limited. There is a guide at the back of the book to what some of these changes are but most are self-evident.”
HOWUL took David more than a decade to perfect but his dedication to the writing craft was ultimately rewarded, securing him representation with top literary agency A M Heath.
He then secured a publishing deal with Elsewhen Press and things were all going smoothly…. Until Covid-19 struck. As David reveals, this had a material effect on the novel:
“My publisher accepted it before Covid-19 arrived and, back then, it was supposed to be a wake-up call, warning people against complacency.
“Now that we’ve had our very own mini-Apocalypse, I re-wrote it, changed the tone of it and made it more hopeful.
“Never mind what anyone else needed, that’s something I needed myself. I think it works better because of it.”
While married to a Booker Prize-winning author, David is surprisingly humble with his expectations for HOWUL.
He said: “HOWUL is a strange book. It has a made-up language and a made-up world.
“Unlike some experimental fiction, it is very approachable and I want readers to enjoy their journey with Howul, laughing at the humour rather than feeling lectured.
“I recognise that it won’t be for everyone, and that’s absolutely fine. Those who ‘get it’ will love it, and my main hope is that it goes on to achieve some kind of cult status, just like some of the films and shows I’ve been in.”
HOWUL: A Life’s Journey by David Shannon (Elsewhen Press), is available now through Waterstones, priced £10 in paperback and £2.99 as an eBook.
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM HOWUL BY DAVID SHANNON
We are delighted to share an exclusive extract from David Shannon’s new novel, HOWUL. In this passage, Tall Nole, the village’s executioner and its chieftain’s heavy, makes unwelcome advances towards Howul’s teenage daughter, Erin.
Tall Nole throw her a stupid smile. She drop her head and pretend she have not see him. Though he have only twenty year, already every muscule on him is huge. He wear People Before pants and no shirt so everyone can see how well rip he is. Hims brains is less develop. They is squish apple.
‘What you want?’ Howul say.
‘To speak to Erin, isnit?’ he say.
‘She is bizzy.’
Nole watch her a few moments then say –
‘She is not bizzy. She stare at the ground.’
He bend hims knees and smile at her.
‘What you think?’ he ask her.
Still she stare at the ground.
‘She like to be alone when she think,’ Howul say.
‘I come back when she do not think,’ he say.
‘Only time she do not think is when she sleep.’
He click hims teeth as he consider this.
‘Okay. I come back when she sleep.’
He stand up, scratch himself and walk away.
‘Tell me if he give you any trouble,’ Howul say.
‘He is piss and wind,’ she say.
He wish this is true. Tall Nole is Mister Yorath’s bullyboy. What he want he usual get.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SHANNON
Author David Shannon discusses his new novel, HOWUL, the best writing advice he’s received, and which fictional characters he would — and would not — invite to one of his popular murder mystery events.
Q. What one piece of writing advice have been you given that you treasure, and live by?
A. “Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet.” — Anon.
Q. Which fictional character would you most like to have as a guest at your next murder mystery party?
A. Dr. Watson. Modest, likeable, eager to work things out without ever being too pushy. And he’d ask the sort of questions that would get everyone else thinking.
Q. Which fictional character would you least like to have as a guest?
A. Sherlock Holmes. He’d spoil everything by working things out too quickly, and would get frustrated at how long it was taking everyone else. Hannibal Lecter might be problematic, too.
Q. You created your own language for your novel. Why?
A. Language keeps changing. Thirty years ago, there was no textspeak. Now, it’s everywhere. My book is set in the future and how the characters speak reflects how different life is for them: simpler; less wrapped up in ideas; and more focussed on survival.
Q. How easy is this language to make sense of?
A. It’s not hard but adjusting to it can take a page or two. Think of it like the London Tube map: it takes a moment to get your head around it but then helps you make journeys you’d never otherwise go on.
Q. How would you describe the novel’s central character, Howul, and do you see any similarities between him and yourself?
A. Given how defeatist and crabby he is, I’d like to pretend he isn’t modelled on me. But, sadly, he is. It made the writing much easier. Instead of having to think, “What would my character do in this situation?”, I just put down what I would do. Except for when he’s being heroic and unselfish. If only!
Q. Who is your local MP and what do you think of their track record?
A. You’ve probably heard of him: Boris Johnson. I cornered him in a local kebab shop a few years ago (he was canvassing, not ordering). I reminded him how much worse the National Health Service had become with his party in office (longer waiting times, low morale, shortage of nurses and beds, added pressure caused by cuts in mental health services). He told me it was performing well and was in safe hands. Such a relief…. Later, when he described Dominic Cummings’ infamous Barnard Castle trip as “reasonable” and “sensible”, I wrote to him and told him he was insulting his “constituents, colleagues, party and country” and invited him to “take responsibility. Own up. Be honest.” I’m still waiting for him to get back to me on that one.
Q. What has been your proudest achievement as an actor?
A. Simple. Surviving! Been doing it 25 years and I’m still here.
Q. What can readers expect from you next?
A. I’ve nearly finished the first draft of a crime novel set in the 1980s and featuring an old lady detective. They’ve been around before, of course. Like Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, mine challenges the notion that old people are wearisome, a burden, and a nuisance. I have an idea for a sequel to HOWUL, too.
Q. Tell us one thing that people may be surprised to learn about you…
A. I love spiders.