Toby Litt’s novel King Death, a ‘minimalist romance’ and the latest in his series of titles that progress alphabetically, was published this summer. Below, Toby Litt speaks to Ollie Brock about the attractions of a real human heart, gifts made of wood pulp, and the rest of the alphabet to come…

OB: Your name featured on the Best of Young British Novelists list alongside A.L. Kennedy, Zadie Smith and David Mitchell. What was that like?

TL: It was an ambition fulfilled. When the 1993 list came out, I was working in a bookshop in Wimbledon, writing in the evenings and at weekends, and behind the till when no-one was looking. I saw the anthology and, of course, I wondered whether I’d be eligible the next time it came round. I wanted to be picked, but I also wanted, even more, to have had a novel published. Just to have done that would have been enough. So, when I heard I’d got in, I felt a kind of relief. I felt pleased for 1993-me. Those ten years had got him pretty much where he wanted to be. Out from behind the till and into print.

Your latest novel, King Death, is narrated by the two members of a couple. Was one of them easier to write?

In a way the technical challenge of the book was to have it be very equally balanced between the two characters, Skelton and Kumiko. If one of them had obviously felt much easier to write than the other, I would have known something was wrong. As it was, I switched very gladly from one to the other. They were meant to be a couple that had split up but who were meant to be together. As a couple, they compensated for one another: Skelton’s soft­heartedness made up for Kumiko’s harshness; Kumiko’s ambition for Skelton’s indirection.

I have to ask – why a human heart? How did that come into your head?

The first thing I had of the novel was a sentence I cut. ‘Before I start, I should say that it was a real heart – not a metaphor or anything like that.’ So, the heart was the beginning of the novel. Its working title was The Heart. Once I knew it was Kumiko and Skelton who were going to find the heart, the novel was moving.

Short answer: I wanted to write a minimalist romance, so I needed to have plenty of Love and Death. A dead human heart is both.

The titles of your books progress alphabetically. We’re at K. Does the rest of the alphabet weigh on you? What comes after Z?

No, the rest of the alphabet beckons me. (However, see below.) If I reach Z, after Z will come lots of people asking me what comes after Z.

I heard you talk quite sceptically about e-books on the radio recently. Is there a bright future for the book somewhere out there?

That really depends what is meant by ‘the book’. The wood-pulp/black-ink artefact is going to become a separate art form from the novel. It’s not going to be the main site of verbal storytelling. Instead, it will be what it’s been becoming for a long time: a gift. Either a gift to another, who likes nicely made wood-pulp/black-ink artefacts, or a gift to oneself, because one has nostalgia for how books used to be.

Visual storytelling already dominates the verbal. Once e-books become more sophisticated, some kind of hybrid form will surely emerge. Probably it already exists, as comics.

For me, the real question is time. If people no longer exist as subjects-to-be­written-about in the way they have, during the lifespan of the novel – if they spend more and more time in virtual environments, if they spend very little time engaged in real-time, physical actions – then the novel will die. This is because it is immensely boring to read about someone else’s experience in the virtual time of a pre-existing virtual environment. And also because, to people who spend most of their time in virtual environments, the time that exists in novels will seem immensely boring.

But this is presuming a technologically sophisticated future, and that’s presuming a lot.


Photograph by British Council Armenia

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