My fourth novel, Madness Is Better Than Defeat, will be published in a bit less than two months, and I've written a Frequently Asked Questions about it. I did this with Glow, and the same preamble applies. Because the book isn't out yet, most of these Questions I haven't even been Asked once, let alone Frequently. And it might seem a bit too early to start talking about it in detail. However, plenty of proof copies have already gone out, and I'm told that reviews are already being written. So the following FAQ is mostly for interviewers and reviewers, anticipating some of the more obvious questions that they might have.
How did you get
the idea for this book?
Like many people, I'm fascinated by the production histories of
Apocalypse Now and
Fitzcarraldo – the
sense that, if you set out to make a film about white men who go into
the jungle and fall victim to tyrannical hubris and latent insanity,
you are yourself doomed to have the exact same thing happen to you.
In this book I wanted to ask, what if there's a secret
reason for that seemingly
inescapable pattern, beyond
budgets and tropical
and colonial legacies?
in 2010 I did some research into the construction of the Panama
Canal. The Canal Zone, with its workforce of thirty thousand, had
courthouses, post offices, a newspaper and an army, like a miniature
The chief of the project, the former army engineer George Washington
Goethals was described as 'an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent
made me think of Coppola and Herzog ruling
their film sets.
your four books have been set in the 1930s/40s/50s. Do you have any
misgivings about that?
It's a pretty monotonous output for a writer whose jacket copy
advertises him with words like 'eclectic' and 'imaginative'. However,
The New Adventures of Tarzan,
the first Hollywood film ever shot on location in the rainforest,
came out in 1935, so the
book couldn't realistically
have taken place any earlier
than that. And it couldn't have taken place any later, I think,
because with each successive decade of the twentieth century, the
events herein would become even less plausible.
reasons: I wanted to
catch the last years of the robber baron era, when the names of
like Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Hearst
and Ford resounded more
than the names of limited
liability corporations; the
Second World War had various
useful functions in the background of the early part of the plot; and
I liked the idea that the Hearts in Darkness,
the Hollywood screwball
comedy that begins filming in
1938, had a provenance in
1940's The Philadelphia Story,
my favourite comedy.
clearly chastened by the mixed reception
for Glow (2014), his
venture into the present day, has now
retreated to the safer ground
of the interwar era in the hopes of recapturing his earlier critical
I had the idea for this book in
2010, I started it in late
2012, and by the time Glow
was published in hardback I was already about half way through, so I
couldn't possibly have reacted
CLEARLY CHASTENED BY THE MIXED RECEPTION
FOR GLOW (2014), HIS
VENTURE INTO THE PRESENT DAY, HAS NOW
OK, don't let me stop you.
Also, there is
once again a Nazi involved.
This is the last time, I swear.
To go back a bit,
how is it possible that by the time Glow was published, you were
already half way through your next book? Is it because you dash off
your novels in between suit fittings and croquet matches?
that does seem to be the general perception, the reality
is that Glow took about eighteen months to come out after
I delivered a first draft, so I had time to make plenty of headway on
the next one.
Subsequently, my progress flagged for various reasons, so
all in all I was working on
Madness is Better than
Defeat for about
four years before I sent a
first draft to my editors, and
several more months of editing followed.
I write pretty fast, but I'm not a freak of nature. Jonathan
Franzen wrote Freedom (570 pages) in 14 months. Marilynne Robinson
wrote Home (352 pages) in 18 months. Nell Zink wrote The Wallcreeper
(200 pages) in three weeks! As
I've said before, I am in good health, I have no dependents, I have
no day job, I don't leave long gaps between projects, and I don't
make many false starts. Given those factors, I don't think there is
anything especially impressive – or discreditable, depending how
you want to look at it – about my productivity.
What are some
central influences on this book?
Heart of Darkness by Joseph
Apocalypse Now dir. Francis
Ford Coppola (and
Hearts in Darkness and
Fitzcarraldo dir. Werner
Herzog (and Burden
of Dreams and The
Conquest of the Useless)
Bioshock dir. Ken Levine
Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp'
by R. A. Radford
The Sweet Smell of Success dir.
'The Aleph' by Jorge Luis Borges
'Monadology' by Gottfried Leibniz
American Tabloid by James
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas
Citizen Kane dir. Orson
Declare by Tim Powers
The City and the City by
'The Horror at Red Hook' by HP Lovecraft
this book be impossible to enjoy if I haven't read Hearts
in Darkness or seen Apocalypse
Now or Fitzcarraldo?
I hope it won't make much of a difference. I deliberately didn't
re-read or re-watch any of the three while I was writing this book in
order to ensure that it wouldn't be too larded with references.
However, if you have never experienced one or more of them, then
under no circumstances should you read my book yet, because a much
better use of your time is available.
much did you plan in advance?
Although I get asked this question constantly, I've never been able
to come up with a very interesting or useful answer. I knew many of
the beats I wanted to hit, as screenwriters say, but I also left
myself a plenty of gaps and flexibility. I wouldn't say I was
improvising, because there was always a margin of planning, so I knew
in detail what was coming a certain distance ahead; and of course a
host of essential things were in place from the very beginning. But a
lot of what ended up in the book – the prominence of certain
characters, for instance – would have been a surprise to me when I
OK, how was that? Riveting?
you set out to write a complicated book?
Yes, in the sense that I chose to write a novel about a large cast of
characters, over a long period of time, under the sway of various
shadowy and baroque agendas. Given that, it would not only have been
structurally impossible to make the book 100% streamlined, it would
also have been a mismatch between material and approach. Obviously, I
didn't want to explain everything right away, because I wanted to
preserve some suspense for the reader, and also because I wanted to
evoke, as viscerally as possible, the sense these characters have
that they are in the mouth of some enormous dark beast.
But, no, beyond that, it's not supposed to be confusing. The plot was
originally going to be even more expansive, but it got trimmed down,
both in the planning stages and in the editing stages, because I was
acutely conscious of this issue (and so were my editors, of course).
I do find it interesting sometimes to prickle or confound the reader,
but I don't want to alienate anybody for good. If you get lost at any
point, you can just email me. I'm serious! Just tell me what page
you're on and what you don't understand, and I'll fill you in.
you go to Honduras?
No. I also didn't go to Burma for Glow and I didn't go to
Berlin until I'd written most of the Berlin chapters of The
Teleportation Accident. It's just not my approach. These are not rigorous or reportorial books.
does the narrator refer to 'CIA' and 'OSS' without a definite
That was how employees of these two organisations often used to talk,
and indeed still do. For instance, the very first paragraph of the
CIA's internal style manual remarks that 'the information CIA gathers
and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them
effectively.' For comparison, we wouldn't say 'the MI5'. (Conversely, however, the narrator refers to the CIA as 'the Agency', when really he would have referred to it as 'the Company'. I felt I had to sacrifice authenticity here to avoid confusion with the United Fruit Company, which also has a role in the book.)
you use a lot of long obscure words just to show how clever you are?
Sometimes, there is a word which conveys the meaning you are trying
to convey more precisely and economically than any other word in the
English language, and that word, although an exquisite specimen,
happens not to be in common use. I refuse to say, 'Well, nobody else
is using that word, so I can't either.' If you think like that, the
only trajectory for words is towards death – once a word falls
below a certain threshold (or never reached that threshold in the
first place), it might as well be purged from the dictionary. But no
word is inherently obscure or difficult – we use technical
words and long words and foreign words all the time – some of them
are just more familiar than others, partly as the net result of a
long series of usage decisions by writers at their desks. In the OED
there are thousands and thousands of fabulous, irreplaceable words
that deserve a chance to shine – and if a literary novelist can't
give them that, who can? The only words I won't use are words marked
in the OED as 'obsolete' or 'archaic', even though I often want to.