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Commercial Anxiety

Andrew Stevens interviews novelist Daniel Davies.

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3:AM: I gather it was a struggle to get The Isle of Dogs published?

DD: Well I’m always reading that more novels are being published than ever before. So it’s strange that it seems increasingly difficult to publish anything. Maybe what we’ve gained in volume we’ve lost in variety. UK publishing does strike me as highly conservative. I’m always reading about the homogeneity of English high streets — one Boots, one Gap, one Starbucks — and maybe our bookshelves have gone the same way. Fortunately, I have an excellent agent — Tim Bates at Pollinger — who managed to place the novel fairly quickly. It was turned down by about 11 publishers, but many of these were corporate houses who might have been put off by the subject matter. Looking back, it was probably always destined for one of the braver independents. So, all in all, it wasn’t as big a struggle as it might have been. Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example, was rejected by 25 publishers before being snapped up by Faber. If you have the right agent, who contacts the right editors, it can suddenly feel strangely easy.

3:AM: You have commented on the publishing climate which saw the subject matter frowned upon by prospective publishers. Why do you think that is?

DD: Again, I think it comes down to conservatism, which is really just a result of commercial anxiety — that is, they were worried it wouldn’t sell. First, the sex scenes are highly explicit, so it might have presented a marketing conundrum — too little sex, written in the wrong way, to publish the book as pornography. But too much sex, written too explicitly, to publish it as a mainstream novel. Second, the novel deals with other difficult themes, such as racial tension and nervous breakdown — not the smoothest material for press releases. Third, the novel is set outside London, and narrated by a character who despises the city, which might have rubbed London-based editors up the wrong way. However, I’m not so immodest as to forget Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest explanation is likely to be the right one — maybe it got overlooked because it’s just not that good.

3:AM: OK, but part of that marketing push for the eventual product suggests that it’s ‘new Ballard/Houellebecq’, though the authors who supplied those blurbs were careful enough to just hint at that rather than make outright comparisons to those writers. Weren’t you afraid that those could give rise to expectations you might not be able to live up to? That said, you do reference both writers in the book so would it be fair to suggest they’re influential on you? It certainly relies on stock Ballardian/Houellebecq themes, does it not?

DD: But how many writers, particularly new ones starting out, would object to being likened to more famous and illustrious authors? (especially by more famous and illustrious authors — in my case, Toby Litt) You have to look at it from the writer’s perspective. If you wrote a first novel, and somebody called you, say, ‘the new Nabokov’, you’d greet such a label with tearful gratitude. The fact that it was an overstatement would be the last thing on your mind. It would take an extraordinarily diffident and grounded new writer to contact his or her marketing department and say, ‘Please ignore that compliment and for God’s sake keep it off the jacket.’ I think, too, that such compliments serve another function besides the obvious one of trying to shift copies — they hint at genre and tone, so that people have an idea of what they’re getting. It’s really journalistic shorthand. Everyone is the new somebody. So Zadie Smith was the new Rushdie, Adam Thirlwell was the new Kundera and Will Ashon, who wrote Clear Water, was also the new Ballard. I met him at a reading and he said, grinning, “Yeah, I got that Ballard stuff too.” The irony is, I’ve barely read Ballard, though what I did read — High-Rise — I loved. I will read more. Houellebecq is an obvious influence, which is why he’s mentioned in the book, and one of the reasons I wanted to be published by Serpent’s Tail — they published his first novel too.

3:AM: But a lot of the CCTV/Blair’s Britain commentary strikes me as recent Ballard, Kingdom Come particularly.

DD: Really? That’s interesting. I know my dad has read Kingdom Come, and he said it was good, but I haven’t. I know that Rupert Thomson published a state-of-the-nation novel called Divided Kingdom in 2005 — and I bet somebody, somewhere, said that was ‘Ballardian’ too. I think it’s a case of different novelists, with similar concerns (or similar sensibilities, to use the quaint term) tuning into the same cultural noises and writing down what they hear — in the same way that somebody looking back on novels written between, say, 2003 and 2015 might find lots of anxiety about politicised religion and aeroplanes crashing into skyscrapers.

(above: Daniel Davies interviewed by Lee Henshaw)

3:AM: How do you think the book’s been received so far? Has it suffered because of the subject matter, do you think?

DD: The short answer is that it’s barely been received at all. Somebody once likened publishing a first novel to dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and now I know what they mean. The reviews it has received have been largely positive — but it hasn’t been reviewed widely and, so far, has been roundly ignored by national newspapers. Whether that’s because of the subject matter, or because I’m an unknown first-time writer, I don’t know. Probably a mixture of both. But it’s important to keep things in perspective and not get spoilt or bitter. Most people who dream of being writers never manage to publish anything — let alone enjoy rave reviews in the literary press. The Isle of Dogs did get reviews and mentions in Time Out, Arena, The Bookseller and others — and was also the subject of a Guardian blog by Justin Quirk — so I can’t moan too much. You have to be grateful for whatever attention your work attracts, and I am.

3:AM: Do you think this was a reluctance to engage with the subject matter or more a facet of the dominance of the reviews’ sections by larger publishing houses?

DD: I simply don’t know — you’d have to ask an agent, editor or literary journalist. I just don’t know the industry well enough. Off the top of my head, I’d say it’s likely to be both.

3:AM: It says you did all the research for the novel by the internet, did you not visit any locations to at least get a feel for the surroundings?

DD: All the research I did was online — at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Because the scene is so highly organised, there are lots of websites devoted to it. There were even user groups on Facebook, I read, but they might have been removed now. So, for the purposes of writing a novel, there was plenty of material to draw on. As for tone and atmosphere — or ‘feel’, if you will — I drew largely on my experience of growing up in a small market town. The locations in the novel aren’t real, but it was easy enough to dream them up. I think anyone who lives in England will recognise the landscape. I haven’t visited the places described in the novel, and nor has anybody else — they simply don’t exist — but we feel as if we have. That sense of familiarity, even deja vu, was an effect I wanted.

3:AM: Did you consciously set out to write the ‘first dogging novel’ or more of a state of the nation one?

DD: Definitely the latter. I started the novel immediately after returning from living abroad for a few years and I felt I was seeing England through fresh eyes, perhaps for the first time in my life. So I wanted to exploit that freshness. I think it also explains the book’s tone – and the tone of the narrative voice – which is detached, even alienated. I first read about dogging on the BBC website when I was living in Spain and it struck me as so English – eccentric, secretive and basically quite funny. So, yes, dogging is not the book’s subject at all: the book’s subject is contemporary England. Dogging was just the way in, so to speak. Funnily enough, very few people respond to the book’s sexual content – what they respond to are its other themes, such as surveillance, the power of subcultures and the sterility of consumer culture.

3:AM: We rarely hear about dogging these days though, I think the media have run out of things to say about it, not least as most celebs collared by them a few years back (as alluded to in the book) are more wary about how they get their kicks now. In the book, you do detail many of the codes and mores among the scene, which does suggest it’s more than just cruising for straight people, as some such as Mark Simpson have suggested.

DD: Yes, it makes me wish I’d studied anthropology at university, rather than English literature. I’d love to know what a professional anthropologist would make of it. My impression, from my reading and what I saw on websites, was that its primary attraction was its secrecy, the sense it gave of belonging to an exclusive club, even an occult society. It makes people feel part of something. And given that so many of the people on the scene are married, and go dogging as couples, they can’t all be sex-starved. So at least part of the motivation must be non-sexual (although exhibitionism is an obvious dimension). I did wonder whether it’s a reponse to a culture that is increasingly fragmented and stratified. It might also be a response to the ubiquity of surveillance. Evading surveillance to take part in something that is basically illegal might give a pleasurable frisson of subversion, of being rebellious, of bucking the system. Maybe it’s the same impulse that made football hooliganism attractive to people in the 1980s, many of whom were respectably middle-class. There were plenty of accountants and solicitors among the skinheads, ripping up seats and fighting other hooligans.

3:AM: In spite of the geographical allusion in the title, the novel deals with the rejection of London as a place and lifestyle, the narrator commenting on most people in the capital’s prosaic reality of work-commute-home rather than it being any kind of hedonistic playground. In that sense, dogging is un-London in terms of its impossibility here and its Middle England appeal in terms of opportunity and exclusivity. However, one hostile review did accuse you of “hoary gags about the provinces” in this regard.

DD: Ha, yes, I read that Culture Wars review a while ago and thought it was hilarious. It’s a shame, in a way, that it was so foamy-mouthed as it makes some quite interesting points. I remember thinking that the angry-sixth-former tone actually undermined its content. Anyway, I think it’s the age-old confusion between an author and his narrator. It’s always a risk when you write satire, especially in the first-person, because one of the demands of the genre is that you feign complicity. What that reviewer only half-understood is that Jeremy Shepherd is not supposed to be a likeable character (how could anyone honestly think I meant him to be?) He’s supposed to be a mess of dysfunction, isolation and snobbery. The novel is partly a satire on middle-class drop-outs and their metropolitan condescension. Over the years, I’ve met many. Remember, I’m not from London, so I can spot them a mile off. Jeremy Shepherd’s fate in the last quarter of the novel is a big hint about what I think of him. I wonder if that reviewer actually recognised elements of himself in Jeremy Shepherd. Perhaps I hit a raw nerve?

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Daniel Davies was born in Sutton-Coldfield, near Birmingham, in 1973, to a Welsh father and a Polish-German mother. He studied English at Cambridge. His previous jobs include curator at the British Museum, sub-editor of medical journal The Lancet and the Evening Standard. He lived abroad for three years teaching English in Barcelona, Prague and San Sebastian.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 25th, 2008.