A SMALL BUT SATISFYING KICK IN BLAIR'S NUTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAN RHODES
"Books are often praised to the heavens for being unsentimental. I don't get it - what's so great about being unsentimental? I admit to being a sucker for very obviously sad stuff. I'm listening to a lot of drivetime rock at the moment, which is the musical equivalent of Bambi -- unashamedly emotionally manipulative."
Andrew Gallix interviews Dan Rhodes
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3AM: What made you want to write in the first place? Was it because you're a (self-styled) "terminal romantic"? Were you influenced by any specific authors?
DR: One of the things that got me writing fiction sensibly, in 1996, was that I was disappointed by every modern book I read. I was only enjoying old stuff, and decided that if I wanted to read modern writing that I enjoyed I would have to write it myself. Jim and William Reid said something similar about why they started writing songs. I've since found some people who are around now whose work I think is great. And yes, I was attracted to a ludicrously romantic notion of the writer's life.
3AM: When you learned that Timoleon Vieta Come Home (2003) was going to be published you claim to have had a "pop idol moment" ("I wept and called my mother"). Weren't you convinced it would get published, then? Granted, the stakes were high as you'd spent five and a half years writing it, but, still, you already had two published books under your belt…
DR: My old publisher refused to put it out, so it was in limbo for about a year. It was a hideous episode, and placing it with Canongate was a major victory, and marked the beginning of the end of a very unpleasant chapter of my life. I didn't really weep, but I did punch the air with joy when I found out they liked it. The other two books had sold to a 'cult' level (i.e. not particularly well) so there was no guarantee that it would come out at all. I'm happy for it to have come out in book form. Everything else -- all the translations, sales, good reviews, etc -- is a bonus.
3AM: You wrote in The Guardian that "Like most writers" you're "primarily motivated by hatred and revenge" and that the publication of Timoleon Vieta was thus "a really good poke in the eye to those people who wrote me off". Could you tell us a little more about this "hatred and revenge" which fuels your writing and "those people" who wrote you off?
DR: I've signed more gagging clauses than Tom Cruise's butler, so I have to be careful what I say… I have many, many enemies in the London book world!
3AM: Your friend Jenny Colgan mentioned your "catastrophic" love life in The Independent and put it down to your being attracted to the "unattainable, pedestal type". This is refelected in all your works where the female of the species is definitely deadlier than the male. Where does this masochistic streak come from?
DR: I'm not at all masochistic, just unlucky…
3AM: When I asked you for your Top 5 recently, you said that The Smiths were "still the soundtrack to my life -- I can't work out if they saved it or ruined it". Your stories reflect a very pessimistic outlook on life and love -- they are "all about unhappiness in love" (Jenny Colgan) -- which is reminiscent of Morrissey's. Do you agree?
DR: I discovered the Smiths when I was twelve, and Mozzer was always a big influence on my writing. As well as being deeply melancholy, his songs are extraordinarily uplifting, and I've always striven for a combination of sadness and joy. I tend to take my cues from songwriters as much as other fiction writers, maybe even more so. Other primary musical influences on my stuff include Stephin Merritt and the great Daniel Johnston, both of whom were always on my stereo when I was writing Anthropology, and who both have a Smithsian balance of humour and heartache in their music.
3AM: Do you also agree with Paul Morley (quoted by Michael Bracewell in The Nineties) who argues that "You could swap every winner of the Booker Prize for one song by Morrissey"? After all, the list of writers who make references to Morrissey and The Smiths keeps growing (Douglas Coupland, Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Coe…).
DR: The Smiths were the best band ever. I tend not to be very interested in books that win the Booker Prize, particularly when it seems as if they were written with one eye on it - that's just lamentable. And yes, it's not often you come across a book that carries as much of a punch as something like "I Know It's Over", or "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me". Fiction at its very best can rival The Smiths -- I'm a Chekhov nut at the moment, and he's up there. I re-read Timoleon Vieta Come Home recently, and found three or four Smiths steals. I doff my cap at every opportunity.
3AM: Apparently, you also like S-Club Juniors. What's that all about, eh?
DR: I used to say that I found S-Club Juniors reprehensible on every level, but then they released "New Direction", which just happened to be one of the best pop songs of last year. I bought it and made the mistake of taking it round to Colgo's house, and she told the world my secret. She can hardly talk, anyway. She was the one person who bought the Appleton album!
3AM: You once taught in Saigon, there are several charming paintings of dogs in the novel by a Vietnamese artist called Vien Thuc and you have stated your intention to learn Vietnamese: what relationship do you have with that part of the world? Is the haiku quality of your very short pieces in Anthropology (2000) and (to a lesser extent) Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love (2001) the result of a Vietnamese/Cambodian influence?
DR: I'm glad you like the pictures. I keep hoping to have the opportunity to move out there and study, but I've been kept busy with promotion and other stuff. I would be stupid to run away to the other side of the world right now. Vietnamese fiction isn't an influence, but women at bus stops over there sell comedy fiction about weak men, and I would love to read some of that stuff, and translate it if it's any good. But that'll be years down the line if it happens at all. I started writing Anthropology in Vietnam -- I wrote the story "Milestones" on the bus between Kon Tum and Danang. And after living in Saigon in 1996 I wrote the story "The Violoncello", which is set in a romanticised approximation of the city. I went back to find the old library in the story a couple of years ago, and it had been demolished.
3AM: Several critics have pointed out that there are very few specific references to time and place in your work. Were you really going for a universal style which translates easily into foreign languages because you'd had enough of the British publishing world? Doesn't it run counter to the author's desire to recreate for posterity the flux of life? At the same time, you do strike me as a very English author with that winning combination of self-deprecating humour and melancholy disposition…
DR: Early on I was so angry with the London book trade for ignoring me that halfway through writing Anthropology I decided I would only write for foreign languages. I was hoping it would be translated into Danish and Japanese -- it hasn't been translated into either yet. I made sure none of the stories were reliant on cultural references, but by then I'd already written Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love, which doesn't contain too many cultural references either. Anyway, I changed my mind and ended up being published in London. I've since escaped to Scotland, which is fabulous. I tend to find references to ultra-modern things self-conscious and irritating. If you write about people's thoughts and feelings, all the stuff that surrounds them is incidental -- Chekhov's writing speaks volumes about people today, and he (as far as I know) never made a single reference to X-boxes, the Cheeky Girls or picture messaging. I write a lot about what's going on in my head, and that for me is where the flux of life is at.
3AM: Why did you choose to set Timoleon Vieta in Italy despite the fact that you couldn't afford to go there for very long to do research and given that the two central human characters are British (although one of them masquerades as a Bosnian refugee)?
DR: The seeds of the book were sown in Italy, and it just seemed natural to set it there. I didn't really think about it. I was amazed when an Italian publisher took it on. I just assumed it would be passed over - I'll be very interested to see how it goes down over there. It's being published in Bosnia too…
3AM: Did you choose a gay man and his dog as the protagonists of your first novel in order to steer clear of the territory (heterosexual relationships between human beings) already covered in your two collections of short stories?
DR: I started writing Timoleon Vieta Come Home before I started Anthropology and while I was finishing up Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love, so it wasn't a progression in that respect. I don't really write with my brain, so I never make conscious decisions to write about one thing or another. I just write and hope for the best. I think I'd have felt I was treading water if I only ever wrote about boys and girls.
3AM: Timoleon vieta Come Home is subtitled "A Sentimental Journey". The reference to Sterne is meant to point us in the direction of Tristram Shandy -- the ultimate shaggy-dog story -- right?
DR: Ringo Starr did an album called A Sentimental Journey, and it has more to do with that than with Sterne. I've not heard the album though.
3AM: Timoleon could be described as a canine picaresque story -- it starts off as (what we now consider) as a straightforward novel, but then you revert to short stories albeit of the embedded kind. How deliberate was that, or can't you help it?
DR: I just wrote it that way and it felt right, so I didn't feel the need to change it for the conventional novel fetishists. I'm always astonished when I get berated for writing in an unconventional way. So many people are closed to any kind of experimentation or playfulness. I'm glad I'm not them.
3AM: Tell us about the folk tale/fairy-tale elements in your works in general, and about the "oldest love story ever told" (Timoleon Vieta, p.139) in particular.
DR: I read folk tales, I always have, and that seeps into my writing. I can't really remember where the Oldest Story Ever Told came from. I was drinking a lot when I wrote the book, and my memories of writing it are a bit jumbled. I suppose folk tales have survived because they're good stories told simply, and I've learned a lot from that. I try to keep things simple. As a reader I like to know what's going on, and when an author writes fiction as a kind of puzzle I lose patience. I've never won a game of Connect Four in my life -- that unravelling side of my brain is completely moribund.
3AM: In your first book, Anthropology, the stories are all sad and funny, but not necessarily at the same time which is why some of them (not many, mind) are almost mawkish in a Bambi kind of way. In Timoleon, you're crying and laughing at the same time. Here's a good example, just after Giuseppe has set himself alight: "Some said it was a miracle that he was found alive, others said he would have been better off dead. Some said that God had saved him, others that he couldn't have used enough petrol. . . ." (p.149). How difficult was it to achieve this perfect combination of humour and pathos which you call "the big two"?
DR: It's pretty tricky. If I find myself the realms of mawkishness I try to bring in humour to add a bit of perspective. Likewise cheap gags tend not to work unless there's something going on behind them. Books are often praised to the heavens for being unsentimental. I don't get it -- what's so great about being unsentimental? I admit to being a sucker for very obviously sad stuff. I'm listening to a lot of drivetime rock at the moment, which is the musical equivalent of Bambi -- unashamedly emotionally manipulative.
3AM: It's quite rare for serious writers not to be afraid of emotions: someone at Pulp.net recently pointed out that the theme of your novel ("real love") is "defiantly uncool". In this way, your work sometimes reminds me of Roland Barthes writing that for intellectuals today, sentimentalism is the worst obscenity -- Barbara Cartland is more shocking than de Sade.
DR: Yes, intellectuals do tend to be afraid of overtly emotional writing. I'm very glad I'm not an intellectual -- I think I would have bored myself to death by now if I was. As a reader I don't think deeply about books, I prefer to feel them, and that's how I approach my writing. I would hate to be considered a cool writer. I'm a deeply uncool person, and this comes across in my fiction.
3AM: Your controversial decision to stop writing was made before the publication of Timoleon Vieta. How did that come about? Were you surprised that so many people saw it as a marketing ploy? Do you think it may have influenced Granta's decision to include you in their Best of Young British Novelists list this year?
DR: I was deeply unhappy in the biz. I couldn't see myself writing any more -- for a start I was having enough difficulty writing my third book, and couldn't even think about ever writing a fourth. I just wanted to get away from certain situations, and quitting the biz seemed like the only option. It wasn't intended as a publicity stunt, although it seems to have worked as one in a roundabout kind of way. I don't think Granta knew I had dramatically announced my retirement. If they had I don't think I'd have been on the list -- they seem concerned with potential future illustriousness, which is curious. It's one thing to judge a writer by stuff they've written, but to judge them on stuff they're going to write is lunacy. And anyway, I would hate to end up like some of the writers on previous lists -- I would rather die than turn into Salman Rushdie or Maggie Gee.
3AM: This decision to quit writing seems to have been linked, paradoxically enough, to the fact that you take your writing very seriously ("I think it would be better to have a hit and leave it at that than struggle on for years"). Why this fear of writing "lukewarm", "half-arsed books" and subsequent temptation to remain a one-novel wonder?
DR: Far too many books are written by writers who are writing because they are writers and that's what writers do. So many new books seem to be sloppy and half-arsed, and as a reader I find that deeply offensive. How dare they waste hours of my life with their ill-executed pap? I've been psychotically devoted to my books, and yes -- I'm borderline petrified by the thought of returning to that level of commitment. It's just too weird.
3AM: You have a very pure, uncompromising ("I know I wouldn't be able to write with less commitment"; "I wrote these books obsessively) Romantic vision of what a writer should be. You've said, for instance: "I don't want to write just because I'm defined as an author". Could you see yourself as a writer who doesn't write because the ideal books he'd like to write are literally unwritable? After all, it took you more than five years before Timoleon "started to resemble" the book you were "trying to write". Are you afraid that the stakes might get too high one day?
DR: Yes. I have things to do with my life that don't involve locking myself away for years on end. And the more I read the more I feel outclassed. I don't know why people are that bothered whether I write again or not, really. I wish there were less books in the world -- there are already too many to read in a single lifetime.
3AM: Like me you're suspicious of Oxbridge authors who spent their youth studying instead of being "teenage disgraces". That's another very Romantic conception -- the idea of the writer as not simply someone who writes but as an individual who is capable of going through extreme experiences which legitimate the writing. Is there also a social element at play here? The villain in your novel is a young middle-class wanker…
DR: Well, he's a morally and emotionally bankrupt upper-middle-class wanker, and I've had dealings with more of them than I care to remember. Also, he's an oblique political statement -- those cretins have far too much say in running things. My writing is born of my life having been a shambles in almost every other respect - it's something I've clung to. I can never understand where people with settled lives find their motivation.
3AM: You told the Daily Telegraph: "I'd be frightened of writing another book because it would probably mean my life was deeply unsatisfactory. I'm content now. And contentment isn't a good breeding ground for interesting writing". Is it possible to write if you're not, as you put it, a "miserable git"? Why are you happy now?
DR: I'm happy with my publisher, which is very important, the new book's doing better than either of my others and I've got a few bob on the horizon, which always helps. Who knows -- maybe I'll find myself settled and happy and write a good book. I doubt it though.
3AM: To what extent is Cockroft Carthusians (the human protagonist in Timoleon Vieta) autobiographical? Like you he started writing a book about the eponymous pooch and, like you, he is happiest when not writing ("Trying to write the book had, at least for a while, made him appreciate his humdrum life. He was glad that he could go from day to day with very little happening to him. It certainly beat having things that were worth writing about happening to him all the time," p.68). Like you, he's a recluse ("You're never alone with internal dialogue" is his motto!) who's "desperate not to live on his own again". Like him, do you use "toenail clippings and pubic hairs as bookmarks"? (P.76)
DR: Er, no. I fold pages. At the moment I'm less reclusive than I was. When I was writing I hardly ever went out -- I would go home from work and lock myself away. These days I'm marginally more inclined to leave the house. The autobiographical elements of this book are there, but more spread around than usual. But there is a lot of me in Cockroft -- not least in his ludicrously dramatic refusal to publish again. And that motto has really been my motto for long stretches of time…
3AM: Why do you think Timoleon is so popular?
DR: It's not that popular, but it's doing OK. It's holding its own, which is a great relief. I think it's been really well published, had a few good reviews, been well supported by booksellers, etc… I hope any success it's had is because people like it.
3AM: Libby Brooks took the piss out of you a bit in the Guardian for trying to get the other authors on the Granta list to make a stand against the war in Iraq. Were you disappointed that so few responded? Do you want to name and shame some of them? More seriously, how did you react to the whole sorry Iraq affair?
DR: Well, we were supposed to be representing Britain at a time when it was particularly embarrassing to be British, even more so than usual. The government was obviously insulting our intelligence, so I had the idea of getting this group of people who had been officially declared a bit clever to ask them to stop. Almost half were up for it. I'd better not name and shame in case there were people whose email was up the creek, but it certainly shortened my reading list. Fortunately most of the writers I really cared about were up for it. If we'd got three quarters or more signed up it would have been a small but satisfying kick in Blair's nuts. It wouldn't have changed a thing of course, but that's not the point -- it would have been another angle of protest. Libby Brooks' article was largely friendly but she was a bit condescending about this -- as if it's somehow wrong for writers to be politically gobby. Since when?
3AM: You claim to be "insanely jealous" of Jenny Colgan's flat in Fitzrovia and you've said jokingly that you need a pad in Bloomsbury now that you've made it on to the Granta list. What's it like being a literary star? Surely, your life must have changed a bit in the past months…
DR: I'm really not that famous. I don't get stopped in the street, and even at book dos people rarely know who I am. I've been doing some pretty excellent travelling on the back of the book, but things haven't changed that much. I'm happy with the way things are going, and consequently probably marginally nicer to be around than I have been.
3AM: You seem to know a lot of writers. Helen Dunmore was your tutor when you took a creative writing class at Glamorgan. You thank Tibor Fischer and Lawrence Norfolk (among others) in Anthropology. You've written about your friendship with Jenny Colgan: what relationship do you have with other writers? Are there any other young authors you like to hang out with?
DR: I've been Chris Manby's houseboy for most of this year -- I'm living in her place in London while she's in LA. I just went to see Daniel Johnston with Matt Thorne, I've been known to look after Tama Janowitz's ferrets, I'm planning a trip to Ealing to visit Ben Hatch, I drink in Normanton on Soar with Simon Crump, I play air hockey in Brighton with Daren King…
3AM: Do you read a lot? Are there any young authors whose works you really like? Do you feel part of a literary scene?
DR: I pride myself on ploughing my own furrow. I don't feel like I'm part of a scene. There are a few writers whose next books I'm impatient to read -- Sylvia Smith, Simon Crump, Magnus Mills… I read quite a bit, a lot more now I'm not writing anything.
3AM: Do you write on a computer or in longhand?
DR: Longhand, for a few drafts before I put it on computer. I have a curious kind of work ethic. Then I print everything millions of times and go over it with a pen.
3AM: Are there any websites you visit regularly? Have you ever thought of starting your own site?
DR: I used to have a site, and I'm going to be getting it back up soon. I'm not sure what's going on it yet though. I'll certainly be linking this. I check my Amazon chart placings more often than is healthy, even though I'm still not convinced that they don't use a random number generator.
3AM: Where do you usually hang out in London?
DR: I don't have a club. I'm a pub person. I drink at the Harp on Chandos Place quite a bit.
3AM: Did you manage to steal the Elgin Marbles and return them to Greece as planned?
DR: We got them as far as Stansted but they weighed too much and Easyjet wouldn't let them on the plane.
3AM: Own up -- have you started writing something new yet?
3AM: Do you own a dog?
Buy Timoleon Vieta Come Home from Canongate.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Gallix is Chief Editor here at 3am. We like him a whole lot.