March 7, 2008
Andrew Crumey Interview
Andrew Crumey is the physicist-turned-novelist who has carved a niche for himself in imaginative novels which combine witty flights of fancy with rigorous ideas. After publication of his last novel – a masterpiece in my opinion - Mobius Dick (2004), he was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and awarded the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award of £60,000, which enabled him to give up his job as literary editor of Scotland on Sunday and concentrate on his writing. The result is Sputnik Caledonia, which I reviewed here, and which is published today. Geekish students of publishing like me will be interested to know that it’s the first novel published by Picador under their new system of simultaneous issuing of hardback and paperback.
I’m delighted that Andrew Crumey has agreed to talk to me about his books and literature in general.
You’re probably sick of being introduced as the ex-physicist novelist who won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award. But can you explain what effect this had on your approach to your writing? And how come, with no day job any more, it still took you four years to write the book?
I don’t get sick of being labelled as a scientist-writer: it’s better to be labelled as something than not to be known at all, even if the label can be a bit limiting. But I don’t know if being a scientist made me a certain kind of writer, or if being a certain kind of person made me become first a scientist and then a writer. Really I’m interested in philosophy: questions like “what can we know?” and “how does this affect the way we live?”. I write philosophical novels.
As to timing, I seem to have got into a pattern of one novel every four years, but that’s partly because I throw away most of what I write, and much of what isn’t discarded gets stored for later use, once the right time comes. Robbie Coyle, the hero of Sputnik Caledonia, first came to me about ten years ago, and I knew I wanted his story to turn into a kind of parallel-world space mission, but somehow all the ingredients weren’t there until after I’d written Mr Mee, Mobius Dick, and some other books that didn’t work out. Once I got going on Sputnik Caledonia it actually only took a year to write – the quickest I’ve written anything, even though it’s my longest book. Somehow its moment had come.
Sputnik Caledonia is (a little) more linear than some of your previous books, and each of the three parts has a very different tone. Was this a conscious decision to break with the earlier structures, or did it develop as the book was written?
Yes, it was a conscious decision. Usually I let my books grow in a completely organic way, with no prior planning, but Sputnik Caledonia was a little more planned. What I didn’t know was what would happen after the second part. The problem is that you’ve got two stories in two different worlds that both need to be resolved somehow, and for a while I tried making it a four-part book. Then I remembered the good-old Hegelian pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthesis: what I needed was a finale that would somehow unite both the earlier movements, and I do this with the aid of a new character, a new theme. It took a lot of trial and error but it was fun to do.
Your novels are always strong on ideas, but Sputnik Caledonia seems to have ‘real’ characters at its heart as never before: for example, the character of Robbie’s father develops significantly – and heartbreakingly – through the course of the book. The scenes of growing up in 1970s Scotland are bound to attract suggestions of autobiography. Is there any truth in this? Where do you place greatest emphasis in the books you write (and read): characters, style, story, ideas?
It’s true that when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, and my dad was a very active trade unionist and committed socialist. But writing is about making things up, and what I admire most in novels I read is their inventiveness, the way they turn life into something specifically fictional. Proust is the greatest example of this: his novel reads like the memoir of a man who falls in love with the wrong woman, when in reality Proust was gay.
In a novel, everything gets turned on its head (the great Russian theorist Bakhtin called this “carnivalisation”). And we read novels with a double-view: we know it’s made up but treat it as if it were real. If we’re pushed too much in one direction or the other then this magical double-view falls apart, the illusion is shattered. It’s like looking at a painting: you know it’s chemicals on canvas but it’s also a landscape, people, houses. So this is where the emphasis lies in my writing: holding two completely opposite and contradictory views in mind simultaneously. Two worlds: one like our own reality and another that’s a sort of parallel universe. In a sense, every novel is like that, the story of an alternative reality, though not every novel makes this doubling an explicit part of the structure. And how is it done? Through voices, events, people: the eternal stuff of fiction.
Part of Sputnik Caledonia is set in the British Democratic Republic, an alternate Britain where the Communist Party was elected after the Second World War. It also featured in Mobius Dick and Music, In a Foreign Language. Is there something you’re trying to tell us?
Two things got me into my parallel world. One was learning, as a student, about Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is the basis for current thinking on multiple realities. The other was a research trip I made to Poland just after the fall of communism. The physics institute I worked in had until recently been the local Party headquarters, and was still full of relics of that time. The only way I could write about it was by translating it into a world I knew: Britain. That’s how Music, In A Foreign Language got written.
Now on one level this was all a kind of aesthetic decision, in the way I described in my answer to your previous question, but you have to realise that aesthetic theory is something you only come up with after the event: you write a book, then you wonder what question your book has answered. Once I began to understand parallel worlds as an aesthetic phenomenon, I was able to write Mobius Dick. But that still left me wondering about the psychological impulse that must have existed from the outset, and I knew this was related to the kind of socialistic upbringing I had, in which there was a kind of glorification of communism and a corresponding despising of capitalism. So, having written Sputnik Caledonia, I can see that one of the questions it answers for me is: why did I feel this strange romantic attraction towards a terrible totalitarian regime? For the reader, of course, completely separate questions get raised, the most arresting being, I hope “what happens next?”
Your first publishers, Dedalus, have been in the news recently as they’ve had their Arts Council funding cut. This conjures up horrible images of a parallel universe where Andrew Crumey never got published. At the same time we have more prizes, book clubs and blogs than ever before. What do you feel about the prospects for less commercial fiction today?
The situation with Dedalus is very sad and depressing, and also rather mystifying: other small publishers threatened with funding cuts won full or partial reprieves, and Dedalus seems to have been singled out for specially punitive treatment. They worked tremendously hard for me and still hold the
rights to my first three books, for which they continue to find new markets – recently I began to be published in Hungary, Romania and Turkey, thanks to their on-going efforts. It would be nice if some day my backlist could go up in value and earn Dedalus some more money. Of course, for that to happen, I’d need to win some high-profile prize that would make me a more marketable commodity. How do I feel about all that? It’s quite simple: writing is an art, publishing is a business, and I concentrate on the art, leaving business people to do the stuff that they’re good at and I’m not.
The prospect for less commercial fiction is as poor today as it was in the days of Joseph Conrad – that’s life. If you want to be rich and famous then be a pop star or a TV chef. When I was a theoretical physicist I wrote papers that would be read by maybe a few tens or hundreds of people. I’m delighted that I’ve gone up a few orders of magnitude since then. Apart from the 3-year award I’ve been living on, I earn an honest crust through book reviewing and teaching creative writing. I wouldn’t want to be wholly reliant on writing for my income: I know people who have to get their next novel done so they can pay their mortgage, and that’s not my idea of fun.
[Since this interview was conducted, Dedalus Press have announced a new sponsorship deal. Read about it here.]
Your books try to encourage the reader to hold differing ideas in their head at the same time, and yet your scientific background suggestions an attraction to solid facts, and ‘truth’ as a quantifiable quality. Is this something you enjoy playing with in your fiction?
I’ve already said something about this holding of different ideas in an aesthetic context, and it’s time we gave it a name, which is “irony”. In the original ancient Greek sense it meant “feigned ignorance”, in other words it’s what the character Socrates does in the dialogues written by Plato. Socrates says to people, “what does goodness mean?”, like he has no idea, and in this way he teases out the problem of defining what it means to be good. Now that’s pretty much what scientists do: they might say for example (if they’re Isaac Newton), “why doesn’t the Moon fall down on our heads?”, or like Einstein they might say, “what happens if I travel at the speed of light?”. There were perfectly good answers to those questions at the time, just as there are dictionary definitions of “goodness”, but the answers weren’t good enough for Newton or Einstein.
So science is fundamentally ironic: it’s about believing and not believing something at the same time. This isn’t my idea: it’s my interpretation of what Goethe said in the early eighteen hundreds, and Goethe certainly knew a lot about both art and science. It’s also pretty much what Bakhtin said about novels: they are all essentially ironic. In fact Bakhtin called the Socratic dialogues the first novels, and I agree with him on that. They raise questions for which there can be no single answer. The illusion that many people have about science is that it is somehow different: the term “law of nature” suggests a rule book written in advance, which can never be changed. Really all there exists is a “court of nature”, where judgments are made according to the best available evidence at the time. No case is ever closed.
Finally, one of the pleasures of your books are the references to lesser-known works of literature which you clearly hold in fond regard, such as Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. If you ruled an alternate world, which one overlooked book would you make compulsory reading?
I would never make any book compulsory: rather, I would make some books forbidden, in order to ensure that people would read them. I’m delighted that Mobius Dick has helped boost interest in Hoffmann’s Tomcat Murr (which was apparently Kafka’s favourite novel). I hope that Sputnik Caledonia will do the same thing for Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, a great classic which tends to be unjustly neglected by British readers. I first got to know it as a teenager, through Schubert’s settings of its songs – I re-read it when trying to figure out how to end Sputnik Caledonia, and it showed me the way.
Two other books, which I came to for the first time only recently, have excited me with equal passion. One is Problems Of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin, whom I’ve mentioned a few times. The other is Monadology by Leibniz: a very short work that deals with the problem of space and time in a profound way. I suspect that the answer to quantum gravity lies in that little book, if only some smart young physicist can work out how to find it, and I only wish I’d read it when I was young enough to have a go. Putting it briefly, Leibniz’s answer is that space and time do not exist: we only think they do.