Who or what had the biggest impact on your creative life?
Hard question! Parents? School? A particular author? A particular book? I don’t think I can pinpoint one person or thing that has influenced me more than anything else. Different things have had different impacts at different times. In terms of this novel, Randall, I suppose the Creative Writing degrees I did at UEA in Norwich, where I wrote it, had a huge influence. The people there, the sense of having a goal, the feeling of being part of a community all pushed me to make it the book it is.
Augusto Boal described internal oppressors as The Cop in the Head. How do you silence the reviewer to leave the writer in peace?
Oh boy, that cop. They’re useful, of course, but you need to keep them at bay for huge stretches of your writing time. I use two things that I know other writers hate: music, and alcohol. A glass of wine, or two, when writing late at night, banishes the usual inhibitions – that any particular set of words you happen to get down on screen look useless, the moment you see them – and lets me get the scene done. Not all the time, and not during the day, but it can give you that extra burst of energy you need at the end of a tiring day, and make the process of first-drafting more fun that is often otherwise is.
Music I use during the day when I’m writing. Particular types of music, particular albums – and usually one album on repeat, so that it sinks into my unconscious, and I can listen without hearing. I love the rhythm of it, it helps the rhythm of the writing – frees the Dancer in the Head, that the Cop in the Head wants to shut down. Just nodding along to something, sat in my chair, helps me get out of myself, and into that imaginative space where the novel is taking place. (Thinking about it, walking is a great help to writing, and the rhythm of music is perhaps the closest you can get to that while sat in your chair.)
Do you have tropes, phrases or words that you most overuse?
Ask my editors! I think Sam and Elly at Galley Beggars pointed out a preponderance of my characters to “sit themselves” in chairs, rather than just sit, and I know I’m always having them look at each other, and smile. Just stupid behavioural descriptors like that.
Short stories or novels – where do you feel most freedom?
Novels, I suppose. Stories, which I don’t write that many, are usually built around one idea, one moment, one trick I want to try to pull off, and so the writing of them is usually targeted at that goal. They’re something I want to try, or get out of my system. Novels are more explorative. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or I’m always keen to find a way to subvert or derail what I do think is going to happen.
What makes you laugh?
Happy people. Stupid people. Smart people. Clumsy people. Puns, screwball back-and-forth, intellectual slapstick. So many different kinds of laughter. Laughter is a cultural manifestation. I’m not sure I want to think too hard about what I laugh at.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of British literature?
Hum. Well, it keeps going, doesn’t it? There are loads of great writers out there, and they’re getting published, in some form or other, so to that extent I’m optimistic. What I’m pessimistic about is the ability of British publishing, and of publishing in general, to serve British literature. I don’t like reading stuff digitally, and I have all sorts of sentimental attachment to books. Like most people, if I don’t have a book to hand, I’d rather be browsing Twitter or reading some online journalism than reading a book on a tablet or phone. Holding a book-as-object in your hand makes reading a whole-body thing. I just don’t see people reading books on buses and trains like they used to, and I don’t really blame them. Nobody’s yet written the story I’d prefer to read onscreen than on the page, and the culture seems to be conspiring against the page, so that makes me sad.
Where do you write? What’s on your desk and why?
At my desk. On it: monitor, keyboard, dictionaries, thesaurus, useful books etc – I love looking stuff up when I’m writing, love building up a pile of mess that I can then clear away to nothing – also Post-it notes, water, coffee, a screwdriver, rubber bands, all sorts of crap. This is the desk that I work my day job at, too, so it’s far from the monkish ideal.
Confess a guilty reading pleasure.
Haven’t got one. You won’t find me reading a book that I’d feel guilty about reading. Either that means I don’t read crap, or it’s not crap if I’m reading it, right?
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?
I really thought I’d love Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, or at least envy it. It was tackling the same art world that Randall is set in, and I’d heard great things about the zippy, muscular prose style. (I love Don DeLillo, and got the impression that was the kind of thing we were talking.) But I found it overwritten, in a very American way: forceful, but wilfully slapdash at the same time, like a cool kid who very much wants to look like they think they’re not being looked at while they groove away in the corner of the disco.
Your fascination with book design – where does that come from?
From beautiful books – and then from the beginnings of an understanding of how books are more than objects, they are a technology, and they exist to serve a market. Why do Penguin have NINE different editions of Frankenstein across their adult and children’s imprints? Why does Morrissey insist on being a Penguin Classic then have such a large font and wide spacing (roughly 25% fewer words per page than my Penguin Classic Moby Dick!). When a publisher reissues an author’s back catalogue in a new design, what are they trying to do? Books are texts wrapped in their own advertisements. I love what they look like, and what they tell us about ourselves as readers.
Attention and focus. Immediacy of response. Delicious home-cooked food. Being able to look your editor in the eye without feeling they have a great machine behind them that will skew their reply.
Would you share what you’re working on next?
I have a novel and a YA novel, both in rough first draft, and I’m toying with which to run. Probably the novel: it’s about the pop music industry, in the way that Randall is about the art world – as with the book design thing, I’m fascinated by the way technology has driven the art form (pop/rock music) that I grew up thinking was somehow naturally, instinctively, authentically creative.
Money’s no object – which artwork would you buy?
A big 17th Century oil painting, something by Poussin or Claude. Something as far removed from any piece of art I’d actually be likely to every own. Something that would totally dominate any room it was hung in. A landscape or Classical scene, that I would lose myself in – those Mediterranean hills shading into the distance, the high, feathery trees, the people in their important configurations.
Read the Bookmuse review of Randall.