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Derving On Weekends: An Interview With Thomas Leveritt

Interview by Lander Hawes.

3:AM: Both the prose style and the post-war location of the novel are very Pynchonesque. Was there a point when your material found its medium of expression? I mean were you carrying the story around in your head, then read Pynchon, and said “Eureka!”?

TL: For me it was the other way round. It’s style and voice that blow my hair back, and Pynchon ― which, just to define what I’m taking about here, I’d say Pynchon throws out the whole corpus of ‘novelistic’ English, used by most writers without even being aware of it, and writes instead in the rhythms of slang and poetry, using this weird and rather T.S.Eliot language as a sort of emulsion to bind together many different tropes of writing: scientific, magical, military, sports reporting, whatever. Gravity’s Rainbow really is “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” extrapolated into half a million words. The plot is fun and so on, but the hit is all poetic. So it was always this approach which appealed: language so delicious you just keep turning the pages, gorging on it. The lesson being, if you want to be a poet anymore, best disguise it as a novel. Better still a pop song. Because it strikes me that publishing poems in the traditional way today is mainly a way to get ignored by the main sequence of contemporary culture. Novels not much better, but still. You adjust to the technology available. If Byron was alive today, he wouldn’t be writing verse, he’d be freaking his shit off at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut. So I’ve been writing these wilfully anti-genre things for a while. The Exchange-Rate Between Love and Money is soberer than most.

3:AM: I assume that you wrote the novel in drafts? How many were there? How long did it all take?

TL: I started in June 2005 and finished it in September. I then finished it again in March 2006, and then finished it again in August. It was then sold to Random House in October, at which point I dismantled it entirely and categorically re-wrote the novel during February, introducing a number of new characters and themes, which was something of a surprise to Random. But they were able to get behind the changes I’d made, as long as I finished it in April in time for the London Book Fair, which I did. I then finished it several more times over the summer and autumn. Random finally wrestled it away from me around November 2007, when it got sent to press, and we all got on with our lives.

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3:AM: What lengths did you go to in analysing Pynchon’s style? Did you spend much time dissecting his paragraphs?

TL: Nothing overt. Whole passages just sank in and stayed there. I assume they’re still down there, like the Titanic.

3:AM: What’s the longest time you spent on one sentence? Which sentence was it?

TL: Who knows. Possibly days. I remember spending a long time trying to put my finger on what was wrong with the word evil:

A word vastly more malevolent than her own German ‘böse’ or French ‘mal’, neither being as jetblack in their refusal of any possibility of redemption… a word powerful as a spell, that removes all restraint or decency, a dangerous magic shot through with the Anglo-Saxon genius for violence.

3:AM: I take it that you have some knowledge of the Bosnian Serb conflict? Is there anything you want to say here on the matter?

TL: Some knowledge. Basically, the Serbs went to war for lebensraum. The Bosnians by contrast didn’t want to die. But it was sold by the British government as too complicated to do anything about, and intelligent people still think it was between sides that were ‘all as bad as each other’. Admittedly the Croatian sideshow, every bit as unpleasant, muddied the waters somewhat.

3:AM: The novel includes some terrifying details about the Bosnian Serb conflict and the local political organisation in its aftermath. Do you see fiction as having a part to play in the public representation of war?

TL: A small part. Novels are too far off the pace any more. Oxbow lakes. Movies are where it’s at in terms of shifting public consciousness, or for opinion-formers it’s all blogs and likewise, www.nowthatsfuckedup.com and whatever’s replaced it. That was the website where GIs posted pictures of dismembered jihadis in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to get free access to porn. Good title, by the way.

3:AM: What lasting effect has the war had on your consciousness?

TL: Revealed to me that people mainly take the decision to not know.

3:AM: Do you think further conflict in the region is likely, given the recent Bosnian declaration of independence?

TL: I think you mean the Kosovan declaration of independence. I think it’s unlikely. UNMIK (UN Mission in Kosovo) is all over it. I’d put it at 20%.

3:AM: Has your attitude to the representation of war in the mainstream media been changed by your experience in Bosnia?

TL: Well… when Gulf War I happened I was 15, and my favourite t-shirt was of an F-14 dropping a bombstick with ‘We Came We Saw We Kicked Ass’ on it. By Gulf War II, I just wonder where all the death is. By which I mean TV stations sell the war as being about military hardware, territory conquered, prisoners and casualties, jets taking off etc ― the acceptable parts. You never actually see the death, which strikes me as quite an omission, given that it’s the central― indeed, in many ways the only― fact of war. The British media is clearly a lot better than the American media on this, but all the same: not showing corpses on TV is supposed to be this civilized thing, about decency and respect and watersheds and so on, when in actual fact if you confronted voters with the reality of what was done in their name, there’d be fucking uprisings. Specially in the US, where the glory of war is still much more dearly pressed to people’s hearts. But if they got rattled by El Salvador, then they’re not going to like 100,000 civilians dead.

What was very clear from the Bosnian war was that when the media started showing actual death, mass graves, sniper shots etc ― it was more politically acceptable in that situation, as it wasn’t us causing the death, not directly anyway ― you got a rapid groundswell of popular pressure to do something about it. Certainly after Srebrenica, by mid-1995, gory TV coverage was quite explicitly the tool advocated to force NATO off the fence. So I think after Bosnia, that’s just a sociological law: corpses on TV, political pressure. Al-Jazeera doesn’t shy away from showing corpses, and look how Arab Street feels about that. So to answer your question: entirely. I don’t think there’s much delusion, inside the TV networks ― including the BBC ― that not showing Iraqi bodies is about decency. It’s about what’s politically acceptable. I mean the West is barely OK with the Iraq war as it is, and journalists are not, on the whole, very pro it, but I think if they tried to show bodies here the British government would shit on them all over again, as with Gilligan. Murdoch would pile in behind, the campaign to strip the licence fee would gain ground, etc. In America, it’s simply unthinkable.

It occurs to me that’s it’s fun to see people dying ― which is what movies are about ― but not so much fun to see them the morning after ― which is what life is about. A pretty cheap dichotomy, now I think about it. I’ll take it away and work on it.

3:AM: There’s a lot of thinking about whirling dervish in the novel. Does this represent a particular interest of yours?

TL: No. But there really are dervishes in Bosnia still. They have day jobs like everyone, and they derve on the weekends. But they still chant, rock, whirl and so on, this very medieval technique for achieving mental displacement. When the French built the Cathedral at Chartres, they used every technological tool at their disposal. I just find it bemusing that religions don’t keep their techniques updated. If communion wafers had rapid-acting MDMA in there ― which was after all once licensed as an appetite-suppressant ― I think you’d have more believers. C of E takings would be up, and when you gave your neighbour the sign of peace, there’d be a certain conviction currently lacking. Priests would be allowed to take mushrooms, and above them the bishops ketamine, archbishops acid ― I don’t see the problem. You’d hear back from god for once, anyway. Rastafari’s got the legal framework all in place.

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3:AM: What advantages do you think that Pynchon’s style allows a writer?

TL: The advantage to not sell many copies.

3:AM: Do you feel that Pynchon’s style allows you certain freedoms in relation to your material?

TL: I don’t know if it’s entirely Pynchon’s style. I flatter myself The Exchange-Rate Between Love and Money has a little bit of me in it as well…

But on the whole it does make it easier to cut through the bullshit. When you’re trying to weave a golden thread through a novel, where a typical English-English novel might spend most of the book weaving it, making everything else beige so the thread appears bright and shiny ― it is liberating when you realize that instead you can write, “so the golden thread? that’s Clare. She’s amazing” and get on with other things.

3:AM: Had you done much writing prior to The Exchange-Rate between Love and Money?

TL: Well I’ve always written, like I’ve always drawn. I have some novels still floating in those water-cylinders you grow clones in: one about a selenium-mining pueblo hanging onto the bottom rung of NAFTA; one about the Jacobite Diaspora and the Maori Battalion in WW2; and one about PR in London in 1997. Plenty of short stories.

3:AM: Do you feel committed to writing in a Pynchonesque style forever now?

TL: No. See next question

3:AM: “Paths were turning to rails”: that’s a great line. Can it be applied to your current feelings about writing?

TL: Thanks ― and no. What I’m writing now is almost entirely dialogue; the descriptions won’t come and the characters won’t shut up, so it’s a bit different. Things are always changing. Pynchon, by contast, is extremely sparing with dialogue. There’s one scene in Gravity’s Rainbow where Bodine seduces a Red Cross girl, and the entire exchange is rendered by Bodine looking at her significantly and saying “So”.

3:AM: Where does your writing gene come from? The English or the American side?

TL: I learned to speak in America, so maybe that’s why I prefer American writing. But also ― like the Impressionists, it seems more plein air. English writers seem to write writing: learn how at UEA, riff on EM Forster, pun, use certain set-piece phrases that haven’t generated their original brightness for centuries― clean bill of health, spreadeagled, well-heeled, hands down, etc. There’s some crack in The Exchange-Rate Between Love and Money about “the sort of novel that favours aquiline noses”. If I want to read vivid metaphor, I’m picking up Hunter Thompson, Denis Johnson, William Burroughs, Pynchon of course. I ain’t picking up no Somerset Maugham.

3:AM: Are there any descriptive passages that are your favourite?

TL: This is OTT enough for a trailer:

Bannerman tries, really he does, but the mask is heavy. There comes a point when he’s in bed with Clare, his heart can’t maintain its distance, and tiny shivers spiral out of his chest, dancing capoeiras in front of them, confettiing through the air, over the erect points of her hip-bones, shivers brilliant green and yellow, little fluttering softnesses homing in on her sleek wet face, chin rucking up as she looks down her body, swatting lightly against her eyelashes like they’re looking for friends… Clare indifferent to all this, her face gone a deep cardiac crimson under the freckles, lips almost grossly swollen, and staring Bannerman clean through the mind while she fucks him. And how can he not arc his torso back down to meet hers, translucent rorschach blot of love left in the air behind him, enter her again with the biting of lower lips, shutting of eyes, pastel butterfly presences dancing double, and triple-helixes in the rising air above their bodies…

3:AM: What’s your favourite Pynchon novel? Why?

TL: Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s got everything. I haven’t got my head entirely round Against the Day yet, but there seems to be more heart in Gravity’s Rainbow.

3:AM: What are the lessons in Pynchon’s work for a contemporary writer?

TL: Have a private income.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Thomas Leveritt is half American, half British, and 32. The Exchange-Rate Between Love and Money is his first novel. He has won the Carroll Medal for Portraiture from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In addition, he has: programmed computers, aid-worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an Army scholarship into the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, a Law Scholarship into Middle Temple, 28 cousins in Texas, and held the UK distribution rights for the very excellent Sarejevo Pivo.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Lander Hawes has written two unpublished novels and currently has a third dismantled around his flat. There is a wad of short stories that he is also responsible for. In his twenties he lived in London, Brighton, Spain and currently rests his head in Norwich. He has recently abandoned a PGCE, and a period of time working in libraries/bookshops seems imminent.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 27th, 2008.