HG: In ‘The Separated’ in Granta 62 you wrote about the break-up of your first marriage. Unusually for a memoir you chose to write in the third person, a deliberate collapsing of the boundaries between fact and fiction.
TL: I wanted to distance myself from the events. Writing in the third person was my way of doing that. I wanted to be honest, though, so I say explicitly in the piece that it’s a work of non-fiction. In many ways I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d made it look more like fiction because the Guardian newspaper attacked me severely for going too far in what constituted confessional writing. I was very hurt by that.
It’s a painful and sometimes shocking piece in which, among other things, you tell your wife: ‘I fucking hate you. You fucking cunt.’ Looking back, do you think that the Guardian article was in any way justified?
No. If my wife hadn’t agreed to my writing the piece it would have been a disgraceful thing and beyond any moral pale. But she did agree. In fact, she actually wrote a letter to the Guardian complaining about their report. I’m still quite angry about the whole thing because I was attacked over what I thought was a genuine attempt to explain what it feels like to get divorced. When you’re splitting up from your wife or husband the worst of you comes out. It’s a horrible thing but that’s what happens.
You wrote a memoir about your mother’s suicide, The Scent of Dried Roses. Elsewhere you’ve written candidly about your problems with depression and your own suicidal feelings. Can you explain the impulse behind your decision to write memoir, especially memoir that deals with such difficult and intensely personal subjects?
First, it’s an attempt to try to achieve mastery over a situation. Somehow by putting things into words you’re taking a situation that feels very out of control and creating a kind of illusion of control over it. Secondly, if you have to write precisely – and with a magazine like Granta you can’t get away with sloppy writing – you gain clarity over something which is otherwise a real muddle of confused thinking, and that’s a comfort. Thirdly, I’d say that all writers have a fundamental impulse to communicate their experience one way or another. There’s probably a fourth reason, which is that I have a strong belief in the existence of truth. The general academic view is that truth is relative and that we each have a different truth. I don’t believe that. There are enduring human truths and there’s a way things are and a way things are not. You need to have the courage to write honestly and to cut through what I think are the endless layers of bullshit that people protect themselves with.
Before you became known as a memoirist and novelist you worked as a full-time journalist?
Yes, I went to the grammar school in Southall and then on to the dreaming spires of Harlow technical college. I started writing for pop music papers but, at the age of twenty-seven, I realized that I was bored with all that and went and studied politics and history at the London School of Economics. Then City Limits magazine took me on as editor, but after two weeks I had a nervous breakdown and quit. Over the following months I had this whole mental episode when I was very depressed, becoming suicidal for several months during the summer of 1987. I recovered and that was when, in March 1988, my mother killed herself. Afterwards, I got a job as a TV producer; later I went back to print journalism, working as a feature writer on the Sunday Correspondent. The job only lasted a year because the newspaper went out of business in 1990.
Was this the point at which you began writing books?
Yes, after the Sunday Correspondent I was unemployed and had the time to start writing novels. My first book didn’t get published – rightly so. But one of the agents I took it to remembered a piece I’d written about my mother in Esquire magazine and suggested that I wrote a book about her. That book became The Scent of Dried Roses, which I published in 1996 and which won the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. After that, I planned to write a non-fiction book about Tony Blair but I couldn’t get the required access. So then I had to come up with something for my publishers quickly; they’d paid me for a book and I hadn’t got one. I wrote a novel, White City Blue, and that won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1999. I don’t really like being described as a journalist now because, for me, it’s a tuppenny ha’penny job. I don’t mean to disrespect the profession in any way but it’s not what I aspire to. I find journalism very easy, whereas writing, real writing, is profoundly difficult. It’s the thing that’s most important to me.
In an introduction to our Best of Young American Novelists issue (Granta 97) former editor Ian Jack wrote that ‘people seem to be writing (and publishing) fiction sooner – it’s increasingly seen as a career choice by Americans in their early twenties, who attend universities to learn it’. You were forty when you published your first book and forty-three when White City Blue came out…
Waiting until that time was a matter of confidence, but also a consequence of my not having anything to say. I don’t think I was wise enough to write a book before that time. If you don’t know anything then you shouldn’t bother writing and, in their twenties, most people don’t really know anything. They think they do but they don’t; at that age I certainly didn’t have a clue about myself, about people, about the world. Also, publishing The Scent of Dried Roses made me realize that I was capable of writing at a level that was good enough. Encouragement is important when you come from a background such as mine, where no one writes, where no one I knew had been to university. I remember being told at school that I wouldn’t even be able to work for the local paper. When I was a teenager, ‘proper’ writers were people like William Golding, Evelyn Waugh. It seemed absurd to think that I could aspire to that.
The piece that you’ve written for Granta 101 tells the story of the murder of your agent, Rod Hall. What drew you to the subject?
Well, it’s just such an amazing story. The whole tale of how Rod was slaughtered in a converted bell tower by a fundamentalist Muslim is so darkly poetic in a strange way. When you’re writing novels you’re trying to create a story that’s more than just a series of events, a story that reflects some deeper truth, and somehow Rod’s story seemed to do that in real life. The whole thing is terribly sad but unbelievably fascinating because it contains so many mysteries about what makes people behave as they do. Usman Durrani had made threats before but Rod still allowed Usman to put him into a state of complete vulnerability. Why did he do that? And what led Usman to commit an absolutely frenzied murder? He stabbed Rod fifty-two times. It was interesting to see how long the reach of violence is. I barely knew Rod but his murder still had an effect on my life in profound ways. When I think of the amount of lives Usman smashed up, including those of his own family, it seems that the reverberations of violence just go on and on.
Did you ever worry that you were exploiting Rod’s death because it was, as you say, such an amazing story? Did you see anything problematic in your decision to write about the murder?
No, not at all. The three people that Rod loved were his sister, his business partner and his long-time life partner, whom he called his husband. I went to each one of them and said, ‘I’m not going to write this story unless this is one hundred per cent okay with you.’ I showed them the story before sending the first draft to Granta. I would not have dreamed of publishing it otherwise.
And Usman Durrani?
I don’t give a fuck about him. I don’t want him to die but I hope he serves his time in prison and I hope he learns from what he’s done; he cut to pieces a wonderful man. No, I feel no responsibility or sympathy for Usman Durrani at all.
You’ve spoken about the ways in which long-form narrative non-fiction requires the use of novelistic techniques. It asks for a level of depth, detail and reflection beyond the scope of a piece of newspaper journalism.
Yes, the layering of detail, novelistic detail, builds up a sort of pointillist picture. As a writer your job is to pick trivial details – knots in wood – that are in themselves uninteresting but that when put together bring to life another world. Also, my piece in Granta 101 differs from traditional reporting in that I’ve tried to bring in my own story and talk about how the events affected me. The traditional journalistic voice is transgressed.
You’ve now written four novels and won several awards. How do you view the state of contemporary literary fiction?
I so rarely read a modern novel that means anything to me. Modern novels seem to be either about simple entertainment or about taking your medicine, which would be the Anne Enright, John Banville kind of school of miserabilism. There’s a literary impulse which says if a book is incredibly boring but incredibly well written then it’s a great literary work and deserves to win the Booker Prize. That’s the opposite of what I believe. My favourite classic writer is Dickens, for example, and when you pick up his books you’re gripped and dazzled from the word go. Dickens wouldn’t be critically lauded today because he’s just too entertaining and funny. I’d say that we haven’t had a great British novelist since Orwell or Golding. There are some very good writers whom I admire intensely – Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan – but I just don’t think they’re great writers. They’ve not written a book that changes the way you see the world, as Orwell did in 1984 and Animal Farm.
Your next book, The Special Relationship: A Love Story, will be published in 2009 and tells the story of your relationship with your brother, who lives in New Orleans. Are you worried about returning to the memoir form?
Yes, I am worried about it. To write a good memoir you have to be extremely honest, and I worry that the level of honesty that is required might damage my relationship with my brother. In many ways, though, it’s also extremely exciting to write a memoir again, particularly one that takes in all the differences between Britain and America over the past twenty-five years.
In a previous interview you were asked what your motto would be, and you answered ‘Always burn your bridges, be ruthless with the past’. Is that something you still believe? What do you mean by it?
I think that people waste a lot of their lives stumbling around either being tormented by regrets about the past or anxieties about the future. I spent a lot of my twenties like that, before I had a breakdown. The present hardly existed for me at all, because I was always trying to work out where I had ‘gone wrong’ in the past, and how I could protect myself against going wrong in the future. But there is no protection; life just happens and you have to respond to it as flexibly as you can at the time. So what I mean is, don’t waste your time with guilt and regret. The past is gone. It’s always gone.