DAN RHODES was born in 1972 and grew up in Devon and Kent. Rhodes graduated in Humanities from the University of Glamorgan in 1994, returning to complete a MA in Writing in 1997. He worked in a number of jobs while he switched between writing what would eventually become his first three books. His debut, Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories, features 101 darkly humorous stories, each comprising 101 words exactly, on the subjects of love, romance, and sex. After a number of rejections, Anthropology was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. In his second book, Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love, Rhodes developed Anthropology’s themes and comedy in longer, sometimes surreal, stories.. At this point, he split with Fourth Estate and moved to Canongate where his first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, was published in 2003. It describes a friendship between a disgraced English composer living in Italy, Cockroft, and a stray dog. In the same year he was chosen to be one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, an experience he did not enjoy. As the invasion of Iraq geared up, Rhodes tried to get his fellow BYBN to sign an anti-war open letter, abandoning it when it became clear he wasn’t going to get more than eleven of them to add their names. He published his next novel, The Little White Car (2004), under the pseudonym of Danuta de Rhodes. A pastiche of the chick lit genre, it provided an alternative explanation of the events leading to Princess Diana’s death. In 2007, Rhodes returned with Gold, which concerns the exploits of a half-Japanese holidaymaker in an out-of-season Pembrokeshire village. It won the inaugural Clare Maclean Prize in 2008. In 2005, Rhodes moved to Edinburgh , where he lived in Canonmills, near Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood home, until 2009; he now lives in Derbyshire. His latest novel, Little Hands Clapping (2010), is a dark fantasy set in Ger-many. The following interview grew from email correspondence and over dinner in a Stockbridge pizzeria where the participants may have alarmed the waitress they didn’t notice for a moment because they were having a conversation about Scottish serial killers. Colin Waters also spoke to Dan Rhodes about the destructive power of beauty, what he learned from Chekhov, and what he has in common with Michael Jackson.
SRB: I was lucky enough to read Little Hands Clapping without knowing practically anything about the plot, which made its taboo-busting turns all the more shocking and funny when they occurred. I worry critics will reveal too much in their reviews. How would you précis Little Hands Clapping?
DR: So many critics are a pain in the arse when it comes to giving away the plot. Even some who are on the side of the book don’t seem to think twice about ruining it for the reader. My last book, Gold, had a very slight plot – one that could be blown apart by half a line in a review – and I could-n’t believe how many reviewers, some of them apparently friendly, just blithely gave away what happened. Maybe it goes back to a snooty and fairly modern notion that plot is somehow vulgar. The trouble is, once a book goes out into the world of Sales it has to be pitched somehow, and with the new book it’s hard to do that without giving away at least some surprises. If people ask me what it’s about, I give them a vague and facetious answer. It’s about an unusual museum. It’s about a bunch of Germans misbehaving. It’s about 300 pages.
SRB: I’m guessing you had begun writing Little Hands Clapping before the Fritzl case and the Natasha Kampusch case. What did you think when you read those stories in the news? Did you feel you were onto something?
DR: There’s always something untoward happening in suburbia but, to my eternal shame, when those stories broke I did feel for a moment as if I had a head start on everyone else. Good grief.
SRB: Humour is potentially a mine-strewn way to approach such dark material. Did that give you pause during the planning and writing of the book?
DR: Yes. Getting that balance was the hardest thing about writing it. The humour had to be woven in in such a way that it didn’t diminish the seriousness of the subject matter. And never mind any required sensitivity, from a storytelling perspective it was essential that there was nothing funny about the situation that the characters, one character in particular, are heading towards. Striking that balance was the hardest writing I’ve done, and I hope I’ve got it right, that the seriousness and silliness don’t tread on each other’s toes.
SRB: Another aspect of Little Hands Clapping I enjoyed was your analysis of how the media handles shocking stories like the one in LHC or the Fritzl case. Isn’t it ironic that newspapers, there to report the facts and offer analysis, most often in cases like these are reduced to producing shoddy speculation and spurious think-pieces?
DR: Whenever a lurid story breaks I enjoy watching the supposedly highbrow media reporting it. If there’s ever a House of Horrors, they won’t cover the house itself, but will focus instead on the media scrum outside, as if they aren’t a part of it. On the television the language they use is always evasive, and softly-softly. There’s something more honest about the shrieking tabloid articles that get straight to the gore.
SRB: Some years ago, a Scottish magazine ran a poll of the best 100 Scottish novels which managed to include titles by George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad. By which measure Little Hands Clapping (written during your time living in Edinburgh ) could be counted as a Scottish novel. It’s all spurious, I know, but….with its respectable characters living a double life, Little Hands Clapping reads very much like an Edinburgh novel in the tradition of Confessions And Memoirs Of A Justified Sinner and Doctor Jekyll And Mister Hyde. Were you infected by Edinburgh’s perennial double-life theme?
DR: I’ll let other people decide how Scottish the book is. I did the donkey work at home in Canonmills and at the magnificent central reference library, but I can’t say the city fed into it a great deal, not directly at least. I used to go to the Botanic Garden with my son almost every day though, and we would walk past Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthplace on Inverleith Row. When he was the age I was when I was writing the book, he was at his most productive – Jekyll And Hyde and Kidnapped came out in the same year, and he did-n’t even have Microsoft Word. The daily sight of his plaque certainly lit a fire under me.
SRB: Why Germany as the setting for Little Hands Clapping]?
DR: It grew out of a daft piece I wrote about Hamelin about fifteen years ago, about how strange it must be to come from there – that wherever you go people you meet are going to immediately make the obvious associations and engage you in interminable conversations about the disappearance of children from centuries ago. It appears in the book in a massively truncated form – it was a shame to see a lot of it go, but I had to reign myself in. Twelve pages of people explaining that the Pied Piper wasn’t the one who picked the peck of pickled pepper might have got a bit much. As I was writing it I thought about changing the location, which is something I always think about, but that would have meant ditching the Hamelin stuff, which I wasn’t ready to do. Incidentally, I tried to squeeze those pieces into an earlier novel – Timoleon Vieta Come Home – but almost immediately took them out because they seemed shoe-horned in, which they were. During the day or two they were in there I mentioned to my then-publisher (whose name escapes me) that I was toying with the idea of calling the book Little Hands Clapping, after a line from the Robert Browning poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, and they pounced on it, and without asking me they started listing Timoleon Vieta under that title on all the catalogues. Even after I told them I had taken the passage out, and that the title no longer made any sense, they refused to drop it – for about a year Timoleon Vieta was listed on Amazon as being forthcoming as Little Hands Clapping. That was eight or nine years ago – it’s been a slow burner, this one. Anyway, I eventually got the book away from them.
SRB: Timoleon Vieta takes place in Italy and The Little White Car in France. Why does your imagination keep flitting across the Channel? Do the countries embody certain characteristics to you, certain atmospherics?
DR: I suppose abroad is more intriguing and glamorous than home. I’ve tried to use more conventional settings, but to no avail. I set early versions of ‘Beautiful Consuela’, from Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love, in the town in Kent where I was living at the time. It was a pretty boring story, and only came to life once I’d moved it to a highly fictionalised historical Spain. Also, I don’t like to let the facts get in the way of a good story. A lot of Little Hands Clapping takes place in Portugal, and I’ve never been, so I was able to just imagine how things might be there, and not be burdened by anything as cumbersome as reality. Likewise Germany, where most of the new book is set – I spent one day in Munich when I was 17, and that’s all. I just imagined what it might be like, and if I’ve got things wrong… never mind. One of the first questions writers are asked these days is ‘How much research did you do?’ Really, who cares? It’s fiction, dudes.
SRB: If as you say “abroad is more intriguing and glamorous than home” in your cross-Channel fictional excursions, what made a coastal village in Pembrokshire the right setting for Gold? And wasn’t there a period when you were mistakenly described as “a Welsh author”?
DR: I’d wanted to go to Pembrokeshire for ages. I’d heard only good things about it, and as a huge fan of the music of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – who are the poets laureate of the Pembrokeshire coast – the place had risen to mythical status in my mind, and I thought I would try and set Gold there. I started writing the book before I’d ever set foot there, and one January (the month the book is set) I rented a little holiday cottage near the coast path, which is what the main character does. Normally I don’t have qualms about setting my writing in places I’ve not been to, but this time I did a bit – I go to other parts of Wales a lot, so it’s a bit close to home. I even had the idea of setting it in Pembrokeshire while I was writing it, then transposing it to Norway at the last moment. Anyway, I was living in Kent at the time, and on my way to the cottage I got to Charing Cross station and went down into the underground, and there was a busker there singing – of all the songs in all the world – ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’ by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Now, they aren’t exactly a big name act, and the song had only got to number 47 five years earlier, so it’s definitely not a busking staple. I turned hippy for a moment, and saw this as the cosmos’s way of granting me a license to write the book, and to set it there. And Pembrokeshire in January was even more stupendous than I had dared to hope. I was once described as being Welsh. I used to think that I wasn’t Welsh at all, but my mother’s been looking into the family tree and it turns out I’m 1/32nd Welsh. Or 1/64th, I can’t remember. Something I’ve known all along though is that I’m part German.
Dan Rhodes: “Beautiful women never go out of fashion, do they?” Photo by Dorota Gaszccak
DR: How German are you?
SRB: Very slightly. My mother’s grandfather was German, and we recently found out that branch of the family were Jewish, and had converted to Catholicism. I had the idea of using this as the basis for a screwball comedy screenplay called Suddenly Semitic, where the main character finds out he’s Jewish and haplessly hurls himself into Jewish culture with hilarious and unexpectedly heartwarming results. But I just found out that David Baddiel and Omid Djalili have beaten me to the punch with a film called The Infidel – which is probably best for me, and for the world at large.
SRB: Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love is full of dark fables and Little Hands Clapping has several elements of the fairy tale plus that reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin. What attracts you to the fairy tale form?
DR: I’ve been asked this in every interview since Don’t Tell Me The Truth came out. The first person to not ask it wins a pint. I do like folk tales though, and in my writing from time to time strange things will happen in the woods. If anything they have influenced me because there’s something plain about the storytelling, and they’re not afraid to shy away from the darker side of things, unlike much modern fiction, which has caved in to readers demands for happy endings. I suppose any beef I have with it is the word ‘fairy’. It makes it sound as if I’m writing about elves, and I really don’t want people thinking I do elf-lit. I do write about beautiful women and people coming to sticky ends though.
SRB: From Anthropology to Little Hands Clapping female beauty is presented as an entrancing, sometimes wonderful, but most often destructive element that usually ruins the protagonist, or in the case of your short story ‘The Painting’, an entire village. What is it about this theme that causes you to return to it?
DR: Beautiful women never go out of fashion, do they? They are endlessly fascinating, and whether they mean to or not they leave a wake of destruction. In my single days seeing one drift by would be a kind of torture, but now I’m able to observe rather than number myself among the victims. You have no idea how this has improved my quality of life. And of course it’s always intriguing to we mortals to wonder how it must feel to drift through life as a Beautiful Person. Who wouldn’t want to be reincarnated as Scarlett Johansson, just to see what it’s like?
SRB: My favourite character in Little Hands Clapping is the doctor. Although he commits some truly terrible crimes, he’s such a sad, lonely and pathetic character, you can’t help but feel for him. You have a lot of sympathy for sad, shabby ageing men (see Cockroft in Timoleon Vieta Come Home) brought low by life and love. Is that the flip side to the fascination and fear beauty generates?
DR: I’ve always felt as if I’ve been one wrong turn away from being a sad, shabby old man. Aspects of these characters are visions of how I could be. Cautionary tales. There’s an excellent documentary called The Wet House, set in a hostel for (for want of a better word) tramps, where they are allowed to drink Tennent’s Super. Most of the time they just do typical things like shouting into the air, and having really slow fights, but occasionally you see a glimpse of how they were before their lives went wrong, how they had jobs and children, and loved and were loved. For most people life is a struggle to stay on the right track, and people lose control in different ways. The doctor manages to convince himself that he hasn’t lost control, that he’s coping very well, but he’s lost his balance completely.
SRB: There are some moments of cruelty in LHC, but we at least get some understanding of why the characters act in that manner. Perhaps the cruellest thing in LHC doesn’t originate with a person but in the Bible. Hulda, the novel’s most put-upon character and a Christian, spends her time convinced she’s going to hell because she utters a blasphemy, a belief prompted by this passage from The Gospel According To Mark: “Whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin”. And this in the supposedly more tender hearted New Testament!
DR: That’s a wildly under-publicised line from the Bible. Basically, pretty much everyone is fucked beyond redemption if it’s true – it’s not a great recruiting strategy for the church, is it? Why bother turning up? It’s terrible PR – nobody likes a person (or deity) who won’t accept an apology. It’s pretty inconsistent too, isn’t it? The New Testament offers a fresh start for whores and thieves, but only if those same whores and thieves had never blasphemed. Er…
SRB: You were saying that it took three years to write LHC. Does that period go from your first conception of the novel to final draft? Is that three years of solid writing or were there periods where you broke off from writing? Did your original idea change greatly in those three years? And how long on any given writing day do you devote to writing? Do you have a routine or do you improvise as you go along?
DR: The donkey work took three years. I’d been making notes and forming it in my mind for twelve years before then. It was a real slow burner this one, and from conception to completion it took a lot of different forms. When I started the three-year marathon it was going to be a psychological horror novel with no gags – then the gags crept in, and it only became (in part) an action-driven suspense romp towards the end of the process. While I was writing it we were expecting our first baby, then he was 0-2 years old, so he dictated my working hours for this one. Sleep became precious, so I gave up my usual late night sessions. I would sit in the library for a few hours at a time, and apart from that I would improvise. I had to pounce on any quiet moment and get the writing done whenever and wherever I could. It was pretty ad hoc, but I knew I had to keep working. People with normal jobs have to keep going in spite of it all.
DR: It’s interesting to hear that LHC had a gestation period of twelve years. You’ve written other books in that time. Why does one project take predominance over another? Is it related to personal matters? Or do you have a writerly sense that tells you when you’re ready to handle a project? How many other projects are floating around your brain currently?
SRB: When I finished Timoleon Vieta Come Home I had two books cued up – this one and The Little White Car. Timoleon Vieta was very dark, as a story and as a writing experience, and I needed a break from such intense subject matter, so I wrote a frivolous action-driven romp instead, and I’m very glad I did. Also, I suppose I just had a feeling that this book wasn’t ready until after I’d finished Gold. I always knew it was going to be a tough one to nail, and I needed the time to be right – I think you can kill an idea by throwing yourself at it prematurely. I have several ideas at the moment – the problem is finding the one that’s right for now.
SRB: One of the things that have always struck me about you in conversation is that you’re not impressed by approved canons, received opinion and great-writer reputations. Your reading habits are idiosyncratic. What makes for a good book in your opinion? And what turns you off?
DR: I’m not completely contrary. I love a lot of the acknowledged greats, but I find a lot of the stuff we’re supposed to get excited about to be a bit…boring. And I like books that aren’t boring. At the moment I’m finding it hard to see beyond the Martin Beck series. Have you read them? They’re Swedish police novels from the 1960s and 70s, written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They wrote ten, and I’m on number eight, and really dismayed to think that they’re going to be ending soon. While I was writing Little Hands Clapping I was reading quite a lot of police fiction – I had a Rebus phase – and American suspense, particularly Cornell Woolrich. I think this fed into the novel – I put a fair amount of action in it. Hopefully it’s a page-turner. I tend to find myself drawn to books that are clearly not written to a publisher’s brief. My favourites of the last couple of years have been Dial M For Merthyr by Rachel Trezise (which is part memoir, part story of a real band that nobody’s heard of), Neverland by Simon Crump (demented stories about an imaginary Michael Jackson) and They Is Us by Tama Janowitz (a funtime dystopia), all of which gleefully do their own thing. Sadly, nobody knows what to do with books like this and they tend to be overlooked. The writer I’m most looking forward to hearing from again is the magnificent memoirist Sylvia Smith.
SRB: You name Michael Jackson. Your novels generally avoid mentioning brands, news stories, the sort of references that date quickly, and so on. At the same time, your novels delight in flourishing references to one-hit wonders, faded entertainers, and tawdry or simply silly showbiz stories. Little Hands Clapping for example features Austrian mullet-rockers Opus and a dispute over the exact nature of Michael Hutchence’s death. There’s something about fame, or rather the struggle to get it and then keep it, that again is terribly funny and sad both at the same time, isn’t there?
DR: It was trendy a few years ago for fiction to be loaded with very current cultural references. I was always too vain and ambitious to bother with this. If your writing depends on your reader having some knowledge of, say, Ant & Dec, or Gareth Gates, then how is it ever going to find an audience abroad? There are almost no cultural references in my first two books – only, I think, Paul McCartney, and he’s so famous it’s like writing about the Sphinx. Since then I’ve used them quite sparingly, and I hope unobtrusively – if somebody does-n’t know who Roxette is, it shouldn’t matter – you get the gist, they’re quickly gone and it’s no big deal. Yes, the struggle to succeed in showbiz is a grotesque and comical thing, and unlike a lot of other writers, I am happy to concede that I do fall into the showbiz spectrum. I am part of the entertainment industry, and I’m just as wretched as anyone else. That’s partly why I find the desperation and humiliation of X Factor contestants so compelling – I’m right there with them. The things you have to do to break into writing aren’t much different from singing in front of Dr Fox.
SRB: The comic and tragic bleed into each other throughout your writing. Do you agree with the idea that comedy and tragedy are essentially the same thing seen from different perspectives?
DR: I think they’re opposites, but that’s no reason why they shouldn’t share the same page.
SRB: Comedy and tragedy are opposites, and many novels feature both – but not often at the same moment. I mean, look at Cockroft, Timoleon Vieta’s protagonist. His story is frequently both heartbreaking and funny. The episodes which explain how his career was ruined by ‘accidental racism’ or when he’s apprehended spraypainting an obscene message on a bridge are comic because they are tragic (or tragic because comic?). To me at least, your books suggest a view of the world and its people as somewhat absurd though not in the condemnatory way one might encounter in a black farce.
SRB: That’s life though, isn’t it? The daft and the appalling are right there all the time. Chekhov had a handle on this, and he’s the boss. And what about The Smiths? I can never quite understand fiction without humour. Books seem so dry without it – so many writers seem to create a world in which not only is there no humour, but there also doesn’t even seem to be the possibility of humour. You have to wonder about these people’s lives. Almost all my favourite books have something humorous about them, and the ones that don’t are just really beautiful. I do think that for something to get away with not being in any way amusing it does have to be insanely beautiful.
SRB: You attended a creative writing course at university – was that where you first started writing? What did you learn on the course?
DR: It’s where I first started writing sensibly. I took a module under Helen Dunmore when I was in my first year at the Poly of Wales (later the University of Glamorgan), and carried it through to my third year. By the end I was writing stuff that was readable but unpublishable. They let me on the masters course a few years later, and that was when I wrote Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love. The course definitely helped. The tutors didn’t really teach, they were more like editors. My personal tutor, Sheenagh Pugh, was adept at weeding out the crappy and/or boring bits I’d written, and I got better that way. Also, it helped to have other people reading my stuff. I took an unpleasantly gladiatorial approach to the classes.
SRB: Unlike many writers you have largely avoided adding to your income with journalism, teaching creative writing, and residencies. Why is that?
DR: For lots of reasons, really. First of all, with journalism I just don’t think I would be much good at it, so I would rather not get involved. There seems to be an assumption that the skills are interchangable, but the mountain of lukewarm fiction by journalists would suggest otherwise. Also I’m short tempered, and would probably have murdered a sub editor by now. As for teaching, I find both writing, and making a living from writing, to be a struggle so I don’t feel in a position to advise other people. Maybe I would consider this one day, if I ever I find myself feeling like an elder statesman. But above all, time spent doing something else is time spent not writing, and I want to spend as much time as I can working on my stuff. If I need extra money to pay the bills I take on work outside the business – usually moving cardboard boxes around. I like to have a set system to work to, with no scope for creativity. I don’t like to think. And it does me good to have to be in a certain place at a certain time. If you lose track of what a real working day is like, it’s very possible to vanish up your own arsehole.
SRB: Received opinion is that the book marketplace isn’t keen on collections of short stories. With your first collection, Anthropology, you not only wrote a series of short stories – they were very short short stories. Did you entertain any trepidation as you approached publishers? I know from what you were saying earlier that you like books that don’t appear to be written to a publisher’s brief. Equally, writers write to be read, and if you can’t get published, well….
DR: It’s not just received opinion – it’s the way it is. Everybody told me I wouldn’t get my short stories published, and that’s completely understandable, but I was youngish at the time, and cocky enough to believe my stuff was different enough and would be spotted and published. There is growing support for the short story – there are a few festivals around, and a few prizes, particularly the new one in Cork – but I strongly feel that collections should be eligible for the big fiction prizes. The fetishisation of the novel gets my goat. If Chekhov was writing here and now he would be barred from the Booker Prize. What does that mean? That he’s not as good a writer of fiction as (insert the name of anyone who’s ever been on the Booker shortlist)? It’s nonsense. The Dylan Thomas Prize is a notable exception. Rachel Trezise and Nam Le have won that with collections, and that’s to the prize’s eternal credit.
SRB: You weren’t impressed to be nominated as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, were you? Did you get anything out the experience?
DR: Granta Schmanta. I could go on for years about why I wish that had never happened, but I’ll try and rein myself in. It was all a long time ago. I don’t want to end up like Morrissey – every time someone puts a dictaphone in front of him he complains about his former drummer. Let it go, Mozzer.
SRB: Is it fair to describe your approach to criticism as pugnacious? Visitors to your web site (www.danrhodes.co.uk) will encounter a section called ‘Dan Rhodes Is Disliked By’ in which you point out mistakes made in bad reviews of your novels. Is it true you used to play at readings a tape recording of a particularly cabbage-brained radio review by Maggie Gee of Anthropology?
DR: That was one of the countless things that made me uneasy about the Granta business – previous lists had included some of my arch enemies. When my first book, Anthropology, came out, it was reviewed on Radio 4 by a panel including Granta alumni Adam Mars Jones and Mag-gie Gee. My mother knew it was going to be on, so she’d rung around the whole family, getting them to tune in. So all my aunts and uncles, and even my grandparents, were glued to the wireless as those sniggering fuckers tried as hard as they could to strangle the book at birth. Why would I want to be associated with those people? Bad reviews piss me off. Of course they do. They’re either telling me I should-n’t have written what I’ve written, or that I should have watered it down. I was giving a talk at the Aberdeen Word Festival a couple of years ago, and somebody asked about this. I made the point that Ian McEwan says that if you’re going to take your good reviews to heart, then you also have to learn lessons from the bad ones. When I pointed out that I thought this might account for Ian McEwan’s work getting steadily more unreadable, I almost got a standing ovation. Whenever you put something out there is going to be people who don’t like it. Why on earth would you shift your writing a millimetre to accommodate them? I don’t think people were necessarily applauding my point though, they were just fed up of McEwan being beatified. I mean, have you read On Chesil Beach? Ugh. I write for people who like my books, and everyone else can get stuffed. These days, now I have a child, I get even more angry about bad reviews because good reviews are just about the only advertising a book gets, and bad ones turn people away from the book and make it that much harder to support my family. I see them as an assault on my livelihood. Plain bad reviews we let go, but moronic ones – particularly ones with stupid made up ‘facts’ in them – come in for a pasting, and I applaud the volunteers on the web site who take these twerps to task. Why should they have the final say? Still, I’m anticipating blanket praise for my new one so it shouldn’t be a problem this time round. And yes, I would play the Mag-gie Gee quote at readings. It’s just jaw-droppingly inane – ten years on I’m still astounded by it. It always got a laugh – maybe I’ll put it back in the set.
SRB: Are you a political person? I know the story of you leaving your first publisher Fourth Estate when Rupert Murdoch took it over, and how you tried to organise an anti-invasion-of-Iraq open letter signed by your fellow Granta BYBNs. Generally though – correct me if I’m wrong – you don’t touch matters political in your books.
DR: My political activism over the last year has consisted of signing online petitions for the return of the powdered animal-free sausage substitute Sosmix, and for the BBC to reinstate the sitcom Not Going Out in its schedules. Well, my new local health food shop, the Wild Carrot in Buxton, now sells Sosmix, and Not Going Out is coming back this year. So that’s a 100% strike rate for my political activism. Maybe I should have used my powers to bring peace to the world instead, but there you are. Early drafts of my books usually contain political aspects, but by the time I’m finished they’re diminished to asides or even nothing at all. The closest to being overtly political that I get with the new one is a few pages about the way in which dodgily-funded research institutes announce biased and obviously fishy findings which are then presented as facts by the media. Maybe I should have made more of that, and written a John Le Carré-style novel around it. Maybe I will… The Granta pantomime happened just as Blair was gearing up for war. Bearing in mind the way he was so clearly mangling language to get his heinous point across, I thought it might be a nice idea to have a bunch of people who had just been officially declared Good With Words to stand up against him. Sadly, almost half were apparently either on his and Bush’s side, or indifferent to it all. What can you do? It would have given the list some kind of point, but no – it really was just a bunch of school swots standing on boxes. I’m not doing a very good job of not talking about it, am I?
SRB: Finally, why do you write? Is it to amuse and entertain yourself and your readers? Do you want to make moral or satirical points? Or are you more interested in awakening an emotion or sentiment in your readers?
DR: In my early days it was for four main reasons. Above all, it was in the hope of impressing pretty girls. Also, it was a way of making fun of my many romantic travails – it helped give me some much-needed perspective on my self-pity. I also hoped to make some money by doing something I was good at, and finally I wanted to entertain people. It’s showbiz, after all. I’ve been with my wife for six years now, so the context has changed. These days I still want to keep people entertained, and to make a living doing the one thing I can do to any level of competence. And trust me, the money isn’t great – if I don’t earn out my advance my hourly rate for writing Little Hands Clapping will be a lot lower than if I’d been a kid with a paper round, and that’s no way to raise a family. That’s why I tend not to offer vague words of encouragement to aspiring writers – it’s just irresponsible. It’s not much different from encouraging people to make a living by betting on the horses.