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Ben Pester and Tim MacGabhann are writers who share work regularly. Recently, the editorial team at Scratch Books asked if they would write a short story together for an anthology of literary duets, in which writers pair up to produce a collaborative story. Pester and MacGabhann chose to create the story for Scratch Books in the form of letters to each other loosely “in character”. This almost instantly fell apart, with each author moving back into writing their own bits of a story, assigning themselves the task to write either the gangsters (Pester) or detectives (MacGabhann) who populate an absurdist noir set between London and Mexico City. In this conversation, Pester and MacGabhann discuss the process of collaborating on the work, in the aftermath of its completion.

Portraits by Caitlin Mogridge and Quinnie Tan

BEN PESTER Tim, how was all of that for you? Did it play out as you expected? I had a sense that it would be easy and fun to write together, but I worried that I would annoy you. 

TIM MACGABHANN Did you ever read those Martin Beck mysteries? The Swedish crime novels from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

BP I know they wrote them as a married couple. 

TMG Are you aware of the specific mechanism?

BP No, not the mechanism. 

TMG They planned out all ten novels in advance, then each one was plotted individually. Before they began to write, they’d agree how to divide the work, and they’d sit across from each other from 8pm to midnight while the the kids were in bed. So, let’s say, she’s working on chapter one, he’s on chapter two, but they’re working at the same time, so it’s both consecutive and simultaneous. I thought I would just pretend that we were both there in the same room working together.

BP We were a few weeks between each update but yes, I felt like I was in a space that belonged to us both.

TMG There was such a seamless mix of alternation that it did rise to a feeling of simultaneity.

BP The kitchen makes me think of the importance of place in the work, though imagined in this instance. We set the story mostly in Mexico where I’ve never been, but you lived there and you write about it so vividly. I was desperate to visit the Mexico that you have created, as that landscape is a fully formed character in your work – unpredictable and bright. I knew you’d be able to correct anything I got wrong, and lift it all generally. 

TMG Like I was hosting your voice. The thing that I most love and enjoy when I read your work is the voices, the way they go tapering up like a mountain spring out of massed inarticulacy, these unpredictable veerings – clear, cold, often scary. I had to hack open my settings and let that flow through. The voices echoed differently in my world than they do in yours: I heard strange things in your words and strange things in mine that I hadn’t encountered before.


Guns cease all the infinite and multiple richness of subjectivity in one action – you’re canceling reality, or punching a hole in reality, when you shoot one


BP I was also nervous because I knew at some point I was going to write about violence – thriller violence – and I’ve never done that before. 

TMG My friend Sean McTiernan has a wonderful podcast, Calling All Units, in which he has spoken about the way that David Cronenberg films handguns, where he makes the gun look like an L-shaped cut of nothing. Guns cease all the infinite and multiple richness of subjectivity in one action – you’re canceling reality, or punching a hole in reality, when you shoot one. The way that Cronenberg films guns makes them look like metaphysical objects, and in my own work I try to do the same. I find myself getting there with props, the compression of a metaphysical concern into a physical one. For some reason, they’re the props from films I watched with my Da and Ma. In my second novel, which was really an attempt to write a parody of the first one, there’s a car chase that took me six weeks to write, even though the car chase happens over about two and a half pages. I was trying to do that Michael Mann thing where you watch a single shot of a drop of sweat seething its way down to the tarmac. It’s really fun to do, but I was exhausted, as though I’d actually staged the thing, even though it was just me in my room. But another point of difference that arose when it came to crime is that you wanted to use it to get to interiors, the deep voices from the back of the skull, and I can’t always do that, so it was like we trying to reach each other’s halfway points. It made my detectives weirder – more than a guy in a tie trying to solve a crime. They became real to me. I could smell my own characters after having to write towards your voice and world. It made me go back to my short fiction and think, I’ve got to fix this stuff.

BP You’ve said before that you always see writing as a kind of letter-writing. 

TMG I don’t know who exactly it’s going to be a letter to, but it becomes possible to think, “There is someone else in this skull with me, but they’re also me.” I can only talk to the other voice by imagining an interior split, but one of a very fluid kind, where subject and object swap back and forth depending on who is speaking. I am in psychoanalysis, and this is exactly what I do there: the analyst being present only gives the impression of addressing someone but actually, you’re talking to yourself.

BP Kind of like an interview, like this, by which I mean the editing of a conversation. Is this the same as the work? It feels a long time since we were actually talking, and now we’re editing what we said, emailing each other, changing what you said and asking if that’s OK. But I have to avoid thinking about it too much, otherwise the reader you’re writing towards becomes a judge. 

TMG Writing the story to each other focalised that feeling. I felt like I was writing towards you, and that helped me think myself away from the intimidating contemporary judge and instead towards this affectionate foggy outline. I have to do this process several times a day anyway, to imagine someone I like is reading the text, just to make the next sentence appear. But with us, we were mostly playing, and my only actual fear was that I had dominated the playground.

BP I felt the exact same way, but it didn’t stop me writing selfishly. I may even have thought I was being overbearing, but I carried on anyway. I think this just means we are both the author of the work, and have been all along – which also means that even though there’s only one text that we both wrote, we both actually wrote something totally different. That one story is two stories. I do wonder how this feels with non-fiction – is it the same? You have this whole other skill for memoir and life-writing. Does it work differently for you? 

TMG I’ve got this memoir out next year, and it’s an act of aggression, really. I don’t want it to be a raw or searing or a cathartic account of anything – some things are so bad that catharsis is impossible. I was able to have that bad-object reader clearly defined in my head because I had our good-object collaboration right before me: here’s someone I want to be nice to, over there is someone I want to make feel like they’ve been sucked out their window and flung into a dark forest with a darker lake at its heart. That’s just letters, isn’t it, again – some stab, some embrace. Either way, they’re reaching towards an invisible listener, or an invisible collaborator, or some mix of both.

BP Maybe this is what happens with any book – everything is written with a foggy outline of someone in mind, even if both author and object are unaware that it’s happening. There’s you, made of straw in a Hawaiian shirt with a cigar, sitting next to a strange egg-headed Jack Underwood, and a sort of religious statue bastardised to look like Jean Rhys.  

TMG And I suppose the both of us.

BP Everyone, all of us, fog. ◉