March 24, 2014
Last week I wrote that Jenny Offill’s second novel Dept. of Speculation was probably my favourite new book of the year so far. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the attention of other UK reviewers yet, and amazingly, the Baileys Women’s Prize judging panel hasn’t resigned in embarrassment at leaving it off its recently-announced longlist. Doubtless the Booker and Folio judges will get it right, but in the meantime, I took the opportunity to ask Offill some questions about the book and her work generally.
Dept. of Speculation deals with everyday life but is unusual in its form and content. (“She acts as if writing has no rules.”) Can you tell us something of how the book came about?
I had written a more conventional novel about a student who had an affair with her professor and later married him. The book was from the POV of the second wife and of her stepdaughter. I worked on it for years, but there was always something leaden about it. What I wanted to write was something darker and stranger, something that spoke more directly to the collision of art and life. Eventually, I screwed up my nerve and dismantled that original novel, keeping only a few tiny things.
I read a lot of poetry and non-traditional fiction and for a long time I’d wanted to write in a more experimental vein. Dept. of Speculation was the result of finally writing exactly the way I wanted to without worrying about whether anyone else would like it. (That anyone did was a thrilling surprise.)
The book’s appearance is also unusual: paragraphs appear as separate sections surrounded by white space (you describe it as “maddeningly formatted”). Each paragraph has a stand-alone, aphoristic quality. Was it important to tell the story in this way?
The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop-offs before the wife wheels off in another direction. I thought it would be overwhelming to be in her head in a linear, uninterrupted way.
The aphoristic quality developed because of that constraint, but I liked it and decided to heighten the effect. One of the things I was interested in was making the seemingly trivial domestic moments have the same weight as the more obviously philosophical ones. The aphoristic style helped me to put the mundane and the sublime fragments on the same plane.
Your first novel Last Things was busy and bustling. Dept. of Speculation is much more pared down; it reads like the skeleton of a much larger book. Was it whittled away from a greater mass of material?
Once I found the form for Dept. of Speculation I wrote the narrative sections in a very pared down way, just as they are in the finished book. But the form took me a long long time to find. At first, I didn’t understand why I kept moving back and forth between first and third person POVs. But then I realized that the shifts in authorial distance exactly mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point in the story. After that, I understood how it fit together.
What I did whittle down was pages and pages of trivia on artic explorers, cosmonauts, obscure mystics etc. I threw away any that seemed too obviously symbolic and looked for others that felt quieter to me.
The portrayal of the demands of early parenthood in the novel is painfully recognisable. One character says to the narrator, “I think I must have missed your second book,” to which she replies, “No; there isn’t one.” Does this explain the fifteen year gap between your first novel and your second?
Nothing really explains it. All I can say is that I couldn’t write fiction at all in the beginning and then for a while I could, but not very well. The demands of early parenthood have an urgency to them that is hard to ignore. It feels strange to go hole up alone in a room and write even if you could slip away to do so.
I discovered Robert Walser’s work nearly twenty years ago and it was hugely influential to me. One of his stories ends with this line “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” That really stayed with me. I guess I took it to mean what if everything is interesting? What if nothing is beneath notice?
Part of my fascination with Buddhist thought is that it teaches that this is indeed the case, that the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience is meant to be delved into. (I do think we miss out on a lot of interesting moments when we hope only for happiness. )
Another big influence for me was the New York School of poetry. I particularly love those Frank O’Hara “I did this. I did that” poems that suddenly swing out into these strange ecstatic reveries. I’m also influenced by comedians. Maria Bamford and her brilliant standup routines about anxiety and depression in particular.
You have written three books for children as well as two adult novels. Is it harder to write for adults or for children? Do you find writing easy or difficult generally?
I find writing fiction for adults ridiculously difficult. My reach always exceeds my grasp. But the kids’ books are different. They are more like writing jokes or little fables. Timing and reversals are the key to them. I tried them as a lark to make money to support the glacial pace of my novel writing and they turned out to be fun and to keep me afloat.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
I am reading The Collected Poems of Ron Padgett and it is taking the top of my head off. Two other books I’ve read this year and really liked were Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and Duplex by Kathryn Davis. All of these are put out by small presses so I’m not sure if they’ve made it over to England yet.
September 19, 2012
Regular readers of this blog will not need to be reminded that I think Keith Ridgway’s latest novel, Hawthorn & Child, is one of the best books of the year, perhaps of many years – that, in workplace appraisal terms, it stands head and shoulders above its peers. Having spent far too much time on Twitter urging people to read it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that almost all the responses I’ve seen have agreed with me. As I think this is not the first great book Ridgway has written, I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about his work.
How did the novel find its form? When and how did it become clear to you that this set of stories was a book predominantly about Hawthorn and Child? And when that realisation came, did the writing then get easier, or harder? Did it feel like you were heading for a destination, or still feeling your way?
I wanted to write a book of fragments. Many small fragments that would be impossible to put together – like a shattered novel in a bag. I didn’t even think of it as a novel, just a book. There were working titles like 78 Pieces Of Shit, and 54 Demonstrable Fictions. At some point it became 38 Marching Songs. Then just Marching Songs. Eventually it became Hawthorn & Child. In all that reduction there was a failure to do what I’d wanted to do. Fragments kept on fitting together, cohering in a really annoying way, wanting to become stories. So I went from 78 to 8. That’s all loss. But the tension between what I wanted and what I was doing became interesting in itself. H&C is, without being, I hope, too maudlin about it, a book about the failure to write a much better, much more interesting book. At some point I fixed on these two detectives – who came to me originally just as comic ghosts, turning up repeatedly and ineffectively to haunt the scene of some catastrophe or other – and I recognised myself – the writer – in their feeble interventions. And then I realised that I was writing a police novel. Which was a shock. But at least then I could play with that. And the writing became a little easier I suppose, though of course it never really does, you just shift the difficulty slightly. As for a destination – no, I never had one. That much at least I never lost. Or found. Or what have you.
You’ve spoken before about resistance to telling our days and lives as stories, and of our addiction to narrative. Yet most of the stories in Hawthorn & Child have strong narrative drive, so they satisfy this addiction up to a point. Are you lulling the reader into a false sense of security? Do you want them to want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK?
I don’t know what I want. I suppose I want them to feel something of what I feel – that stories are subjective creations, personal things. That there isn’t really anything like a shared story – or a shared experience – in reality, and that novels for the most part lie about this. The writer of a novel is assumed, and assumes herself, to be an authority on the world of her novel. And I dispute that. Certainty is the enemy of understanding. And I want what I write to be attempts at understanding. So I am filled with uncertainty about everything that seems to happen in anything I write. It’s very difficult to get that on to the page without either inducing a sort of crisis of perception for myself, or worse, boring the reader. So I’m not lulling, there’s no ‘false’. I don’t know what’s going on. I want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK. But I have no idea whether he will be or not. Or whether I really care. I’m not sure I like him very much. He’s sort of pathetic. But the important thing for me, as the writer of this, is that he feels like he might be a real character, in the sense that he embodies emotions and attitudes and failures and neuroses that we are familiar with. And he’s a creep. A self-pitying creep. Which is what most of us I think fear that we are.
Hawthorn & Child begins and ends with chapters that foreground the relationship between the two detectives (I’ve heard a couple of people compare them to Bill James’ police procedurals). I could have read a whole book just of the dialogue between Hawthorn and Child. Do you read crime fiction? Do you ‘prepare’ characters by writing more about them and then cutting away? How well do you feel you know them, and the other characters in the book?
I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.
I don’t ‘prepare’ characters, but I do write much more than you’ll read. I cut a lot. But this happens when I’m just trying to write. I don’t really do preparation in the sense I think you mean. I might make some notes – but just very general things. Child wears glasses. Hawthorn’s brother is a taxi driver. That sort of thing. As for how well I know them – I don’t really know them at all. Or, no better than someone who’s read the book a few times perhaps. I’m not holding back information – other than locations maybe. I know where Cath goes to school. I know where the shooting in ‘1934’ happens. I know roughly where Mishazzo’s office is. But anyone reading the book can imagine those things for themselves. I have ideas about some of the characters that aren’t in the book. But so will any reader. I don’t know anything.
Your first two publications, Horses and The Long Falling, are more traditional narratives than the later novels. Since then the structures have become bolder and there’s a greater presence of the uncanny. What do you attribute this to? Were you shaking off influences or Irish traditions with your early work?
This is an example of story telling isn’t it? I’ve no real idea what I was doing in those books. I’d only be guessing. But Horses is very much a bit of traditional Irish rural gothic with the stock characters and the silly plot, and I think it’s a piss-take. I remember writing it, and I remember that I wrote it very quickly, and that I really enjoyed it. And I’ve never written anything as quickly since, nor enjoyed writing anything as much since. I haven’t looked at it in ages though and don’t feel responsible for it.
The Long Falling is different. It was written before Horses, and it seems terribly earnest to me now, but I have a sort of love for it. I was a different person when I wrote it – young and quite unworldly – and it seems to me at this distance that it was a brave novel for me to write. I like that it was my first book and yet I made these choices : it is largely told from the perspective of a middle aged woman; the character closest to myself – young, gay – turns out to be a bastard; it has lots of gay sex; it speaks very directly about the X Case, and it’s angry about that; and it foreshadows, to some extent, the suspension of kindness that came with the boom years. I wanted to write a book about all of that. And I wrote it in the way I found that I could – conventionally, without much thought about narrative or structure. But again, it was written by someone else, and I admire him – naive little creature – but I can’t really see the connection to me.
The way my writing has changed over the years comes down I think to dissatisfaction with what I’ve done before. I felt after The Long Falling that it wasn’t true. Which is a dumb thing to say about fiction. But I felt that it was faked. Forced. Contrived. The next novel I wrote – The Parts – was an attempt at not-faking. It is almost entirely fake. It’s a terrible book. And it so shocked me that I had written it that I completely stopped what I was doing and tried to start again. And Animals feels to me now like my proper first novel. I began to use what Bolaño talks about – memory and ethics. I stopped trying to write novels and just wrote, and wrote out of myself, relying on my own experience and perception, and shaping something that I feel is true.
Hawthorn & Child is a composite novel in stories; Animals began as a short story. Do you find the short form more satisfying than a long single narrative? What effect, if any, did publication in The New Yorker – the holy grail to many practitioners – have on you as a writer of stories?
As I said above – I try to just write. And what I’m writing tries to find its own length. I don’t find any form satisfying – or no more or less satisfying than any other. And I think the distinctions between various forms – the short story, the novella, the novel – are being blurred, particularly with the emergence of digital media, and I think that’s a really interesting thing for writers, and is something we should welcome and enjoy. I write things sometimes that are too short for publication. Or which, if I put them aside to collect, wouldn’t reach a reader in years. And so I put them on my website. And I love that. That I can wake up in the morning and write something I like but which is finished almost as soon as it’s started, and I put it on the website and by afternoon it has its readers. It’s the most satisfying form of publishing in a way. And no money changes hands. There was a piece that was originally in H&C called The Spectacular, which was too long for The New Yorker or The Paris Review or places like that, but not long enough to put out in book form on its own. And I persuaded Granta to put it out as a digital only thing. For 99p. Like a single that precedes an album. And that seemed to work very well. So different ways of doing things are opening up, and I think, I hope, that will change the way writers write.
The New Yorker pay well, and I got to work with a really wonderful editor there called Cressida Leyshon. So that was great. But I don’t really get that Holy Grail thing. Cressida’s editing on that one section of H&C I think had a ripple effect on the rest of it. Nothing structural, just at sentence level, word level. I went through the whole book again having borrowed her eye as it were, and just tightened everything up a notch. As to what effect that’s had since – you learn from a good editor. You can hold on to their perspective to some extent and return to it.
A sense of place is strong in your work, either named (Dublin in The Parts, London in H&C) or unnamed (in Animals). Is setting important to you? You wrote about London when living there for ten years; now you’re back in Ireland. Where will your fiction go next?
I react to what I’m surrounded by. Maybe I don’t have a very good imagination. But I think of both Animals and H&C as London novels, though yes, it’s not named in Animals. I’m back in Dublin now. So that will bubble up, I have no doubt. Though before I moved back here I had planned a novel set largely in Ireland anyway – though not much in Dublin. And that’s still the plan. But my writing is for the most part about filtering my own experiences and perceptions through whatever set of assumptions I’m currently making about human beings and the state of the world, so it’s what’s to hand that I use.
I’ve been reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Bacacay after reading your praise for him. You said “he’s the only writer I know of who has come close to putting a stop to literature.” Can you elaborate? And explain too why you’ve “gone off Beckett”?
I’m not sure I can elaborate. Literature is all failure. And is therefore without limit. He is so good that he comes close to success. On his terms of course, and for readers to whom those terms make sense, seem right, ring true. Maybe I mean that he came close to putting a stop to my literature. I read Cosmos first, after I’d written Animals. And I just thought – Oh. So that’s what I was trying to do. It is unnerving to read books that feel better than my best possible hopes for my own books. He seems to have been in my head. And he seems to have looted all the good stuff. And he seems to have written it all down – before I was even born – with the sort of direct, honest, fiendishly wicked, clarified insanity and utterly cold conviction of an Old Testament prophet. And he’s hilarious. And he was sexy, and intricately intelligent and well read and cunning. And he led an interesting life. I hate him really.
I don’t remember saying that I’d gone off Beckett, though it sounds like the stupid sort of thing I would say. Someone who goes off Beckett goes off. I love Beckett. Though it does annoy me a little when people (I think I mean reviewers) latch on to that and talk about my writing in the light of it. And it’s invariably people who have an idea of Beckett that is superficial and inaccurate. The Beckett stereotype. I’m not that interested in the plays. It’s the fiction that I love, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of it. But it’s the warmth and the funnies and the subversion that I love. And I love the man, if that’s not creepy. He was a wonderful person, by all accounts. That’s really rare in writers. There is a tiny snippet of film on YouTube of him talking. And you get the south Dublin accent that some people in my family have, and it’s very clear, and you get a real sense of kindness from him, and honesty, integrity, even in just a few seconds, talking about a play somewhere. And I find it genuinely, peculiarly, moving.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
September 12, 2012
Zadie Smith’s new novel NW was – mathematically – one of the longest awaited of the year, and its mixed reception surprised me. For every 850 words of closely-argued praise, there was a crowd of cavils by a normally perceptive critic. I had expected critical near-unanimity on this one, with the only disagreement being which section was best. Anyway the attention paid to the book affirmed that any new work by Zadie Smith is a publishing event, and this time, in my view, a literary event too. I was grateful for the opportunity to ask the author some questions about NW and her writing.
(You can buy any of the books mentioned by Zadie Smith from the excellent independent bookshop Bookseller Crow by clicking on the images below.)
NW is a novel in varied parts, about the lives of very different people in one area of London. Did you always know that their stories would be part of something larger? How did the novel find its form?
I didn’t begin with any stories, really. Just this single idea of a girl coming to the door. The novel found its form slowly, over a long period. I wrote the first lines almost nine years ago. And that’s really how it was built: sentence by sentence, hoping the shape would emerge by itself. But once I had the idea of the girl coming to the door, I started to read around the idea of guests and hosts… and there’s sort of a long philosophical history to those ideas, and inevitably they ended up being a part of the book, and shaping it. And from “Who gets invited?” I went to “Once you’re invited, what kind of hospitality is ideal?” – and that gets you into thinking about utopia and dystopia… And those ideas ended up being another room in the house of the book. It’s hard for me to explain, but I guess as a general rule I find the characters subconsciously, but then the conscious part of a novel are these larger ideas. The whole trick for me is not to let the ideas overwhelm that subconscious work, which is where I feel the real life of the thing is. But perhaps for 90 percent of readers all the larger framework goes unnoticed and all they see is a lot of uncouth Kilburn people, talking… I can never tell. It doesn’t really matter. I think that’s just the risk you take when you shape a novel round the present. People distrust the present – it looks formless, unserious. They want the security of the past, and of familiar forms.
Much of the strength of the book lies in the way it reports communication between characters, particularly those of different social and cultural backgrounds. Is NW a state-of-England (or part of it) novel?
I find that idea really boring: ‘state of the nation’. It’s one of those phrases that people who secretly dislike fiction use to pretend a novel is just a spring board to enter into some other, less embarrassing discussion: a political analysis or a sociological portrait. I really don’t presume to know the state of England. I’m a fiction writer. I’m interested in trying to find ways to depict experience through a medium that can never succeed in depicting experience fully: language. It’s a fool’s task, but I know that the pleasure I have as a reader is watching different writers attempt it. And this is just my attempt, to add to all the attempts by others that have come before it. Of course some of that experience involves ‘having been born and bred in England,’ but a sense of place is just one part of a larger concern, as it is with all novelists, no matter where they were born. How does language feel to hear and use? How does time feel? How can we know other people are real and not just projections of our own desires or fears? What does the thought of death do to us? These are the sort of vulgar, childlike question that novelists ask – at least, the kind of novelists I’m interested in. Because it’s just so odd to be alive! And fiction is about that. I think all good novels are about “the state of being alive.” Trying to make them act as national sociological descriptors isn’t the worst crime in the world, but focusing on that aspect ignores the very particular linguistic thingyness of the form. To me writing is deeply irrational, idiosyncratic, because its medium – language – has so much ambiguity built into it. That argument that Alice and Humpty Dumpty have about the instability of meaning that’s the epigraph of a million graduate dissertations… Language is the absurd bit of writing that can’t be entirely suppressed or controlled by journalistic ideas like ‘state of the nation’ novels. Maybe the phrase, if it’s used at all, is best used satirically, as Amis used it.
Sometimes it feels that in England and America especially there is this desire that the novel behave itself and exist as only a sort of mildly creative interpretation of the news. Faction. Solid, recognizable, like a TV sitcom written down. But a novel should have a little witchcraft in it, don’t you think? It should be a little weird. It should try to do something that can only be done in this form, in language.
When reading NW, I thought of other books. London Fields (obviously), which is similarly controlled in its prose yet enacts the messiness of life even as it portrays it. Or Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, which like the ‘Host’ section in NW, makes up a whole life in short discrete scenes. Does the book have any direct literary inspirations or influences?
Hmmm… When I think of London Fields I think of White Teeth. And there the influence is direct. But nothing could have been further from my mind writing NW than London Fields… I see books in terms of their sentences and to me the sentences of White Teeth and NW are really from different planets! But this may be my own delusion. In the end, you have to defer to readers: you can’t instruct them to see a sentence your way – they have to see it themselves.
Anyway, Mrs Bridge was certainly in there, though perhaps not as much as Roland Barthes’ autobiography, Raymond Queneau’s variations, and various books of epigraphs I was reading. I became envious of that numbered structure – and then it seemed to suit Natalie so perfectly, with her determination to march boldly into the future. Originally her section was in a sort of fractured first person. Everyone who read it hated it – me included. Then another writer said to me: “You’re the only writer I know who can create no sympathy in the first person.” I thought: that’s right! When I write the pronoun “I”, I think of myself and end up being incredibly cruel. I’m not sympathetic to myself, as it turns out. I need the she and he.
NW is on the one hand psychologically acute and strongly character-driven, but also experiments with form and content – it’s littered with up-to-date cultural references, has typographical trickery and surprising appearances of the way we live now (such as a chapter made of Google Maps directions). Do these elements come easily? Or is “the culture doing strange things to novels“?
Oh, not so strange. You could find far, far stranger in 1918 or 1761. Nothing new under the sun. The novel has always been a weird form, full of oddities. If there’s trickery in this one, I’m sorry for it: I genuinely wanted to try and get closer to reality, not to obscure it. I mean, look: a version of the most realistic novel possible right now would be the one that took into account the fact that for much of each day in the west, the consciousness of many of us is projected outwards into a 14-inch lit screen, and any thought we have constantly penetrated by news, trivia, gossip, adverts, glimpses of content, and email, always email. I can’t figure out a way to do that, but some younger writer will. Not in the dull manner of ‘putting emails in a novel’ but some organic and genuine way of representing that reality. And stuff like that will always be called ‘trickery’ and accused of shallowness and then fifty years later it will be understood as pure realism. I remember David Foster Wallace saying somewhere that his ‘real’ life did not involve walking by a stream, pausing under an apple tree and having a deep internal monologue about the nature of the world – yet that’s what his fiction teacher expected of him and it’s true to this day that much contemporary fiction hangs upon what are actually quite unrealistic premises. But people still call it realism and think of it as completely ‘natural,’ not strange at all. To me it’s a little strange.
The same goes – at the most banal level – for content. When I first started writing, people often asked why I insisted on this ‘multicultural’ cast. To them it was a publishing ‘angle’ or some kind of post-modern trick. Slowly you realize: these people live in an entirely white social world. So to them it probably is exotic, it is an angle. I had interviewers – especially abroad – congratulating me on the “trendiness” of my family, as if I had picked out a black mother and a white father for fashion purposes. But to me what’s exotic is a world in which everyone is white. I’ve never lived in that world. Being mixed race is not some kind of gimmick: a third of the kids in my school had families like that, and nothing could have been more dull to all of us, more everyday. I remember, too, the shock of reading reviews that took it for granted that Willesden is a sort of piteous place to live, unutterably ‘grim.’ And if a character of mine isn’t living in a four storey house in Hampstead their lives are also described as ‘grim,’ or brutally modern, or whatever. It makes you wonder: where do these reviewers come from? This is just bog standard London life I’m describing, the lives of millions. But perhaps the only ‘moral’ of my fiction is that one person’s strange is another person’s normal.
Your essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ attracted much attention, contrasting lyrical realism (in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland) with the ‘alternative road’ of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Where do you place your own work in this context?
I don’t really. The critic in me and the writer in me are two different people. The critic writes of what she would ideally like to read; the writer only writes what she can. Criticism is easy; fiction hard. I know what I’m doing when I write an essay. I have no idea what I’m doing when I write a novel. Fiction is a much riskier enterprise.
And then that essay is a polemic, and describes what I felt, at the time, to be an extreme situation in publishing. I think China Miéville – my Kilburn neighbour! – said recently that English fiction tends to privilege recognition over strangeness and alienation, and I think that has often been true. Personally I adore the recognition Jane Austen provides but I also love the strangeness of B.S. Johnson or Octavia Butler. In “healthy” times there’s no need for the polemic: it’s a wide church and both types of writers can exist perfectly happily in there. But it didn’t seem to me to be a very healthy time. I think it’s got a little better, at least from the books that I’m being sent. And the ideal – as I think I said in the essay – are those books that defy all categorization, that are great on their own idiosyncratic terms. I was describing two particular paths in the tradition of the novel, but what marks the most interesting novels is their absolute particularity. You can’t pin them down so easily. What kind of a novel is Invisible Cities? What kind of novel is [Naipaul’s] Half a Life? I’m afraid real writing laughs in the face of polemical essays. They were rare four hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago, yesterday – great books will always be rare. Lolita doesn’t come around every day. Heart of Darkness doesn’t come around every day. Most novels are just “good enough”, and given that this is so, shouldn’t they be welcomed in their full variety? Great writing comes in a trickle, not a flood. And we’re not so drowning in riches that we can afford to dam up certain tributaries.
As for my own writing, I’m surprised to find I’m quite excited about the future, which I’ve never really been before. NW feels like my first novel in some ways, maybe because it’s the first I’ve written as what my mother would call “a grown ass woman.” So I’m just going to keep on shuffling down my own path, wherever it leads me. The next novel I have in mind is actually a sort of speculative fiction, set in the future, so I don’t know where that lies along those two paths. I don’t think I care!
As a reader, I’ve discovered that since becoming a parent, limited reading time means I’m much less forgiving of – or willing to continue with – mediocre books. Does parenthood have any comparable effect on writing? Are the short sections of NW an effect of this?
Sure. But that makes it sound purely practical. To me, the intense awareness of time that parenthood creates makes a different person of you, and necessarily a different writer. I hate waste of all kinds now. I hate padding. I want only essential things. A good analogy is party-going. I love to drink and I love to dance. I didn’t used to need an excuse to do those things. But now it better be the best party that man has ever invented, otherwise I ain’t going. Otherwise I’m not paying the babysitter, enduring the tears, texting to check the child hasn’t died, and so on and so forth. The same logic works on the page. If I’m going to write it, it better be a necessary word. It better be essential. Because otherwise I could be hanging out with my family, which most days is about infinity times more enjoyable than struggling over a paragraph in the library.
Parenthood is also a central subject in NW. Is this something that came from the essence of the characters Leah and Natalie, or from a desire to write about something prominent in your own life?
I began the book five years before I had a child. That seems to be a pattern with me. On Beauty is about a marriage of thirty years standing, but at the time I had been married only two. I don’t know the reasons. You’d have to ask a psychiatrist.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I don’t know if it’s overlooked, but someone just recommended it to me and I’m enjoying it. It’s got a great title, too: How to make love to a negro without getting tired by Dany Laferrière.
April 7, 2011
Greg Baxter’s book A Preparation for Death was one of my reading highlights of last year. It’s just been released in what it pleases me to call ‘properback’ format with a dramatic new cover, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Greg Baxter some questions about the book. Thanks to Lee Monks for suggesting some of the questions.
In A Preparation for Death, you say “Traditional autobiography is composed after the experience has passed. I wrote this book in the very panic of the experiences that inspired it.” At the same time the prose is careful and heavily worked. Can you tell us something about the process of writing A Preparation for Death?
The book began without definition or scope. I had no specific plans to write a book, only a furious and happy desire to fix my thoughts into the form of propositions. I sat down whenever I had the time – mostly predawn, sometimes during lunches, or weekends I wasn’t working – and wrote one sentence after the other, which became the particles of essays: studies, as Montaigne said, of my natural, rather than acquired, faculties.
The struggle to find time to write the book is so pervasive that it becomes one subject of the book – and it informs the whole panicked structure. On top of my daytime and nighttime work obligations (journalist by day, teacher by night), I spent a lot of time pursuing a life of epiphanic and violent self-renewal – a kind of renewal that is most certainly not for everybody, and involved behavior that some have dismissed as nihilistic self-destruction fueled by addiction and revenge.
My method involved the embodiment, or acting out, of the natural violence that self-creation necessitates, because nothing less would do. I had no life to bargain with, that is, no life worthy of delineation; I would have to build a world to write about; I would have to create a whole new consciousness out of activity and reflection. And I would send this new consciousness back in time to retrieve and transform the past.
When it became clear to me that these essays were part of something bigger, my immediate assumption was not that they would become a book, but that I would go on writing them forever, in an unending and private phenomenology of self. ‘Satanism’ was the last chapter written under this presumption, for reasons that become obvious in the chapter that follows. After that I knew an end was coming, whether I wanted one or not.
Cioran, one of the central heroes of my book, talks about the lure of disillusion: “There exists, I grant you, a clinical depression, upon which certain remedies occasionally have an effect; but there exists another kind, a melancholy underlying our very outbursts of gaiety and accompanying us everywhere… And there is nothing that can rid of us this lethal omnipresence: the self forever confronting itself.” Who knows himself but the person who forever confronts himself? Who knows what he scorns and despises but the person who first scorns and despises himself? What if this gloominess – the omnipresent gloom of the essayist – were not a sign of decay, depression, or weakness but a sign of intelligence, spirit, and strength?
One thing you find very quickly, simply by observing your surroundings, is that most people consider disillusion a vice and illusion a virtue. Except the community states it thus: vice is disillusion, virtue is hope (where hope equals virtue, i.e., virtue is virtue). Disillusion, or the hunt for and declamation of, is the primordial compulsion for me as a writer.
This compulsion, for me, is built upon learning and influence, not simply a maniacal desire to be free (though that desire is there). I am completely transparent, in the book, about the way learning and reading influence my writing and life. I did not wake up one morning and decide to discard a transparently fictional approach to writing and take up a transparently autobiographical approach (I use the word transparently here to assure everyone that I consider all fiction autobiographical and all autobiography fictional). I spent hundreds of hours reading thousands of pages in order to create for myself a new artistic destiny. I gave up almost everything contemporary. I went as far back in time as I could, in order to reacquaint myself with writing and thinking as a history of method and discourse and truth, rather than limp, entertaining storytelling. I wrestled myself out of the traditions I knew. This was easy, when, after my re-education, I found that the traditions I knew were empty shells being mass-produced by populists, imposters, and idiots: the American short story, the English novel. I suppose I had always suspected it was so; I simply couldn’t prove it to myself.
Lastly there is the process of writing sentences and choosing words, or, as you say, the careful nature of the prose in relation to the panic of compulsion. I came across an interesting quote recently: “One of the chief difficulties of writing consisted in thinking, with the tip of the pen, solely of the word to be written, whilst banishing from one’s mind the reality of what one intends to describe.” When one writes, one learns very early on, if one gives a damn, that the principle agitator in composition is language, that in the most crucial communicative leaps, language steeps the author in metaphor, i.e., we introduce a word the moment our ignorance begins. This agitation is a problem only for the obsolete system-building philosopher, however, since literature – autobiography, essay, theory, fiction, and poetry – is not concerned with reality. A thing that can neither be perceived nor depicted is not worth losing sleep over. I place no realistic demands on the words I choose; I place artistic demands on them. All the great writers I admire have one stylistic attribute in common: for all their voices, and all their truths, there are no superfluous words. Every word is endowed with life and complexity.
Every word, therefore, is evidence of thinking, and if it is not it is just a sound. No, worse – every word is an act of original thought or it is a cliché. You may argue that one will never write a page if he watches words like this. I agree. You have to be like this.
You’ve said that you hope the book “represents the secularisation of the premise that honesty is the highest virtue.” Why does it matter that the book is honest? And why do you think some readers balk at the contents because they cannot get past their distaste for the author/narrator?
Honesty is the highest virtue because it creates the greatest art. It also often creates the least superficially likeable art. In my book I go on at length about my abandonment of art. But what I say about honesty now, in this Q&A, is not a contradiction: my indictment of art begins with an indictment of my own life. From time immemorial, says Nietzsche, we are accustomed to lying, or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.
My indictment of art is also an indictment of those who have an instinctual faith in the purpose of art, and who, by producing art, recreate and maintain our wider faith in a type of virtue that is comfortable and stupid and poisonous to the imagination. When a reader encounters a book that upsets his understanding of his world and of himself, he has two choices. The first is to consider the possibility that his faith has been shaken. The second is to find a way to insert that book, by any means necessary, even by completely misreading every sentence, into the superstructure of that faith, in order to neutralize it – to cripple passion and imagination before passion and imagination can cripple the community.
The standards by which readers judge the literature of human suffering or easy redemption or heroes and anti-heroes or straightforward narratives do not apply to me, or to my book. I find myself totally bewildered in the presence of readers who luxuriate in this kind of debasement – likeable literature. It makes absolutely no demands on them, and obliterates their judgement like a disease that eats the brain. Is this happiness?
I, in my twenties, abandoned my own nature as a writer, or tried to, because it seemed reasonable and praiseworthy to be successful. But I have learned that it is neither reasonable nor praiseworthy to abandon one’s nature, even if it leads you into illiberalism and decreases your popularity.
Thomas Bernhard, in an interview, talks about the quest for perfection, or what inspires an artist to produce art. “If someone is a great pianist then you can clear out the room where he’s sitting with the piano, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll stay put and keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carry on playing. And with writing it’s the same thing.” For me, this defines artistic honesty as a personal urge to improve one’s art. The concern that someone might not like what you create, or might not like you, never occurs to you.
Why is the memoir (of the non-famous) such a nascent form at the moment? Is it an interesting way to deal with issues of authorial solipsism or is it simply a good way of throwing off the shackles of literary baggage that you wrestle with in the book?
I consider the straight memoir – the diaristic and largely fabricated narratives of famous or unfamous lives – to be below the grocery list, so far as literature is concerned. You will say, perhaps, ‘But you wrote a memoir’. Not true. To write a memoir, I feel certain, one would have to read a memoir. And before writing A Preparation for Death, I never read a memoir. I read essays. I read one ‘autobiography’: St Augustine’s. I also read – though I have always been drawn to the stuff – philosophy and theory, deranged manifestoes (on more than just writing), etc. I’m interested in writing as thinking, and the essay, and its thinking nature, was the most suited to this process. I also owe a great deal, more than I could ever measure, to my editor, Brendan Barrington, for taking twelve essays and finding a way to create an eleven-chapter book from them.
It was, I think, an unnegotiated decision to refer to A Preparation for Death as a memoir on the jacket of the book, and I was fine with it at the time, or I might have even suggested it because it seemed like the least pretentious thing to call it, though increasingly I’d be just as happy to call it a book, and let the reader decide, or better yet, not decide. Autobiography is a method, not a form, so it does not matter what my book is called; I wrote it the way it had to be written. Since publication, I have learned of a several inaccuracies and factual errors in the book – my mother never shot a bunch of dogs, for instance (the story is much worse). But error is the language of memory, and it makes the book no less true.
I don’t know anything about contemporary memoirs. I suspect – without any evidence to stand behind – that mostly they are like interviews on daytime television, where ‘good’ people who have done ‘bad’ things or ‘wounded’ people who have survived ‘horrors’ offer up their dignity, in the form of a scripted confession, as a sacrifice to the community – a community that requires narratives of passion as sin and dullness as salvation in order to starve its members of hope – in order to become briefly famous while receiving pity or acceptance.
The essayist, born an outsider, never looks for pity or acceptance. He has no need for empty plot convulsions like climax or redemption. Rather than redeem himself, he reiterates his hatred for redemption by declaring, as he strolls off the last page: the war of who I am is not over.
You wrote A Preparation for Death in part because you had to learn to write “without ambition”. Yet the whole process of publication, promotion and sales challenges this ‘purity’. How do you balance the need “not to compromise” with the usual authorial desires for sales, praise, a new contract?
Well, I wonder, is this Q&A a form of publicity? One could say, Of course it is. But if this is supposed to be an act of self-promotion, I suspect I am doing a bad job of it. To me these are fun questions to answer. When the book was first published, I saw the opportunity to talk about it less as a compromise and more an opportunity to continue the process of provocation I imagined it might start. I went out into the world of interviews in the hopes that the things I would say, such as the above, would generate some discussion about the state of literature (this is not why I wrote the book; this is how I would honour the book), and that I might also defend it from those who, by virtue of their inability to see what makes it unique – or unrecognizable according to the rules of standard forms – place it into the category of narrative that most reflected their mood on a certain day.
Nobody who interviewed me, however, seemed to care about literary provocation – perhaps the idea is outdated. (Has Freud’s influence really been so profound? Was it ever going to be less profound?) The journalists wanted to get to know the real me (and by that time the circumstances of my life had changed considerably, so what they actually wanted was the fake me), or ask if I regretted publishing stuff about my unmentionables, or the unmentionables of others.
At a literary festival I was invited to, I read the chapter ‘Satanism’ to a crowd of pleasant book enthusiasts. One asked me afterwards, ‘Is there anything you would not write about?’ ‘Satanism’ is an essay about Milton’s Paradise Lost. Is it scandalous to write about epic poetry? I can’t remember what I said. About an hour later I thought of the answer: I wouldn’t write about anything that didn’t matter. One journalist asked me what self-help book I’d recommend. About six months later the answer came to me: The Antichrist, by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Wittgenstein looms large over A Preparation for Death. But if “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death”, what can you say about the act of writing yourself out, and finally leaving your former self in Vienna? What next? Are you no longer “sick of your own fiction”?
I wanted to get a glimpse of that dead self, a self wandering around Vienna as a ghost, pleased to have committed one act of integrity before dying, happy only for the book’s completion, a completion unassociated with any further accolades, so I imagined it onto the page. The process of self-creation had reached, momentarily, a stopping point, before a new and more drastic one would begin, and to fix that recreated self in a condition of permanence, to abandon his perfection – I mean his perfect failure – seemed right.
I keep writing, and I hope I’m not betraying that ghost in Vienna. My experience in autobiography has changed my writing forever, and terms like fiction and autobiography and criticism and theory and philosophy and essay and story have started to blend, I think, in interesting ways, or perhaps ways that are inevitable. But I am still committed to hatred of the formulaic, because I think the formulaic is inhumane, and adds nothing but cruelty and dishonour to the world. And the scary thing is not that the four-hundred page novel about the most absolutely mundane people in the most predictable situations feeling the most obvious emotions is on the verge of death; the scary thing is that it seems unstoppable, indestructible as a commodity.
Perhaps this is a superfluous question when your book contains so many unregarded literary stars, but can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I finished recently and loved A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš – a novel composed of seven true stories, rendered as art, of neglected historical figures who either damned their own legacies or had their legacies damned for them. I’m also reading, at the moment, Alban Berg, by Theodor Adorno, a critical study and personal reminisence of the great composer. It’s apocryphal Adorno, and that’s probably why I like it so much. Of Berg, Adorno writes: “No music of our time was as humane as his; that distances it from humankind.”
January 31, 2011
Adam Mars-Jones is one of those writers who remains, to me, frustratingly underappreciated, despite his profile as the Observer’s fiction critic, or a man who “reviews anything not nailed down.” He has no one to blame but himself. In 1983 and again in 1993, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, despite not having yet produced a novel. And the fifteen years that passed between his first novel The Waters of Thirst, and his second, Pilcrow, can’t have helped. Still, he has now seen the error of his ways and is publishing fiction regularly: a four-part meganovel about a disabled man who tells us everything in exquisite and excruciating detail. Oh. The second part, Cedilla, was released earlier this month and has been welcomed with giddy enthusiasm. While we await volume three, I took the opportunity to ask Adam Mars-Jones some questions about the Cromer chronicles and his work generally.
The two books weren’t separate projects. Yes, it was mainly written by the time Pilcrow was published (in fact by the time Pilcrow was offered to Faber). I submitted a readable draft in May 2009, and a final one at the beginning of December that year, for publication in August/September 2010, though that didn’t happen. There was plenty of fine-tuning to do, to make sure that there was enough balance / symmetry between the volumes while also respecting the creeping onward flow of events.
Cedilla is a very large novel – or part of a very larger novel. How did this masterpiece of contrasts in scale (or ‘coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars’) find its form? Do you worry about carrying the reader along with you on such a long and detailed journey? Or to put it another way, were there any moments during the writing when you thought, “What I’m doing is mad!”?
The whole thing is clearly mad. I only realised how mad when I started editing material together to show Faber (2006?). If it had been in notebooks I would already have had a physical sense of how big it was growing, but in computer files its bulk was digitised away. It was only at that late stage that I realised that it couldn’t be a single volume.
I have to say I enjoy the disproportion between the littleness of the hero and the great size of the books that contain his epic of helplessness. It seems both strikingly wrong and strikingly right.
As for the form, Angela Carter used to tell students that they should plunge right in — not start with something about “So it was that on that November night I climbed the green stairs that would become so familiar to me. . .” but to get on with the scene you want to write. Good advice in general, but with this narrator the story was how he got to the room in the first place (not something to be taken for granted). Doors close against him, and can’t easily be opened. This was a life lived without short cuts and there could be no short cuts in the telling.
If you’re physically disabled as my narrator is then you have very little control over space, and it follows that you are at the mercy of time. The pace of the narrative needed to slow down correspondingly, with the hope that its extreme continuousness would become mesmerising rather than simply oppressive. It may be that there are readers who are put off by something that seems so very downbeat, but it was important to me not to serve this life up on a plate for consumption. A certain amount of surrender is called for! This person’s existence is multiply marginal — but not to him…
The prejudices that the modern liberal reader is likely to hold against John Cromer are not his disability, homosexuality, or vegetarianism, but his championing of homœopathy and religious faith (and perhaps his pedantry too). To what extent are you trying to balance the reader’s engagement with John Cromer with their distance from him?
Ideally the relationship between reader and narrator should be dynamic, plastic, fluid (after all, if that aspect doesn’t work, there’s not a lot else going on!). I can’t plot in detail the vagaries of this rapport — all I can hope to do is set up a force-field of potential charges, both seductive and antipathetic.
I don’t much mind what people reflexively hold against John — for instance gay readers normally want a bit more wish-fulfilment than they’re offered in these books! Paradoxically my great advantage here is that he is almost equally far removed from any possible reader, so that there is a real prospect of the free play of sympathy. A rabidly atheistic homophobe whose father is in a wheelchair (supposing such a person could touch the book without getting a rash) might conceivably have a global reaction to the book that was relatively similar to that of the modern liberal reader you hypothesise without coinciding at any single point.
I don’t particularly believe in homœopathy (thanks for preserving the digraph, by the way) but I wouldn’t want to be without my Arnica cream when there’s a bruise going on. And I do try to suggest that a major part of the character’s fascination with the system is its granting of power to the very small and insignificant. John has a similar fascination in the book with radioactive particles…
John’s religion gives him a feeling of connectedness, the sense that he’s part of the world despite appearances. That seems psychologically healthy. Hinduism too, the tradition that attracts him, regards pain as neither punishment nor sacrifice but unreal. Also healthy, I would think, since he must go through so much of it.
As for pedantry — again it’s the control of the very small exercised by someone with no possible grip on the large or even medium-sized. It’s not unique to John, by a long chalk, to have more power over words and their usage than of the things words claim to refer to.
One of the appeals of Cedilla is its verisimilitude, with almost-appearances by real people (Jon Pertwee, Tom Stoppard, poor Michael Aspel) and obscure real books on gardening and homœopathy, which goes beyond the usual 60s and 70s cultural reference hot-buttons. Was there much research involved in John Cromer’s story, given, for example, that you too were a student at Cambridge in the 1970s?
The past is a different country, but increasingly they seem to do things much the same there, don’t you think? It’s more fun to stake out your own province of the past. Some of my attempts at research were thwarted, anyway. I tried to get access to the JCR (Junior Common Room) Suggestion Books of Downing College, Cambridge in the 1970s — since nothing could be more informative about the real life of students at the time, behind the stereotypes. It turned out that thanks to Freedom of Information legislation the best I could hope for was an expensive transcript with all the names painstakingly crossed out, and that didn’t seem worth the trouble.
Illness seems to be an unavoidable topic for you in your fiction: rabies, AIDS, kidney disease, Still’s Disease. Is this coincidental, or a useful analogy or metaphor, or something else?
There’s a lot of it about. But yes, it’s a useful reminder that the body is something we forget about (to a certain extent) while it’s doing what we think it’s supposed to, until we’re reminded in some unwelcome way. Nothing rebukes our fantasies, i.e. our daily mental life, like the non-coöperation of the body. An illness is a sort of narrative opposed to the one we usually tell.
Seasoned Mars-Jones watchers for a long time awaited the publication of Hypo Vanilla, which appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared through Faber catalogues during the mid-1990s (and is now listed on Amazon as published in June 2007 and “currently unavailable”). Did this mythical work really exist, and will it ever emerge?
Blame the Internet. There have always been books that were announced and never came about, but it’s only now that the mythical object is acclaimed as real by your average search engine, having no ability to distinguish between an existing artefact and a node of references, and then picked up by others of its kind. Alasdair Gray has written about the high theoretical price fetched on one website of his Book of Prefaces, which had never been published (though he has since brought that beauty to birth). Hypo Vanilla was a planned pair of novellas, one daringly called Hypo and the other called Vanilla, which didn’t seem to want to get written. I finished a draft of Vanilla but haven’t looked at it since, while I got more simply stuck on Hypo. After the Pilcrow saga is all done, I might resurrect them with a third novella to round off a pleasing volume.
It seems astonishing that I could get away with having a book announced, as you say, more than once in a publisher’s catalogue without my editor at Faber (Robert McCrum at the time) getting tough and demanding at least to have a look at what I was doing. I hope he doesn’t feel I abused his indulgence.
McCrum coped admirably in the early 90s when Faber had announced a novel (I won’t mention the name for fear of it turning up on Amazon), had commissioned a cover and asked me for a blurb, all without seeing the thing. At the last moment I told him that the project had stalled, but that I was working on something else which might fill the gap (the gap I had made). I wrote The Waters Of Thirst in a couple of months and he put his weight behind that, new cover, new blurb and all, as if this was standard business practice.
Perhaps it is my punishment for such misbehaviour to be haunted by Hypo Vanilla. Recently I had to make more than one plea to the British Council to delete its reference to the “book” on the Contemporary Writers website. Why did a supposedly authoritative resource produced by a publicly funded body get it wrong, when Wikipedia didn’t? Good question. The Internet is full of surprises.
I see I’ve dodged the question in paragraph 1 about how much further there is to go with the Pilcrow saga. Two more books taking the character up to the mid- to late-90s, I think. The reference in Cedilla to Mallory’s body never having been found ties me to that, unless I fudge it of course, by having him miss the paper on the day the discovery was reported or giving him a convenient stay in hospital…
Of course it’s unrealistic to imagine that the NBA could have survived into the age of the Internet, but I don’t see that the ability of supermarkets to discount bestsellers has done anything but harm to a literary culture that has always seemed precarious. Self-publishing on demand seems to work for some people. I don’t have that much self-belief. The régime of semi-dysfunctional nurturing at Fabers has suited me perfectly. Whenever I grumble that I can’t earn a living from fiction as I near my 30th anniversary in print (and I can hardly say I’ve had a rough ride), and that Fabers don’t launch rockets to carve the titles of my books on the moon, I remind myself that no sensible publisher would have let me go so very much my own way.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
Absolutely. I thought Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography, published in 1969, which I picked up from a shelf in Charing Cross Road a few years ago with no great expectations, was astonishing. That very mumsy name disguises an uncompromising sensibility. Maybe the book fell a bit flat on publication because people weren’t expecting an old woman to avail herself of the ’60s freedoms (she decides to explore family history on the basis that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”). She puts in a mention of the face-lift she had in her 70s, to amuse her grandchildren, who she speculates would live in a socialist state where such things were illegal, or a world in which they would be the only toilette for a woman after 30.
Since then I’ve read at least one first-rate novel by her (The Loved and Envied), though one that is hard to read in its grain these days, as a profound study of a range of asymmetrical relationships, because so many of the characters are stinking rich (or at least pretty whiffy). The Donmar production of The Chalk Garden convinced me that as a comedy it’s the equal of The Importance of Being Earnest, though with a lot more in the way of human interest. A later play, The Chinese Prime Minister, which she thought the better piece, was intended to be an argument for the joys of old age until wicked Edith Evans got hold of it and squeezed out of it all the pathos that wasn’t meant to be there. Perhaps the Donmar could get their teeth into that. . .
Two Irish classics: The Real Charlotte (1894) by Somerville and Ross is a rather acrid tragedy written by a pair of women (a couple, even) better known for the comedy of The Irish R.M. I can see how you can collaborate on a comedy (just top each other’s jokes), but on a tragedy? It’s a mystery. Their control of point of view is extraordinary, so that we gradually become aware of how much of her personality the heroine keeps hidden. “Heroine” seems the wrong word for someone so destructive, but sympathy holds for this un-gentle, uncongenial woman, seething with rage and desire, in a society that has only the most demeaning uses for such people.
And The March Hare by Terence de Vere White (1970), describing Dublin life of a slightly later period, with a lighter touch but no less penetration. Holding the 1973 Penguin is a historical exercise in its own right, a flashback to the time when a book could be confidently and successfully published with no quotations from reviews, no puffs from other authors and no reference to prizes or short-lists, simply with the description “waspish Irish story-telling at its best.” The time of the NBA, yes, but so much else has changed since then. . .
May 24, 2010
David Mitchell has achieved the rare double of critical acclaim and bestseller sales. With an imagination the size of a planet, he is perhaps the only writer for whom the old reviewers’ phrase is true: his best known novel, Cloud Atlas, really does contain more ideas in each chapter than most writers manage in an entire book. His new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, went to number 1 in the bestseller charts in its week of release. It is also sure to feature heavily on prize lists this year, because it is very good.
Can you tell us a little about the writing process for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Did the stories of Jacob on Dejima, Miss Aibagawa in the monastery and the English fleet develop from one germ of an idea, or were they separate stories which happened to fit together? Were there any technical challenges in maintaining a third person narrative voice through so many sections?
I went wrong twice and only succeeded on the third take. Book 1 (Jacob on Dejima) and the characters of Ogawa the interpreter and Orito the midwife were salvaged from my first attempt. The end of the novel was salvaged from my second attempt. Book 2 (Orito in the monastery) and Book 3 (the English frigate) were products of the third, and final, attempt. All this probably means that it is truer to call the book a composite than it is to call the book a product of a single germ.
The technical challenge didn’t lie in maintaining a third person voice, but creating it in the first place. I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out – the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one – what first person narrators say is limited (and determined) by who they are. A few years ago I asked AS Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: What you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in. Additionally, I devised a sort of ‘thought helmet’ to be worn by only one character per chapter: the thoughts of the chosen character, and that character alone, are ‘audible’ to the reader. So thanks to AS Byatt and the Thought Helmet, on my third attempt to write the book I deployed the third person narrative, and managed, finally, to get the novel finished before it finished me.
The story in Jacob de Zoet has a more unified feel than in your first three books, where smaller stories made up a whole. Did you feel under pressure – from yourself or readers – to write a book that had one single storyline? Indeed, as your books manage the tricky task of matching sales with critical acclaim, does this put pressure on you as a writer, knowing the added attention that the author of Jacob de Zoet will be scrutiny to, that the author of Ghostwritten wasn’t?
It wasn’t that I felt under pressure to write a book with a single storyline: it was that because I hadn’t really done one before, it was an attractive proposition. I want each book to feel new and distinct: my ideal would be that, in a blindfold test (shades of the Pepsi Challenge here), prose from two of my books could not be identifiable as having been written by the same person. I don’t achieve that ideal, but it’s one of a small group of inner advisers who influence the shape a book takes.
Pressure about an as-yet-unwritten book’s reception? Happily, I guess, the task of making any given book work drowns everything else out, for most of the time.
Richard Price spoke of the difficulty when researching a novel of knowing when to stop the research and begin writing. Was this a problem with a novel so “research-heavy” as Jacob de Zoet? Does research assist the imaginative process by providing a factual springboard, or does it tie you down to what must be known?
I view research as a necessity that is both problematic and pleasureable. If you don’t do any, you can’t get to the end of your first paragraph. If you don’t do enough, historical fiction will be threadbare and implausible. If you do too much, you’ll become a professional Patrick O’Brian or Simon Schama reader and never actually start writing. If you do too much but then forget to submerge nine-tenths of it beneath the waterline, you’ll have ‘look at me!’ sentences like: ‘Shall I light the room with the whale oil lantern, Madam, or will it be the pig tallow candles tonight?’ So with life, so with art: avoid the pitfalls, learn from your mistakes, and keep working until you get the balance right.
Regarding your second question, you need to work out a policy. This will depend upon how heavily you wish to emphasize the ‘historical’ versus the ‘fiction’ of ‘historical fiction’. My policy involved using history as a sort of DIY warehouse where I could source the raw materials, but giving myself a licence to assemble those raw materials according to the dictates of the story. For example, an historical HMS Phaeton sailed into Nagasaki in 1808 and demanded the handover of Dejima. When the Dutch didn’t comply the British seem to have set fire to one or two small boats, and left. My novel didn’t want to hang around for 8 years between Books 1 and 3, so I renamed the Phaeton ‘Phoebus’, sailed her in sooner, and had her bombard Dejima with artillery, setting off a chain of events which affect other characters in the book. If you follow the facts too closely, you end up writing non-fiction.
You’ve spoken before of your admiration for, and desire to emulate in your writing the best qualities of, Perec, Calvino and others. Are there any direct influences or inspirations for Jacob de Zoet? (Enomoto’s monastery, for some reason, reminded me of the convent in Black Narcissus.)
Yes, I saw Black Narcissus years ago, so maybe. My most conscious source for Mount Shiranui was the Temple of Atuan from Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan. The idea of a menagerie of disfigured people occurs in José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night. Napoleon-era set naval fiction, notably the Aubrey-Maturin cycle, informed life on my frigate and the attitudes of its crew. Yasunari Kawabata wrote a (mostly) non-fiction account of a single go match, called The Master of Go. Eduard Dekker, a Dutch writer who wrote under the name Multatuli published a book Max Havelaar which fed into my Dutch characters, both sympathetic and less so. My Irish convict’s story draws on Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. There are probably 20 or 30 other sources, but I can’t think of them now.
Many of the secondary characters, such as Dr Marinus and Arie Grote, seem to be bursting with life beyond their restricted appearances on the page. Did you edit much material about them from the final version of the novel? Are there ideas for the characters that you would have liked to include?
Certainly, I edited about 50 or 60 pages out of the novel for the final MS. There’s much more than meets the eye with Marinus in particular. He will appear in my next novel, set around now. In the book after that he’ll be the main character. That’s what I plan right now, but of course plans can change.
As an Irishman, I’m bound to ask whether living in Ireland is likely to inspire your literary imagination in the future as much as living in Japan has done?
I don’t know: I’d think twice before writing about Ireland, not least because so many Irish writers do it so well. Why bother trying to describe the countryside when McGahern’s on the shelf before you? Another reason for my reluctance is that my wife and I intend to stay living here for a very long time, and what if the good townspeople of Clonakilty took exception to my portrayal of their culture? There are only so many bars where you can get a good pint of Murphy’s, y’know… That said, I’ve got half an idea knocking about for an Irish/ Orcadian/Icelandic sort of a book: maybe if I go back 800 years I’d be safe? What do you think?
Your sharing a name with a well-known comedian made me think of the difference between your professions: he gets an immediate response from an audience for his efforts, where you work for years alone and get only limited feedback. Would you swap places with him, professionally speaking?
Never! David Mitchell the comedian has skills I can only dream about. I kill jokes stone dead, even really good ones, and it takes me weeks of editing and polishing to work out what I want to say, whereas he can produce funny and incisive sentences spontaneously. He may well evolve into a figure as central to the culture as Stephen Fry… while I’ll still be hacking away in my little hut in West Cork, for years alone…
Finally, can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
I like Sylvia Townsend Warner, who I guess would qualify as overlooked nowadays. She’s both barbed and gentle, and wry, and wise. She asks you to concentrate more than many modern writers, but if you do, you find her novels taking up residence inside you, and glowing. Lolly Willowes from 1926 is a great one about a woman who becomes a witch and meets a Devil as sympathetic as Bulgakov’s, but all of her books are strong, and distinct from one another.
April 14, 2010
Jim Crace has been one of those writers for whom I drop everything since reading Signals of Distress sometime in the mid-1990s. The bargain I got when I bought that, his funniest book, in a bookshop sale has been more than outweighed by my subsequent practice of buying his books in hardback immediately they were released. They were investments well rewarded: his next two books, Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999), still have a claim to be among his best work. But he is always worth reading and never stays still, flitting in place from first century Judea to post-apocalyptic America, and in subject from food to fatherhood. In other words, if you google for protean, you’ll find a picture of Jim Crace, probably looking younger than he is. (I am sure it is no coincidence that he was a contemporary of two more of my favourite writers, Patrick McGrath and Gordon Burn, at Birmingham College of Commerce in the 1960s.) His new book, All That Follows, has just been released. It’s a thriller of sorts, and it may be his penultimate novel. I’m delighted that he has agreed to answer some questions here about All That Follows and his other work.
A few years ago, I read that one of your planned books was The Finalist: “on one level only, a thriller of action and ideas, but its overarching intention is to be a metaphorical critique of both political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies.” I take it this became All That Follows. Can you tell us something about the writing process, and how the book – and title – changed along the way?
Yes, this book is that book. The Finalist was only ever an interim title for contract purposes. All That Follows was a last-minute panicky choice, just plucked from the text.
I mostly intended the novel to be called Heroes, even though I was uneasy with that word’s gender specificity. The real heroes of this novel are the heroines, of course – Francine, Nadia, Swallow and Lucy. But as soon as the TV series, Heroes, started airing in UK, I had to hunt for an alternative title. Everything I chose was doomed, for one reason or another. For example, I was quite keen on Bravissimo for a while, as it suggested both heroism and a fearless musical tempo, perfect for the book. It was my daughter who pointed out, with some disdain, that I’d chosen the name of a lingerie store for large women. Hmm, it would have made an interesting marketing tie-in.
The focus of the book on “political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies” remained close to my original intentions, though the critique was more plot-driven and less metaphorical than I might have expected.
The process of writing was just sitting down in front of a blank screen whenever I could be bothered and seeing what narratives, settings and characters offered themselves.
All That Follows features Leonard Lessing, to me your most sympathetic and ‘normal’ protagonist yet (not dead, not Jesus, not supernaturally fertile), and the language of the book seems plainer – less iambic – than in the past. Was this a conscious decision to aim more at the heart than the head?
Conscious, yes. Purposeful even. I wanted to do something unfussy for a change. And I wanted a break from my usual declamatory tones. I’d already written nine books with a poetic voice and thought it was time to see if I could come to grips with some more conventional skills. I’d hardly ever used dialogue effectively, for example, and I’d only rarely held my mirror up to a real world rather than an invented one. Besides, I could tell that my ongoing novel, Archipelago, was bound to be my most ecstatic and iambic so far. Stepping back from that would give everybody a break, including me. Would that be aiming for the heart rather than the head? I don’t believe so and I hope not. I’ve always aimed for the heart. My books are more floridly sentimental than intellectually rigorous.
You’ve said that all your books are political, but in All That Follows it seems more explicit than ever. Popular punchbag George W Bush features, as well as Maxie and Nadia, who set out to take direct action against him at a public appearance in 2006. Yet for characters whose views we might expect you to agree with, and as revolutionaries, they’re pretty ineffectual. Do you care what political message readers get from the book?
Yes, more explicit, less mediated. The book was written to answer my own question as a political activist: is the unprincipled man of action who is prepared to die or kill for an ism the only one who can effect worthwhile change in the world? The novel seems to favour political timidity, but I am still undecided, still thrilled by confrontation, yet still timid and inhibited. Do I care what political messages the readers get from the book? Well, I care what the book says. But there’s no accounting for what readers think. I’ve had right-wing religious zealots turn up at my readings to shout abuse. Should I care what they think?
Leonard in All That Follows is painfully risk-averse: ‘scared to death’. Are you a risk-taker as a writer, given your fearlessness of big themes and refusal to write the same book over and over; or do your meticulous methods (Will Self used the term “anal retention“) mean you’re playing safe, working within your comfort zone?
Hmm. I don’t know how to answer this as I don’t recognise myself in the question. Will Self doesn’t have any information or experience at all about my writing procedures or the state of my bowels. So his remark must be either mischievous or unkind. What I can tell you in that I don’t have any meticulous methods. Far from it. I have a blank screen, a clear desk, and my fingers crossed. The task doesn’t feel like risk taking. It feels like fun, and it feels a little scary – a bit like tobogganing (from which I have just returned with what I suspect is a broken finger).
You’re known to be a terrific liar, “seeking the richer world beyond the facts” – making up not just plots, characters, histories and futures, but even the epigraphs of your books. But The Pesthouse and now All That Follows are missing the last: in the new book you’ve stooped to using real quotations from real people. Have Abraham Howper, Emile dell’Ova, Sherwin Stephens and their pals gone for good?
Yes, they are toast. I don’t invent epigraphs anymore. Once I managed to smuggle a false entry about my invented Pycletius (with references to the equally non-existent Abraham Howper and Emile dell’Ova) into the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I felt my work was done. I am now concentrating on other teases. It is after all the job of a novelist to make the lies seem real or at least to blur the interfaces between what is actual and what is invented. I have heard readers complain that they have been deceived by my fictions, as if deceiving them wasn’t part of the job.
David Lodge wrote about his anguish on publishing a novel about Henry James shortly after Colm Tóibín did the same. Did you have any similar feelings on publishing The Pesthouse a few months after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came out, given the superficial similarities between the two, and the ubiquity McCarthy’s novel has achieved?
It’s true, David and Colm’s wonderful books about Henry James had huge similarities – the coincidence was spooky – so I understand the anguish involved. I know both writers and have discussed the subject with each of them. It was just bad luck, I guess. My Pesthouse was similarly eclipsed by McCarthy’s Road, I’ve been told. But I haven’t felt any anguish yet. I wrote the book I wanted to publish but I never claimed squatters’ rights over the subject of an American Armageddon. Anyone can have a say. Anyway, our books are fields apart. I’d like to think my novel is less bleak, more feminized, as well as being better value for money – it’s longer, so there’s more Armageddon to the dollar.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or writer to readers of this blog?
A favourite of mine is G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It has weathered well, and still seems as mischievous and clever as ever.
You’ve warned before that we should “not overestimate the power of the writer or overrate the supremacy of the pen.” Do you think of your own output for the last 25 years as “a self-indulgence”? Do you still plan to stop after your next book?
Sure, it’s a self-indulgence, but what’s wrong with that? No harm done. But I am aware that the world doesn’t exactly need my books. If I never wrote another word, there’d still be plenty of other stuff to read, and I would disappear with the merest sigh of regret from a handful of fans. I do quite like the idea of hearing that merest sigh of regret, so retiring while I am fit and well and still looking for adventures is an appealing prospect. So, yes, I do intend Archipelago to be my final novel. I am sincere. But I might be fooling myself. Don’t start sighing yet.
October 19, 2009
“If I was born with a name like Simon Crump,” said Chris de Burgh, “I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.” I recently reviewed Neverland: the Unreal Michael Jackson Story, Crump’s latest book. Normally I feature interviews only with authors who have become firm favourites; but Neverland has seeped its way into my brain since reading it, and I’ve since bought Crump’s other three books, so here we are. As one reviewer said of the book which agitated Chris de Burgh, My Elvis Blackout (2000), “it’s almost impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world.” So I thought I’d let the author take that risk. Simon Crump is also the author of Monkey’s Birthday (2002) and Twilight Time (2004).
You say that you were “living with Michael Jackson for three years” while writing Neverland – yet it’s quite a short book. Can you tell us more about the writing process? Was material jettisoned along the way?
I read every single thing I could find to read about Michael. I listened to all of his music, I subscribed to his fan forums, and I checked the weather and local news in Los Olivos every day. Everything I did for three years, I wondered how Michael might have done it and how he might be feeling if he did. And then I wrote it all down.
For me, editing is everything. Get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse. Neverland would have been around 500 pages long (rather than the 200 it is now) if I hadn’t hacked it into shape and taken out the ideas which were getting in the way. Most of the last year has been spent trying to make Neverland not shite, and a lot of material has had to be surgically removed for that to happen.
Getting the order of the stories right took forever too. I ended up making a fifteen feet high wall-chart to do that, and as you narrow a book down, it becomes harder and harder to lose the stuff you’ve sweated over.
There was a line in one story where Michael said, ‘If I do one more back flip I’ll go deaf,’ and I still regret not being able to use that.
You also say that you finished writing Neverland a few hours before Jackson died. Did you resist the temptation to add anything to the book when you heard, or to alter, or soften, your portrayal of Jackson in any way?
You’ll have to take my word for this, but absolutely nothing in the book was changed. There was no point. To be pretentious, the stories changed themselves to a degree, and immediately became more poignant when they were suddenly about somebody who had just died.
The only significant change was that my publishers added ‘The Unreal Michael Jackson Story’ tagline to the Neverland title and brought the publication date forward by around six months. As you would under the circumstances.
Have your portrayals of famous people in fictional settings ever attracted wrath from their fans … or the celebrities themselves?
One of my favourite reviews for My Elvis Blackout was on a German Elvis fansite: ‘We do not know who is this Simon Crump, but he is not welcome in our town.’
Chris De Burgh took exception to being described as a reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard by the Lamar character in My Elvis Blackout, but there was nothing Chris could do about that, because it is a fact.
What really got to him however, was that he was also characterised as being a stigmatic. Which probably isn’t true. Chris posted a long comment about me on his ‘Man On The Line’ website, where he mocked my unfortunate surname and then reminded me in no uncertain terms of his wonderful career, house, wife, children, etc. And my lack of.
I still cry myself to sleep when I remember his cruel words.
Neverland shows a particular interest in how “we love our stars, but we much prefer them broken”, and in the “the grisly ritual of historicization” of Jackson’s life and story. Do you think that Neverland in any way contributes to these problems, even as it addresses them?
Neverland is, and always was intended to be, a sympathetic portrayal of a talented, vulnerable boy called Michael who lived in a big house and was slowly losing his marbles. There was no way I was ever going to try to kick somebody when they were already down. You can sidle up to truth through fiction; it’s not a new idea. If you look at Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, or the shift between Herr’s Dispatches and his script for Full Metal Jacket, the notion that truth can be distilled and ultimately understood through fiction is right there in your face. And sometimes the only way to tell a sad story is to try to make it funny.
Which doesn’t answer your question at all does it?
You seem to be attracted to writing about simultaneously glamorous and seedy figures (Elvis, Jackson, and I saw a mention of Cliff Richard in another of your books), and in the twee and dark sides of England: your novel Twilight Time has a character who lives in an 1930s English Trust house but swears like a trooper. Your work seems to occupy a unique spot. Do you feel a part of a British (or any other) literary tradition?
I’m interested in celebrity, people with talent, people who get what they want and are still unhappy.
I think every writer would hope that their work occupies a ‘unique spot’ of some description, however tiny and unpopular that place might be.
So far as ‘British’, I don’t know… I’d say ‘English’ really… and the self-loathing we do so well.
I always seem to get lined up with Dan Rhodes and Daren King, both of them more successful, more acclaimed and much better-looking writers than myself, and whose work I admire. I don’t really ‘feel a part’ of anything these days to be honest, I just want to keep writing the stuff I want to write and hope that one day, somebody might like it.
You’ve lectured in fine art and exhibited as an artist specialising in photography for over a decade before turning to writing. How did an interest in visual art lead to (if I can put it this way) such perverse prose? Is there any connection between the two?
All I’ve ever wanted to do is to make pictures.
I used to make ‘real’ pictures, very large and elaborate layered photographic collage affairs, measuring around 30 by 30 feet which never really turned out how I wanted. And each time I made one of the damn things it felt like I was trying to organise a bloody wedding.
It got to the point where after trying unsuccessfully to photograph a local Elvis impersonator in the deep end of a swimming pool, nearly drowning us both and ruining a perfectly good Hasselblad camera into the bargain, I decided to go for ‘the big one’, the greatest picture I was ever going to make, the one I’d been talking about making for years.
I bought a dead horse from a firm called Casualty Cattle in Derbyshire and had it brought back to my studio on a trailer. From that point on, things began to go wrong for me. Horses are actually quite a lot bigger than you think.
Anyway, the ‘great work’ never got made, I realised how ridiculous my practice as an artist had become, and looking back on the whole grisly business, I’m amazed that nobody tried to stop me.
I still make pictures now, much bigger pictures so far as I’m concerned and I don’t have deal with any of the crap I used to struggle with when I was an ‘artist’.
For me, writing is all about making pictures and it’s unfettered by anything but your own imagination. With writing you really can do anything you want. You don’t need any equipment, you don’t need a studio and you don’t even need to get dressed. In my writing, I can control the weather if I want to, how my characters think, how they behave, and what they have to say. And if I get bored with them, I can kill them without having to bag them up and dispose of their bodies. And this time, nobody is going to stop me.
Patrick White’s The Vivisector provides epigraphs for two of your books. What’s your particular interest in White and in this book?
I first read The Vivisector when I was fifteen and now that book is like The Sound of Music for me. I read it every Christmas. It’s a ‘widescreen’ book, awkwardly written in places, but cumulatively relentless in its details and descriptions. I admire White for the same reasons as I do André Gide and particularly Zola. White takes in everything with The Vivisector, a whole life. It’s hard going to read it, but definitely worth the effort. White is also very good on painting. I always think of the artist Sidney Nolan when I read The Vivisector and if you go back a bit and read White’s Riders in the Chariot, the makings of that character are there in Alf Dubbo, the naïve painter who ultimately destroys his work.
Can you recommend an overlooked book for readers of this blog? (…apart from The Vivisector)
Researching Oblivion by Scott Murfin (if you can find a copy).
I’m currently re-reading alternate chapters of Fan Dabi Dozi: The Krankies, Our Amazing True Story (by the Krankies), Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers and Horse-Racing’s Strangest Races by Andrew Ward, which is an excellent way to mess with your mind without resorting to expensive drugs.
April 21, 2009
Geoff Dyer is undoubtedly one of the most interesting writers in the UK. The stock response for his books is ‘genre-defying’ – so often cited that it has more or less become a genre in itself. He is one of those few writers whom I will read on any subject – even those pieces he did with Maggie O’Farrell in Waterstone’s magazine – and the breadth of his interests can be seen in Anglo-English Attitudes, his collection of “essays, reviews, misadventures”. He has written a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), a book about public memorialising of the First World War (The Missing of the Somme), and a travel book where “everything in this book happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head” (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It). His latest genre-defying, Dyeresque book is a novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which has been praised in the press as “an early contender for the most original, and the cleverest, novel of the year.” If you haven’t read Dyer, you must remedy that: and where better than with this interview he kindly agreed to do for this blog?
Martin Amis said that The Information was not a novel about a mid-life crisis; the novel was the mid-life crisis. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi contains a narrator who achieves some kind of spiritual fulfilment in an Indian holy city. Is this a novel about a mid-life crisis? Or…?
I am resigned to the book being seen that way but would like to stress that the author is not in the grips of such a thing and, in fact, is not even convinced such a thing exists. Since we’re quoting Amis, it’s worth remembering that the war against cliché isn’t waged just at the level of phrases and unthinking habits of expression. People think in clichés – and the notion of a mid-life crisis is just such an unthinking mental reflex. Having said that, if after all this grumbling, we extemporise on Amis’s comment a bit, maybe the novel, as a form, is in a state of perpetual mid- or late-life crisis while appearing oblivious to the fact.
You’ve said that the distinction between your fiction and non-fiction “means absolutely nothing” to you, and also that you “dread” inventing things for books. In your new novel, when you blur the lines between Jeff and Geoff, are you making a virtue out of a necessity?
Yes, that’s exactly what one learns to do as a writer, or as any artist. You arrive at your own style by default or failure. You know, Miles Davis wanted to sound like Dizzy Gillespie but couldn’t do the high register thing so had to content himself with becoming… Miles! And although I dread inventing things I would get very bored simply transcribing things from life, as they actually happened. What I like is improvising on them, embellishing or altering them a little.
I would like to think that my books encourage readers to ask themselves about the kind of experience they are having – and that, in turn, raises other questions about the often unquestioned formal expectations brought to the act and habit of reading, i.e. to ideas of how a book is supposed to behave or comport itself in their hands! In this case, it’s not that I’ve tried to write a novel like other novels and have failed (“The woman in the first half? Oh shit, you’re right, I completely forgot about her. Sorry” ). I’ve tried to write a book which succeeds or fails within its own internal physics.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, like Yoga, Paris Trance or Out of Sheer Rage, is very funny but also very serious. “Everything began as a joke,” observes Jeff, “but not everything ended as one.” Do you feel ideas have to be smuggled into your books under cover of entertainment? Is one mode easier for you to write than the other, or do they all, as it were, come out of the same hands?
When you’re with friends that you really get on with, there’s a constant shuttling back and forth between joking and serious, with no change of gears at all and it’s the same in writing. One of the things I’ve really worked hard to achieve in writing is a tone or style which enables me to move freely and quickly between comedy and more discursive and analytical parts. Actually even that’s not right because the funny bits can be analytical too, so both things are happening simultaneously. I’m really not interested in entertaining the troops and can’t imagine anything worse than being a so-called comic novelist. I never read comic novels: I almost never find them funny because they’re always holding up this tacit sign saying ‘LAUGH NOW’ so one sits there, grim-faced. For me, the funniest writer is Thomas Bernhard who is also one of the most profound – you can’t stop yourself laughing.
Actually, while we’re at it here’s an example of my idea of brilliant comic writing (from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ collection of dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan) about a suicide bomber in Baghdad:
Sure enough, they’d found the head. They’d placed it on a platter like John the Baptist’s, and set it on the ground next to an interior doorway. It was in good shape, considering what it had been through… The most curious aspect of the face was the man’s eyebrows: they were raised, as if in surprise. Which struck me as odd, given that he would have been the only person who knew ahead of time what was going to happen.
In Jeff in Venice…, Jeff recalls John Fowles’ distinction between “the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” As a writer, you must have half an eye on permanence and posterity. Or do you, like the characters in the book, seek nothing but the ongoing moment?
The books preserve those fleeting moments so it’s a way of having it both ways. And this is something that has been a major concern of many writers, since the romantic period especially. You know, it’s Wordsworth’s “I would enshrine the spirit of the past for future restoration.” Personally, I think I’ve been quite good at depicting happiness which we’re always told is difficult to do (‘Happiness writes white’ etc – another reflex non-thought). In terms of posterity etc, I think it’s really unfortunate now that one’s standing is decided so early on that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish from the pre-publication marketing campaign (“the next big thing…”). I’ve never really been plagued by doubts about the worth of what I’ve been doing, only about my ability to continue doing it which has not really been tied up with whether that high opinion was shared by others.
You portray yourself as terminally lazy and uncommitted, but few writers are as protean, or as widely and highly acclaimed. Is Geoff Dyer the George Best of literature, gifted with such a great natural talent that he can get away with not knuckling down to make the most of it? Or is this just a pose?
What an unbelievably flirtatious question! I don’t think it’s laziness so much as a chronic, deep-down existential desire to do nothing, to down tools, to just potter away my time. But if I succumbed to that – and I get closer to succumbing to it with every passing year – I would sink into depression. Paris Trance was ultimately about the siren call of that. In a way I would like to have acquired the habits and discipline of the career novelist without becoming one. And since Thomas Mann is lurking in the background of the new book I’ll quote that line of his that I love so much: a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. To be honest, it’s an absolute mystery to me how I’ve ended up writing all these books. When you are younger there are more things to tempt you out but as you get older it becomes more difficult to concentrate.
You say your eclectic range of books comes from taking an interest in a subject – jazz, photography, Lawrence – and wanting to find out more about it. Are there any such projects which have failed to make it to book form? What topics do you have your magpie eye on currently?
There is something thing that I am very interested in at the moment but which I have no desire to write a book about: the US Marine Corps. My house is full of books about the Marines but there’s nothing in it for me as a writer. That grew out of, or is a by-product of, the series and book Generation Kill but, more generally, I’ve been reading all these books about Iraq, Afghanistan etc: The Assassin’s Gate, The Looming Tower, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, The Forever War etc. This is the big story of our time – in fact, these are some of the great books of our time – but there’s no chance of me trying to write anything like that. I am tempted to write a whole book about Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. I like that as an idea: following up Jeff in Venice, which I guess has a wide potential readership, with one that has almost no readership at all. And tennis is a perpetual source of torment, both in terms of playing it and trying to write about it.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I really love this American poet Dean Young, who I suspect not too many people in UK will have heard of (though I could be wrong). He comes out of that Ashbery surreal school but he’s very distinctive. Also hilarious – and profound at the same time. The various volumes all have pretty much the same proportion of great, good and not-so-good poems but the first one I read – and therefore the one for which I have a special affection – is First Course in Turbulence.
February 20, 2009
Jill Dawson is one of the UK’s most reliably interesting writers. The first book of hers I read was the Orange-shortlisted Fred and Edie (2000), based on a controversial murder case from 1923. This displayed her finest qualities: a masterly ventriloquism, a handling of female roles in society without being strident or obvious, and a seamless twining of history and invention. The next novel of hers I read, Watch Me Disappear (2006), was one of my favourite books of the year. Recently I found that with her new novel, The Great Lover, she has lost none of her style, narrative intelligence and aplomb. When not being a novelist, poet and anthologist, she mentors new writers under the Gold Dust programme. She has kindly agreed to field some questions for this blog.
In The Great Lover you imagine periods in the life of Rupert Brooke. How do you strike a balance between artistic licence and responsibility to the subject?
I think each writer sets themselves their own rules. I like to do a lot of original research, just as a biographer or historian would. Not simply relying on accounts by others but going to original documents, sources, newspapers, books of the time, places. In Brooke’s case I mostly read his letters, over and over, including some which have only recently come to light and not been included in any biography yet. Did he have a relationship with a maid like Nell? No, I don’t think so. Might he have been interested in such a girl, given what he wrote about the ‘lower orders’ and girls in particular – yes. I take as my guide what I call the ‘logic of imagination’. And I’m clear that it’s a novel, not a fictional biography.
Several of your recent novels have been based on true stories or real people. Do you actively seek out historical figures or events which sound as though they might make a novel, or is it pure coincidence? Have you had other such ideas which haven’t come to fruition?
I’m not sure I seek them out. They seem to find me…. I read a great deal of non-fiction and I do get attracted to ideas and themes and want to write a non-fiction book on a subject and then discover that a novel is what I am writing. I mean, I read a lot of biography and am beguiled by it as an art-form. And yet, when I think of writing one, I know that I am very frustrated by defining statements such as ‘Rupert Brooke was clever /troubled/ misunderstood/playful etc …’ and would rather try to conjure him up for a reader and let them make up their own mind. More like meeting a person in real life, where we all have our own views.
(Any other ideas that haven’t come to fruition?)
I did write two bad novels in my twenties that thankfully remained under the bed and have since been thrown out. One was about a tiny shrinking girl (like Mrs Pepperpot, the children’s novel, if you know that) and I think some of the ideas from that one morphed into Watch Me Disappear twenty years later, and also went into an earlier novel of mine, Magpie.
Richard Price spoke of the difficulty when researching a novel of knowing when (and how) to stop the research and actually make the decision to sit down and write the first sentence. Has this been a problem with any of your more heavily-researched novels (Fred & Edie, Wild Boy, The Great Lover)? Does research assist the imaginative process by providing a factual springboard, or does it tie you down to what must be known?
I do both simultaneously: research and write. It does my head in, as new discoveries keep changing things, but I can’t seem to help it.
In The Great Lover, sexuality features as a prominent theme as it did in Watch Me Disappear and, to a lesser extent, in Fred & Edie. These books also touch on how we see figures in the public eye. Is there a unifying intention here? Does sexuality define people, or provide them with their most novelistic and newsworthy experiences?
I think sexuality is certainly a theme and something too about the myths that underpin our culture – wanting to excavate these a little. Beyond that I’m afraid I’m not good at theorising about my novels. I feel that fiction is my first language, not a stand-in for something else. My task is to pick the exact word, try to get as close as possible to an atmosphere, scene or emotion that I want to invoke. But the rest is happening in the reader’s imagination and not under my control.
Watch Me Disappear pays explicit homage to Lolita. As with Nabokov, style seems central to your books, particularly when adopting a character’s voice. Do you have priorities as a writer, among plot, characters, style and so on?
Yes, I definitely start with a place, a vague idea of a character and then work hard to get a voice. That takes the longest time. The voice is most important to me. With Watch Me Disappear I embedded loads of phrases from Nabokov’s Lolita and an earlier novel of his The Enchanter. I paid Nabokov’s son (and literary executor) to use some of them, but others were just fragments and seemed to go unnoticed by reviewers, which I took as a compliment. (Phew! – could have been costly!) With The Great Lover I started with Nell. I’d an idea that the whole novel would be narrated by Nell. Then Rupert Brooke kept barging in. I heard his voice so clearly, through reading the letters that I tentatively began to narrate snippets from his point of view as well. Then they got bigger and bigger…
A non-literary question if I may. You live in an award-winning eco house designed by your husband. Can you tell us something about what led to this project and how you’ve found sustainable living in the six years since it was completed?
It’s five a.m. as I write this. I was lying in bed worrying – a very rare thing for me, but I’ve got a new novel out and that’s always a stressful time. (I’m happiest when I’m knuckling down writing one, not popping up promoting it). So I creep upstairs to my study at the top of the house. For many years (fifteen I think) I did not have a study, but worked at a computer in my bedroom. Really, that’s what this house means to me – a study. My husband meanwhile has been carefully monitoring the energy use and gleefully noting how well it has performed. It’s very well insulated (with recycled newspapers) and uses passive solar energy – that, as I understand it in my non-technical way means it makes best use of the sunlight at different times of the day and the year, in the way it is positioned.
To his frustration I tend not to be properly interested in all of that, but think of it simply as a lovely house to live in – full of light and kind of plain and unfussy. The floor is made from the off-cuts of cherry wood that people normally throw away, that kind of thing.
Can you recommend any unfairly neglected books or authors to the readers of this blog?
Not sure it’s exactly neglected, but I love William Maxwell’s So Long, See you Tomorrow. Anybody know that? Small-town America and the unreliability of memory… and exquisite tenderness in the writing that makes me want to read it all over again.