by Niall Walker
Joss Sheldon is an author whose radical, imaginative works have inspired a global audience. We spoke to Joss about his work, neoliberalism, and the hope for community in these increasingly isolated times...
Hi Joss. Firstly, thanks for appearing on our site. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your works to date?
I used to work for a football club, but I grew increasingly frustrated by the militarization of that sport; with red poppies on shirts and soldiers paraded at matches. So I did the only thing I could think of; I quit my job and wrote a book, set in World War One, which portrayed peace activists as heroes and soldiers as tools of the establishment.
That book, Involution & Evolution, was based on the true stories of a group of brave conscientious objectors. Whilst the subject matter in my subsequent books has changed, this ethos hasn’t; my novels are all works of fiction, but they’re all based on facts; on real world issues which I try to shape into an accessible and entertaining form.
“Occupied” is based on the occupations of Palestine, Kurdistan and Tibet. “The Little Voice” takes a look at the ways our parents and teachers make us conform to societal expectations. “Money Power Love” tells the story of how bankers came to control the world. “Individutopia” looks at how society has broken down, and we’ve all been forced to compete.
As a writer, what is your goal?
I want to make people think about the world around them, and see it in ways they haven’t seen it before. I want to entertain my readers; to make them smile, scratch their heads, laugh, smile again, and scoff or tut! And of course I want to make a little money; just enough to survive.
Your most recent work, Individutopia, is your first foray in to the realm of dystopia. What do you put the popularity of that genre in modern culture down to?
Occupied also turns a bit dystopian. Starting in a halcyon past, a dystopian future creeps up on the characters so gradually that they don’t perceive the changes around them; accepting the dystopian future they are thrown into without rebelling.
Individutopia starts bang in the future - it’s dystopian from the start.
It’s natural for me, as an author of political fiction, to be drawn to such a genre. Dystopian novels are political after all!
I think the appeal with dystopian novels is that, whilst they’re set in a dark and distant future, they tackle issues which are burning bright around us in the world today. By putting these issues in a dystopian world, we extract them and bring them to the fore; helping people to see them with 20:20 clarity. This is a literary device which, with a good dose of artistic licence, allows us writers to satire society.
I think it appeals to readers, because it helps them to see the world they live in more clearly. It expresses issues they see around them, which they don’t necessarily get the chance to read about elsewhere.
You have said that the book was inspired by Thatcher's infamous 'There is no such thing as society' epigram. What role is this ideology of isolation playing on society today?
Everything! It starts at school, where pupils are told to work hard, compete with their peers, and do better than everyone else at exams. Teamwork has gone. Play has gone. That instinct to share is driven out of us as soon as we step into the classroom.
A new mindset is instilled in us: We can’t cooperate, we have to compete. This stays with us throughout our lives. Doctors now have to compete to reduce the size of their waiting lists, salespeople need to compete to make the most sales, and shop assistants need to compete to get the highest scores on customer feedback forms.
We are supposed to take the money we earn from these jobs, and compete when we spend it; to buy the biggest house, fastest car and flashiest clothes. We still long to create a strong society, it’s hardwired into us, and so we run scout groups or take care of our grandkids, but these things are pushed to the side, unpaid and undervalued. We’re only tend to be rewarded when we compete, by ourselves, operating in isolation.
The consequences are tragic. As I wrote in the introduction to Individutopia: “By 2016, a quarter of British people were suffering from stress, depression, anxiety or paranoia… Over twenty percent of Brits had suffered from suicidal thoughts, and over six percent had attempted suicide. Suicide was the most common cause of death for men under forty-five.”
"Art helps issues to seep into the public conscious"
Is art a means of subverting this trend? How effective can it be?
I can’t think of a single example where someone has written a book or drawn a picture and then the world has suddenly changed. I think art needs to compliment political movements, rather than be a political movement in isolation.
I’m a big fan of music, and there were certainly anti-war songs that were part of the campaign which ended the Vietnam War. The song “Free Nelson Mandela” is synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In my mind, at least, the art work of Banksy is stamped on the growing calls to give Palestinians back their freedom.
This art allows issues to reach people who might not normally engage in political debate, read about current affairs or go to protests. It helps issues to seep into the public conscious. But it is part of a mix. It does nothing on it’s own, and needs the hard work of activists and campaigners to underpin it. It’s those guys who really get things done.
Is there hope for community in these increasingly estranged times?
Of course! It’s always darkest before the dawn, and that’s what I try to get at in “Individutopia”. Even if we’re forced to compete, to be isolated, and to betray our kith and kin; we still have an innate need to be social, and an instinct to help others. Our society is becoming darker, but that’s just a case of nurture. Or underlying nature hasn’t changed.
It’s like an elastic band. You can stretch it so far, but eventually it will ping back into shape. People are being stretched, but they’re awakening. Just look at the movements for justice in Palestine, against austerity, for peace, for Universal Basic Income, for a four day week, against fracking and for the environment. Whilst people are fighting for these things there is hope. The neoliberal world order is falling, and we have a chance to reshape the future. It’s pretty exciting to be honest…