Conversation/Kōrero: Paul Ewen and Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl
ANZL member Paul Ewen is a New Zealand writer who grew up in Ashburton, a place he writes about in his essay ‘The King and I’. He now lives in London. His novel Francis Plug – How To Be A Public Author was described by the Sunday Times reviewer as ‘the funniest book I’ve read in years.’ Reviewing his story collection, London Pub Reviews (2007), the Guardian called Ewen ‘the poet laureate of pub weirdos everywhere.’
Eiríkur Ørn Norðdahl was born in Reykjavík in 1978 and raised in Ísafjörður, a fishing village of just 2,623 people in northwest Iceland. He is the author of six books of poems, five novels, two collections of essays and a cook book with short, meditative essays on food. His 2012 novel, Illska (Evil), was awarded the Icelandic Literary Prize, the Book Merchant’s Prize, and the Transfuge award for best Nordic fiction. He is active in sound, performance and conceptual poetry, and is the translator of, among other works, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
This conversation took place via email during June and July 2016.
I have to admit to a keen interest/curiosity in Iceland, which began with a visit there in 2010 – by coincidence, I was on the ground when Eyjafjallajökull started erupting, and although I was technically ‘trapped’ due to the ash cloud, I was actually rubbing my hands at the prospect of being ‘stuck’ in such an amazing place.
I was on another glacier when the one covering Eyjafjallajökull started melting, and the road that I had travelled on the day before was closed in order to remove some of the bridges before they were removed (swept away) by flood waters. This proved a good excuse to see more of the country, which, coming from my current life in the UK, reminded me very much of home in New Zealand. When I was eventually slipped out on a last-minute flight to Scotland, due to a brief change in the wind direction, every flight on the Arrivals monitor at Edinburgh was cancelled due to the Icelandic ash, except for my flight, from Iceland.
One strong memory of my ‘entrapment’ was at Kjarvalsstadir (Reykjavik Art Museum), when an older woman happened to ask me where I was from. When I said New Zealand she exclaimed, ‘Oh! A fellow island dweller! You are crazy, just like us!’
‘Speak for yourself,’ I replied, albeit respectfully. There certainly are strong similarities between the countries. Small populations, living on isolated geothermal wonderlands, one with Viking canoes, the other with Maori ones. Both countries popular as film locations, known for their dramatic landscapes. Each, arguably, with inhabitants who are overlooked, overpowered by their natural environment.
The Icelanders I met had a certain special way about them. I really felt like they were viewing the everyday world differently, a bit like Pessoa/Bernardo Soares in The Book of Disquiet. As if daily life and normal routines had a higher purpose. Maybe I’d just inhaled too much sulphur. But, to my knowledge, I never actually met any Icelandic writers on my travels. So now’s my chance, via email.
How was Sweden? I read that you spend a lot of time there. But I understand you’re actually based in Ísafjörður, in the northwest of Iceland. You mentioned [in an introductory email] the chaos of language and opinions you’ve been encountering online, and the contradictions these throw up. Do you think living in a fairly sparse and remote environment makes the disorder of the Internet seem even more full-on, chaotic, even violent?
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:
I’ve never been to New Zealand. My older brother has been there a few times with his family – he knows Kiri Te Kanawa, for some peculiar reason. I think maybe he was guiding her during a fishing trip in Iceland and they became friends. The closest I’ve gotten is watching Flight of the Conchords and Lord of the Rings – my guess is that if I sort of mix them together, the guys from FOTC with the landscapes from LOTR, I’ll get close to the truth. I also have a feeling your sheep are cuter than ours. I spent the second to last winter in Vietnam and saw a lot of NZ tourists. When I was in high school I got to know an Australian exchange student named Steve, but I’m told that’s different country.
I’m grasping. Grappling with my ignorance. Top of the Lake? Lorde? It’s strange how exotic everything feels when you know nothing about – and perhaps still stranger when you only know little, like the suggestiveness of a naked calf (the body part, not the animal – I’m not sure what the naked calf would suggest).
When Eyjafjallajökull erupted I was living in Sweden going to a poetry festival in Copenhagen. I wasn’t the only poet to show up – I took the train – but there were obviously not that many of us. We read at HC Andersen’s grave and talked about ash clouds. It all felt right, somehow.
About a year later – then living in Finland – Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair. It was a big deal and almost all the authors went – there may be proportionally many writers in Iceland, but we’re still not many people. And they all more or less went on the same plane. I flew in from Helsinki and I remember thinking that if their plane crashes, Icelandic literature for the next decades is mine. All mine.
In any case. I don’t think Icelanders are very down to earth. And I don’t think they generally like or enjoy or give value to menial tasks. They want the Polish and Lithuanian immigrants to do menial tasks – not least take care of the tourists. Icelanders themselves would rather work for upstarts, be DJs or musicians or writers. I get that, although I’m generally more and more into menial tasks. There’s something about simple accomplishments. The attainability of them.
Last Sunday I needed to get out of small town in Sweden and the buses weren’t running and I couldn’t get a lift. So I walked to the closest open bus stop – 20 kilometres in 3.5 hours – took the bus into Norrköping and sat down to write at a café for two hours before heading back with the bus, and then walking the 20 kilometres back down the country road to the rural house I was staying at. I had to walk back a little faster to be off the road before dark (there were no lampposts). It was harder than I thought it would be – nowhere near devastating, but blistering and muscles are still sore (it’s Tuesday). The most enjoyable thing about it was that even though it was tiring and hard, it was so totally doable. And when it was done it was gone – I didn’t have to do it again. There are not a lot of problems in life that are simple like that.
As for the Internet and language – home never feels remote. I know that I live far away from a lot of things, including Reykjavík, but I don’t feel that. I feel more like the world is remote, Paris, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Toronto, all that. And objectively of course, the world – even the US empire – is very Eurocentric in its thinking. So even the far edges of Europe are still less remote than New Zealand. Do you feel New Zealand is remote?
The thing about the Icelandic Internet is that it actually feels very crowded. People are extremely connected – we’re the second-most avid Facebook users in the world, after Qatar, another small nation (although seven or eight times more populous than Iceland). And because of the size and the connectedness of everybody – we’re all more or less related of course – when you post something on Facebook it almost feels like you’re addressing the entire nation, all 330,000 of them. And then you only get like five ‘likes’. Which is depressing and creates a state of two related but partly opposed social dictatorships: the dictatorship of the funny and the dictatorship of the revealing and traumatic. A third might be the dictatorship of the social-warriorness.
And perhaps there’s no place remote in the world anymore. It’s all just an Instagram #hashtag away. Maybe that’s sad – and I’m saying that as somebody who was overjoyed with the Internet breaking my isolation at age 17. It frees us and breaks us.
Like Icelanders, New Zealanders are rather few and far between; we don’t have many A-listers. The fact that your brother is acquainted with Kiri Te Kanawa therefore is really quite something. She’s a proper Kiwi legend.
Mind you, if that plane-load of Icelandic writers had crashed, I’m sure even she would have boasted how she knew the brother of that most famous of Icelandic writers. Maybe she already does.
Lord of the Rings has definitely put New Zealand’s landscape on the map. And Flight of the Conchords and Lorde are great New Zealand ambassadors, as of course is Kiri Te Kanawa. Kiri has both Māori and European ancestry, and Māoritanga (Māori culture) is a major part of New Zealand’s identity and make-up. The novels of Witi Ihimaera and the short stories of Patricia Grace are good introductions to Māoritanga. Witi also wrote The Whale Rider (1987), which was made into a major film. Another film, Boy, by Taika Waititi, depicts the life of a Māori family in the 1980s, and is very funny – Taika works quite a bit with the Flight of the Conchords guys. Highly recommended.
New Zealand does feel remote to me, but that’s mainly because I live in London. From what I’ve heard, if someone went through the centre of the Earth from Paris, they’d end up in Christchurch (in Canterbury, where I spent most of my childhood). Geographically, New Zealand and Australia (which is like our America, if we were Canada), really are on the opposite side of the world from Europe, and the ‘West’. Yet when I was growing up, a good deal of our media came from Britain and America, and as a youngster, this is where most of my favourite bands were from, and where a lot of the books I read were set. As a result, I’ve always wanted to get out there and see these other worlds. Is that something you’ve felt too?
Before I left New Zealand, I worked for four years at student radio. In that time, I got right into local music, which only student radio was really playing at the time. Now however, the mainstream stations are playing far more local content, and it is helping to launch and support NZ talent such as Lorde and Fat Freddy’s Drop. I think the Internet has massively helped this, but there’s also been this new respect for our own culture and talent that was less prevalent when I was growing up, except on a sporting level. So even though we’re less remote thanks to the Internet, we’re embracing what we have at home, rather than just tapping into the outside world.
I left New Zealand in 1996, lived in Singapore for two years, then Vietnam for four years, before moving to London in 2002. The Internet helps me keep in touch with what’s going on in New Zealand, but it also reminds me of what I’m missing out on. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, so I’m less in touch with people, particularly old friends from New Zealand, but then I’m not really closely engaged with friends in London either, apart from catch-ups/chats in pubs, book launches etc. I Skype my family in New Zealand and Hawaii, and I email, and occasionally write postcards, but I suppose I have retreated from the Internet more than most. Although I do use it as an important news source.
Right now I’m struggling to get my head around Brexit, and the implications for the UK. Here in Britain, we have already suffered from two successive terms of Conservative rule, and now look to be run by even less progressive, even righter-wing politicians. Unfortunately, the nation’s disillusioned – particularly those on lower incomes who’ve suffered the most – have punished David Cameron, who basically lead the country into its current mess. They have used this referendum to express their voice, but by spiting David Cameron, they have made their situation worse. As Philip Pullman said of Brexit voters: ‘We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache.’
Before Britain joined the European Economic Commission in the 70s, it was a very valuable trading partner for New Zealand. When Britain joined the EEC, NZ was basically left in isolation, to fend for ourselves, despite still being part of the Commonwealth and ruled by the Crown. The positive result of this has been that New Zealand has, in part, thrown off a lot of the ‘Mother Country’ baggage and focused more on developing its own identity, independent of Britain. The increased knowledge and respect for Māoritanga, and for other cultures that make up modern New Zealand (Aotearoa), such as Pacific Island and Asian cultures, has, I think, helped to shape a more diverse, more inclusive society.
Britain’s current path, I think, is the opposite. It has voted to isolate itself, to be more remote from the rest of the world. Not just from Europe, but from America and other countries too. There are also signals of less tolerance for ethnic majorities within Britain itself, at least within the Leave camp. Brexit ended up becoming an immigration debate, based on fear and lies from self-serving MPs, like Boris Johnson. I honestly think it is a tragic situation, because the vast majority of Leave voters were misinformed and will end up much worse off. Anyway, it kind of all ties back to what you were saying about not feeling isolated or remote. At least I hope it does. Or maybe I just went off on a big rant?
On a brighter note – although I don’t follow football, I can’t help but notice how well Iceland is doing in the European Cup. I’m sure even if you don’t follow it yourself, you will be at present? England plays Iceland tonight, and I’ve heard reports of English people who are supporting Iceland, due to the fact that they no longer feel proud of their own nation. It is all a bit topsy-turvy in Britain at the moment.
Well, best of luck from me too. And also with your new history professor President – he sounds promising?
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:
I’m sorry about the Brexit. We’re not in the EU and we’d probably not vote in, as things are, but it seems most people in Iceland are still sad to see the union self-destruct. It’s also of course a part of a general turn towards the xenophobic, and dare I say ‘fascist’ – it’s probably about time we start calling that spade a spade once more – on the whole continent, Iceland not excluded. Last week we saw the police enter a church in Reykjavík to pull out two Iraqi refugees with force – they’ve been sent to Norway and will get shipped back to Iraq, where they may die. And a large part of the nation is condemning the church for harbouring them – sheltering them from the cruelty of the law, and from death. If it’s not fascist, I don’t know what else to call it.
These things are happening with more and more regularity. A few weeks back a Nigerian in Iceland – fleeing Boko Haram – was sent out of the country by the police, despite a legal decision that had granted him a stay. The police simply acted against the law when they sent him out and in it they were backed by the state as a whole – the fact that the extradition was illegal was just ignored. By the time such a case has gone through all the pipelines he’ll be long dead.
We’re not a big nation and we’re not exactly central – except in our own minds – and we don’t get a lot of asylum seekers nor do we accept many refugees. We’re a rich nation and stingy – we neither take care of ‘our own’, as they put it, nor anyone knocking on the door.
I started writing about the extreme right in Europe in about 1995 – I was seventeen and the Danish People’s Party was just starting to get going. And every year since then the situation has been getting incrementally worse. First they enter the parliament, then they become normalized, then they enter the government – as of yet they’ve not led a government in Western Europe nor had a president, although in the east, not least Hungary, they’ve gained more ground. Hofer of the FPÖ just barely lost in Austria the other day and now I hear that the election result has been cancelled and they’ll vote again.
These aren’t big steps and they’re not as related to the crisis of 2008 as many people claim – although it helps. It seems to me that the left is just so crippled while the extreme right – which represents many of the same groups, or at least claims to do so and gives voice to their complaints – is organized and smart. I’m not nostalgic for a pre-identity-politics left, like some people, but there eventually needs to be a focus on some sort of empathetic cohesion – solidarity – which doesn’t resort to polarisation of the disenfranchised through either racial slur or blaming the world’s chauvinism on ‘white trash’, hicks or hillbillies (while the world is governed by the ultra rich).
The new president – history professor Guðni Th. Jóhannesson – is in many ways promising. Iceland being the small country it is, I taught his daughter creative writing. She’s totally righteous and a good writer. He sort of disappointed many people on the Brexit question – he spoke of it in rather positive terms, when asked. I guess maybe he was being diplomatic – he’s had this whole thing of being ‘everybody’s’ president. For example, if I remember correctly, he said that he’d be president for the environmentalists and the non-environmentalists. The president that’s leaving was very controversial, but Guðni Th. wants to be everything but that.
Today, however, is a day for football. Since we spoke last Iceland has beaten England at the Euros – and today apparently we’re supposed to beat France. The French newspaper Libération interviewed me about the game and I promised them that Iceland would meet Wales in the final game. So far so good. It’s certainly no easy game for ‘us’ but the team has had good games and they have even better games in them. I’m in Helsinki, Finland, and I’ll be watching the game at a sports bar with a bunch of Icelanders. Which will be fun. I’ve watched most of the other games on my laptop or phone – except for the England game, which I watched on the ferry over here. It was a karaoke pub and the sound of the game was turned down; half the screens were showing karaoke videos with drunk Finns onstage singing 50s tango hits. Football should always be paired with karaoke; it’s the perfect duo.
I was sad to see Iceland go out of the Euro 2016 tournament. By all accounts, they were bloody marvellous. I don’t know if you heard this, but I read in the Guardian that their stellar run has also helped the Icelandic publishing industry.
So maybe you owe the team some beers.
Things are less bright in England at the moment, as you might imagine. For half the population, the Iceland defeat against England was like the icing on a shit cake. Hate crime has escalated by 42%, Romanian shops are being petrol-bombed, racist messages are being sent to Islamic centres. It is, as you say, the stirrings of fascism and it’s getting ugly.
I’ve been writing this email over a matter of days, and I’m constantly having to update what I wrote the day before because the political world is changing so fast here at the moment. It’s a good incentive to just get it sent off as soon as possible, because I doubt I’ll ever keep up.
Theresa May, the only ‘stable’ candidate for the next British Prime Minister, is about to be signed into the position. She is currently offering no assurances to European migrants already in Britain about their future here, thus adding to the general fear and uncertainty. Prior to Brexit, as Home Secretary, she was also pushing for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, something Winston Churchill pushed to get established after the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Her views on immigration are known to be ‘hardline’. And yet, worryingly, she was the best candidate in the running.
The last week has also confirmed the news that Tony Blair officially misled the British public. Ironically, Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader, vehemently opposed invading Iraq at the time, and now his party are trying to replace him with a ‘stronger leader,’ who’ll probably be someone like Tony Blair.
I’ve started staring at my New Zealand passport, pondering my own Brexit.
I’m not completely up to speed with New Zealand’s current immigration policy, but from what I know it’s pretty strict. A quick look at the government website reads: Our immigration policies have been developed to support New Zealand’s economic growth. Not the most open-arm welcome you could hope for. People with capital, it seems, are encouraged. So that obviously rules out most authors, for a start.
My mother had a stroke earlier this year, possibly caused by years of aftershocks following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. My parents’ neighbours had their homes flattened, and Mum and Dad lost a few walls, including one that fell across their lounge sofa. I mention this, because it’s another disadvantage of being remote from a remote country – having access to loved ones, particularly in times of crisis. I haven’t seen my brothers in five years, nor my nephew, and I have a niece I’ve never met. Returning to a remote place can also be expensive. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, I can certainly attest to that. When I do return to New Zealand, I don’t take anything for granted. Everything and everyone are savoured.
Britain, on the other hand, has just chosen to isolate itself, to distance itself from its European neighbours, and even its US partners. It has voted, supposedly, for self-rule, but in fact, according to the wishes of most Leavers, it has voted to keep foreigners out. To make itself more remote.
It makes me very angry and very sad.
I better send this off before Big Ben collapses on the Houses of Parliament, or Theresa May turns into a vampire, and I’ll have to start all over again.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:
I’ve tried writing poetry about football and found that it is burdened by its own light weight. Anything written about it just turns so banal – it never transcends small-talk. And yet it’s so emotionally enthralling during the 90 minutes plus that the games last that one feels almost embarrassed afterwards, naked and stupid. Am I too merely a hooligan, when I’m stripped of conditioning? Maybe watching football and having sex share the quality of rendering us uncivilized. Reading or writing about sex is also awkward (I do, in abundance sometimes, but then I enjoy being awkward). Politics are also awkward to write about, but they’re even harder to avoid than sex or football. Do you write about sex, football or politics?
Apologies for all the politics I’ve been spouting off about. But it is such a tumultuous period in the UK at the moment it is very difficult not to get embroiled in it all. Particularly when it isn’t going your way, and you need an outlet to vent your displeasure. In the past twenty-four hours, for instance, Boris Johnson has been appointed foreign secretary, which, in my mind, is incredibly insulting to the British public, and to every other nation on earth.
There I go again.
I haven’t written about sport, and don’t have much interest in it, but I have read some great pieces on it. My mother, who is big on her sport, put me onto a terrific book about rugby called The Book of Fame (2000) by Lloyd Jones, who was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for his novel Mister Pip. The Book of Fame is a fictionalised account of the All Blacks’ first European tour in 1905, and their journey by ship. It’s a short but mighty novel. David Foster Wallace wrote some brilliant essays about tennis. And Hunter S Thompson managed to write brilliantly about sport, sex and politics.
Sex isn’t something I have tackled either as yet, but in my satirical work, I do write about politics. Yesterday, in my current novel, two of my characters were talking about killing another human being, and if evil is a necessary requirement to do this. One character suggested it wasn’t if you wanted to kill Donald Trump. He supported this by pointing out that the young English lad who attempted to assassinate Donald Trump in Las Vegas recently has been described by all who know him as warm, gentle, sensitive and kind.
I find it easy to write about politics, because there is usually a viewpoint counter to yours that you can kick against. But my equivalent to your football writing struggle would be writing about New Zealand. Apart from some short pieces about my earlier life there, I’ve mainly written about London, which I can view as an outsider, with a critical eye. I almost feel too close to New Zealand, too impassioned, perhaps as you are by football, to detach myself and write in my normal satirical style. Strangely, one of the most influential critical essays about New Zealand, ‘Fretful Sleepers’ (1952), was written by Bill Pearson when he was away from the country, in London. Personally, I feel like I need to be on the ground to get my teeth into it. Much of my writing follows an almost reportage style, which may explain this.
Maybe you need to abstain from sex and football, and then write about them longingly, from afar.
Useful? I really don’t think so.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:
Politics and the Euros have been hogging my brain capacity for weeks now. Tomorrow Donald Trump will announce his vice-president material – my money is on Jerry Springer. Now that Boris is occupied.
I very often end up writing about Iceland and my troubled relationship to the country. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t write about the Euros, because it’s one of the few times my relationship to the country – and its nationalism – wasn’t really problematic. I thought the team was admirable, I thought the fans were admirable – despite their nationalist antics, which usually get on my nerves – and I thought most of the adversaries were admirable (maybe everyone except Ronaldo). And all that admiration just doesn’t make for good literature.
I have, however, written a few poems that are – in a sense – just pure joy. For instance when my son was born. But those are rare moments and most of the time I find that they don’t ‘work’ for literature. They’re too friction-free. I need there to be something problematic – which is why so much of my writing is political. But I guess then I also find that problematic – I doubt my own politics and I doubt literature’s capability to be political and I doubt that its role is to be political. I find that especially in fiction one is ‘let in’ to people’s psyches – that is how it feels when I myself read – and I’d hate to think that the writers I’m reading are using that space to further a political agenda. In my own writing I’ve tried to solve that through creating (or exposing) as much contradiction and organized chaos as I can handle. In some ways I use literature also to expose the weaknesses with my own politics and how we tend to simplify the world in order to understand it – I get that, it’s a survival strategy, but then we also use those simplifications to bash each other with.
I understand what you mean about the problems of putting across a personal political agenda in your writing. The character I used for my first novel, and who I am currently progressing in a follow-up book, unashamedly carries many of my own opinions on politics and the world in general. But his justifications for them are often rather ludicrous, and he gets to his own conclusions in less than straightforward or logical ways.
What I found interesting, and more than a bit concerning initially, was that the first broadsheets to review my novel favourably in the UK were more conservative, right-leaning papers. For a few days I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? I’ve created a monster!’ Fortunately, the more liberal media soon caught up and were equally positive, but for a time I was worried that I’d somehow been completely misinterpreted, or had simply got my message all wrong.
The satire I write isn’t particularly hard-hitting or aggressive, so I suppose it’s not too divisive. I do have an idea for a play I want to write from the point of view of someone with completely opposing political views from mind, and I already have some sympathy with how they have reached these. I imagine it will ultimately be difficult to keep my own views out of it, but my hope is that the exploration of the subjects and issues through different viewpoints will at least produce something rounded.
Perhaps your piece on Iceland’s Euro success could be told through the eyes of an English fan. Or Ronaldo’s. Someone who can’t help admiring Iceland’s achievement, but whose experience of it is personally tainted. I suspect it will be easier when some time has passed and the euphoria has passed somewhat. And by then, perhaps one of the team heroes will have gone off the rails and robbed a bank, offering something suitably problematic.
Hope you didn’t lose too much money when Jerry Springer wasn’t called up.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:
I like unlikable characters. I like writing them; I like being within them, finding something worth redeeming. It makes the world seem less cruel, maybe; if I can empathize with a Nazi, for instance. It may be absolutely the wrong approach – maybe it’s just to further harm; to make them understandable is maybe to promote their acceptance. Primo Levi wrote somewhere that we have a duty to not understand the Holocaust – a point I’ve often seen in relation to Adorno’s famous quote about poetry being barbaric after Auschwitz. I guess my understanding of both is rather pick and choose.
I tend to remind myself that despite Levi’s philosophy, he himself showed us the insides of the concentration camps in the most brutal and uncompromising manner. And maybe that kind of brutality doesn’t foster understanding or acceptance – maybe it fosters something more along the lines of wisdom, or a clearer sight. Not so that we can admire the evil but so that we can simply gaze at it – eventually maybe staring it down, although that may take some time.
Adorno on the other hand – I see him as talking about the exact opposite. Poetry being shorthand for the beautiful, the divine. For so long our ideas about beauty were about cleaning out the aesthetic dissonance – making sonnets that kept perfect time, whose metaphors cut like a razorblade. This is an idea of purity which was translated into romantic no-holds-barred nationalism – or ethnocentrism – an idea of the world (or at least the nation, the country) as a monoculture with no blemishes, no side streets, nothing outside the mainstream, no avant-garde, no religious or philosophical disparity. A world as pure and dissonance free as the sonnet. I see him as meaning that the holocaust was beauty taken to its absolute limit; it was the cost of our idea of beauty.
So maybe I like unlikable characters like one likes the ugly – maybe it’s a kind of punk aesthetic, a defiance against beauty and understanding.
My last novel, Heimska (Stupidity), had thoroughly unlikable characters. Perhaps the least likable characters I’ve written – I’ve written several Nazi mass murderers who were more sympathetic than the pair in my last book. And what is it that I apparently find less empathetically appealing than Nazis?, I hear you ask. Loud and clear.
Writers. But of course.
Áki and Leníta Talbot are a pair of self-obsessed sexaholic sadistic and incestuous writers in a not-so-distant future where privacy is only a semi-nostalgic idea. We already have the technology for it – facial recognition and cameras everywhere (on walls, phones, computers etc.). We even have search engines that can pinpoint the location of certain smart devices (for instance, a baby monitor that you could pinpoint to find sleeping babies) – and in the age of Facebook, Google, Amazon, #freethenipple and amateur porn etc, no one can sincerely claim to be interested in their privacy any more. Like Áki and Leníta, and everyone living in their not-so-distant future, everyone is first and foremost interested in being seen. We will forego the private space for a few ‘likes’.
I’m not sure why I thought it appropriate to have the protagonists be writers – maybe because it’s the vanity I know: as writers we are stuck in a wheel of perpetual self-promotion (just look at us now!). Even the books – the literature itself – is a way of undressing in front of the world, which is simultaneously liberating and enslaving. But fame is no longer, of course, only for the famous – or for those who strive for recognition, to be able to promote art or justice, if I’m to try and bypass my cynicism. Fame, or being famous, is something that everyone is more or less constantly doing.
I think all my books – even the cookbook – are about what it means to see and what it means to be seen (and what it means to be seen seeing, to see someone be seen seeing etc. etc.) And Heimska is that on anabolic steroids, which is probably why the protagonists are so unlikable, and, I’d dare say to a certain extent – and this of course is absolutely forbidden in literature – hard to relate to. They’re petty and spiteful and they’re not half as interesting or intelligent as they believe themselves to be. That may be one part cynicism for the world in general, one part a disdain for the profession and one part self-loathing for consciously taking part in both – for being vain and wanting to appear I’m smarter than I am, for wanting prizes and attention and, lest we forget, cold hard cash. We all want to believe we’re above that – and maybe some of us truly are. But I’m not, and that disappoints me.
We both have cynicisms about literary world pretensions – how can this be?
Áki and Leníta Talbot sound a bit like Roald Dahl’s The Twits. The Twits of the future, with added sex and (and books).
I think writers perfectly epitomise the fame obsession and the stripping away of privacy. Of course, I would say that because I’ve explored similar themes myself.
My last, and first, novel, Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author, is a kind of self-help guide to surviving as an author, where you’re expected to be, as you rightly say, ‘in a wheel of perpetual self-promotion.’ Francis Plug, while annoying, and slightly deranged, isn’t exactly unlikeable (although some readers didn’t find much to like about him, or the book itself). Hilary Mantel, who he meets in a fictional construct in the book, afterwards wrote of him, in the real world:
One thinks of Goethe: one thinks of Shelley: one thinks of Plug. He is a force of nature, he is sage, bard and prophet: he is in addition a random menace, and at all times you need to know where he is. They say that there are no statues to critics. But the fourth plinth awaits Francis. Perhaps he can be chained to it.
It is his unbalanced and naive yet honest nature that helps expose, I hope, some of the many pretensions in the literary world, and the world in general. In the course of the book Francis meets over thirty actual Man Booker Prize-winners, a task I completed in the real world, getting them to sign their real books to Francis Plug – these signed title pages start each chapter. Some of the real Man Booker Prize-winners were more unpleasant than others, but I was interested in depicting the circus that they are a part of, which runs counter to the idea of the lonesome, solitary hermit, shut away in a locked room.
Despite revealing the grim nature of being an author in the present day, and despite his huge reservations about it all, Francis still gets caught up in it. And as his creator, so have I. What’s been interesting post-publication is that he has been invited, in the real world, to do lots of public events. He had his own invitation to the Booker Prize Shortlist party last year [photo]. He was invited to do a talk at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, which I ended up doing, along with a spare seat on stage, specially reserved for Francis. Recently he was billed to do a talk as part of the Dulwich Festival, a ticketed, one-hour slot without an interviewer. Along with the audience, I waited for him to turn up before finally reading his speech myself, which he’d left strewn on the floor prior to running off to the pub [photo].
When it comes to public engagements, authors are expected to be compliant, often not even being paid in order to fulfil the needs of publishing house marketing departments, or, as you say, their own vanities and egos. Through Francis, I suppose I’m trying to face up, like you, to my own vanities, and also my own disdain for the profession, by putting forward an author/character who is not prepared to sit quietly in the spotlight.