Ed Garland has recently finished his PhD at Aberystwyth University, researching sonic experience in contemporary fiction. In his twenties, he almost lost a battle with his mental health before discovering reading helped him cope with hearing loss and tinnitus. His collection of essays reflecting on this experience, Earwitness: A Search for Sonic Understanding, were announced a winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2018. A genre-busting mix of literary criticism, sound studies and memoir, the essays explore what fictional sonic experiences can tell us about sound in everyday life.
For over twenty-five years, New Welsh Review has been central to the Welsh literary scene in offering a vital outlet for the very best new fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, a forum for critical debate and a rigorous and engaged reviewing culture.
Without further ado, let’s get on with the interview:
- What inspired you to get into writing as a career?
I didn’t get into it for a career. It got into me about 23 years ago, when I discovered some forums on the 1990s dial-up internet. You gave yourself a new name, which became a writing persona, like having a different self that only existed in text. That was fun. Then I joined a small community of bloggers, and between five and fifteen of us read each others’ stuff for about ten years. None of us spoke about trying to ‘be a writer’, as far as I can remember. I don’t know where any of them are now, except for one. After I stopped blogging, I showed some things I’d written to my friend Sarah Coleman (the illustrator Inkymole) who was generous enough to suggest a few very exciting collaborations. In my early thirties I did a part-time MA in Creative Writing, which showed me how to really care about sentences, and how difficult it can be to produce anything halfway decent. I then began to receive occasional payments for things I’d written, mostly adverts for dentists. Now I’ve just finished a PhD researching sound in contemporary fiction, and my career consists of applying for long-term research contracts while hoping that another short-term teaching contract might come my way before I have to start writing for dentists again.
2) Whose work has most influenced your own?
If the biggest influences are the ones I think about the most, then Samuel Beckett, Eimear McBride, James Baldwin, Bob Mortimer, Lydia Unsworth, Hunter S. Thompson, El-P, Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo, the anonymous copywriters of advertising campaigns and product labels, all the drum n bass MCs, Margiad Evans, Alexander G. Weheliye, Lou Sanders, all the friends I exchange messages with, On Kawara, and Krust.
3) How did reading help you to cope with hearing loss and tinnitus?
It helped me to move beyond the idea that ‘loss’ is the lense through which sensory changes must be viewed, and into the idea of aural diversity: everbody hears differently, for different reasons, and these reasons change throughout your life. Reading can improve your hearing in the sense that writers can make you reconsider familiar sounds in new ways. Deborah Kay Davies is good at how relationships with people influence relationships with sounds. Margiad Evans is good at the sounds of waterfalls and fields. Valeria Luiselli and Henry Roth are good at the sounds of cities. Marlon James is good at loading sonic details with significance. All of these writers notice that sound is a multisensory phenomenon, not just something that addresses itself to our ears.
4) What do fictional sonic experiences tell us about sound in everyday life?
They tell us about the huge variety of ways people value sounds, and develop relationships to and through sound. They show us that we always encounter sound through very complex sensory, cognitive, linguistic, and emotional filters.
5) How do you think literature has the ability to challenge preconceptions?
It might offer us some new words, or some familiar words arranged in a surprising sequence, by which we may notice that we’ve learned something. But even though my writing and research might challenge specific preconceptions about sound, I don’t think that the challenging of preconceptions in general ought to be the one thing that makes literature valuable. Similarly, I don’t think my niece’s toys and games ought to come with a ‘STEM-certified’ green-tick label, as if play and improvisation and problem-solving are only worth doing when they can be explicitly linked to a rational, productive, utilitarian outcome. Fine if they do, but let’s not pretend that they must. The authority that produces those labels is the same authority that wants to turn universities into job centres and books into social workers. A novel is not an elaborate way to deliver a single easily comprehensible message that improves the reader’s behaviour. Poems do not make you a better person. Literary fiction is not a path to sainthood. Some of literature’s value comes from the way it can adjust your sociopolitical attitudes and opinions, yes, but the rest of its value is rooted in form — in the way texts move you through layers of affirmation, recognition, confusion, delight, irritation, love, disturbance, trouble, intrigue, revulsion, exhilaration, boredom, and so on. Literature is infinitely complex and weird, and language is as alive as we are. I love the sound of it, but I love the rest of it too.
6) And finally, are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I’m working on a sound/music project called Pharmaceutical Percussion (https://pharmaceuticalpercussion.bandcamp.com/releases). I have a chapter in the new Aural Diversity book (https://www.routledge.com/Aural-Diversity/Drever-Hugill/p/book/9781032024998). I’m also trying to write a novel, and trying to convert my PhD thesis into a book.
Thank you for taking part in the #MeetTheContributor series, Ed. We enjoyed hearing about your influences, fictional sonic experiences, and why literature is so valuable.