Sky Hooks, Zero Hours, and Lanyards are author Neil Campbell's triumvirate of dignified and dissipated working class lives lived in and around Manchester, in England. People get jobs and lose them for minor infractions, jobs that grind them down and offer them nothing. But a living. Look around you. Nothing is all there is. The inhabitants of Neil Campbell's books refuse to give in to despair, they're resilient. They feel pain but while there's little space to show it, there's a lot of self-medicating at a diminishing array of trad boozers. You might say all real life, as I know it at least is here. You might say a day in the life of a latter-day Henry Chinaski is here too. Charles Bukowski has been a reference in Neil's work since the beginning.
In addition to these novels, Neil has been incredibly prolific throughout the past twenty years as a writer, publishing a variety of short stories and poetry.
A new, highly anticipated short story collection, Licensed Premises, will arrive from hip indie, Salt, who have handled a fair bit of Neil's published output, in the fall of 2022.
While Neil wonders where he might find the time to complete another novel, he's proud and excited about the collection, "Some of these stories are influenced by James Kelman. His approach has fascinated me in recent years. Greyhound for Breakfast is my favourite of his. I’m also influenced by a great book called Bucket of Tongues by Duncan McLean and others by Agnes Owens, Claire Keegan and Flannery O’Connor. Colin Barrett’s Young Skins and Homesickness too." Neil says.
I chanced upon Neil's work while looking into Zer0 Books, the company set up by Mark Fisher, Zer0 published our contributor John Robinson's Momus title in 2021; I mistook the title of Neil's Zero Hours for the Zer0 Books logo, and jumped in, read the first page and was hooked more so than I have been in a long while. I cannot recommend Neil's books of working class lives and their intersections with reality, highly enough and I love them so much and have already shared the copies I bought with a screenwriter friend and hope that they will be passed deeper into that world where people love books about life's losers. Or just bought more.
Neil spoke to us primarily about the characters in Sky Hooks, Zero Hours, and Lanyards his inspirations and influences, and of course, the cruddiest job he'd ever had.
OUTSIDELEFT: Brass tacks. What was the worst job you ever had? Over here, we have form... Lake our film guy, I remember when he worked in a milk factory; another of our writers, Tim, was the guy who got dispatched to dig for gas leaks for the gas board when he was a kid. I used to be at Disneyland at 4 am to count nuts and bolts in the engineering workshop of the Indiana Jones ride, maybe that wasn't even the worst I had.
Neil Campbell: My worst job was one where I had to smash computers. It was good in that I could say I worked with computers but bad in that they just gave me a hammer.
OL: What’s the Neil Campbell writing life like? Are you in a wingback, smoking jacket, expensively slippered feet on a pouf, dictating lines to personal assistants? Or how do you schedule your writing time around work?
NC: For the first time in many years I’m working full time at the moment. As a result I haven’t written anything for ages. But I will. I just need to live in a quieter house.
OL: Sky Hooks, Zero Hours, Lanyards; This sounds like a suck-up to you, oh well, I love your books, it's not my entire life experience, but I guess I read with a critical eye, looking for holes and don't find any. Lives with very few little victories and the major drudgery, articulated with a wholly authentic ambivalence... There’s no hysteria, no hail mary passes, there’s dignity in the face of barefaced indignities. Ron’s housing situation… horrific.
NC: The models for my novels are those writers that structure novels around work. Factotum and Post Office in particular. But also Fante, Kerouac, Trocchi, Steinbeck – any writers who wrote autobiographical novels. My short story models are different, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor etc.
OL: "I made it up." (From Lanyards) Is a beautiful line, when figuring out how to extrapolate the method for a short story to a 30,000 word explanation for a Ph.D. Even the vernacular of anything to do with writing that isn’t writing is wearying I think. People who love that stuff, probably don’t love writing at all. Elsewhere, you seem to espouse the virtues of the autodidact, Vs, the product of the creative writing industry. Can writing be taught? It can be helped. Do you think (and I don’t know that you didn’t) your writing career might have followed a different path if you’d attended UEA’s finishing school for British novelists?
NC I failed a PhD. I tried my best but failed. Essentially because the premise of the whole thing was horse shit. You might as well have asked Chet Baker to write 30,000 words on how he played the trumpet. I read the writers I love and try to do my version of what they did. That’s it. During lockdown, I tried to get an agent. But after 20 years as a writer, I didn’t get a look in. I was also turned down for ten years on the trot by the Northern Writer’s Awards. So I decided to stop asking other people for money and got a full-time job.
OL: Your central protagonist is into a lot of American writers, they all seem to be men... Is that a deliberate character choice... No Mary Gaitskell... Or Jonathan Ames (a man, I know), Maya Angelou, Baldwin... Is that something you've noticed, men don't read women? Cho is a writer of course... And until recently men don't read Black men. Was that deliberate?
NC: The character only reads men because those were some of my own heroes. There’s an evolution in his relationship with women across the three novels. He knows nothing about them in Sky Hooks. There are loads of female writers I love. Claire Keegan in particular.
I love love love many American writers, too many to mention, especially the blue-collar guys. The only genuine working-class writer in the UK is James Kelman, the rest are middle-class people who grew up working class.
OL: Where do you stop and the characters in your story begin…
NC: The guy in the novels is not me. Like Chinaski isn’t Bukowski, like Bandini isn’t Fante like Sal Paradise is not Kerouac. The people in my stories are often not like me in the slightest. I change it up a lot in the stories, always have.
OL: What should we be reading right now?
NC: Have you read Larry Brown’s short stories? I love them.
20 years into his career, Neil Campbell is one of the most exciting new writers I've read in a whole while. Let's hope that Licensed Premises proves the catalyst for new work to come. The legacy is already made and is secure already (you know, like Chuck Wachtel doesn't need to write anything other than Joe the Engineer - believe it!). Neil Campbell is literally one of the as-yet unheralded literary great ones.
Outsideleft exists on a precarious no budget budget. We are interested in hearing from deep and deeper pocket types willing to underwrite our cultural vulture activity. We're not so interested in plastering your product all over our stories, but something more subtle and dignified for all parties concerned. Contact us and let's talk. [HELP OUTSIDELEFT]
If Outsideleft had arms they would always be wide open and welcoming to new writers and new ideas. If you've got something to say, something a small dank corner of the world needs to know about, a poem to publish, a book review, a short story, if you love music or the arts or anything else, write something about it and send it along. Of course we don't have anything as conformist as a budget here. But we'd love to see what you can do. Write for Outsideleft, do. [SUBMISSIONS FORM HERE]