What made you choose the title “Imaginary Cities”?
I had more romantic or esoteric titles in mind but it had to be something simple to give, what is a fairly sprawling and extremely rambling text, a sense of coherence. I’ve always liked books with minimalist titles; The Castle, The Plague, Notes from Underground, The Tin Drum, The Lottery. They seem far more evocative to me than The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter-type titles you see a lot. At the same time, my intention was to write something that isn’t self-contained; a book that somehow spills out of its pages and into the world. Reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I was initially frustrated that she hadn’t included the photographs she was writing about. Later I came to realise this was a godsend as it sends you out searching and you end up finding entire worlds you didn’t know about – Diane Arbus, Roman Vishniac, Weegee, Vivian Maier. I tried to do the same with Imaginary Cities. I wanted to send people out looking for Sant’Elia or Chernikhov or whoever. It would be as much a map as a book.
“It would be as much a map as a book.”
We have a tendency to think of books as ends in themselves, which has always seemed somewhat ludicrous, even a bit arrogant to me; the assumption because you’ve read Isherwood’s Berlin novels, you’ve got the Weimar Republic sussed (I don’t mean that detrimentally to Isherwood, whose work I love, incidentally). It’s like that bucket list approach to experience, when you hear someone say they’ve ‘done’ Europe or Thailand. However great a book is, however ‘definitive’ it is on a subject, it strikes me as only a point of beginning or as temporarily conclusive, as time and perspectives are constantly changing. I’ve always had enough self-doubt to be resistant to definitive narratives so I wanted Imaginary Cities to be full of points of departure, contradictions and questions. That’s one of the things I loved about Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which the title is also a nod to. The sense of poetic incompleteness to it. The feeling that the story is continuing on somewhere beyond its pages.
What motivated you to write the book?
Initially it was living in Phnom Penh during rainy season, trying to write fiction and suddenly realising if you told even a fraction of the real stories of that city, they’d be almost unbelievable. And that goes for most cities the world over, in diverse ways. We forget the fictional origins of the places we live. Every building originates in someone’s imagination and when you flick through architects’ notebooks, blueprints and failed competition entries as I do a lot, you realise it could’ve all been very different. When you look at a skyline, you’re looking at the dreams and decisions of individuals, for good and ill. So I started looking further into the intersection of fact and fiction in terms of urbanism. I began writing the book on the roof of the place we were living on Street 300, watching lightning hitting cranes on tops of skyscrapers in the near-distance and I knew it was nonfiction from then on.
As with most things, there’s no single point of origin though. It all goes deeper. Growing up in Derry when it was effectively an occupied city was central (that’s covered a lot more in my next book, Tidewrack); seeing how power and resistance worked in terms of space, whether it was watchtowers, checkpoints, helicopters, painted kerbstones marking out ghettos or riots. Then there’s seeing how power is enforced and articulated, more implicitly perhaps, in every city I’ve been to since. Escaping as a child into Gustave Doré or Arthur Rackham illustrations, then later 8 and 16-bit Japanese video game worlds as well as comics like 2000AD and retrofutures in back-issues of The Eagle. Obsessively listening to a longwave radio and fixating on mysterious languages from all over the world, very often picking up the radio chatter of passing army patrols. Looking at maps and finding something incredibly enigmatic about the names of foreign cities, even their football teams – Red Star Belgrade, Juventus, Dynamo Kiev and so on. I think these things seep into you and resurface in strange unexpected ways in later life. You make sense, or create the artifice of sense, in hindsight.
Imaginary Cities includes a dizzying number of references and allusions, encompassing architecture, philosophy, religion, literature, cinema, pop-culture, and much else besides. Could you say a little bit about this density of approach?
I’ve always been interested in the thresholds and crossovers of disciplines. “Architecture begins where engineering ends”, the great Walter Gropius said. I think there’s a sort of shifting hinterland between the two, where often the most exciting things are happening. We limit ourselves when we separate things too much. That works for all disciplines. There’s a lot to learn from peering over the walls we’ve built. And I’d question the motives we have in building most of these walls; very often it’s quite petty obscurantism, which ultimately holds us all back.
“The first writer I ever fell in love with was Robert Louis Stevenson and I think he had a lasting influence; by his example, you have the permission to wander, literally and figuratively”
The first writer I ever fell in love with was Robert Louis Stevenson and I think he had a lasting influence; by his example, you have the permission to wander, literally and figuratively – you can write adventure stories and fuse them with psychological, geographical and historical observations, you can write memoirs, children’s stories, explorations, you can travel with a donkey in the Cévennes if you want. And you can do it all with a continual voice and purpose that threads through everything, even when it seems like chaos or a cacophony.
The writers I’ve loved since, from Montaigne to Borges to Solnit have that same sense of roaming, of proving “why not?” when stepping over frequently-artificial boundaries. It’s not for everyone but I love literature that contains this tendency to roam. It goes beyond even literature I suppose. There’s a colossal amount of be gained from learning from people in other artforms, cine-essayists like Chris Marker or musicians like Brian Eno. I’m not really interested in literature that just speaks to itself. I’d rather literature be a dense and messy city than an ordered monastery.
The book appears to shift between memoir, science fiction, critical writing, and philosophical discourse. How do you think your work engages different forms of writing?
It’s down to liking literature that can’t be contained in a single genre. Writers like Sebald, Benjamin or, to use a contemporary example, John Jeremiah Sullivan, where you have to wonder where their books are located in a bookshop. I like things that don’t fit in. I don’t belong to any movement or scene. As much as the place means a great deal to me, I live outside my country of birth and, despite enjoying them, have never managed to make any of the cities I’ve lived in feel like home. I have a huge interest in a number of subjects without being integrated into any one in particular. I’m not an academic or an architect or a video game developer or an artist but I write about and give talks on, and with, them all. Maybe I was a hermit in a past life but one who couldn’t quite bear his own company for long.
In a way, whatever the genre, it’s all an indirect autobiography. Or a sustained case against yourself. No matter what the subject matter is, it’s a case of write and be damned.
The book seems to present the modern city as a site of profound contradictions and paradoxes. Could you say a little bit about these tensions?
We might think of them as problems but I think they’re essential to keep cities alive. I spoke about this at the Venice Architecture Biennale a few months ago and every day since, post-Brexit, it’s got more and more apparent how vital this is. When a city is dominated by one vision, it becomes either a sterile corpse, however pretty it looks, or, at worst, an all-out tyranny. I’d go as far to say that the very idea of a city is predicated on it being a plurality. When it is singular, it becomes something else; namely a citadel that benefits the powerful, whoever that may be in a given society. That’s one of the reasons that planned cities very often (though not always) fall flat. We forget to build in accidents and resistances – the dialectics of urbanism where different ideas are colliding and synthesizing and pushing things creatively forward in the process. When cities, and indeed countries, adopt a siege mentality, they stagnate and the inhabitants go slowly mad. We’re about to find out a lot of things about what Britain really is. I suspect, given certain cherished illusions await shattering, it’ll be a huge and very dark wake-up call indeed. Nothing would delight me more than to be wrong on this incidentally but I can see it getting decidedly Children of Men sooner than we think. On a less pessimistic note, it will also be a real test of British cities as international outward-facing metropolises, a challenge that anyone with a progressive atom in their body needs to fight in advance rather than retreat. We are mongrel peoples on these islands. We do well not to begin attempting to dismantle ourselves or anyone else for that matter. The future, if we wish to be part of it, is plural.
In what ways do you think place, specifically the place of the city, shapes our understanding of modern identity?
It’s crucial but perhaps we have a slightly outdated way of framing that. If you live in a city, every aspect of your life takes place within urban space. The journeys you make are charted through it. The experiences you undertake have a stage. Space seeps into your memories and, by association, your memories seep into space. There are very obvious examples to this – hospitals, churches, graveyards – but also train stations where you saw someone for the last time or pubs where you met for the first time. Streets that mean nothing to most have profound connotations for others. They are the setting of our own private mythologies.
Bookish folks like you and I explore this largely with literature as an aid but, though I believe books will always have a place, they seem to be more peripheral than we’d like to admit. As much as culture helps define our perception of cities, it has its limits. For me, the starting point for Dublin is Ulysses, just as Kafka is for Prague, and Dostoevsky or Bely is for St Petersburg and yet when I go to places like those, I find that these presumptions are attractive illusions. So much time has passed since those works were written and it was all subjective to begin with. That’s the beauty: the city is not the same thing to any two people, no matter how it is branded. One of the things I’m interested in is how the urban influences us, and the way we see ourselves, in ways that are often overlooked or come by implication. When we look at the Romantics, Sturm und Drang or American Transcendentalism, we tend to take them at their word and focus on rural arcadias or encounters with the sublime in the wilderness. To me, they are profoundly urban. They are the glorious side-effects brought on by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the huge drive of urbanisation that followed. So even our ideas of escaping to the sanctuary of the countryside, even our conceptions of what the countryside is and for, are profoundly shaped by the appearance and evolution of cities.
“In the near-future, I see the manner in which our identities merge with our surroundings becoming acutely apparent.”
In the near-future, I see the manner in which our identities merge with our surroundings becoming acutely apparent. In terms of technology, it’s easy to see the cumbersome interfaces that we navigate with, the smartphone for example, disappearing. I see this happening somewhat with the book as well (though I’ve no doubt it will remain as an escape into another type of space). The literary approach to cities will become much more interactive with the environment. This isn’t a new idea. The Situationists, who I’m not uncritical of, hinted at this by shifting the focus away from academic texts to games, maps, graffiti, and the streets themselves. With developments in augmented reality, I can see the city becoming a form of text, not just with buildings annotated but actually offering creative input and manipulation. We already read cities without thinking about it. We may come to write them too.
The challenges with this are many but they too are not necessarily new. There’s a real danger that the homogenisation that happens architecturally with the spread of purgatorial corporate junkspace (airport lounges, shopping malls, retail parks etc) will also happen in augmented reality and we’ll end up with attempts at homogenised people. There’s also the worrying assault on public space, which is being slowly eroded. To even possess an identity, you need a past and you need somewhere to live. I’d like to see writers pave the way and re-engage with these issues. It amazes me, given the news every single day, how few writers even touch on themes like migration, xenophobia, climate change, the politics and economics of space, or even just cities, the actual places we live and how they work, especially given we’re facing global urbanisation on a scale never seen before in human history. Maybe literature will survive as a pleasant escape or distraction from everyday life, which has its charms, but in doing so it risks becoming an otherwise irrelevant hobby. If we begin to become passive spectators to the world around us, we will soon become passive spectators to our own lives.
Do you have any key influences or texts that you return to?
There are so many and they change continually. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Richard McGuire’s Here. Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Sontag’s essays. Eliot’s poems before he found God. Frank Lloyd Wright’s renderings. Anything by Borges. Lots of Oulipo. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New. Kenneth White’s The Wanderer and His Charts. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. Peter Conrad’s Modern Times, Modern Places. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. Pepys’ diary. Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. John Wyndham. Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice. I’ve been reading a lot of William Golding’s more obscure books recently for some reason. Lewis Mumford’s texts. China Miéville‘s New Crobuzon series. I always come back to Rimbaud. Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. Thomas Nashe’s The Terrors of the Night. Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour. Brodsky & Utkin. Hugh Ferriss’ The Metropolis of Tomorrow. Grant Morrison comics. Pat Mills’ comics. Moebius comics. Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités obscures.
“I like finding an entire series or imprint and wading through them. There’s always an element of surprise and being taken out of your comfort zone in doing that.”
I like finding an entire series or imprint and wading through them. There’s always an element of surprise and being taken out of your comfort zone in doing that. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything in the SF Masterworks series. I’d happily read them all again. They’ve probably had the biggest, inadvertent, influence on my thinking on urbanism and I don’t think I’ve even started processing what they’ve made me think.
There are a lot of contemporary writers doing great things in similar fields to mine. I’ve been really taken by Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse and Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City. They’re exceptional and change your way of thinking about your surroundings, incompletely different ways.
Could you say a little bit about the role that social media plays in your work?
I’m not really on social media with the exception of Twitter, which I use a lot. It’s thinking out loud really, sharing research, attempting to maintain some contact with humanity given writing is about as solitary an activity as you can possibly do. I see it as simultaneously a great way to connect with people and a colossal waste of time. If you’re starting in independent publishing and don’t have the traditional contacts and backing of the publishing industry, it can be a very useful platform but it has its limits too. It’s worth keeping in mind it’s also inherently absurd, and it’s best viewed as a means to an end and not an end in itself. I like to have something tangible come out of it, preferably in three dimensions, whether it’s a talk or meeting up with like-minded writers or whatever. Due to the fact it favours curation over creation, there’s a danger in praising people for their ability to point at things. It’s the end work that counts and the people who create it; otherwise all we’ll have is gates leading to more gates, like some Borgesian nightmare.
Saying that, Twitter does intrigue me as a medium. I see Marshall McLuhan being vindicated when people assume Imaginary Cities is the book of a Twitter feed rather than vice versa. And I’m intrigued to see where it all goes once Twitter dies, not just in terms of what’s next but whether it’s left as a graveyard of aphorisms, images and verbal abuse, marking the passage of this damnable period of time we’re in. It’ll be a gift for the digital mudlarks of the future to come back and wonder what in god’s name we were all thinking, like graffiti on the walls of Pompeii.
What’s next for you?
Imaginary Cities is coming out in the U.S. in April, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, and there are a few translations of it also underway, which I’m really excited about. My next book Tidewrack will be published by Vintage/Chatto & Windus here and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. It’s a memoir that follows the river running through my hometown and how my grandparents’ lives intersected with it (two of them tragically drowned in the Foyle and another was a fisherman/smuggler/ mine sweeper on it). I was reading a lot of books like The Rings of Saturn, Speak, Memory, and HHhH so it started off in their shadows but it’s taken on its own direction, beyond even my control. I’ll be continuing to write articles and I’ll be continuing to travel to cities and do talks, which is easily the part I enjoy most (the last one was in Melbourne). And, at some stage, I’ll start typing up almost twenty years of notes I’ve been keeping on actual cities, which will make Imaginary Cities seem mercifully succinct. In the meantime, I’ll go wherever the writing wants to go.