Saturday, March 08, 2014

My third novel, Glow, is published by Sceptre two months from today, and I've written a Frequently Asked Questions about it. 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 for interviewers and reviewers, anticipating some of the more obvious questions that they might have. General readers will not find any of this information very interesting, and should not bother to read it. Still, just in case, I've made sure not to spoil any of the plot.

How did you get the idea for this book?
There were two subjects I had been wanting to write about for a long time. One was London pirate radio. This is a fascinating and unique thing which has obvious potential as a plot point because it's illegal and secretive and faintly magical. But I've never read a novel about it. People will go to a Richard Curtis film valorising the offshore DJs of the 1960s (rendered unthreatening by historical distance) without even realising that London still has dozens of active pirate radio stations. Moreover, I knew that writing about pirate radio would give me an excuse to set the book in south London. In The Teleportation Accident, I'd already written about Dalston, which I hate; here, I had an opportunity to write about Peckham, which I love.

The other subject I'd been wanting to write about for a long time was corporate imperialism in developing countries. This, of course, has been novelised extensively, going back past One Hundred Years of Solitude all the way to Heart of Darkness and probably even further into the nineteenth century if I knew my Victorian fiction better. But in the age of Blackwater there is still a lot to address. I'm told I could get into legal trouble if I suggest that I drew from the activities of any other real-life companies in my research, so I'll just say that for various reasons I decided to set this part of the story in South East Asia.

I wanted to write about both pirate radio and resource extraction in the Golden Triangle, and I had to find a way to connect them. The clear solution was the drug trade. And the rest of the plot emerged from that triad.

Your first two books were wilfully confounding postmodern black comedies. This is a thriller with some pretty Hollywood moments. Why did you decide to write one of those?
Interviewers ask a lot of questions of the form 'Why did you decide to write a book that [instantiates some general property]', and they're not easy to answer, because they imply a degree of preliminary strategic thinking that does not usually take place. I never decided to write a thriller; as I said, I wanted to write about pirate radio, corporate militarism and, concomitantly, drugs, and because all three of those are shady fields where there might be a few guns around, a thriller emerged as the natural form. That said, I think all of my books have had a balance of thiller and non-thriller elements. Glow simply has most of the non-thriller elements removed, because in this case they would have been impediments.

Your first books were set mostly in the 1930s and '40s. Why did you decide to write a book set in the present day?
The deflection above also applies to this question. But to answer it in the bluntest way possible: the book involves raves, pirate radio and post-ecstasy drug culture in south London, so it could not realistically have been set before about 1990, and it made more sense for me to set it in 2010 than in 1990 or 2000 because I lived through 2010 as an adult.

Your first two books were noted for their 'unsympathetic characters'. Why did you decide to write a book with two pretty likeable guys at its centre?
I find the practise of classifying fictional characters as 'sympathetic' or 'unsympathetic' to be pernicious and infantile. But I suppose I do have an answer to this. As before, I didn't decide beforehand that Raf and Isaac would be 'sympathetic'. However, they did develop rather differently from Erskine or Loeser, and I think it's because this book is the first time I've tried to write in detail about certain categories of human experience towards which I feel genuine fondness. I like south London, and foxes, and night buses, and dancing, and falling in love. So my characters do too. And the flippancy and pessimism which permeated my first two books would have got in the way of that.

Still, please don't take from this that I've 'moved on from' or 'grown out of' the tendencies of my earlier work. My fourth novel may very well be another postmodern black comedy about 'unsympathetic characters' in the 1930s.

As a public-school-educated north London Jew, how did you feel while writing this novel about small-time criminals on Peckham housing estates?
Blissfully confident, 100% authoritative.

Will I learn a lot about the political situation in Burma from this book?
No! This book is about Burma in the same way that From Russia With Love is about the Soviet Union. I've never even visited Burma. For heaven's sake do not rely on me as an authority. I just exploited the country as a plot point. If you really want to learn about Burma, some enjoyable books include From The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe, Under the Dragon by Rory McLean, Everything is Broken by Emma Larkin, and of course Burmese Days by George Orwell. But it's changing so fast that it may be better just to read the New York Times at the moment.

And don't even get me started on how slapdash and under-researched the neuroscience is.

What were the books that inspired this book?
In non-fiction, it was The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. In fiction, it was William Gibson's Bigend trilogy (starting with Pattern Recognition) and John Updike's Rabbit quartet (starting with Rabbit, Run).

You published your debut novel in spring 2010, and here is your third novel already. How are you so prolific?
I'm afraid the most accurate answer to this question is also the most boring one. The way I see it, I am not actually that prolific. For commercial reasons, the fastest my publisher could possibly publish my books is about one every two years. The average length of my books so far is about 100,000 words, which means that to maintain that rate I would have to write about 50,000 words a year, or about 1,000 words a week. 1,000 words happens to be my target for one good day of writing (and I think if you took a survey of writers you might find that 1,000 words is about average or even on the lower end of the distribution). Consequently, as long as I do one good day of writing a week, I have the whole rest of the week for revisions, research, promotion, travel, screenwriting, freelancing, short stories and so on. (Of course, this is an abstract week, for demonstration purposes only – in practice, maybe I'll do a whole fortnight of writing followed by a week of this and a week of that and a week of the other.) So a medium-length book every two years, which people seem to think is prolific, feels like the very minimum level of accomplishment I can demand of myself. After all, I'm in good health and I have no dependents and no day job. Barbara Cartland once wrote 23 novels in one year.

At this point, other writers will object that my calculations only make sense if I always have a book in progress and I make no false starts and I never throw anything away. Well, yes, that is basically the case. I am a disturbingly efficient factory machine. I think it's because my books are conceived so much in terms of their complicated plots, so I always know precisely what I have to write next. In the long run, perhaps this will limit me, or perhaps my methods will evolve, or perhaps neither.

Still, you must be very motivated?
When I tell people that I work at home, feet from my bed, unsupervised, on my own schedule, with no real deadlines, and I yet I don't have any trouble getting enough words down every week, they say, 'Wow, you must have such self-discipline.' Then when I tell them that, because my writing methods prevent me from turning the internet off entirely while I work, I use a complex battery of software, and one kitchen appliance, to limit my access to time-wasting websites – this, this, this, this and this – they say, 'Wow, do you have no self-control at all?' So maybe I am very motivated or maybe I am not very motivated. I will wait for everyone else to make up their minds on this question.

The book is set in south London, where you once lived, but shortly before starting the book you left London to take up a residency in Berlin and you haven't gone back to London very much since. Was this an obstacle?
Yes, it felt like pretty bad timing. But I had years of observations saved up when I left, and when I did visit London in the course of writing the book I took a lot of notes. I also made heavy use of Flickr.

Is non-24 sleep/wake syndrome a real condition? Do you go looking for these rare conditions?
Like trimethylaminura in Boxer, Beetle, it is a real condition, and like trimethylaminuria I heard about it because I met someone who knew someone who suffered from it.

I am reviewing or blogging or tweeting about this book. Good evening?
Good evening. I would really appreciate it if you could give away as little of the plot as possible. I mean, OK, it's not one of those books where half way through it mind-blowingly turns out to be about a completely different thing from what you thought it was going to be about. But I think it does take some unexpected turns, and I'd really like them to remain satisfying.

Are you going to be doing a lot of promotion for this book?
I suppose, but sometimes I wonder: what's the point of burnishing my media image any further? I mean, I'm already regarded as an Alan Bennett-like national treasure, cherished by readers of every age for my warmth and humility.

Are you ever going to join Twitter?
Yes! I used to say I would never join Twitter. I didn't feel it would be useful or positive for me as a writer, and I maintained that I couldn't reasonably be accused of being inaccessible to my readers given that my personal email address is on my website and I reply to every single email I get. But I've come to realise that it's important for getting my books out into the world, and that maybe I could even make some new friends. So I admit it – I was wrong! Please do follow me at my new personal account.


Unknown said...

I didn't understand why you decided to write this book... ;-)
You are one of my favorite writers and I can not wait that the book is published in Italy
Kisses from your number one Italian fan. I adore your works!

Daniel Luke said...

Mr. beeauman, that's an unexpected twist, albeit a delicious one!


UplayOnline said...

I adore your works!