THE NEW BAWDY
"The wise advice of American creative writing teachers is actually neutering. It's much better to risk making a complete arse of yourself in the hope that out of that will come something truly odd and possibly great. Polite realist tendencies aren't enough. Do something else."
Richard Marshall interviews Toby Litt
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
TL: I wanted to do other things which I realise now were writing in disguise. Like, I wanted to be an architect at one point. It coincided with liking Pink Floyd and reading books about Pink Floyd. I found out it took seven years to become an architect and I thought 'Screw that'! I then wanted to be a painter. I did my O level in painting. My plan was to fail my O levels except painting and then do my Foundation course in painting. At that point, I had no idea what Art involved in terms of installations and so on. I did an A Level in painting afterwards, but realised that I wasn't very good at painting. Then along with that I did other things -- being in bands, writing songs -- and eventually all of those things tapered off into writing and I realised that that was the only one that I stood a chance of being good at.
But it was poetry, not prose, at first. I concentrated on that all the way through University and only really started writing stories or a novel after University. So it focused down from something. I'd been writing a lot of poetry since I was about eleven. 1989 was when I started to do stories. I knew I wanted to be a writer earlier than that, but I also wanted to do other things. I really wanted to be lead rhythm guitarist in a band.
3AM: That's for later now?
TL: No. Once you've lost your hair that goes. There's only room for one hairless pop star at a time! After University I went to live in Prague for a few years and I was writing. I wanted to get out of England. I went to Scotland first of all, and then I went to Prague. I really wanted to be where people wouldn't know me or understand what I was saying on a bus if I happened to have a conversation. I just wanted to be incredibly introverted and also work my way through that. I'd become very self-conscious I suppose.
3AM: Had you always been introverted and self-conscious?
TL: No, it developed through my education and with each stage it became a bit worse. By the time I was revising for my Finals I had turned into a kind of hermit who could really hardly speak at all. Afterwards I spent a two-and-a-half month trip across America in which I probably spoke less than a thousand words! Didn't speak to anyone and by the end of that I was mute really. I lived after that in Glasgow and wrote the first draft of a novel. I think it came out of that that I wasn't communicating in any other way. I was just writing.
3AM: Is this a novel that's been published?
TL: No, it never saw the light of day. It's called "The Lost Notebook of Babel". I went to Prague after that. I taught English whilst I was there. I had a useful time because I didn't have to work 9 to 5. I came back and worked in a bookshop and was writing all the time. In about 1994 I applied for the UEA course. I knew someone who had been on it, and they convinced me that it wasn't a Malcolm Bradbury guru course. You didn't have to believe that the person teaching you was going to give you the knowledge you lacked because they were such a great person. I think I respected Malcolm Bradbury at the end of the course more than I did when I began, partly because I recognised its lineage -- through him but starting with Angus Wilson and then going to Ian McEwan who were both writers who got a decade very accurately. I think McEwan got the Seventies better than anybody else. I was convinced by that that they wouldn't try and change me.
That's what I was worried about. And it turned out to be exactly like that. It centred round the other writers in the group criticising and commenting on your work, but not ex cathedra advice from Bradbury or whoever else was teaching. And after that I found a publisher. I had an agent already. I had been writing stories as a way of trying lots of different things in a short space of time rather than committing myself to a year or two years working on something in one register. I had also heard that Ian McEwan had written a story a week whilst on the course. I thought I'd aim at something like that. I'd try and write a lot, whether it was good or bad I'd just try and write a lot. As a result, I thought I was not going to publish. I thought it would just help me become a better writer generally. All the people who you talk to say don't try with short stories as a book. It's not strictly true. I think most people who get a break there's something slightly quirky about how it happens. I guess there are people who just go straight on with their first novel but that's not the case with me. It was a book of short stories the publisher had read, some of which were by me, in an anthology, and they came and asked if I had a novel. I said no, but luckily I had the short stories! I think it helped that they had quite a strong theme.
3AM: Were you always trying to capture a decade?
TL: I was limiting my ambitions to a year. When I was on the course I was wanting to write about the time when I was there. That was something I had already done when I was in Prague in a novel called "The Prague Metro". When it was time for me to leave Prague I had about a month before I left and I had finished my job. I knew that coming back to England I might never have such an extended period of time to write ever again, as far as I knew, so I decided I would write a novel in two weeks and I would write it about those two weeks. It so happened that those two weeks coincided with the Czechoslovak state splitting. So I went to one country and I came away from two.
3AM: Had you been conscious that this was in the air?
TL: Yes, but I became more conscious as I was writing because I was working it in. They were having meetings with the two heads of state and they were disagreeing, basically. The novel was about couples coming together and at the same time the country splitting apart.
3AM: And that's not published?
TL: No. I came back and was doing subtitles for ITV and Channel 5 programmes. Things like Blind Date. Blind Date for the deaf I suppose! Occasionally you'd get a gem like Cracker but most of the time it was The Bill. I was writing at the same time. After I was published I gave up the sub-titling and did writing full-time.
3AM: Was that a bit scary?
TL: Yes, but I looked on it like if I managed to have enough coming in, then hopefully I'd be able to produce enough to get by for the next year. And that's all I could ask for. I didn't want to give up work. I didn't want to do anything else. It was a great job for supporting myself but it was also very much like writing -- sitting at a computer for nine hours a day typing, looking at a screen, it makes it very, very hard to go and do the same thing at home. It's much better to have a job that's physically dissimilar to writing, that involves standing up!
3AM: You've written quite a lot of books for a relatively young writer. Were you conscious of how you were going to set about writing?
TL: No. I thought a lot about style when I was at University and I felt I was coming at it in the wrong way. I think it's quite easy to happen upon a style that no one has used before but you're not in any way expressed by it. You've just intellectualised it into existence. I've done that lots and lots of times. I used to do that with poems. In the end, I started writing characteristically when I forgot about that and concentrated more on the eye and what I was seeing and how that was different. Or concentrating in Adventures in Capitalism on things that were different that year from things in previous years. What was the new thing that I could do in fiction because of technology or society or the way that people put themselves together not in the same way that people did fifty years before. Or even a couple of years before.
There was a story in the form of e-mails that hadn't existed. The mad escalation of this -- there had been correspondence before, but nothing like this where messages from one site proliferates out to many and is much more explosive. So things like that I tried. But I'm more of a writer who wants to get away from what he has done previously than to have a style because I get bored with a style!
3AM: Do you have a favourite book?
TL: Bits of books. I'm pleased by ones that I don't know how they came. Finding Myself is one which I don't know how that came out of me. Whereas Deadkidsongs, I know exactly how it came out of me. I'm proud of that because it's very much an expression of my growing up. A very extreme version of it, but one which has a lot of honesty about how extreme it felt. They tend to be the bits that are quite, not bucolic butů There's a story in Adventures In Capitalism called "Moriaty", and the story I published in the Granta book called "The Hare". There's a story in Exhibitionism called "The Waters": those are some of the ones I'd pick out. And there's the usual thing of liking what's nearest to you. It comes down to paragraphs often. I think they're probably the paragraphs I should have cut! They're set-piece paragraphs.
3AM: Before we talk about the new book, what was it like to be on the Granta list?
TL: I feel relieved that after the number of conversations I'd had where people were telling me "Well of course you'll be on it, or you're expected to be", that I wasn't set up for some huge disappointment. I'd have been knocked back by it if I had been left off it because I had been one of the people picked as being likely to be on it. When that happens then it becomes a failure not to be on it. A definite failure rather than just a vague one! Although I'm sure that other writers who weren't on it and should have been will have felt personally slighted. Someone asked me whether I minded being put in a box, but so far I've been through a series of boxes. That seems to be the way it's gone. I was in the UEA Creative Writers box. I voluntarily put myself in the New Puritans box. I was put in the Lad Lit box. The people who write reviews themselves get bored with boxes after about two years, so they just find a new one. It was probably time for a new box anyway. I probably prefer it to Lad Lit!
3AM: How do you feel now about the New Puritans project?
TL: It's had its strange after-effects in different countries. In Croatia, it's a very big thing! There have been a lot of connections there. It took us to some interesting places. The whole rules thing helped me personally. It made me think a lot because I had to answer the questions which were about what I actually thought about writing. I found that I didn't change my mind but that I disagreed with a lot of them because I felt that they were more a recipe for playing safe and I came to realise that I think that the writing that is going to be thought of as the greatest is the writing that takes the biggest risks with failure and embarrassment and complete humiliation.
The wise advice of American creative writing teachers is actually neutering. It's much better to risk making a complete arse of yourself in the hope that out of that will come something truly odd and possibly great. There wasn't enough daring in it really. That's what I'm thinking at the moment, that polite tendencies aren't enough. Polite realist tendencies aren't enough. Do something else.
3AM: Looking at writing at the moment, are we in a good or a bad place?
TL: I think it's difficult to see although I'm finding it easier to see all the things that aren't there, that aren't being done. Things are quite stylish and quite dry. There's not a lot of sweat. There are quite a lot of bodies but they're curiously disinfected bodies. If you look at eighteenth-century fiction, or fiction that comes out of the humours, of grotesque personality, even through Dickens who is not a favourite writer of mine, there's more bustling. One of the things you don't see now is bawdy. If anyone tries bawdy now it becomes embarrassing almost immediately. But it used to be a huge register.
And there are all these things that we don't do but are to do with a belief in prose as life, of being alive, of having a life vested in it. Again I think that in the Puritans story that I wrote I was writing a deliberately dead prose certainly in relationship to the people it was describing. It was deadpan prose which is making no moral judgements. I think that it's inevitable that the area that's been least exploited is the one that's been most detracted if you're going to try and do something different. That's what I'm trying to do. So I don't think the novel of politeness in that way, the novel of polite form, is something that's worth me writing because so many people are writing it. The chances of me writing a better one than these other people are quite slim.
3AM: Tell me about the latest novel Finding Myself. I haven't read it yet!
TL: When I was writing it I pictured it as a novel in kit form where it would have lots of stages which writers and makers of film would go through from the idea to a pitch to a treatment to a rough draft to the actual film kind of thing. It takes this writer who is a writer of popular fiction, although recently she's been trying to go upmarket, called Victoria Abbott and she decides to invite all her sexy friends to a house by the sea for a month in order to write up their doings in a way that makes her seem incredibly perceptive about their private moments. In order to do this, she wires up the house with video cameras and so forth so she can spy on them.
3AM: Like in Big Brother.
TL: Yes. She wants to keep that behind the curtain though. She wouldn't tell the guests about the cameras. She would keep the cameras hidden from the readers too. She wouldn't tell them in the novel either. She doesn't tell her editor about the cameras. She does this in order to use whatever means she can to appear incredibly perceptive. So it is Virginia Woolf by all means necessary. And because she does this, she invites all her sexy friends, a lot of them say no because they get an inkling of the disaster in the offing and instead she gets her B team but probably a much more interesting list because it's got her sister (and all the issues she has with her) who she loves and hates. She has a woman who she absolutely idolises and wants to be. There are all these options around.
3AM: Did you know how the whole thing would pan out before you started writing?
TL: I knew certain things would happen because they had to. In a way the set up demands that if you have someone who is secretly spying on someone then they are discovered. Shakespeare knew that in Love's Labour's Lost. You have to collapse the hierarchy of spying and do it comically. There were things that I didn't expect at all but they came out of the pull of the genre, which was partly the Country House novel. Once you gather a group of people together in a country house then certain things try to force themselves in. Like ghosts. Like midnight flits. Like marital breakdown. Like meditations on the state of England. All of those things have to come through.
3AM: So were you having a good time whilst you were doing this?
TL: I was having the best of times. It was the best time ever as far as writing goes! It was just the most fun as a writing experience. Partly because she's not writing the novel -- she never gets to write the novel, she's just writing her diary account of trying to write it! That meant that I could freely do away with any idea of consistency of style. Her style varies from attempts at realist prose to drunken rambling typing to stream of consciousness to lyrical descriptions of stuff to a comic book nineteenth-century fight between square-jawed heroes.
3AM: Why a woman's voice?
TL: Well, I can give you the 'because it was her who came like that!' But if I'm rationalising, it's because it changes the inflection of spying on people. If it's a man it immediately becomes sinister and to do with a power relation that has been theorised extensively by Lacan and is the male gaze. It's not a novel about the male gaze. I didn't want it to be. I'd seen a couple of films where I'd felt missed lots of tricks. One was Sliver and one was Shallow Grave. Both had men who ended up in a position of spying on people. It was much more interesting for me to tie it in with domesticity and a wish not to dominate in a way of voyeurism but to retrospectively pretend that you were like Virginia Woolf in your deep deep perceptions into how people are. And Virginia Woolf is a model for Victoria.
3AM: You like Virginia Woolf?
TL: Yes, because I think she did genuinely try and remake prose. And she was aware of her social limitations in doing that. There were consciousnesses she did not enter. But she risked looking an arse. In the end she doesn't, she ends up writing novels where her skill and empathy are astonishing. It's also an attempt at a genuine female aesthetic which has just been taken as one of a repertoire of ways in which women can write now. This is what tends to happen. But she was doing something genuinely difficult.
The novel is partly about taking from Bloomsbury something that was radical to a designer magazine. Also the informality of personal relations that we have now is almost entirely due to them having killed Edwardianism. So we're in Bloomsbury here, and a lot of people still live in Bloomsbury. The aspirations they have, the values they hold, the personal over the political, that's now.
3AM: You also like Henry James?
TL: He's my favourite writer, but for different reasons. I think he writes in a way that is both inner and outer at the same time. He doesn't let the restrictions of realism or dialogue or describing a place stop him from making some sort of cohesive flow. He writes in a way that astounds me, that is able to dissolve the world to the extent that he does, to manage to write about it in a way that is still comprehensible, although people tend to find it difficult. It seems to me that he was ahead of Modernism. Modernism broke things down into fragments so it could understand them. That's easy because the fragments are then very small. The effort to understand doesn't have to go very far. But your effort to understand The Golden Bowl which is to do with fragmentation and splitting is massive because you have to make the effort of taking the whole thing in one breath. You're not capable of that. You can't hold it in your mind all at once. But in terms of ambition it's greater than The Wasteland, say. Which is a failure, and Eliot knew this. But it was a failure that succeeded because it failed. That was the new aesthetic. Not new so much as the right aesthetic for that moment. The aesthetic of the shattered.
3AM: As a writer do you still read or can't you bear to any more?
TL: I read. I try and read philosophy as well as fiction. I try and read Deleuze and things that try and make me use my brain in a different way. Not in a compartmentalised way. I'm looking at fiction for those qualities of oddness. Sebald I've been reading recently. I think he attempts things along the lines of brokenness within something that looks as if it's with a smooth surface. I think he's a very problematic writer, but I think he's an incredibly interesting one. I've read everything by him and written an essay about him.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Toby Litt was born in Bedfordshire, England, in 1968. He read English at Worcester College, Oxford, and studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia where he was taught by Malcolm Bradbury, winning the 1995 Curtis Brown Fellowship. He lived in Prague from 1990 to 1993 and published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Adventures in Capitalism, in 1996. In 2002, he published another collection of short stories entitled Exhibitionism. He is the author of four novels including Beatniks: An English Road Movie (1997), Corpsing (2000), Deadkidsongs (2001) and Finding Myself (2003). Both Beatniks and Corpsing are being adapted as films. Toby Litt appeared in the controversial All Hail the New Puritans (2000) anthology edited by Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe. He has also edited The Outcry (2001), Henry James's last novel, for Penguin.
In 2003 Toby Litt was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'. He lives in London and is a member of English PEN.