ALL HAIL MATT THORNE
"Rushdie and that lot do pay lip service to genre writing -- there are moments of science fiction in Rushdie's work and detective fiction in Amis's work -- but there's always a sense that they were taking a lower genre and doing something with it. A mixture of appropriation and snobbery. They take these genres and say 'some of this is ok and some of it's not ok'. I suppose we were trying to say that all of it was ok. There was no need to apologise for any of it. We were using it as a reference point, as a shared language, a connection."
Richard Marshall interviews Matt Thorne
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
MT: I've written five novels. Tourist in 1998. Then 8 Minutes Idle in 1999, which was set in a Bristol call centre. Next was Dreaming Of Strangers which is an offbeat romantic comedy. It's being adapted for film by a director called Steve Barron who directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and also smaller British films like Mike Bassett: England Manager. He's recently optioned it and a script is being written, not by me. Then came the anthology All Hail the New Puritans which I edited with Nicholas Blincoe and in 2001, Pictures Of You. My latest novel Child Star came out in April this year.
3AM: Have you been dogged by labels throughout all this -- lad lit and stuff?
MT: Yes. Funny you should mention that, because I was thinking about that at the weekend. I started thinking about how these labels appear when two books you've done are similar, and they then assume that every book you write is going to be like that. And then they get cross when the next one is different. With Child Star I was getting people writing about it saying that the lead character isn't as much a party lover as in the previous novels. But really there's only been one novel where the characters go to lots of parties. That was Pictures Of You. The first two novels had protagonists who were quite dour -- well, not so much dour as alienated. They didn't have that many friends. So it was only Pictures Of You that fitted the party idea.
And I'm also thought of as a metropolitan novelist. But the first two novels were set in the West Country, so it's something that changes back and forth. That's one of the interesting things about New Puritans in that it's a label that doesn't tie you down in a way that other labels do, because it doesn't really connect you with anything except a new form and also a rather stripped-down prose style that I'm happy to have as a general tag. I think most of my fiction does still have that. Even though some of my novels might be long, I do try and describe things in as few words as possible.
3AM: Are you consciously changing each novel or does it just happen like that?
MT: Not consciously. I've always had a time lapse between the novel being finished and when it comes out. With my first novel, the editor had just come to the company and was prepared to give it a big push, mainly through word of mouth as far as such a thing is possible, than spending lots of money on publicity. It was eighteen months between signing the contract and the book coming out, so I've always had an eighteen-month lag in which I've written the next novel. The result of this sort of lag is that by the time you get a sense of how people are thinking about that novel you've already written the next one. Iris Murdoch said that every novel should be a hasty apology for the one before and I've always found that helpful. But there are connections.
3AM: So the labels never push you into corners, you don't feel trapped? Or trap readers?
MT: Trap readers, yeah. That's something I've been thinking about a lot. Some of the novels I've written appeal to a narrower band of people than others. I think the real danger is trying to write a novel that appeals to everybody and ending up writing something that doesn't appeal to anyone. When you start thinking about an audience, it does start making things difficult. I try not to think of the audience too much apart from when I was writing Dreaming Of Strangers -- that was the only novel that I wrote with an audience in mind. But now I don't really think about the audience particularly, although when I finish a book I then realise that it will probably appeal to a certain group of people. I suppose the ideal is to write the book for as large an audience as possible without compromising what you actually want to do. So those labels only become a problem when you become such an incredible success that people won't allow you to try something different next time. I think that happens to writers who write very similar books again and again. Most of the labels only stay around until your next book is published.
3AM: The New Puritans was different from all that because it was a manifesto.
MT: Yes, it was designed to create a bit of space for the kind of writing Nicholas Blincoe, my co-editor, and I liked. The writers weren't all from the same generation -- the age range spanned from 18 to 45 -- but the reason for inclusion was a shared intention and a shared cultural background. One of the rules was feeling free to make reference to the current age and the modern media -- film, TV, music -- and not to be ashamed of those connections. I think these are some of the broader rules that people have stuck by. At the same time it was similar to the Dogme film movement in that there were rules we included to make things deliberately difficult and a stylistic challenge and they were intended only for the one short story, and not for further novels. People often say to me that my novels are not New Puritan anymore but the only novel that was written to New Puritan rules was Nicholas Blincoe's last novel White Mice, and that was a novel he wrote following the instructions to the letter.
3AM: Did he have to come to you and check that he'd done it right?
MT: No. It's not like the Dogme movement where you put your film forward for a seal of approval! It's interesting though. People keep asking whether the New Puritans thing was a success or failure. I think that the fact that people are still asking those questions three years after the initial anthology was published is proof that it has been successful. It raised a lot of questions and issues, but in terms of whether it's an ongoing project one of the things that has grown out of it is that it got published in a few languages -- French, Spanish, Italian and also Croatian -- and in Croatia the translated version came out a month after the book was published in the UK.
We've had a connection with Croatia ever since. Eight of the fifteen writers of the anthology have gone out to Croatia. And there have been writers not connected with the New Puritans, people like Niall Griffiths and John Williams who have been invited out there by Boro Radakovich. He is quite important in the Croatian literary scene and he runs this thing called FAK, the festival of alternative culture. He organises these incredible readings all round Croatia and also outside of Croatia with huge audiences -- 300, 400 people come to listen to people reading for six or seven hours, it's incredible. So we met a lot of Croatian writers through that. Ben Richards and I were in Croatia at a festival last summer and decided to do an anthology of short stories by Croatian writers and also include stories about Croatia by British writers who've read at various festivals there. Then Ben got very busy with television script work so Tony White and I decided to take the editorial rein on that. Serpent's Tail will publish this next autumn.
3AM: Called Fak Off?
MT: We resisted the temptation. The title remains a contention but my vote would be "Croatian Nights"!
3AM: Their reading of the rules was surprising wasn't it? They thought you were saying don't write about history, write about the present.
MT: Yes. They thought it very important to write about the present. When we went over there, there was an immediate connection in terms of the content of our writing. One of the rules that most appealed was that everything must be set in the present day which is something they were thinking about a lot. How to start writing about now. So this really took off. Similarly in France different bits of the rules have come up in interviews and you realise that different rules appeal to different sensibilities. An interesting connection we had recently was with a group of Mexican writers -- they're called Crack -- they have their own manifesto, and we did an event together at the ICA in London. There's a similar case there of a group of younger writers who got together. They were fighting particularly against magic realism: we were quite against magic realism, and some of the writers we didn't like, like Salman Rushdie, were heavily influenced by magical realism, so they were having problems with similar writers and styles. You could see it as overthrowing father figures, maybe grandfather figures but it's not even that, it's just a way of showing something different to the readers. So many writers create their own style and then it spreads out and lots of other writers imitate it and that can get boring. We were trying to strip all that away and say here's something you'll enjoy and maybe it's something you'll not expect. We were trying to reach an audience who had maybe been put off by some of the pretensions and stiffness of some of the Amis generation.
3AM: Another thing that I find exciting is the cosmopolitan and political nature of this. Are those elements surprising to you?
MT: There's a new book by David Boyle called Authenticity that mentions the New Puritans and puts it in a larger global movement of a return to authenticity. He describes himself and others as new realists and that the New Puritans fit into that. It does have that political edge in that it is a grassroots movement that reaches writers and brings them together. That was one of the disappointing things in the reaction to it in Britain. It was written about as if it was an elitist movement that shut out other people. It was never intended to shut out anyone or to divide and rule. Instead of celebrating individual writers, we wanted to see if we could get a momentum going as a group. There was a sense of trying to get people together and provoke conversations about writing.
3AM: Do you work as a group?
MT: We don't work together, but we talk. I think that there is not quite the same level of competitiveness as in some other circles. There's a genuine interest and curiosity about each other's work and that, for me, is what I'm really proud of. It's meant that people in other countries are reading our work and we're reading theirs. Hopefully the Croatian anthology is the beginning of doing these things on a broader scale. If you take the poetry scene, from what I understand about it, it's much more insular and everyone reads each other's work -- it's true there's a bad side to that but there's also a positive side. In fiction, I don't think writers do read each other's work. Or even if they do, they wouldn't necessarily tell them. So this was an attempt to get writers to go to events, read each other's books and talk about writing. I think that's quite exciting for an audience to see. It's fertile. And the politics is as important as anything else. Originally, people were saying that the stories in New Puritans were apolitical. I don't think they were. They all have a political sense. What I do want to say though is that within the spectrum of the New Puritans, just like in other spheres, there are different political positions even though there is a lot of common ground. So political things individuals are doing -- like Nicholas Blincoe -- have become topics of discussion in the group. We have Ben Richards who has written about Latin America or Nicholas whose next novel features the siege of Bethlehem, to give just two examples.
3AM: I guess you've made that kind of writing cool again.
MT: Yes. A lot of the sins we see when we look at the state of those British -- not American -- eighties writers are the things that lot leached out of fiction. Another thing that we think is important but was lost were questions of class.
3AM: Yes. Barry Hinds. Zola.
MT: Yes exactly. I think the New Puritans have an obvious connection to a group like The Movement. I think a lot of the big eighties writers -- I'm thinking of Rushdie and Amis -- had a very limited political and social vision. They seemed to come out of a closeted, privileged position. I think a lot of our writers -- even those who are financially well-rewarded -- seem to have a better understanding of the world around them and don't see writing as this incredibly elitist thing.
3AM: Is this because they're still connected to genre writing in a way?
MT: It's weird. Rushdie and that lot do pay lip service to genre writing -- there are moments of science fiction in Rushdie's work and detective fiction in Amis's work -- but there's always a sense that they were taking a lower genre and doing something with it. A mixture of appropriation and snobbery. They take these genres and say "some of this is ok and some of it's not ok". I suppose we were trying to say that all of it was ok. There was no need to apologise for any of it. We were using it as a reference point, as a shared language, a connection. Another related question we're asked is whether we're afraid of the books dating. I remember talking to Toby Litt early on in the project and he said that one of the things that Malcolm Bradbury had said to him during the course at UEA was not to worry about the footnotes. That struck home for me. If you look at books from any period you're not going to understand all the references, everyone is going to have an area you're not going to know about be it classical music or computer games. When I've been translated into other languages they are often published with footnotes and to me that doesn't seem to be a problem. If the book's good enough it'll survive and if it doesn't it becomes a useful record of the period anyway. I think books in which people deliberately exclude any references to the contemporary are less compelling.
3AM: Your latest book's doing well.
MT: I've been pleased with its reception. It's about a child star called Gerald who, as an adolescent, has been involved in a TV programme called '"ll Right Now", an attempt to create drama from the real-life events of its young cast, to create a kind of soap opera. The cast of seven children are all encouraged by a dramaturge called Nicholas Pennington to splurge all their real-life situations and he then takes it away and creates a soap opera. It's like early reality TV where they would take communities and get them to create dramas. Community theatre is an influence on it too. The adult Gerald narrates the story of his short-lived fame from the vantage point of his rather boring life, which is completely unconnected to show business. He works as a teacher of English as a foreign language, living in a shared house in Oval, and he's reached an impasse in his life and what he's trying to do is make it exciting again. One of the ways in which he tries to do that is to write his autobiography. He's reading biographies of various other celebrities such as the Spice Girls and other child stars and trying to tell his own story. It's really the story of Gerald trying to stop turning his life into stories and to live it. It's a process of catharsis that ends with him meeting one of the other girls in the programme when he was a child star.
3AM: Interesting that Toby Litt's new book also mines a similar vein of contemporary culture.
MT: Yes, there are similarities. Jake Arnott's new novel, True Crime, is also interesting because it seems to come from similar cultural impulses. It's not set exactly up to date, it's set mainly in 97, 98, 99, and I think one of the things we're seeing in our culture now is that people are trying to make sense of the previous decade. I think people think that a lot of things that happened there are now over, not just chronologically, but a lot of things that happened there have come to an end. I don't know where we are now. I think this is one of the most confusing times I can remember. In a way pop culture has failed, you can't really pick up on one thing, one programme and say this reflects what's happening.
I've got a book coming out in 2005 called Cherry and it's set in 2003. It's about uncertainty. It's about a single man, Steve Ellis, whose been single for a long time, he's a teacher and he hasn't been in a relationship for a very long time, fifteen years or so. He's in his late thirties and he sees nothing in this culture to connect to, there's nothing in it that he can get happiness from. He meets an old man in a bar, Harry Hollingworth, and they're talking about their favourite bits from history. The old man talks about 1947 as his favourite year, a time he can remember feeling that civilisation had reached its greatest peak and he was at his happiest. Steve confides that the last time he can remember being happy was in the late eighties as a child. Some while later, as a result of this bonding evening, a man with a clipboard arrives at Steve's door, saying that he is a friend of Harry's from "Your Perfect Woman" dating agency, and that the old man has sent him to take down Steve's specifications. The questions are so pointed and peculiar that Steve assumes it's some kind of prank. But then Steve's perfect woman appears according to these specifications and from then on things become odder and odder. The novel is very much about who this woman is and where she came from and later on in the novel the narrator is encouraged to do violent things with spurious excuses. And that's what I feel very much about our time, that the character is an embodiment of our period where I think we are being encouraged to think things and do things without understanding why. We're just being told things.
3AM: Is this a failure of memory or understanding?
MT: Not so much a failure of memory, but rather a failure of utopianism... Ok, I come round to it, maybe it is a failure of memory. A failure of idealism and in a wider sense we're being pushed into doing things for the good of people we don't know and not for the good of us or those around us. There's a sense that someone must be getting something out of it. Trying to understand those forces and trying to embody that in a character. There's also the feeling of impotence as a writer when it comes to achieving a political change -- this is where Nicholas and I disagree because Nicholas thinks that this is a time in which people are getting very political, getting into activism and it's a very exciting time for that reason but that things we've previously believed in have failed and this is a chance for people to take that on board and make a difference, whereas I feel more pessimistic. I don't feel that activism makes a difference at all. It's that feeling I wanted to write about. You know, the fact that the huge anti-war march we had hasn't really affected anything and that any position of dissent could be referred to as something that didn't need to be dealt with or even answered to. The fact that Tony Blair can make a speech in which he says a million people on the street is not as many as are dying because of the situation he is supposedly trying to resolve, the sense that just with rhetoric all these individual actions could be swept away, it's so disturbing. I guess that's what I'm trying to get at in this book.
3AM: Is the war itself a sense of spurious doing something?
MT: In the book it's not the war. In the book the character is asked to kill someone. He's told that the person he is told to kill is an evil person.
3AM: Very Patricia Highsmith.
MT: Yes, but in Highsmith there's a nihilism that I'm trying to avoid, I suppose. This idealised woman disappears and he's told he must do this thing to get her back. I've only just finished writing it so I'm still thinking about it. It's the first explicitly political thing that I've written but at the same time you could describe it using all the words I don't usually use like allegory and things like that!
3AM: have you gone to Nicholas and others and talked about this as you wrote?
MT: No. There was a review of my book and Toby's suggesting that we'd been swapping ideas down the pub. Toby is very adamant about not talking about his book whilst he's writing it. When we do talk about our books it's very much about ideas about storytelling technique rather than our own specific plots. I suppose I do talk to Nicholas about what I'm doing but on the ideas level. It's quite different to showing people work in progress. The trouble about looking at other people's work is that I immediately want to put my stamp on it because I have aesthetic rules and considerations about stuff that would change their novels in an inappropriate way. Similarly, I don't usually like to show my own work in progress because their comments will reflect their own style. I prefer to work with editors and agents. Their comments are more important -- if they say something needs fixing then probably it does.
3AM: I was thinking about collaboration because of the recent British publication of Luther Blisset's Q.
MT: I reviewed it. It's an interesting idea. In a way it's a project that's not too far away from the shared world novels of the seventies, people like George R. R Martin, and I think those ideas are quite inspiring and it is an interesting project. It's difficult though because financially as a writer you've got to make enough money to survive. If you do a project with four or five writers you've got to make four or five times as much money! Then it becomes more difficult. If I was going to do a project like that I wouldn't want it to be a side project: the problem wouldn't be about sharing character and plot but whether everyone made it a top priority. I suppose the Puritans project took some of that quality without actually sharing plot and so on. And Nicholas Blincoe's story in the collection took a character from my second novel and used him as a main character in his short story. So there's a beginning of that kind of stuff.
3AM: And you're writing children's novels?
MT: Yes, I'm very excited about this. Faber are publishing these. There are three of them. The series title is 39 Castles and the first one comes out in February. I had an idea and at first I thought it was an adult novel but then I very quickly realised it was a children's book. It's a hybrid genre thing I suppose. It begins as if it's a medieval novel and then eventually you realise that it's set in the future and that it's a science fiction novel. A long time in the future. The first book you get a few anachronisms and it's only by the time you get to the end of the third one that the whole world comes together.
3AM: 39 Castles? What are they?
MT: Well, at some point, several thousand years into the future, England has totally fallen apart. The only thing that remains are these castles that people have rebuilt and lived in. They're all castles that still exist. So within each of these castles there's a small community. These communities have no idea what goes on in the other castles, or indeed in the rest of England. Some people within the castles begin to think that they should go out beyond their castle and take control. There's a twelve-year-old girl called Eleanor who is the central character and she's chosen to be part of this group. The group are called the Castle Seven and there are seven adults and five children who travel with them. They visit other castles and find out what's out there. In the first novel they visit a castle and they find a community and things go wrong, and in the next one they find a castle where it's run by children and it's completely anarchic. So there are all these castles run by different rulers and over the whole series -- there are three to start with but eventually I think there'll be six and possibly a whole lot more -- the whole world begins to come together and by the end things start to fit together and help them understand what's happened in the past.
3AM: They will be illustrated?
MT: I've just been looking over that. Really fantastic art work. There's a picture at the beginning of every chapter and a plan of the castle at the beginning of the book. The whole project is something I'm very excited about and I'm putting a lot of time and energy into. I've finished the first two and I'll probably write the third one at the end of this year. There will be two published next year and the next one published the year after that. Hopefully I'll publish another three after that, one every nine months or so. I've got an idea for another series of children's books so maybe it's something I'll be doing a lot of in the future. I've written them as if they were adult books, there's no writing down to children. I've written them as something that I would have enjoyed reading when I was younger.
3AM: Have young readers read any of the stuff?
MT: Yes. One of the things the publisher does is test it out on children.
3AM: And there's work on film scripts?
MT: Yes. The most immediate thing is on Dreaming Of Strangers which has been taken up by the director Steve Barron and he's got someone working on the screenplay at the moment. I know little beyond that! I wrote a screenplay for Eight Minutes Idle for Film Four but that came to an end and didn't get made. I enjoy that work. I'd really like to write the screenplay of Cherry if that gets optioned by a film producer. Child Star would be more difficult, as it's a big fat novel which flashes back and forth in time and it would have to be a long film adapted by someone who was prepared to play around with structure. Someone like Wes Anderson, someone who was prepared to work on a film that was more like a book. That's a hard thing for people to get their heads round. Two of my books -- Cherry and Dreaming Of Strangers -- are cinematic but with the longer books they're less so and it's not as easy to turn them into film. I wouldn't want them to lose their complexity in a film adaptation.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall reads too much for his own good and writes too much for any one else's. Having scrawled out many novels not good enough for publishing he likes to sit in the dark dreaming of horrors.