Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

An Interview With Barry Jones

Having recently reviewed The Book of Niall for our readers, I had an insatiable desire to delve further into its paradoxical penumbrae. Given that its author is a magician by profession, interviewing Barry Jones was an unmissable opportunity to break The Magic Circle’s most sacred rule …never tell the audience how the trick was done. The legerdemain, or ‘trick’ in this case being his sublimely scintillating debut graphic novel, and therefore not something to trouble the venerated guardians of illusion and magic itself!

Barry Jones has been a full-time, professional magician for almost twenty years and, as part of the comedy/magic duo ‘Barry and Stuart’, has garnered BAFTA and Rose d'Or nominations and 5-star reviews at global comedy and arts festivals. He has toured the UK four times with sell-out stage shows. He’s also had two TV series, specials on Channel 4, performed on prime-time BBC1 in a weekly live magic show regularly watched by 9 million people and was also voted ‘The Next Great Magician’ on an ITV1 prime-time series.

People and things around you might be ‘fake’ or ‘made-up’
Jones’s novel dextrously orbits two often unacknowledged mental health conditions, Derealisation, (DR) and Depersonalisation (DP). Both conditions became the catalyst for his narrative arc, whilst immersively sustaining its pace and development. We witness and viscerally experience the impact of DR and DP on his novel’s troubled protagonist, Niall. As such, I asked Jones to define both conditions, and tell me how he has been personally affected by them…

“In clinical terms they are both considered dissociative disorders, coping mechanisms to escape reality, perhaps to avoid trauma or stress. Depersonalisation is where you have the feeling of being outside yourself, observing your actions, from a distance or third person perspective. Derealisation is where you feel the world isn’t real, it’s an illusion. People and things around you might be ‘fake’ or ‘made-up’. People can have depersonalisation or derealisation disorders; quite often they have them both at the same time.

I’ve had these conditions almost all my life, so it is part of me, who I am and how I think. So, they must have affected me dramatically. I’ll never know if it was these conditions that led me to gravitate towards magic and illusion as a childhood hobby and subsequently a career - or if my knowledge of how deception and trickery works fed back into it, and gave it a foundation on which to grow. Maybe working as one half of a double act meant I could mask my own personal identity behind the branding of ‘Barry and Stuart’, allowing me to exist without having to address myself as a separate individual? I could speculate on a lot of things but... I just don’t know.”

I love that the words and pictures in a comic can work in harmony together - like a Zen Koan...
Jones has said that he’d spent two decades “forcing people to doubt what they see”, one day reaching the conclusion that Life itself, was playing similar illusory tricks on him. I asked him to elaborate on that enigmatic statement.

“I was probably being a little bombastic with the ‘life playing a trick on me’ idea... although I have heard that DPDR is described as an ‘as if’ condition. Because sufferers struggle to describe in words their feelings and symptoms, they’re forced to say ‘it’s as if...’ Magic is a large part of my lexicon - but the analogy, I think, is accurate. There’s definitely an overlap between how many people describe living with DPDR, and how religious traditions describe spiritual awakening. I’m fascinated, but wary, of the comparison... It can make both mental health clinicians and religious gurus very angry!

I found myself being drawn towards mysticism, the idea that we only experience a tiny slice of a bigger picture of reality. I love Koans from the Zen Buddhist tradition. Koans are short texts often containing paradoxical statements - the word Koan itself means ‘nonsense’ - however, I really connected with a lot of them.”

Reading a graphic novel is unlike the experience a reader has when engaging with the fons et origo of this most pictorial of literary forms. I wanted to understand why Jones chose the Graphic Novel form to tell his almost ineffable story.

“I love that the words and pictures in a comic can work in harmony together - like a Zen Koan - you can create discord by having them become separate or contradictory to each other. There’s a René Magritte painting of a tobacco pipe, underneath which is written: ‘This is not a pipe’. I love it because those words are in a strange state of being true and false at the same time. It isn’t a pipe... it’s a picture of a pipe! Or, taking it further, ‘This’ could be referring to itself, in which case ‘This’ isn’t a pipe either, it’s a word in a sentence. That piece of art demonstrates how imprecise our language is.

That idea translates well to a graphic novel’s union of words and pictures. Words and their associated meanings can become broken, which is how some people with DPDR experience the world. Comics can do things that other mediums can’t. Passage of time happens in the strange, ephemeral space that exists in the gutters between drawings. A superhero has their fist poised and ready to strike a punch in one image, while in the next that fist is making contact with a villain’s face - the ‘movement’ happens entirely in the mind of the reader, they infer the action. You become an active participant in the reading of a comic, it’s quite different to the experience of reading a novel.

The graphic novel, unlike its traditional literary cousin is as dependent upon its artwork ...
I also like that the reader can go through the story at their own pace, the visual nature makes it easy to flick back a page and notice something in the background they missed the first time, or re-read a sentence that maybe has another meaning a few panels later. Comics are great if authors like to include ‘Easter eggs’ for readers to discover. I tried to include something on almost every page for readers to discover in mine!”

Remembering W. Somerset Maugham’s use of Sainte-Beuve's critical method, which came to be known as ‘Biographism’, I considered his view that in order to be able to appreciate an author’s works, the critic and the reader, ‘needs to understand the author as a person’. With that in mind, I wondered to what extent Niall’s journey towards inner peace was a quasi-autobiographical, refracted odyssey mirroring his own lived experience.

“Niall’s life and my own definitely have a lot in common. Niall is British and living in Los Angeles - I spent a lot of time working in LA. I think the idea of being in a place that is sort of like home, but at the same time culturally different is a good analogy for derealisation. The unusual characters he encounters loosely have their origins in the people that I met and/or worked with out there.”

The graphic novel, unlike its traditional literary cousin is as dependent upon its artwork, as it is upon its text. Additionally, anything remotely autobiographical relies upon possessing communicable memories. Jones began his book with no drawing skills, and an untrustworthy and rather dysfunctional memory. It seems that he had more to contend with than just writer’s block !

“I knew that a comic was going to be the best way to tell my story, but my artwork wasn’t good enough to do it justice. I’d devoted my entire life to magic and sleight-of-hand skills that don’t translate naturally to fine draughtsmanship! After I had a very detailed outline of my story, I spent about two years teaching myself how to draw. It’s a frustrating process, any artist will tell you that decades later, you’re still learning. When the first lockdown happened, magic shows were getting cancelled - I had to tell myself ‘Now is the time’. Practising is procrastination, just get on and draw the book!

DPDR can wreak havoc on your autobiographical memory, so ironically writing a ‘personal’ account of my depersonalisation would have been too difficult for me. By projecting some of my own experiences onto a fictional character, it allowed me to play with the metaphysics of fiction. As a society we possess a certain cognitive dissonance regarding how we perceive fiction.

We can make statements like ‘Niall is a British actor living in Hollywood’. That sounds true, but Niall is a fictional entity in my book, so that statement is like the ‘This is not a pipe’ idea... it’s arguably false. We get involved with people that don’t physically exist, yet they hold the power to emotionally affect us, because I think much of our reality is subjective symbolism.

I want people to think hard about what they define as real and unreal. This concept - people around the main character regarding fictions as real and vice versa - is in part, what makes Niall ‘flip’. I’ve included a lot of magic tricks in the book that I hope will force readers to rethink their own perception of the world and perhaps understand what DPDR as a condition is like to live with.”

He’s one author who knows that a picture is worth a thousand words...
So, having enjoyed Jones’s candid éclaircissement and adored his debut novel, I asked him what treats he had in store for us in his metaphorical magician’s hat; if he had any more rabbits up his literary sleeve!

“I do worry that with the recent boom in AI generated content, creators will find it harder to stand out from all the noise. People may become more insular because they can have conversations with a chatbot without fear of judgement. I predict that next year a lot of people will know about DPDR... because they will have experienced it themselves. I’ve got a notebook filled with bits and pieces for a comic that is very different to The Book of Niall, that touches on these ideas, plus a lot of short story ideas that I hope to publish as well.”

I hope that Jones’s publishing aspirations are realised, for even though our sense of reality may well deliquesce ever further, at least he will be on hand to help us through the miasmic mental fog as it gathers around our unmoored psyches. He’s one author who knows that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I eagerly await both the pictures and words he will magic up for us !