Joe Ridgwell is a London small press writer who will shortly have some of his limited edition out of print book catalogue republished by Ternary Editions, an imprint of the iconic Bottle of Smoke Press. The books include Where are the Rebels?, The Buddha Bar, The Cross and Last Days of the Cross: http://www.ternaryeditions.com
After reading and being highly impressed by his novel last days of the cross (2009), his two short story collections oswald’s apartment and other stories (2010) & Ridgwell Stories (2015) and Parts Two & Three of his novella THE CROSS (2016), I asked Ridgwell a few questions to better understand the man and his work.
What was it like growing up in public housing in the East End of London in the 1980s?
It was great. There was a real community spirit on the estate and as a kid it was the whole world, nothing else existed, you felt like you owned the streets. Everyone looked out for each other. You felt completely safe and lived in a bubble. Thatcher destroyed all that with her, Right to Buy, policy. People brought their council houses for next to nothing, sold them for a healthy profit, and moved away from the area, including me and my parents. The policy was very successful in that it destroyed long standing communities almost overnight. This weakened the people and made them ripe for exploitation. It nearly eradicated the Cockney population from their traditional London heartlands. Most Cockney’s now live in the surrounding home counties. I can’t go back to East London as it has been taken over by the rich, outsiders, middle-class people who have no culture to speak of. They create artificial communities that have no substance. These interlopers are empty people leading empty lives. I pity them.
You travelled extensively for years before you started to write. Can you describe the process in which you finally decided to get it down on the page?
Actually I tried to write before I travelled, but my efforts were poor, amateurish. It frustrated me. I travelled to get away from everything, family, friends, lovers. The artist has to go it alone for a number of years if they are to achieve anything. In Mexico I decided to be a beach poet and one sultry evening in Bali, I made a breakthrough. It was like someone turning on a brilliant white light. And yet it wasn’t the end, it was only the beginning of a hard road to travel.
In your biography for Ridgwell Storiesit states that after a drug-induced epiphany on a remote Mexican beach you invented Cosmic Realism. Can you elaborate on this experience and what you mean by the concept and its significance in your writing canon?
I was under the influence of Peyote on a small cove, just south of Puerto Angel. It was a starlight night. In the sky I saw a face. The face told me to believe in the one true spirit. The face looked very wise. Maybe it was a God. Anyway, I had the idea for Cosmic Realism, right there and then. CR is the ability to tell a story that is obviously not based in reality, but which the reader readily accepts as the truth. I didn’t know what it meant then or even how to do it. I also decided to fictionalise my entire life, from cradle to grave. True story novels. But to make them interesting you need to add Cosmic Realism. (not be confused with magic realism).
Much of your early short fiction in oswald’s apartmentand other stories (2010) is social realist in style but in Ridwell Stories (2015) your writing overall is far more imaginative in terms of point of view, subject matter and style. Some of your earlier short stories such as “Oswald’s Apartment”, “The Assassination Egg” and “The Unbelievable Cloud” venture towards more inventive short fiction, but when did you consciously decide third person, inventive stories was the way to go?
A tip I’d give to aspiring writers is to write about what you know. It’s a cliche but the budding author should start there. That’s what I did. I wrote about what was happening in my life. As my writing skills improved I began adding elements of pure fiction. Once you possess the skills set you can move further afield. But be careful, keep it real, for if the reader thinks you are just making it all up, you will lose them. There are a good deal of writers out there writing about shit that they have no first hand knowledge of. I call them literary voyeurs. They are a corrosive influence on our literary heritage and I urge them to desist.
A significant part of your writing, including your novel last days of the cross (2009) and your three-part novella The Cross (2016) are set in King’s Cross, a seedy red-light district in Sydney. Why did you originally come to Oz? How long did you stay? How did these years and experiences here help you to develop your work?
Kings Cross, seedy? No way man. The Cross in the late 90’s was an exciting happening inspirational place. The place was alive. It had yet to cleaned up, although the process of killing it was already underway. I came to Oz because they let young British people work there. Being working class I needed to work to survive. There were no William Burroughs trust funds for me. I stayed for five years, living as an illegal immigrant for the last four. The Oz experience was fundamental to my development as a writer as it provided me with a wealth of material. I worked a succession of dead-end jobs, travelled up and down the East Coast, and got to know all the characters of the Cross intimately. Also there’s hardly any literature about the Cross, all I could get my hands on was an anthology of short stories, which wasn’t very good. I mean, Dulcie Deamer - the Queen of Bohemia? Really?
You mention Charles Bukowski many times as an influence in last days of the cross. What impact did Bukowski initially have on your struggle to become a writer?
Bukowski was a great influence. Like many before, I read his work and thought, if he can do it, so can I. Very naive. He was a master and an original. And to be a master of anything takes, a very, very, long time. And yet their are limitations to his style, maybe if he’d dropped some peyote on a remote Mexican beach…hahahah
As a writer now, how do you nail your words on the page? Do you write every day? Do you do much editing?
I’ve never written everyday. Life is too short. I probably think about writing everyday as the mind is like that. A couple of years ago I went through a period, I call - The Great Edit. It was a period of extensive editing and the writing benefited immeasurably. I don’t have any contemporary influences. As far as I’m concerned I’m in a one man battle with myself. How far can I take it? How long will it last? Where will it lead?
As a talented and highly accessible writer, you must feel a certain amount of frustration and anger at not being embraced by the mainstream. Is this the case? What would you need to do to establish a wider audience?
It used to frustrate me, the lack of mainstream recognition, especially when I was younger. As the years have passed I’ve mellowed to this rejection of my work. And you only have to look at the best seller charts to see it is more or less a sewer. I get emails on a weekly basis from lit fiends all over the world telling me how much they dig my work. Some have said it might have even saved their life.
Much of your work uses travel as a device to transport the reader to different worlds. What have you best learnt about people and places through your experiences?
What I learnt from extensive world travel is that we are all human and everywhere is the same, aside from regional cultural differences that add colour. As a race, we have a collective overestimation of our own ability and place in the universe. We are all egotists, self-centred, selfish, repugnant little fuckers. The most that the vast majority has going for them is raw ambition. Very few, if any, have real talent.
Can you tell the potential reader about why they need to urgently read your work?
It’s simple. Do you want to live an unawakened life, or do you want to be awakened? But seriously readers, get hold of a copy of one of my books, and I can guarantee you’ll be laughing out loud or cringing. That’s another thing most writers can’t do - humour. High brow authors look down on humour, but that’s because they do not possess a funny bone. Dull, dull fuckers.
Ternary Editions, an imprint of Bottle of Smoke Press, are soon to republish some of your back catalogue. What is the backstory behind this coup and when do you expect the books to hit the streets?
Bill at Bottle of Smoke Press got in touch and said he wanted to re-publish some of my out of print books as he thought they deserved a second life. I, for one, didn’t disagree. The books should be available to buy in the next week or so.
What’s next for you?
There’s a lot going on. Future publications are imminent. I will be in Paris in the summer. Then there’s a trip to New York. Writing wise I’m working on a fourth collection of Short Stories - The Flowery Pot & Other Tales. At the moment I’m working on a short entitled - The Goddess of the Vally. It’s about the time me and my sidekick, Ronnie, climbed Mount Everest, or rather didn’t climb it. Have you been to Nepal? A beautiful place…
No, but a close friend of mine had to be airlifted from the base camp. Thanks Joe for your time!
BIO: Joseph Ridgwell was raised in East London and is a cult figure of the literary underground both in the UK and abroad. Ridgwell has published five collections of poetry, two short story collections, and three novellas. A second collection of stories was published by New York’s Bottle of Smoke Press in Summer 2015:
Ridgwell Stories was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize and long-listed for the 2016 Saboteur awards.
In November 2015 - Leamington Books - published his long-awaited debut novel - Burrito Deluxe - On the Road for the Offbeat Generation.
Also published in 2016 were Jamaica & Mexico forming a trilogy with Cuba, which was published in 2014. The trilogy is published by Pig Ear Press.
A 6th collection of poetry - Cosmic Gigantic Flywheel - is due to be published in 2018 by Lenka Editions in Paris.
A 7th Collection of poetry - The Beach Poems - will be published by New York’s Bottle of Smoke Press in the summer of 2018.
2nd editions of Ridgwell novels - The Cross, Last Days of the Cross, The Buddha Bar, and his debut poetry collection - Where are the Rebels, will be published by Ternary Editions an imprint of Bottle of Smoke Press in 2018
Ridgwell’s work has also appeared in numerous anthologies. Chiron Review, Abridged, Hanzir, Dwang, Tra Ver Sees, Push, The Arsonist etc
For further details of the authors work and current state of mind go to his website: