"I find all that capitalistic self-marketing a bit grubby and I just can't do it. I think my website probably puts people off the idea of me and my books anyway. In fact, as soon as I get around to it, I'm going to delete the whole thing. Earlier in the year I had a really persistent stalker, and then when I took the site down -- for ONE DAY -- and replaced it with a message saying 'fuck off and die', the books press all went mental about it. The Bookseller said something like 'I wonder what's upset young author Scarlett Thomas'. Great journalism -- I mean, if you're a journalist and you wonder something about someone, why not ring up the person (or their publisher, or their agent) and ask them about it? It's not hard to find my phone number -- the stalker managed it."
Jake Purbright interviews bright young thing Scarlett Thomas for 3:AM.
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3AM: You were one of the writers featured in New Puritans, which several years on seems very much of its era, Britlit and all that. How do you view the exercise now and do you view your involvement positively or negatively? You've recently been referred as a "New Puritan author", does that bother you at all?
ST: This is a hard one to answer... I think the general consensus on the New Puritans is that we were all a load of wankers with an over-inflated sense of what we were doing. If I hadn't been part of it, perhaps I would have thought that too -- after all, I'm not sure we put across what we were trying to do in the most diplomatic way. But I can't resist a manifesto, and it was a good idea. Also, it was positive for me in various ways. I wrote a story for it that I love ("Mind Control") and I met the best editor I ever had (Leo Hollis), which meant I was able to go to 4th Estate for my next two books. But being referred to as "New Puritan, Scarlett Thomas" does wind me up. As they say, you shag one sheep... Anyway, it was years ago and it was an experiment.
3AM: What's on the iPod, if you have one?
ST: I do have an iPod. The last thing I listened to on it was a series of Derrida lectures while I was doing my ironing (don't ask). In terms of music, I'm listening to a lot of Sondre Lerche at the moment -- seems to fit well with the 'mini-heatwave' we're having. And then all the old favourites: Radiohead, Elliott Smith, The Pixies, The Smiths. I aim to be able to play the whole of OK Computer on my acoustic guitar by the end of the year, but I'm a bit stuck on "Paranoid Android".
Um... I'm actually organising a literature and music event called "Play", which is going to happen in Canterbury on November 24th. Jonathan Coe and Andrew Crumey will be playing the piano, and I hope to have some other writers there too. Luke Sutherland is going to take part if he's around, which should be really cool. Music tends to be what I do when I'm not writing, though. I can do academic writing to music, but I can't have it on when I'm writing fiction. I get over-excited and think I'm writing something great when it's actually shit.
3AM: Some argue that if you want to increase your sales and presence as an author then a website is imperative. Do you agree? Why do you have a site?
ST: I have no idea why I have the website. I don't have it to increase my sales or anything -- I don't even have those 'buy the book' links on it. I find all that capitalistic self-marketing a bit grubby and I just can't do it. I think my website probably puts people off the idea of me and my books anyway. In fact, as soon as I get around to it, I'm going to delete the whole thing. Earlier in the year I had a really persistent stalker, and then when I took the site down -- for ONE DAY -- and replaced it with a message saying "fuck off and die", the books press all went mental about it. The Bookseller said something like "I wonder what's upset young author Scarlett Thomas". Great journalism -- I mean, if you're a journalist and you wonder something about someone, why not ring up the person (or their publisher, or their agent) and ask them about it? It's not hard to find my phone number -- the stalker managed it. Anyway, then that dick McCrum ran something unpleasant about it and it all got out of control. So yes -- I need to abolish the website, I think. But I probably won't. I got my Russian publisher through the site, which is always what I think before I don't delete it.
3AM: You write reviews for the Independent on Sunday. Do you feel it's important for a writer to retain some other attachment to the wider literary community in this way?
ST: I have a lot of respect for people who don't do any of that stuff at all. But I need the money, and the human contact. I also like being forced to keep up with what's being published. It's so important for writers to read all the time, after all. Recently I've been reviewing a lot of popular science books for the Independent on Sunday and that feeds into research for my own work, too.
3AM: How would you assess the current state of literary journals? Has Zembla delivered the kick up the arse it argued was required? What about online journals like 3:AM?
ST: Zembla had its moments, but was (Or is? I haven't seen the re-launched version) a bit too glossy (and they still owe me money!). I'd like to see more literary zines out there -- stuff that's just been glued down and photocopied and distributed. But maybe that's just my lo-fi tastes -- and there are lots of websites that seem to be the equivalent of that anyway. I do like 3:AM a lot, and Dogmatika looks promising. But there seems to be a huge difference between the way people respond to music and the way they respond to books, in terms of creating magazines and websites, and I can't quite see who -- outside people in the book trade -- really reads things like Zembla. And it seems like we just can't have the literary equivalent of, say, The Face or NME (the 80s and early 90s incarnations). The scope just doesn't seem to be there. Maybe it's the writing-about-writing problem: i.e. that it's weird having a magazine -- which is, of course, basically comprised of writing -- that takes writing as its focus. It all feels a bit tautological. It might be interesting to create a literary magazine about something other than books and fill it with great writing and fiction... like the old Playboy format, perhaps, but with something else instead of the tits. Cocks? Or maybe trains or wildlife. And no advertising.
3AM: In Bright Young Things, the Lord of the Flies scenario is played out to contemporary effect, would you agree? Is there some satirical reference to the state of things at the moment with regards to reality TV and the like in there as well though?
ST: Ever since I started writing I've been obsessed with the idea of creating narratives around groups of people trapped together. But I like writing about fairly similar people trapped together. The idea of Bright Young Things was always to try to challenge that view of the island-adventure narrative that says you have to have clashing stereotypes (the nun, the hooker, the family man, the psychotic loner, the natural leader, the disturbed young girl etc. etc.), and that the adventure will basically consist of the group arguing, then electing a leader, then planning an escape while the psychotic loner loses it and then tries to kill them all and so on. I pretty much did the opposite of all that in the book.
One fundamental thing that people don't get about Bright Young Things is that when I wrote it there was no reality TV. The genre didn't exist. The whole thing was a big 'What if' scenario for me, but just at the end of writing there started to be all these stories in the press about Castaway. Then, of course, there was Big Brother. I finished writing the book in November 1999. But it wasn't published until February 2001 and literally all the reviews mentioned Big Brother as if I'd seen it before I wrote the book.
3AM: Would you agree that PopCo is more elaborate than your previous novels?
ST: Yes -- it is much more elaborate. There are various reasons for that. I had a lot more time to play with, for one thing. All my other books had some specific time pressure connected with them but I actually took a year longer to write PopCo than I was supposed to -- which is something I'd never usually do. Anyway, I knew I wanted to use the extra time to actually do some intensive research and I was pretty forcefully pushed into this anyway when it turned out that our house (in Devon) was in a valley in which the RAF like to do dangerous stunts all the time -- and I just can't work with a) extreme noise and b) the machinery of war overhead. So I started going to Torquay public library to work every day. I was able to research almost anything I wanted, although an odd side-effect is that the whole book -- all 180,000 words of it -- ended up being written on a Psion Revo.
Although it was a hard couple of years for various reasons, the experience of writing like that was wonderful. I'm very fond of Torquay library, but, objectively, it wasn't the most salubrious place to work, especially when the toilets kept being closed or condemned... but I nevertheless had a lot of time to think about and really explore the themes of the book, which was important, because it is my most political novel so far, and I wanted to get it right.
3AM: Where are you living at the moment? What do you like about it?
ST: I'm living in Canterbury at the moment. I like it that the RAF don't come here, and that it's a city the size of a small town. The Cathedral's good, too. I've got a friend coming on Friday who doesn't like sunlight, so I'm going to take her to the crypt.
3AM: What are you working on at the moment, if you don't mind me asking?
ST: I'm working on a novel called Life, which is about a book that may or may not contain the secret of the universe. I'm also writing another story-soundscape for Radio 4's Curly Tales series. I did one a couple of years ago, and it's a great format to work with: you basically have to write a story that has sound effects, but isn't a play.
3AM: What have you read recently that's worth mentioning?
ST: Um... Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku is the most head-fucky science book I've ever read. Some of it is way too hard for a general reader (and me) but the chapters about tunnelling out of the universe are fantastic. This year's been a bit shit for fiction so far. I hated the Safran-Foer, for example. Last year was much better -- Cloud Atlas and Mobius Dick were both brilliant, and I also loved Clearby Nicola Barker. But don't even get me started on why there aren't more good novels out there...