Marco Ferrarese: My words are an extension of my punk rock spirit
Marco Ferrarese, who made his debut as novelist at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival with Nazi Goreng (Monsoon Books), is a former international punk rock guitarist, and now a freelance travel and culture writer based in South East Asia.
According to his publishers, Nazi Goreng is an intense Malaysian coming-of-age novel that stands alongside the works of Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk.
Nazi Goreng is fast-paced, entertaining and a fascinating insight into the vernacular of the streets of Malaysia. It is “purely fictional, albeit based on real events that occurred in Malaysia in the past few years,” says Ferrarese. “I wanted to make people reflect about their condition, their racist views, and the shit stains at the crack of their own asses. I couldn’t just keep it all inside of me any longer.”
Kitaab interviewed the author a little while before the book launch.
From a rock guitarist to a travel writer and now a novelist based in Malaysia. How did that journey happen for you? Did you always want to be a novelist?
Well, it’s been a long journey that requires a long explanation: I started reading fantasy and horror fiction when I was pretty young. Lovecraft, Howard, King, Barker, Dick, Asimov etc. I was lucky as my mother believed books were important tools for education, although she didn’t approve my penchant for the supernatural and the horror. Yes, I knew I would have written fantastic books: my first attempts at writing are prehistory. I believe that a couple notebooks filled with my terribly undulating 10 years old handwriting still lay somewhere at my parents’ house in Italy. A pointless supernatural story, set in the USA, trying to clone Stephen King.
When I was 13, I got into punk music and DiY culture, and released my first 45 RPM single at 15 years old – I was a premature monster. Back then, I was writing my own punk rock and B-movie fanzine. My “literary debut” came when I was 17 and I pieced together a string of 10 ultra short, super extreme short stories titled Cannibale (Cannibal) with the sole purpose of shocking potential readers: it was a collection of murderous, gratuitous scenes of violent torture, snuff and death soaked in quality vintage erotica, with real perverts and vampires who would make a sandwich out of any Twilight-esque phony character. I was really obsessed with splatterpunk literature: at the time it was quite a novelty and had a huge impact on me. I loved authors such as David Schow, Poppy Z. Brite, Joe Lansdale and Skipp & Spector, because they wrote like they didn’t care, like a loud hardcore punk song. This first “book” almost got me suspended from high school when one of these funky self-produced pamphlets – which I, the fool, obviously distributed to some of my professors at the time – ended up on the principal’s table… it was a life-changing moment. For I understood that my words were able to impress people, and especially, to piss them off. They were a tool to raise heads and overtake the status quo, an extension of my punk rock spirit.
Following this revelation, I briefly frequented the Gioventu’ Cannibale (Cannibal Youth), a group of Italian splatterpunk and horror writers who had published an anthology on a mainstream Italian publisher. This connection, however, was short lived, as I found out that most of them were not able to live up to their literary aliases. I dropped out of their circle very quickly. I was too young, loud and snotty, to cite the Dead Boys. Or old enough to know better, but far too young to care, citing the Bulemics. The punk and metal underground offered me so many more thrills and kicks, that I ended up dedicating most of my time to my band The Nerds, touring and recording internationally. This carried on for 10 years, during which I wrote, yes, but mostly for my own or other punk and metal fanzines, and mostly about bands and music. Touring taught me the love for travelling; and when the band finished, I found my way out of Italy on a teaching post to China in 2007. Since my touring days and after moving to Asia, I have travelled to 50 countries: when I decided to get back to writing, it was pretty natural to try the travel writing field. Writing my first novel occurred as a progression of my travel-based features: while I waited for the processing of an Indian visa in 2011, I got a chance to meet author and travel guidebook writer Tom Vater in Bangkok. He was kind enough to answer my newbie questions, and told me that, in order to progress with my writing career and be respected in the trade, I should write a book. Writing a book…no easy task. I started thinking of it, and finally penned its beginning, on the roof of a Yunnanese hostel overlooking the lower Himalayas in 2012, in the midst of an 11 month overland epic trip from Asia to Europe.
The idea of a neo-Nazi movement in Malaysia is dark and provocative for a novel. What inspired you to write Nazi Goreng?
Well, such a movement exists in Malaysia. When I found out about this flamboyant cultural misinterpretation, I thought it would have been a fantastically original starting point for a novel. It was so anthropologically interesting – not to say absurd – to contemplate how some brown-skinned people could take Nazism and Aryanism as a background for their identity construction. Furthermore, it would have constituted a very strong point to build upon my vision, which was to deliver a very modern, uncompromised and realistic portrait of the Malaysia I found myself living in.
Think of it: there are plenty of great books about a Malaysia that does not exist anymore, such as Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain or The Garden of Evening Mists, and most recently, The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. I understand that Malaysia’s colonial past might still constitute a haunting presence hovering all around today’s Asian literary scene; but I also understand that I am not a Malaysian, and I do not have a British dilemma stirring up my soul. Since the time I set foot in the country and I sat down at a mamak stall to order food, I couldn’t help but contemplate how majestically fucked up things were. Malaysia – well, West Malaysia, mostly – has a big racial problem that is constantly reified anywhere you look at. Surprisingly, no writers appear to have thought about capturing this stunning detail. Since the first time I read the word nasi goring in a menu in 2008, I have been thinking about the irony of it, about trading a Z for an S, about a joke that would develop like an Asian version of Mario Caiano’s Nazi Love Camp 27 …and then, I found out about the real existence of kuasa melayu’s Malay power supremacists! Are you kidding me?
The idea for this book literally grew around me, pushed by a number of odd, linking circumstances, like an ouroboros of social horror slowly suffocating my inner core with his slimy spires… it was the ultimate post-modern Malaysian excess, and screamed to be evolved into fiction. I just had to listen to that howling beast of misunderstanding, and started writing.
Was it difficult to find a publisher for your book?
Surprisingly not. I have been very lucky, however, or the spunkiness of my story has been a good business card. I was dealing with a Malaysian publisher initially and I should have gone with him; but as I waited, and waited, and waited even more, I decided to submit the manuscript to Monsoon knowing I would have been rejected. I admire Phil Tatham for his excellent work on Asian-based fiction and non-fiction, and I thought Monsoon would have been a perfect match for Nazi Goreng. In reality, I believed they were too good to pick up a newbie like me, of all writers, but I still sent the manuscript in. Well, three days after submission I got the good news, and I almost fell off my chair.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
I like originality and authenticity in stories. Let’s say, I used to love late ‘70s and 1980s horror, especially the prime zombie films, but today I am hardly impressed by any revivalist, uninspired zombie book or movie. Same goes for music, I hardly get excited because I believe there is really nothing to be excited about. Artists (if we can call them this way) have traded the quality of a good, compelling story for the flashy lights of commercial bandwagons. I like stories told by people who are not afraid to carry on an original idea, and be progressive in their thinking. I like new ways of telling old stories, and people who are not afraid to bring up their own truths. And I like a good mix of emotions, suspense, sex, struggle, irony and anger. I like to see life on a page.
What books have had the greatest impact on you?
I’ll try to be brief, fiction oriented and based on the thoughts of the day. Homer The Odyssey, Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy, William Golding The Lord of the Flies, Joe Lansdale The Drive In, Stephen King Rage, William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury, Erskine Caldwell Tobacco Road, Charles Bukowsky Ham on Rye and Women, J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye, Henry Miller Opus Pistorum, Haruki Murakami The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, William Burroughs Junkie, Chuck Phalaniuk Invisible Monsters and Choke, Edward Bunker Education of a Felon, Tiziano Terzani A Fortune Teller Told Me, James Ellroy The Black Dhalia, Niccolò Ammaniti Branchie and Paolo di Orazio Madre Mostro. I better stop now, there are too many.
What is the hardest part of being a writer?
Keeping the stamina level high (read the next answer for more on this) and focus on one project at a time. It is very unlikely that one can only concentrate on a manuscript without taking other freelance writing (or unrelated) work these days, hence the hardest part is to put your novel first, first thing in the day, every day, for a couple hours. Then you can do the rest. I am a strong supporter that writing tired at night is not good for a manuscript, at least, that’s how it works for me.
Your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Haruki Murakami described writing as a simple work of perseverance and stamina, exactly like running. Talent is just an extra feature. Based on my own experience, I must agree. Start fresh (in the morning), and run (write!). After 10 minutes you will be tempted to give up (stamina downer), but using an accurate “breathing technique”, you will continue, if you really wish. You have to complete at least 5 laps (one to two hours). Never look back (the screen), always ahead (write!). And, as Lansdale said, don’t write for more than a couple hours a day because once the focus is gone, is best to do something else. Mr. King also said that people should start doing their job first thing in the morning; hence, wake up, sit down and write. I personally agree, as writing at night is a total waste of my time: my brain’s tired, and I’m preoccupied with everything but my story. Lastly, again, RUN and never turn back: editors exist for a reason! The important thing is to get your first draft done, so you must find ways to keep up your stamina level. Good coffee, bananas, and plenty of nuts worked for me. There’s no lame excuse such as “I have no time for writing” because if you say so, it means that you are not dedicating yourself completely to the craft, so go back to King’s advice. Is writing your work? Then, do it. Sounds like too much luxury? Well, I suggest you follow my example and go live in some Asian country to start cutting your expenses twofold, and stop complaining. Excuses are not good stamina builders.
What are you reading right now?
Video Night in Kathmandu and other reports from the Not-so-Far East by Pico Iyer, and Hearts of Pine: Songs in the Lives of Three Korean Survivors of the Japanese “Comfort Women” by Joshua D. Pilzer, a fine treaty in ethnomusicology. I try not to read too much fiction, as it contaminates my creative mood and makes my own stuff feel insipid.
What do you plan to write next?
I’m already at work on a new novel. I have always had a fascination for the Devil and the antichrist, and I am writing a story based on the overland trip from Asia to Europe I completed in November 2012. You might wonder what these two topics had in common… well, wait and see. So far, I can give away a backpacking solo Malaysian Chinese girl, a very haunted Italian priest, and six gates of Hell… somehow, this will be a personal tribute to an incredible Spanish movie from 1995, El Dia de la Bestia, directed by Alex de la Iglesia.
Plus, expect to see an ethnographic treaty on Malaysian punk and heavy metal to come out under my name sometimes later… yes, that’s part of the natural multi-tasking a writer has to do to be able to eat these days…
Your advice for first time writers?
I consider myself to be too green of a writer to be of any real help, but I’ll try to give an important piece of advice that proved extremely useful to me: good stories are not found in books or quotes dispersed on the internet. If you want to write well, you have to live and experience broadly before retiring in solitude to take it all in, and spit your version out. Hence, you must travel, as far and cheap and crazily as possible. You must love anything that you want to love, and let it break your heart. Love a bitch/a bastard and experience what it means for a character to have his/her soul put in a blender at smoothie-mincing speed, before you try to invent how it feels. Get drunk. Fall down. Get stitches. Bleed, profusely. Spit. Scream. Kick. Piss. Fuck. Then go back home, brew some excellent coffee, sit at the table and watch the cursor blink at the beginning of an empty word document. Now, you are ready to write and make some sense. Good luck!