We speak to Alec Hutchinson (whose story “Asynchronous Ferox” appeared in issue forty-one of Neon) about meat, inspiration, and cannibal horror films.
Where does the title of your story “Asynchronous Ferox” come from? And what does it mean?
I actually way over-thought that one.
Ferox is Latin for fierce, so the title basically means “fiercely out of sync”, which is pretty much the main character’s whole issue: the massive delusion that he’s in subconscious harmony with his housemate. So it worked on that level for me, but I also liked the aesthetic of the words – both the way they sound and the way they look on the page. When you see it printed it looks cool, maybe for the same reasons “CITIZEN KANE” always does with its Ns, K and Z, if that makes sense.
The “Ferox” part is also a reference to this shitty Italian exploitation flick called Cannibal Ferox from 1981. It’s an awful film (the director actually thought it was okay to commit genuine animal torture to the screen) but the people-eating-people vibe linked nicely to my own narrative and gave the whole thing an extra level of smug pretension – which, when you’re writing a story featuring the consumption of genitals, I feel you need in order to justify its existence a bit. I don’t know… is it less like pornography if it has levels?
One might guess from the story that you are not vegetarian. What was the inspiration for this story?
Beyond all the usual selecting and sorting of life fragments to build a narrative, the backbone came after I watched a friend of mine dump a string of girls for incredibly frivolous reasons. If she didn’t want to watch a movie one night and he did, then he thought they were clearly unsuited and that was that. The story basically castigates that kind of thinking in the way Hell’s ironic punishment division might. As for the cannibalism, I think that was born out of this desire to hyperbolize how some people view perfect love and to take the piss out of it a bit: “I want you.” “I want you, too.” “Then let’s eat each other,” etc. You could even argue it’s the next logical extension following the romantic vampire fad. It’s not a big leap from wanting to suckle elegantly from your lover’s neck to chomping on their intestines. I think the desire to want another person that much and to be wanted in return – no matter what the nature of the relationship – is ultimately a kind of self-destructive cannibalism… or violently romantic, depending on the kind of movies you watch and how recently you’ve broken up with someone.
All that works on the level of symbols, but frankly I like to treat stories like “Asynchronous Ferox”, whether I’m reading them or writing them, on literal levels. There’s a Stephen Crane poem, “In the Desert”, which works the same way: guy finds a creature eating its own heart and stops to have a confab with it. You can read it for symbols and meaning, or you can just enjoy the visceral nature of the imagery. Enjoying the imagery always comes first for me. The deeper significance usually comes three days later when I’m looking for something in the back of the freezer.
What stories do you have “lingering in a desk drawer” that might one day see publication? Do you notice any themes in what you tend to write about?
I didn’t realise it at the time, but a lot of my early stories involved punishing characters for deifying something fallible, or punishing them for holding any kind of ideal with too firm a grip. I’ve given (as a narrator, obviously) an STD to a monogamous Christian couple, had a photographer become the subject of their own brand of exploitation (that story involved more faecal matter than most readers were comfortable with), and choreographed chapters where the arrogantly wealthy are mauled to death by bears. I think I was meaner when I was younger, and I guess I didn’t trust anyone who could believe in something so much that it made them intellectually inflexible. I still don’t really.
These days I like creating characters who link more into a wider community, and I don’t tend to go out of my way to find the obscene like I used to. If it appears at all it has to happen organically; there has to be a damn good reason for kidneys to be sliding down the windscreen. You get to this tipping point in your life where you don’t want to do the cheap Palahniuk-esque thing anymore, and what you used to view as transgressive starts to look juvenile and a bit dumb. It’s like that guy you thought was cool once but now it’s ten years later and he’s still hanging around the same bar.
As a conscious response to that I’ve been writing slightly more grounded narratives – I’ve just had a story published about a one-eyed computer programmer who refuses to turn his sprinklers off during a drought – and I’ve been writing much longer works where I feel I actually have some expertise in terms of the subject matter, including a novel. I’m a huge fan of Tom Wolfe’s essay “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast”, in which he talks about the importance of realism in writing. What struck a chord specifically was his suggestion that as a young writer you pretty soundly believe in the value of your own “crystalline prose”, and that one’s content doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as style and aesthetic. However, when you get older that’s flipped – you realise that subject is vitally important: your prose style is just the packaging, something you’ve learnt how to do well and which should be turned on worthwhile targets. With that in mind I decided to write about what I knew intimately, and with seven years as a secondary teacher under my belt it turns out I know an enormous amount about schools, about the madness of what it’s like to be young. I’m really proud of the result. Hopefully I’ll manage to convince someone to publish it.
The one thing that does stick out across my work, though, is that everything involves, to some degree, the idea of being out of sync – of being asynchronous ferox. It doesn’t matter whether it’s about a circus performer, Norwegian seal clubbers or some kid who really wants to blow up his classroom, they all feature primary characters that have a broken rhythm in some way. I also don’t think as a writer you have to be a champion for your protagonist necessarily. I’m really okay with making mine a touch unlikable – even freakishly unlikable. For example, I’ve got a story where a property developer and The Devil go on a bender together and compete to see who’s a bigger dickhead. The property developer wins. The important thing is that the story manages to propel itself, that it’s worth telling, and that the writing stays engaging. And if we’re honest, all of us are a bit shit in one way or another. We all cart around a Jungian shadow. Some of us have denser, blacker ones than others. Exploring that is the fun part of writing – our flaws are what make us interesting, and wretched, and wonderful. So I guess all my stories chase the shadow.
Alec Hutchinson teaches Media Studies at the bottom of the world. He enjoys riding his bicycle past people stuck in traffic jams and outsourcing the blame for his poverty to the inherent unfairness of capitalism. He’s written non-fiction about Your Life Specifically on Pantograph Punch, and hopes to have more of the stories lingering in his desk drawer published soon.