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3am Interview

3AM: You were at Goldsmiths, weren't you?

NG: I always knew that I wanted to go to a university in London that was creative and at the centre of everything, and Goldsmiths for me, studying communications/film in the early 90s was just that. Not that I spent too much time there when I wasn't in class or making films, we were always out at clubs and pretending to be cool London people or something. That's what I liked about the place the most, that you weren't nannied like some of my friends were in their campus unis, but that you were encouraged to forge a more independent spirit. It felt more anarchic than academic -- again, in comparison to seeing my friends on their more sedate campuses. I always felt more like an art student than anything else.

3AM: So did I when I was there, though like you I wasn't studying it either. So what films did you make on your course? Were you involved with the film co-op there?

NG: I made a mixture of narrative shorts, and incredibly silly conceptual things, that were high on silliness and low on concept... One of the women who ran the co-op was our tech, so we knew the guys, but never made any films with them. We had too much ego, I guess!

3AM: Did you go into film?

NG: No, because I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved the process, but at the time, I didn't have the patience to be a film-maker!

3AM: Do you view writing and films as mutually-exclusive then?

NG: Not at all. There are plenty of examples of writers who make films; I'm thinking of people like Kureishi and Neil Jordan, but for me personally, it's all about the writing. I love movies, and have deep-closeted film-geek tendencies, but it's words that get under my skin rather than pictures. The pull I feel in my gut, what drives me more than anything else, is trying writing something good. I'm an old-fashioned boy. I love creative multi-taskers, but that isn't me.

3AM: Is Hanif Kureishi an influence then?

NG: Absolutely. When I was a teenager, I really followed what he did, and his work left a huge impression on me, Launderette, Buddha of Suburbia, and London Kills in particular -- probably because they were coming of age stories, and I was approaching that age myself. But it was more than the stories. What he really did for me was cement the idea that I could be a writer as a vocation. Here was a young Asian who was writing about Britain in a way that was brilliant, and brave, and true, and that was just where I wanted to be. In terms of the actual work, I'm probably more indebted to guys like Selby Jr, but Kureishi really decided it for me. I re-read Buddha of Suburbia recently and it's still funny and insightful, and brought back all those feelings I'd felt when it first came out.

3AM: I think he has a good eye for detail, particularly with sex. In that sense he's more of a continental writer, don't you think?

NG: Definitely. And some of those sex scenes are more celebratory than filled with self-loathing. There's no emphasis on the seaside aspect which you still get with a lot of English novels -- farce or sleaze. You feel a certain kind of essence with those kinds of writers like Kureishi, effervescent and never asleep, if that makes sense.

3AM: If you were asked to write a screenplay for We Are The New Romantics who would you like to see direct it?

NG: Pawel Pawlikowski, who brings beauty to an awful amount of grit. Romantics is full of scams, and tenderness, and brotherhood, and disco gloom. He'd be ideal. If the book had been written forty years earlier, I'd nominate Jean-Pierre Melville, who's the king of buddy-pics: ordinary ambitious scamsters just trying to get by in their sleazy environments.

3AM: One review said it was the kind of book that two main characters would read themselves.

NG: It would appeal to their sense of thrills and spills, so maybe yes. And as it's a book about that intensely selfish period of late late youth, why shouldn't it appeal? My personal theory however, is that they are way too self-absorbed to read, and at best, manage the key fashion magazines.

3AM: I recall one of the minor characters trying to compare Tarantino to Hitchcock, which struck me as odd.

NG: That was just a nod to my Goldsmiths days. I love film theory profs talking out of their hats, that need they have to connect the new with the old. That's where that came from.

3AM: So there's some of Goldsmiths in the novel. How did the French setting come about then?

NG: I don't think there's that much of Goldsmiths in there, aside from the film nerd to be honest. Why France? Because the story needed to be set outside of the UK, and they were the kind of characters who wouldn't go back-packing around the Far East. France seemed right because of its mix of familiar and unfamiliar and the city and semi-rural settings seemed to work... And I love the place to death. To me, it was always so natural that they'd jump on a train to Paris and start travelling about from there.

3AM: Why did it need to be set outside of the UK?

NG: I knew the book would be a travelling story, and as the characters are very urban, I didn't want to do a book that felt too London-centric etc. Those kinds of stories have been done to death, and always feel a little too try-hard. They're more concerned with name-checking cool spots than with the development of any narrative. I like the idea however of characters bringing their suburban-city mentality to a foreign environment and seeing how they cope with that.

3AM: Do you think that writing about another country liberates the writer in some way?

NG: Yes and no. You initially feel a larger sense of freedom, but what happens is that you still bring the mother-country with you. And that's harder in a way, as you're trying to distil an essence of what the mother country means to each particular character. Even if they go to great lengths to hide it, you still have to know where they're coming from, as this informs how they cope in the new place.

3AM: It's a constant complaint but do you feel that British novels are in some way in decline, particularly among younger writers?

NG: 'British' novels as such probably don't exist they way they did, even up to the 80s. Writing has changed because the way we live has changed. What you get now is a distilled version, rather like a posh apple crumble you get in a restaurant. Maybe it's all about the branding these days... But saying that, it seems that every other review I read is talking about some new 'British' novel or other. Look how Forster haunts Zadie Smith's new book. It's an American campus novel, but so very British. McEwan's 'Saturday', Caryl Phillips, Patrick Gale, Esther Freud, Monica Ali are all writing in various ways about how people live in our country.

3AM: That's true but don't you get the sense that the quality of writing has declined, particularly among younger British writers who are too wrapped up in the moment? Or do you think that it's just being faithful to the idea of engaging with the era?

NG: Isn't that just a generational comment? There's nothing wrong with writing about a particular moment, if you can get something truthful out of it. Language is changing, publishing is changing, the way people live is changing. You can argue about the quality of writing being in decline, but there's always going to be glut of average novels published. However, somewhere in this glut will be a latent genius waiting to pop out.

3AM: It can also be a good thing. Previous generations had the burden of ideology and its pull on everyday life hanging over them whereas now writers aren't afraid to include pop culture in their writings, don't you think?

NG: Maybe too much pop culture sometimes! If I want to read a list of what's current I'll pick up a copy of Heat. The most important thing about the freedom to write about anything, is that you try and do it well. Otherwise all you get is well-bound journalism, not a novel.

3AM: New Romantics is referencing a pop cultural aspect in its title, surely?

NG: Though it's more to do with romanticism, because these people are anything but...

3AM: It does seem to have a nihilist edge, yes. Would you agree there's an absence of morality or is that replaced by loyalty among the characters?

NG: They have their own morality, but it's narrowly defined. Amy, I think is moral, but in a way that's self-affirming, almost preachy at times. She is what DJ isn't, and revels in that. She likes that this makes her feel superior. What's perceived as DJ's lack of morals is more to do with spontaneity, and self-preservation.

3AM: I know it's set in France but would you say you're influenced by any French writers?

NG: Simenon has a very spare style that I like, but what really rocks me is the work from Brits and Americans in Paris -- Fitzgerald, Miller, James Baldwin et al. Soppy but true. French filmakers influence me way more than writers, Rivette, Melville, Ozon.

3AM: That whole post-war Paris scene has an enduring appeal, don't you think?

NG: Absolutely, because the legacy from those times is so huge. You can't help but refer to it or be influenced by it in some way. London too, though it feels less glamorous. It's definitely one of the periods I would love to have lived in, because it was such a time of real change. All convention was starting to turn on its head, and for anyone creative, that's always going to be an interesting sphere in which to work.

3AM: Do you see any lineage from the era of the Beat Hotel and bohemian Paris through to DJ and Amy, the whole subsistence and hedonism thing?

NG: It's beautifully vacant youth, pure and simple. Amy and DJ are the modern-day Divers from Tender is the Night.

3AM: What about Houellebecq?

NG: I wasn't into Atomised. I liked Platform but it didn't blow me away. After all the hype I was expecting something far more incendiary.

3AM: OK then, what authors do you consider influential or just appreciate?

NG: As a roll call: Douglas Coupland, Henry Miller, Selby Jr, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Kureishi, Easton Ellis, Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Amis, Hollinghurst, Stewart O'Nan, Fitzgerald, Tobias Wolff, Edmund White, for starters.

3AM: I recall you reading at Vox & Roll when New Romantics came out. Do you do many readings? What you make of the resurgence of literary readings in London of late?

NG: Vox & Roll was the first reading I did! I was a wreck beforehand and remember one of my best friends making sure I had a couple of Martinis before we turned up. I've done a few readings since, but the Vox one was the most special because it was the first time I read the work aloud to an audience, and I really enjoyed it. It's the frustrated pop star in me I guess. Give me a mic and a podium and you'll be hard-pressed to get me off it! The more lit nights the better, I say! I really want to check out Patrick Neate's Book Slam at Cherry Jam, so will have to get my sorry ass down there at some point. Charlie Dark's Blacktronica nights at the ICA are cool too.

3AM: How did the book come about? What did you do before that and uni?

NG: New Romantics took about a year and a half. I started off with a couple of chapters and it started to steamroll... I've been writing stories since I was a kid -- an extension of being such a voracious reader. But it was probably from the age of about 17, I realised that I wanted to write more than anything else.

3AM: Do you have a routine for writing?

NG: I hate it when other writers talk about their routines because it always makes you feel completely shit. I just make sure I sit on the laptop every day and get something down. Sometimes I work better at night, sometimes morning. I don't stress over it in that respect, so long as I end the day with some progress, then all good.

3AM: What's next from you then?

NG: My second novel has just been finished! The working title is 'Graffiti My Soul' and it's a suburban story about race and racing.


Niven Govinden was born in Sussex in 1973. He spent three years at Goldsmiths making dodgy conceptual films in the name of Art. He now lives and works in London.

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