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3am Interview





DAWSON'S CHIC: AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK DAWSON



"In terms of the celeb angle, things like Big Brother and reality TV -- and the elevation of frankly talentless people to star status, complete with acres of newsprint about what hair gel they use, etc, etc -- spurred me to write something in opposition. I don't know that I find the public's obsession with that kind of shite distressing (and I'm as guilty as anyone on that score) but it was something I felt I needed to address."

HP Tinker interviews Mark Dawson

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


3AM: Tell us a little about yourself.

MD: I'm 28, I work in media law in Soho and use that to pay the mortgage when the royalty cheques dry up. I was born in Lowestoft, on the East Coast, and then traced a route via Manchester, Chicago and Chester, finally ending up in the big smoke six years ago. I've had a busy few years: I DJed at the Hacienda in Manchester, sold ice cream out of the back of a converted US Postal service truck in Chi-town, and now serve the (legal) whims of the nation's celebrities. I live with two cats in Hackney. It's a rock and roll kinda lifestyle.

3AM: You were a DJ at the Hacienda, I know. An interesting start for a writer, I would say...

MD: Amazing. I missed the golden years by a couple, and so landed in Manchester when it was ruled by the likes of M-People and Kiss FM when, had I been a little earlier, I could have had The Smiths, Mondays, Roses, etc. Still -- I had a free rein with what I played and so could spin all sorts of stuff from the golden years, and even new stuff from young scamps like Oasis (before they lost the plot...) When the Hac shut, an era in British music went with it. I firmly believe that -- if you need proof, look at the charts now. Coincidence? I don't think so.

3AM: Which writers were your initial touchstones?

MD: Like anyone of my age, Amis was a key early influence. I tried to be him for ages until I realised it was folly. Then Will Self: ditto. Most of my influences now are American -- Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney chiefly. The lit-pack from the 80s. But I also like Donna Tarrt, Joan Didion, Dickens, Hemingway, Orwell, Huxley etc. And I used to love sci-fi: Stephen Donaldson is a wonderful writer.

3AM: Before The Art of Falling Apart, had you written much fiction?

MD: Yeah, been writing for ages although I stopped in Manchester because I was having too much fun to clock the 1,000 words a day.

3AM: What were your early efforts like?

MD: Pretty crappy, but part of that is the natural revulsion -- that might be too strong a word -- that I get when I look back at my older stuff. Magnify that distaste by 1,000 to get an idea of what I think of stuff I wrote when I was 12. And this stuff -- sci-fi pap -- nearly got published. I was into sci-fi and fantasy then. I'd start something, write 20,000 words, and then go and watch Thundercats and forget all about it. Or something like that. The Art of Falling Apart was the first thing I actually finished.

3AM: So how did you come to sit down and actually write the first novel?

MD: Started writing again in London -- probably a reaction to the job I was doing at the time. I had what Nabokov calls a "throb" -- a strong image that gradually reveals itself over time. Mine was of a band on a stage. Over time, I realised they were Brits, they were in the US, they were in Vegas, one of them would die, they would be seriously fucked up. It kind of developed from there.

3AM: That's interesting. And I can see why the idea appealed to you. But writing about a super-group in Las Vegas seems a world away from the Hacienda and the back streets of Manchester. Were you able to bring much of your own experiences of the music world to the book? Was there much of yourself in Spin the DJ, for instance...

MD: There are elements of a few of the bands I know in Dystopia, but the band is an amalgam at best -- nothing in particular stands out. I'm not sure why the idea of a band in Vegas came to me -- I haven't thought about that too much, except to say that the location inspires me and there's always fun to be had in writing about debauchery on a rock and roll scale. Spin is probably the nearest character to me -- a lot of his DJing passages are lifted straight from my own experience, and some of the stories -- locking himself out of the DJ booth as a record fades down, for example -- are things that I've done.

3AM: It's quite a dark and cynical tale. Is that just your view of the music business... or life in general?

MD: That's life, for me. I'm fairly nihilistic most of the time. My second book is much more upbeat and, while I had a great time writing it -- and everyone who has read it seems to enjoy it -- I'd have to admit to enjoying the stuff I'm doing now more: bleak, morally ambiguous, almost pornographic in parts, downbeat, no happy endings in sight.

3AM: For the first novel of an unknown writer, The Art of Falling Apart was picked up very quickly by a big publisher. Quite a feat. How did you manage it?

MD: A mixture of luck and ... well, luck, actually. I wrote three chapters -- three short stories really -- and sent them to agents on the off chance they might show some pity to me. Two wrote and said they liked the stuff and would like to see more. Of course, I didn't HAVE any more so I spent the next three months taking one of the stories -- "Dystopia" -- and turning it into a novel. I burned myself out doing it -- writing late into the night and then working all day, but I was enthusiastic and it was tough to stop. I chose Iain Banks's agent (there's another influence for you) and we really struck it off. And, as a writer, once you have a good agent you are more than halfway there to getting published. We had some trouble in getting around the fact that Powder had been published the year before, but eventually Peter Lavery at Macmillan took me on. It's been clear sailing ever since -- I'm very lucky to have landed there.

3AM: Why was Powder considered a problem? Because people viewed it as covering the same turf?

MD: Yep. Powder sold well, but a few publishers thought that retreading the ground might not be a good idea (I don't think the books are that similar, but there you go). Plus, it's notoriously difficult to publish fiction about music -- there are only a few decent examples -- Banks's Espedair Street and Hornby's High Fidelity -- that stand out. And the latter only uses music for colour.

3AM: The success of The Art of Falling Apart must have come as a massive surprise...

MD: Yeah, very much so. Like most writers, it is tough to judge how good your stuff is. I hate bits of my work. So when others tell me that they love it, it's a big ego trip, flattering, and surprising. And when one of London's best agents and then a massive publisher like Macmillan say they like it ... it was a dance-around-the-room moment.

3AM: What did you dance around the room to?

MD: Probably Nine Inch Nails at the time … but Soft Cell would have been more appropriate, given the title.

3AM: You seem to work very closely with your agent and publisher. How important are they to you?

MD: Vital. My agent is superb, and I am very, very lucky to have her. She is a great critical reader and often makes suggestions for plot, tone etc that I might not otherwise have come up with. The same goes for my editor -- very astute, and has published some of the greats. Between the two of them, by the time I submit a manuscript I know it has gone through the mill a few times. And, of course, I have friends who give me a lot of support and advice, a couple in particular.

3AM: Other writers?

MD: No other writers look at my work before it's published. I'd rather avoid that.

3AM: Do you socialise much with your literary peers, then?

MD: Quite a bit. I'm on good terms with a few others, including Toby Litt and China Mieville (who is probably writing the best fantasy -- I term it that way very loosely -- out there at the moment. Richard Asplin -- writes very funny stuff. I've met Zadie Smith a couple of times. There are a couple of others too.

3AM: You've written a new book, Subpoena Colada. What's the premise behind it?

MD: Celebrity. I'm really interested in cheap fame and cheap glamour. You only need to look at the TV at the moment to see how prevalent it is and see how voracious our appetite seems to be when it comes to it. I was interested in taking a one-time big star and seeing what would happen to him when the star waned. So we have this 80s pop star -- Brian Fey -- and we watch as he slides down the slope to mediocrity and irrelevance. He doesn't know how to handle it -- there's a lot of fun to be had in looking at that (we love watching the famous slip up -- look at the fervour over Barrymore now).

I was very pleased to see the celebrity Survivor show this summer. It was fascinating to see these pointless, inane, largely talentless "celebs" try to justify themselves and their faded careers. I mean: Uri Geller? That kind of examination is what I was trying to achieve with Brian: he will not realise that he has lost what he once had, and he can't adapt. And, also, the book deals with addiction and loss (of fame and of love). Without saying too much, the book -- very unexpectedly -- describes what happened to me recently, in both professional and personal terms. It was an interesting -- and slightly disturbing -- experience to re-read it when I was editing.

3AM: You mentioned earlier that The Art of Falling Apart began with a Nabokovian "throb", as it were. What was the initial impulse behind this one?

MD: I think, perhaps, there was something at the back of my head that I have only recently become aware of. Writing, for me, is often a form of therapy and I think that Daniel Tate was my attempt to resolve problems that I didn't really appreciate I had. As I say, there were professional and personal issues in my life that I wasn't dealing with (now resolved). In terms of the celeb angle, things like Big Brother and reality TV -- and the elevation of frankly talentless people to star status, complete with acres of newsprint about what hair gel they use, etc, etc -- spurred me to write something in opposition. I don't know that I find the public's obsession with that kind of shite distressing (and I'm as guilty as anyone on that score) but it was something I felt I needed to address.

3AM: It seems like a departure from the first...

MD: Subpoena Colada is a much less nihilistic book. That's not to say it doesn't trade in some sleazy themes, because it does. It's about jealously and ambition, loss, regret, remorse, that kind of thing. Yet it is a book about hope, and it has the first (and probably last) happy ending I've written.

3AM: The music world is once again an integral component, of course. Do you think that will always be an element in your work?

MD: I'm into music in a big way, but I think the two books have exorcised it. My new book, Girl #24, has nothing to do with music at all.

3AM: The protagonist Daniel Tate is a showbiz lawyer -- were you consciously setting out to write about the world you know?

MD: When I wrote SC I was working -- unhappily, although I hadn't really realised it -- in the City. Daniel moves from the City to Soho, which is what I ended up doing after finishing the book. The two were not consciously linked, but I think now they must be related. None of the stuff was written while I was a showbiz lawyer but I'm happy to say it seems to be a fairly accurate portrayal. Take that for what you will...

3AM: He's also successful, rich and has a beautiful actress girlfriend. Sounds uncannily like a self-portrait, to me...

MD: I wish!

3AM: Daniel's rock star client Brian Fey must have been based on someone though. The press call him The Thin White Dupe ... and his name seems strangely familiar!

MD: He is based on someone, although not Bowie or Ferry. I'm not going to reveal who it is, save to say they were a pioneering band in the early 80s who are still going today. Brian is very loosely based on the singer (and a few others, too).

3AM: The taut, clipped prose reminded me of American Psycho. What influences did you have in mind when writing it?

MD: Bret Ellis is a big influence on me, for sure. He is always in my mind when I am writing, although the power of his voice has faded as my own has developed. Now I kind of give him a familiar nod when I start working, but the voice is 99% my own -- that's a very important stage for a young writer to get to, I think. It's easy to lose hope because you don't match up -- in your own eyes -- to your idols. As to other influences: Nabokov, Dickens and the NME, strangely enough.

3AM: Er, why the NME?

MD: That was slightly tongue-in-cheek…

3AM: That's a relief. There's a touch of Amis in there too... Martin not Kingsley.

MD: Well, he was certainly an early influence, as I said. The things you read when you are finding your voice will always remain, even if only in sedimentary form at the bottom of the filter.

3AM: Given your involvement with Manchester music scene chic, it seems as though you're almost bringing an alternative sensibility to the mainstream novel.

MD: I have a background a lot of other writers don't. That doesn't mean I write better books -- far from it -- just that I can come at themes from a different angle. I've seen things they haven't seen, I guess. I'd also say that the process of mixing records is something that has stayed with me, and I wouldn't be surprised if it has influenced my writing. Something like Burroughs's cut-up method, maybe, but nothing as conscious as that was.

3AM: There's a sense of this in Manchester, 1987 -- the story extract published at 3A.M. -- which reads like an Indie Brideshead Revisited.

MD: Fair comment. I have very affectionate memories of those years. I think one day I'll write something like a paean to Manchester one day.

3AM: That would be great. Some people might baulk at being compared to Brideshead, though. But not you?

MD: Not at all -- it's one of my favourite novels. I don't have anything in common with Waugh, and couldn't write something dealing with those issues, but the themes he deals with -- and I'd count wistful reminiscing as one of those, the looking back at better times -- that chimes with me, especially recently. Quarter-life crises will do that to you.

3AM: I think it already has. So how is the work in progress coming along, then?

MD: Great -- the new one is called Girl #24 and is going to be very bleak. It's about a summer in the lives of six rich kids, and is about infatuation, denial and, ultimately, death. It's by far the most explicit book I've written -- the drugs and sex scenes are almost pornographic in approach -- and it has a very, very downbeat ending. I'm into the films of Larry Clark at the moment and his work is colouring mine. I don't know when it will appear: I'm halfway through draft number one, so probably in 18 months or so. Hard to tell.

3AM: So what is it you like about Larry Clark's films? They're genuinely provocative, I think, and many people seem outraged by them.

MD: It's the bleakness that attracts me. His subjects -- in Kids and Bully, certainly -- wander around aimlessly with no moral compass, no structure or pattern to their lives. I live in Hackney, and it is something I see every day -- kids who you know are only ever going to find shitty jobs or, worse, end up victims of crime or criminals. I'll be in bed at night and hear them just wandering the streets, drugged-up or drunk. Plus I was mugged by a couple of them once -- young teens with a gun and a knife. I'm not sure who I blame for that kind of state -- I'm largely apolitical, and I'm not advancing solutions or making judgments -- but it is something that really interests me. (Stupidly, given there was a knife at my throat at the time, the only thing I remember from being mugged was that "this would make a really interesting scene in a novel.") The explicitness of Clark's films doesn't bother me -- kids have sex and kids take drugs, so there seems to me to be no point in pretending that they don't, or even in sugar-coating it. That's not to say these are challenging, disturbing films and I understand why people are uncomfortable watching them (because I am too). I'd be happy to achieve the same effect with my writing.

3AM: Your writing is quite cinematic, it occurs to me. Is cinema a big influence on you, then?

MD: I think I tend to think visually. So it's perhaps inevitable that my writing reads that way.

3AM: The Art of Falling Apart seems eminently filmable. Has anyone approached you for the rights yet?

MD: I had some sniffs of interest from film production companies about the first book, and I've got my fingers crossed that the paperback publication will make itself felt in the right places.

3AM: With two books under your belt now, and another under way, does that give you the clout to write more or less what you want to?

MD: I've always written what I wanted to write. I write for me, and not for anyone else. Of course, I'm extremely flattered that other people like what I do, but writing for an audience is a recipe for disaster. You can't predict how the market will shift -- chick-lit books might be dead in a year's time (here's hoping) -- and so if you write what is selling today, you might find yourself screwed when publication comes around. It's a cliché, but I'm not going to apologise for using it: write what you know. Write what interests you. The best stuff comes around that way.

3AM: So, if you really wanted to, you could write a literary Metal Machine Music then...

MD: I think my contract would be terminated rather quickly!




Subpoena Colada is published on 25 October by Macmillan. The Art of Falling Apart is also available in paperback the same day. An extract from a work in progress appears in 3A.M. Magazine.



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