Media Interview with Stuart Hammond, books editor at Dazed & Confused

We caught Stuart Hammond for a quick chat while he'd taken a short break from recommending quality reads at The Riverside Bookshop, extolling the talents of exciting writers in the books pages of Dazed & Confused and, perhaps (possibly – probably), reading something.

Introducing readers to fresh and inspirational writing for D&C follows growing up in Bedfordshire, studying English, spending a few formative years being a "complete idiot", and writing for skating magazines. Find out how these beginnings led to putting the books bit together for the influential magazine, what Stuart loves most about his work, and who he's met along the way.

Here, we come in after the obligatory 'hello!', 'how are you?', 'where are you?' and 'what are you wearing?'

What are you wearing?

Who are Dazed & Confused’s main competitors?

I guess the obvious one is i-D. There are tonnes of them out there though, aren’t there?

What makes D&C different (and better) than them?

Well, I think it always looks amazing; it’s quite an exciting-looking magazine. I just feel like it’s got a sort of pedigree. It’s been around so long now: twenty years. Now that The Face has died there’s only really i-D that’s doing the same kind of stuff.

It’s a shame that The Face died.

I know, I miss it…

I view it with great fondness now, for some reason. Perhaps just because ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and all that.

If you go into libraries and look up the old issues…

Yeah, you just wanna drink ‘em in, don’t you? Gavin Hills ­­–  he wrote for them – I read some of his writing again recently, and it’s completely shit-hot.

It’s the ‘good shit’.

Yeah, he was so good; wrote in such a beautiful, totally convincing mate-voice. And died too young. I only just found out that he used to write for RAD, the old British skateboard magazine, which I never knew before. Total legend.  

So how would you describe the readers of Dazed and Confused?

I think there are probably people who have a proper soundbite for this, but…I guess, in my mind, I like to think that they’re a bit younger. Maybe 16 to 30 or something like that? What I’ve always been fond of with doing the books pages is the fact that, when I grew up outside of London, as a kid from the countryside seeing Dazed & Confused… it was this insanely cool object full of all these cool people doing exciting arty things. I like that romantic idea of it, really, and that’s why I like writing this books page; I feel that I can… what helps me sleep at night is the idea that there might be some cool kids in far-flung provincial places who are taking me up on some of my book recommendations. And I just like that idea. Maybe it’s a complete fantasy. But I’m banking on that happening somewhere along the line.

Where do you come from originally?

I grew up in a little village in Bedfordshire; it’s really pretty and quiet. Nothing much really happens there. It’s close to London, so I came to London a lot. Then I moved here when I was 18, went to university and studied English. And I was a complete idiot when I arrived, I hadn’t really read anything. Then suddenly I had to read all this stuff and talk about it with really interesting people and teachers — that was the best bit of my whole education, I think. Because that’s when I went really book crazy. And I still am.

How did you start writing for Dazed and Confused?

The first stuff I had published was for skate magazines. I’m still really obsessed with skateboarding, like a kid; I can’t help it. I had a friend I knew through the skate scene here, quite tenuously really, called Sylvia Farago – a complete legend. She doesn’t work for Dazed any longer, but she was the photographic editor there for ages. She read a piece I’d written about a skate trip I’d been on, and she hooked me up with a gig doing some writing that they needed about heavy metal t-shirts, of all things. Something that I’ve got almost no interest in whatsoever. But I just styled it out a bit and ended up getting more gigs. It was fun. So then I did a few music journalism things for them, things that I was into at the time, and they seemed to like it. They made me writer-at-large for a while. I’d do random things about books or about grime, music stuff that I liked. But it was really sporadic; whole issues would go by where I wouldn’t really do anything. But I was researching! And then I was working in a bookshop, part-time, and the old books editor at Dazed, the lovely Sarah Fakray – great girl – left the magazine to go to Bulgaria to write, I think. And then they asked me to be books editor. They knew I was into it, and was always surrounded by new books and going on about them and was a bit of a bore about it, frankly.

Do you work from the actual offices?

No, I don’t; I rarely show up at the offices at Dazed and Confused, but I go there to pick up my post. I do encourage PRs to send me post at the bookshop, when they can – that’s useful. I visit the offices every so often, for meetings and that, but I rarely do actual work in there. We did a literary issue recently, so I went by a few times to do stuff for that. I edited a collection of short stories for that one, from a load of writers I really like, it was really exciting. It’s the best thing I’ve done for ages, I reckon. Because there was loads of properly amazing writing in it: an issue of Dazed with eleven crazily different, beautifully realized whole worlds stuffed in it.

What kind of writers were there; undiscovered ones, or bigger names?

They were all writers that I’ve gone on about in the last few years, either in the pub or in the bookshop or in the pages of Dazed & Confused. All young – and that’s young in the novelistic sense; we’re talking under forty.

That’s young!

Some of them are dead young, really young. Tiny little things.

Do you write fictional stuff/short stories yourself?

I do a little bit. I’m remarkably under-productive, I write astonishingly little, but I’ve had a couple of stories published. And they’re alright, I reckon. I’ve had a story published in Vice, in the Fiction Issue. And one in a friend’s zine. And one in the wonderful online literary magazine Five Dials, which my friend Craig Taylor edits, and which I continue to love. Five Dials are printing another one of my stories soon actually. A sort of silly little horrible thing.

What kind of genres do you work in?

I dunno…I tend, quite incorrigibly, to use fiction to write about two things that I’m particularly interested in: celebrity and terrorism. They’re really just things that I thought would be funny. They aren’t even that good, actually.

You’re supposed to talk yourself up!

They are minor masterpieces.

For Dazed and Confused, I saw a film of your interview with David Shrigley…

Yeah, I went round his house.

What was that like?

Oh, it was great. I just continue to love the work of David Shrigley. He’s a very sweet, far-out, wonderful man. And I like the work very much. There’s not enough art that’s funny, I think. He’s one of the big, properly funny, living artists. When Martin Creed does something funny, or Jeremy Deller, or Ed Rusha, or when Philip Guston used to; to see that stuff is such a great, great pleasure.

Did you go to the recent David Shrigley exhibition at the Hayward?

Of course. And err, I hope Shriggers doesn’t read this: I mean I love his work, but I think I actually preferred the Jeremy Deller one! [Deller and Shrigley’s retrospectives ran concurrently at the Hayward]. Deller is just terrific. I’d like to interview him, come to think of it.

Is that probably the favourite interview you’ve done?

I dunno, I’ve done a lot. I once interviewed Slavoj Zizek; that’s probably my favourite one of all time. We had a long and insanely discursive phone conversation that went on for about an hour and a half. It’s just the best phone conversation I’ve ever had in my life, without a doubt. Such a treat. And in the end the piece in Dazed was only about 500 words long. I did John Cale once too; liked him. And Katy Perry, years ago, in Miami; that was good. 

Have you ever done a really bad interview?

I certainly have! God, I’ve really fucked some up, spectacularly.

So it’s always your fault, not their fault?

Usually, I would say, yeah. I feel like I’ve said some of the stupidest things I’ve ever said in my life when I’ve been recording the conversation, and I just cringe myself inside out listening to it back. That’s happened a few times. But sometimes the interviewee is to blame, I suppose. I mean; I’m not one to name names, but I’d like to name Jazzy B in this instance, because I thought he acted like a complete penis when I interviewed him. He’s a plum.

Why was he a plum?

I interviewed him and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals. Gruff Rhys is the most cosmic, wonderful warrior of a man, he’s so cool and sweet and weird. And Jazzy B was just kind of an obnoxious buffoon; because I don’t think he liked the sandwiches or something. And he couldn’t seem to get it into his head that I had nothing whatsoever to do with the catering arrangements for this shoot where I was interviewing him. I was like, ‘I’ve got a dictaphone rolling on this table in front of us, I’m interviewing you right now, so we’ve got to do an interview, rather than just record you endlessly moaning about the sandwiches and about nothing, because you’re just going to come out of it sounding daft.’  

Hey, sandwiches are important!

Not that important. He wouldn’t shut up about them. I think he just didn’t like me from the off, really. He went on and on, and Gruff Rhys doesn’t talk much anyway, and so he said hardly anything at all and Jazzy B just ranted about nothing.

That was a weird combo, why were they together?

It was just some weird advertorial thing, maybe for Rizla? 'Hooray for smoking' will have been the gist of it.

Do you work closely with PRs?

Yeah, in publishers – I work closely with them and then there’re other PRs who send me music, sometimes. Books PRs, I work with them.

What’s the most useful thing they could send you?

Just books, y’know? Good books. I’m totally inundated with bad books, so I just want to make it clear here that I don’t want anybody to send me more of those.

No bad books!

Just no more bad books, please. I don’t often write bad reviews, because to do that I’d have to read bad books. So I just tend to endeavour to read ones I’ll like and then go on about how fabulous they are, which makes me sound like a sort of hooting and over-enthusiastic children’s television presenter much of the time, regrettably. But that’s how I read because it makes my life better, because then my ‘reading life’ is better. A lot of the books I get sent, I don’t even want them in my house. It’s already overrun with books. I could sink a ship with all this stuff.

Do you get to choose the books that you write about?

Absolutely; I just choose what I want to feature on my page. I tend to write most of the books pieces myself. If I want to read a book, then I’ll want to write about it. I commission other people to do articles occasionally, but I just monopolise it because I enjoy it.

What’s your favourite book of all time, do you have one?

I often say ‘White Noise’, by Don DeLillo. I’m really fond of that. Saul Bellow’s writing I’m crazy for: I really like ‘The Adventures of Augie March’. I like ‘Treasure Island’. But these days I just read new books.

You don’t really dip into ‘the classics’?

I always feel guilty if I’m reading anything that’s not for my books page, but I do it a lot, so it’s a constant torment.

Are there any authors you think are really overrated? You could name dead ones, because they definitely won’t read this…

Well there are a lot of living overrated ones, but… well I think I just want to encourage people to read what they fucking want really, because people reading at all seems generally in decline. I mean, that E.L. James, who wrote ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’…

I was going to ask you about that…

Terrible writing, but I sometimes feel that if it gets some of those people reading who wouldn’t normally read a book at all, perhaps that’s a good thing. But it’s not like they’re going to go and pick up ‘Ulysses’ immediately afterwards.

Have you given those ‘Fifty Shades’ books a try?

Not in earnest, I’ve just flicked through them for the mucky bits here and there. That kind of book does the bookshop a favour, in a way, because we sell so many of them. But it’s quite a harrowing phenomenon generally. It’s terrible.

Because you’re passionate about books, when certain ones get so over-hyped does it irritate you at all?

It’s quite irritating because I know a lot of writers who I think deserve to be far better appreciated by the culture. Just authors who I think are the absolute bee’s knees, who only sell novels – brilliant novels! – in their hundreds, and I find that profoundly depressing. I just wish things like that – new, cutting-edge, exciting young writing – would get more hype from publishers, and from everyone else. I try and hype good books up where I can. I don’t even do enough, thinking about it now. But when you get something like ‘Fifty Shades’, publicity departments go into hyperdrive, and the whole company gears around it, and it’s to the detriment of good writing in the end. ‘Fifty Shades’ has already bred this glut of crap that’s got the words ‘fifty shades’ in the title, or just looks a bit like that book. Just mountains of stuff we don’t really need in the world.

Is that a comprehensible answer?

Yep, that about sums it up.

What’s also interesting about it is that it’s such a word-of-mouth thing, which is cool in a way. But it’s a shame that better books aren’t selling, aren’t runaway word-of-mouth hits, while that thing is the biggest deal of all time.

Talking of bad books, have you ever started one and thought “this is awful, there’s no way I can finish this”?

Um, yeah: about a thousand times. That happens very often.

You’re not the kind of person who has to finish a book if you start it?

Good grief, no! There are books that I go around saying I absolutely love that I’ve never even finished! I’m a great fan of this Pierre Bayard book ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’. It’s a really invigorating, funny, clever piece of writing. He puts forward a good case. Talking about books I haven’t read is basically my hobby.

Just lying then?

Well, if you read the Bayard you’ll get what I mean. He makes a solid case for it, honestly! It does kind of involve a degree of lying, I acknowledge that. 

Creative lying!

Yeah, and it’s just fun for me. In a bookshop you do it all day. I mean, we’re talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ here and I haven’t read that, in the traditional sense. The Bayard book is the thing. I’ve not finished it, of course. 

How do you feel about Kindles, E-readers, etc? Would you prefer people stick to paper books?

I just find them sad and terrifying little objects. It’s exciting, in a way – the digitalisation of everything. What we’re facing is the idea that one day all books will be searchable on the internet in their entirety and that will be an amazing, brilliant, slightly horrifying thing. I’m just an incorrigible fan of real printed books, and I certainly don’t use a Kindle. I like carrying around paper books. I don’t even consider all the arguments about it being easier than carrying books around, and storage and all that. I find reading off a computer screen a loathsome experience. I’m a Luddite, really. I’m not doing myself any favours, in a lot of ways. I’m just a sort of sad old man, clinging to a sinking ship. I don’t even have any social network things.

You don’t have a Twitter or anything?

No. Or Facebook, or anything like that. I’m happy in my solitude I suppose…

I do get out!

You leave the house!

I leave the house! I promise.

Good! Get some fresh air occasionally!

I do it all the time! I’m outdoors right now.

Now we’ve sorted that out, one last question. What’s your favourite word?

Um, ah…oh Christ…

You’ve got to say a really long and pretentious word, obviously…

Yeah, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?

I have this early memory of my primary school headteacher, called Mrs May – she was the first person to ever bring up the concept for me; of a beautiful word. I was a very young child, like six or something, and I have this distinct early memory of her saying that her favourite word was ‘poem’. And it’s not really long or pretentious, but it is a lovely word; I can’t help still agreeing with her on that. But there are millions of nice word; who cares? What’s really the thing is putting words all together in good sentences. When a really great novelist does that, like Sam Lipsyte, or Denis Johnson, or Gwendoline Riley, then you get these perfect gleaming things that just make you really happy. 

You can't tweet or Facebook Stuart, but he can be contacted at The Riverside Bookshop.

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