Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall (a conversation)

Posted in caught by juliobesq on September 22, 2010

I’ve been wanting to say something on Ewan Morrison’s “Menage” since reading it but felt I had perhaps posted enough on the author, there comes a point where stalker-ism starts to raise it’s shadowy head. Then 3:am magazine mentioned that the writer had started putting a series of films “Tales from the Mall” on YouTube. Literally just mentioned, there is a little about it on but virtually no background information on YouTube itself.

These films are not adverts for a book as publishing companies are starting to promote titles with, but self-contained short spoken word pieces accompanied by visuals. There are no actors, a single voice reads them out against grainy hand-held video footage, or a montage of still imagery. The shorts are created by Morrison himself.

Here are two of my favourite

Incident in a Carpark- Tales From The Mall

Suicide Attempt- Tales From The Mall

I can’t think of another author who is venturing into the realms of multimedia so directly, authoring the content himself rather than collaborating. More surprising is his opening up the project and asking for submissions from the public.

I was intrigued and very kindly he answered a series of questions about the films, the reasons behind the project, and the outcomes so far. Although I’ve presented it as an interview it is in fact strung together from a series of emails. I have tried to quote verbatim but dabbled a little with the order of things for the sake of readability.

Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall

In your blog you mention as research for your next novel you interviewed a wide range of people working in shopping malls. Rather than treating this material as source you’ve instead launched the Tales from the Mall project. Obvious question: why?

I’m taking a break from novel writing because, frankly I’m finding non-fiction, sociology and short fiction are the only thing that are really compelling right now. Dave Eggers “Zietoun” is a good model of socially active writing, telling of real stories. So many novels these days are just ‘making stuff up’, rewriting history (badly), setting fun feisty characters into predictable dilemmas. As a result novels seem to be more about fulfilling the format of what a novel is (a great read etc) than about the real world beyond. Writing a good novel is like getting a gold star on your report sheet for colouring in with all the right colours, inside the boxes without going over the edges.

In “Menage” it seemed some of the more sociological commentary found in “The last book you read” and “Swung” was replaced, the plot put in a more complex albeit filmic narrative structure – more of a conventional crowd pleaser. Is Tales from the Mall perhaps a reaction to omitting your usual questioning to the directions society is moving in?

Writing novels in this economic climate is a bit like doing watercolours as the city burns. The Euro and the Dollar are going into steady decline and frankly it might make more sense to be planting vegetables and learning how to shoot a rifle, than engaging in any cultural activity.

Why Tales from the Mall? Well, I truly believe that anyone who is forty and who has lived through the acceleration of the phases and methods of consumerism will wake up one day and say – shit, but I’ve seen all this before. By this I mean gadgets, adverts, trends, fashions, discoveries, news stories, wars. I’ve recently crossed a certain line where everything I take in from everywhere is like a deja-vu and a little bit of sociological reading has thrown this in perspective (I recommend anything by Zygmunt Bauman). The naked fact is that for all the innovation and supposed change we are living lives of cyclic repetition. We are going nowhere, everything has planned obsolescence built into it, and also amnesia, so we’ll come back to get more of the same.

I’m not talking just about commodities but bigger things in life, jobs, relationships. Over the last forty years we’ve moved from a job and a partner for life to temp freelance labour and causal dating. This may sound like a random connection until one day you wake up and find that internet dating is now the biggest growth business on the planet and that you’ve just re-made your CV for the 40th time and are out of work again, with no guarantee of ‘security’.

Was deciding to produce short films on YouTube – an example of our current throw-away culture with its clips stripped of context – a way of placing them in a more communal context?

I wanted to actually look, like an anthropologist, at the real ways malls have affected human behaviour, not just in planned ways. To find the eccentric and unexpected behaviours that people engage in shopping malls, and to this end I went interviewing close to a hundred mall workers in about fourteen different malls, to get their stories, folk tales, urban myths, jokes and confessions.

I want this to be an experiment in what the expanded e-book can be. With audio and video and an archive of stories by other people, links to films and docs that can help inform the subject and expand it outwards.

Does making them into short films allow for more freedom in their presentation, allowing a looser way of story telling than a novel would. Mixing devices from television, film and oral traditions.

I don’t have a hierarchy in my mind between short stories and novels, novels aren’t better because they’re bigger. Anyway, there’s not many books of interrelated short stories out there at the moment, so I get to innovate with this as a form. Also I’m mixing short stories with factoids and images.

Experimental non-fiction has less defined ’boxes’ and it has direct social relevance.

I think it’s really important to operate on a level without ambition or the idea of being a success as a reward for your work. I’m finding a simpler quieter way of working these days, and have come to appreciate the austerity of Kelman and the seclusion of Salinger. I would like to head towards something like that.

Perhaps also writing about video art rekindled a joy in making visual stories?

I have made films since I was 17 and these new ones are not the kind of thing that anyone is going to be able to hype. They are quiet little films, made because I like the process of editing and making, adding music and images, and because the stories are really simple and I think need to be told.

I used to be a TV director before that vocation practically vanished.

Is the series more experimental in that you don’t have a plan and just seeing where it might go, or seeing what new forms of story telling ‘new’ media allows?

The last thing I want anyone to say about Tales from the Mall, is that it is innovative or exciting or new. This is horse-shit. It’s no different from what the surrealists were doing, mixing images, films and poetry, or for that matter the propaganda wing of any government in the last 100 years.

I worked for many years in the media, whose job it is to keep feeding people the lie that something new is actually happening.

Of course by offering the work in a YouTube format, using computers and software in it’s creation, it beacons a consumerist work itself.

I am a consumer, and not some kind of marxist scholar. I am a hypocrite and a bourgeois. Although I don’t have a TV and don’t ‘buy’ new clothes, I shop at my local supermarket and run a car, I work freelance and have ‘shopped’ for partners online.

I wanted to dig into the root of the rot and dare ask myself the question – how much of a consumer am I? is there anything else that I am? What else do I do? How has consumerism shaped me (after all corporations have been employing world leading psychologists, since before I was born, with the sole intent of making us consume more).

Malls are the homes of consumerism, like kennels for dogs. More than that, in their accumulative power they have re-shaped our urban architecture, our sense of values, of city and community. Glasgow where I live, was a mall experiment – how many can you squeeze into on city? I wanted to wake myself and other up to the fact that Glasgow is no longer the sad post industrial place of the folk ballads – ’it was tears that made the Clyde’, but one of the most consumerist centres in the western world. Buchanan street is in fact the seventh largest ’retail avenue’ in the Globe. A better example of how a leftwing working class has let themselves be transformed into amnesiac credit card users, would be harder to find.

People are adaptable, and never wholly victims or dupes. I’ve discovered many things about what people secretly do in malls that have surprised me.

Is this what led to opening up the project and requesting other people’s contributions?

I’ve invited other people to contribute their stories, for two reasons.

This thing is bigger than me and it’s only when looking at a lot of material that we can begin to see common themes emerge – i.e the fact that many malls stories, feature both divorce and fear of children.

I’m creating a hub, or a space, shaped a bit like a mall, in which people can set up shop alongside my anchor stores (or stories). I’m interested in talking to and working with web and e-book designers, film makers, image makers or anyone who has stories to tell about experiences in Britain’s shopping malls.

Do you think creating these short films could be something that could have a revenue stream in itself… advertising, or paid content? Or more to see how spoken word stories could be pushed to into multimedia?

I do like the idea of selling individual short stories for a matter of pennies. Realistically though why would anyone buy a short story online when you can get a whole novel for peanuts. The market is reaching the bottom of the spiral into nothing, bestsellers in supermarkets retail at £2.99 now, that’s about 8p making it’s way back to an author per book in royalties. If you sell a million copies you make £80,000, that’s probably over three years. Which puts an international bestseller on the same income as a nurse.

Culture, as Adorno said, is an industry, it’s a sausage factory. Once you’ve hit forty and your kids start getting into pop and film and books, you see just how the wheel of cyclic obsolescence and re-selling works. There is nothing new or radical or even exciting in anything any ‘star’ is making right now, it’s all reproductions of reproductions. The only option really is to deliberately not try to go for making culture that is ‘exciting ’ or ‘hip’ or which can be packaged in that kind of way. I say this not as some kind of political strategy but as a means of personal survival. I find it very important to get away from all adverts and all hype and media in daily life.

Has it awoken any interest in starting a label or publishing house, with possible e-book releases/formats?

I do not have the energy, passion or learning to be one of these self-sustaining money-making web capitalists who rent out space for adverts on their web sites, and get paid per hit. I think publishers have a role, and they have to rediscover what it is in the digital age. It’s not really the author’s role to innovate in ’format’. And we are in a time of growing amateurism in all creative fields, self-publishing writers and groups of writers, schoolboy mafias self promoting themselves, trying to ’break thru’. Publishers should survive as people who we look up to as being arbiters of taste, as filters, to thin out the good work from the dross, in what is becoming a cacophony of look-at-me voices screaming into the digital void.

Spoken/oral traditions are in theory dying out but these are a good example of technology reviving the form – alongside the films have you thought about podcasts: just an audio file, perhaps distributed via iTunes with a free subscription. (Personally I think this idea very exciting; that content would be downloaded into people’s iPods for their commute into work, although I have no idea know if anyone actually uses podcasts like that in real life).

Tales from the Mall is going to keep on evolving, more films, more short stories, a book will come out of it and maybe a site, maybe iPod downloads. I have to keep it open to change and evolution.

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