“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.