Neel Mukherjee and Patrick deWitt discuss their books, Undermajordomo Minor and The Lives of Others, subconscious influence, the power of the exclamation mark and love.

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Neel Mukherjee:

When I was little, I read in the newspaper somewhere that Graham Greene woke up every morning, wrote 500 words before twelve, and then hit the bottle of whiskey. I don’t go quite that far, but I try and write 500 words in a normal sort of eight-hour working day.

 

Patrick deWitt:

For me, it’s somewhat similar. I try to get around 500 words a day as well.

 

Mukherjee:

I also write longhand, on paper. I enter stuff later into the computer, usually when after six or seven months of writing I have this massive panic attack that the house is going to burn down and the master document – the paper – is going to get burned, so I stay up for four nights and I sort of type in my stuff. And that’s a good editing stage.

Something happens – I can call it only a gear change, when you feel that the book is using you to be written.

 

deWitt:

Yeah. The only sort of quirk in my process is I finish, eat lunch, have the rest of my day where I do whatever it is I do, and then at night I look at what I worked on in the morning, and I fiddle with it in a somewhat reckless way, I think. And those are two distinctly different writers.

 

Mukherjee:

Absolutely. One’s an editor.

 

deWitt:

Well, the morning person is. He’s very buttoned-up, and he’s very serious, and the person at night is obviously much freer. And the ideas come at night. So I make a big mess of what I worked on in the morning at night, and then in the morning I sort of look at what this fool in the night has done, and I clean up the mess he’s made. But it’s a happy collaboration, you know?

 

Mukherjee:

But it could easily become Penelope’s web, no?

 

deWitt:

Yeah, sometimes it gets away from me, and sometimes I’ll prefer writing at night, so I’ll sort of shirk my writing in the morning and look forward to the night. But then it gets too – too furry, you know, and I need to trim it back.

 

Mukherjee:

I don’t look at what I’ve written, because if I did, I would never go forward. So I’m terrified of that. I know that there’s an editor at the end of it who’s going to fix it. But then, when I’m typing things out, after like a few months of having written on paper, that’s when I become your night person. And then I think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this came out of me’. Like some embarrassment, great anxiety and despair.

 

deWitt:

This time around, I found that I did get lost in the centre part of the book [Undermajordomo Minor], so I did something new: with a typewriter, I typed out every scene that I had, numbered it on three-by-five cards, and I made a big wall in front of my desk, just so I could see the novel as a whole.

 

Mukherjee:

You could see the whole physical shape of it.

 

deWitt:

Yeah, and it was this big, circular mess. There were all these holes, where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and in staring at this – not for a matter of moments, but more days – I came to realize what should go in the holes, and then also that there were all these competing story lines that had to go.

 

It felt very much like an act of desperation, because I don’t work in that way. I work sequentially, and I work day by day, where you just sort of sort of fill it in as you go along. So to do this, I thought, ‘Well, I must be failing. This book is getting away from me.’

 

Mukerjee:

And you fixed it.

 

deWitt:

And I fixed it, yeah.

 

Mukherjee:

Do you think you’ll be doing it more often?

 

deWitt:

I don’t know. I don’t know. I had a feeling – I felt dirty when I was doing it. It felt like a trick or something, like something you’d learn in an MFA program or something, and –

 

Mukherjee:

I feel that you’ve taught this trick to me, and now I’m going to do it and feel dirty, too.

 

deWitt:

It works. It doesn’t matter if it makes you feel dirty. It was effective this one time – I don’t know if I’d lean on it every time, but if I’m ever lost again, I would try it again.

 

Mukherjee:

I’m trying to get away from realist narratives, and trying to write something that is totally exploded in the sense that the book is made of five parts, and you can read the five parts in any order you want, but there’s a prologue and an epilogue, and the central bit of the story will be three strands, and they’re not related to each other at all. And I feel that this may come in very useful, because if you’re handling something which is sort of disparate, then having the shape in front of you may be helpful.

 

But let’s come to [Robert] Walser, because you have an epigraph from him in your book:

 

‘It is a very painful thing, having to part company with what torments you. And how mute the world is!’ Exclamation mark. I love that exclamation mark, as well.

 

deWitt:

I do, too, so much. Yeah, that really makes it for me.

 

Mukherjee:

This is one moment in using that much abused thing – an exclamation mark – where it actually means something. No editor would ever say, ‘take it out’.

 

deWitt:

Yeah! This is someone who, it seems to me, was probably never bored for the briefest moment.

 

More and more, I find that there’s a popular stance among people our age, and then younger, of just sort of distance, and nihilism, and Walser’s the opposite of that. So it’s this really delicate mixture of the troubling, and then the sublime. I could see Lucy thinking this, and using that exclamation point.

 

Mukherjee:

And often, when an epigraph comes to you, it could actually give you a ruling spine, or a ruling metaphor for the whole work, and I think this has happened very harmoniously in the book.

 

deWitt:

Something about it, it’s such a simple sentence, but it sums up so much for me. About this story, but then also just –

 

Mukherjee:

But there’s a gear shift, in those two small sentences, as well. There’s something wonderful going on, and then suddenly there’s a slap of that philosophical observation: ‘And how mute the world is!’

 

What I find very, very engaging about Walser’s work is how he keeps you on your toes all the time. From sentence to sentence, things can change: the inner weather, the mood, the way interiority interacts with the reader. I find he’s constantly wrong-footing me.

 

deWitt:

Yeah, but it’s never malicious. And that’s important to me.

 

Mukherjee:

Can I pick up on two interesting words that you use? Well-meaning and malicious. Do you think Undermajordomo Minor is a well-meaning and unmalicious book?

 

deWitt:

It’s certainly and aspiration of mine. I can’t say if I succeeded at it or not. But I like to think that Lucy’s well-meaning.

 

Mukherjee:

Yes, I think he is well-meaning. In fact, you set him up to be this sort of lying, immature boy – and it turns out he’s not that at all.

 

There are lots of things going on with malicious acts in the book, which you find a sort of antechamber of innocence for. But not so the antics the Baron, the Baroness, the Duke, Duchess, Count and Countess get up to. They’re very dark figures out of some kind of masked ball, or a throwback to some malignant carnival or something. They are all the undersides to European high culture.

 

deWitt:

Yeah, I’m thinking of the orgy scene in particular now, and then the question of my intention in terms of, do I have malicious intent for the reader?

 

Mukherjee:

No, no –

 

deWitt:

I’m not saying that you’re accusing me of that, but it’s something that came up in my mind, because I think that’s one of those scenes that tests a reader’s ability to ingest filth, you know? And right before this scene – which is a scene, for those who haven’t read, where all the aristocrats in this grand ballroom have essentially an S&M orgy – Lucy, the protagonist, and his love interest, Klara, have a sexual moment in the same room, the difference being that this is a moment of pure love and shared mutual respect. It’s the far opposite of what follows just after.

 

Mukherjee:

Of the many things that the book is about, it’s about love and its either redemptive or destructive capacities, or sometimes both together. Whereas, what is acted out there is a kind of perversion of the love, as if you have turned the jewel around and we see its diseased backside.

 

deWitt:

Well, at the outset, I knew I wanted it to be a love story. I think I had it in my mind that it would be a much sweeter love story.

 

Mukherjee:

It is a very sweet love story!

 

deWitt:

Parts of it are, certainly, but then the other characters began to come into focus for me, and these are people who have been undone by love – unrequited love, or a love that simply passes on. I began to think of the different types of love in my life, and why some persevere and why some don’t. Why some make it, and why some vanish.

 

My takeaway from the whole thing is just a recognition that love is obviously very powerful, but it’s also something that isn’t to be trifled with. It’s something that’s potentially very damaging, and deadly, even. What I’d originally meant was to write this really unadorned and sweet and non-ironic love story, and I think I avoided irony. But this less pleasant element crept up in the telling of the story and I felt it only just to address that, as well.

 

Mukherjee:

You also use deliberately archaic locutions, like, ‘Thus did he find himself plummeting again in love,’ and I found those very endearing, actually.

 

But there are several people here I haven’t heard of, you know, the authors you’re having a conversation with in this book:

 

 

deWitt:

I should say with this list of authors, it’s not so much that they are all overt influence stylistically, so much as general influences or people that I consider to be guiding lights.

 

Mukherjee:

Okay – so, for example, I don’t know who ‘C.F.’ is.

 

deWitt:

Christopher Forgues. He’s a contemporary comics artist, and his work is just really unique and singular and strange – deeply strange, and often very perverted.

 

Mukherjee:

But Harry Mathews, I’ve never heard of him. And the people – no, wait, tell me a little bit more about Harry Mathews, because you went, ‘Oh,’ when I said his name.

 

deWitt:

He’s just a wonderful writer. He’s a contemporary of Gilbert Sorrentino. He was a member of the – is it Oulopo, or Oulipo – it’s a French literary society.

 

Mukherjee:

Yeah, yeah. Of course, Oulipo!

 

deWitt:

So one of Harry Mathews’ best friends was Georges Perec. And he wrote a book called Tlooth that I had in my mind when I was working on this book.

 

He’s somebody that I admire very much and recommend highly. I think you’d like him.

 

Mukherjee:

I’m going to go home with a big list. But Dennis Cooper?

 

deWitt:

Dennis was the first novelist I ever met. I sat next to him at a wedding in Los Angeles, and he was this exotic creature to me, you know, he was a published writer who had just come back from Italy on a book tour. He really demystified the novelist for me, and in the loveliest way. He just sort of brought me down to Earth, that novelists aren’t God-like, that it’s work, you know what I mean? You do the work.

 

Mukherjee:

And so many forces of influences come to converge on any particular book, by any author worth reading, that it’s good to have this kind of map laid out, or a partial map laid out.

 

deWitt:

You now, in a given work, I think this is the book where I looked most to other authors, knowing I was doing it. I would get stuck here or there, or just as a part of the process I’d find myself rereading bits of Harry Matthews, or Walser or whomever – all the people that are on that list.

 

So where does it sit for you? Do you work in that way? Do you find yourself rereading people that you have admired? Or are you on the hunt for influence when you’re working on a piece?

 

Mukherjee:

Let me answer that question in a slightly roundabout way. Which is: are you always sure what influences you?

 

deWitt:

No.

 

Mukherjee:

You see, I feel influences happen at the level of an author’s mind that she or he has no access to. I can tell you who I like reading, I can give you a whole list. I mean, we have a lot of convergences – I love Eudora Welty, who makes it to your list. I think she’s an astonishing writer. I love an English novelist who died in 2000, and is being sort of rediscovered, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s an astonishing writer.

 

For The Lives of Others, the obvious person I was having a conversation with was Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, actually. But you know, because I’m an Indian, I’m automatically slotted into the kind of family-saga-writer territory. I often think if I were to write a novel set on Mars, involving abstract port molecules, people would read it as a family saga as well. And no one talks of Buddenbrooks as a family saga, which it centrally is, you now, because he’s a German writer, no one thinks that.

 

I suppose Tolstoy must have been sitting there at the bottom of my head somewhat, in the way one always falls back on him when one is moving large casts of characters around, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even if you don’t have Tolstoy in your head, other people say there’s Tolstoy going on, because you’re writing within a certain tradition.

 

But, you know, I was noticing from your list of authors – were they just markers of influence, or were you also interested in giving out a signal that your work is part of a larger conversation?

 

deWitt:

I definitely wanted to acknowledge that I feel like I’m taking part in a tradition. I also was keen to tip off people – either readers, reviewers, whomever – to the fact that these are the influences. I’ve found that readers like to assign you influences, and I find that this is absolutely not working. So I’m saying there’s a list in the back, with who influenced the book.

 

Mukherjee:

Do you know, I think that could be because people read novels carelessly nowadays. Also, when they get to the acknowledgements, they may not even get to the bits which are part of the novel, actually – where you’re saying these are my influences, these are the people I’m having a conversation with.

 

Or it could be that they do not know who these people are. If influences are nowadays not one-to-one correspondences, people find it difficult to work out how the shadows and crosshatchings and stuff occur behind the book.

 

deWitt:

It’s not as though I would expect any reviewer to read all of those people – but you would think that maybe they would be familiar with some of them.

 

We were talking about subconscious influences – this thing happened just after I finished this book where I discovered Waugh. I’d never read Evelyn Waugh before, and I read it right after I’d finished it. It was my first book after I finished, and I was going to relax, you know, enjoy a book, and I read – I think it was Decline and Fall – and I just thought this is essentially exactly what I was trying to do. Waugh belongs on that list, even though I didn’t read him until after the book was finished.

 

Mukherdee:

There’s a joke that David Lodge makes, where he goes to a conference in California, and someone’s writing a book about the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare – or the influence of Joyce on Shakespeare. And it’s all intertextuality, so it can flow in any direction. So if Shakespeare influenced Joyce, then Joyce, too, influences Shakespeare. So he has great fun with it. So, yeah, Thank you!

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Bad Luck, Britain