The author, most recently, of the novel “Jerusalem” says if he could compel the president “to read one book — other than ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ — then I definitely would.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
I remember being called on a couple of occasions by American comic-book professionals who were essentially asking how we “Brit guys” could sleep without a gun on the night table. Their concern seemed genuine, and it would have been inconsiderate to add to it by admitting that since I very rarely read in bed, I don’t even have a night table. But I know what you mean.
The books that would be currently piled on my (at this point wholly aspirational) night stand include “Playing the Bass With Three Left Hands,” by Will Carruthers, a ruinously frank and funny account of the emergence of both Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized from the sonically celestial squalor of nearby Rugby that features a number of close friends amongst its stagger-on cameos; “Content Provider,” by Stewart Lee, in which the hostile below-the-line comments from Lee’s online readership are almost as funny as the columns and essays that they’re vilifying, and so go some way to explaining this brave and doomed comedian’s innovative technique of spraying his own audience with caustic bile; “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy,” a brilliantly lucid and informative account of the evolution of Anonymous and LulzSec by Gabriella Coleman; Jon Ronson’s thoughtful and troubling “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”; plus two or three books of essays — “Consider the Lobster,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and “Both Flesh and Not” — by my recent infatuation, the late David Foster Wallace, whom I’m currently gorging on indiscriminately in a manner that I’m told betrays my standing as a poorly disciplined autodidact. I’ll try not to burden this volley of questions and answers with too many mentions of David Foster Wallace.
What’s the last great book you read?
After thinking about this long and hard, the last truly great book I read would have to be “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace. Yeah, sorry. This was my first exposure to Wallace’s work, only a month or two ago, and I don’t think there’s anything about the novel that doesn’t impress me: its stream of satirical invention, with conventional dating gone in favor of a subsidized calendar and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment; its mandarin prose that perfectly conjures the trancelike drift of a modern consciousness overwhelmed by detail; and its breathtaking risks with structure, so that the whole experience seems to pivot upon a climactic resolving chapter — either right at the end of the narrative or right at the beginning — which does not actually exist and which therefore requires the reader to create it herself, from slender inference. I think the moment I probably fell in love with Wallace as a writer was the point where I realized that I was actually meant to be irritated by all of the occasionally crucial footnotes. An author after my own heart, and a genuine modern American diamond in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover and Gilbert Sorrentino.
Questions like this make me uneasy for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, in anything other than a stark and unqualified list that unreels to the end of our allotted space here, there are going to be serious, gaping omissions that will cause me to wake at 3 in the morning and groan in useless torment at my own inadequacy as both a friend and reader. Secondly, I tend to exist at a remote and quarantined distance from most of the world’s news and information media. Given what a spectacular year this is turning out to be for bad news on both sides of the Atlantic, there remains a lingering anxiety about whether all of one’s nominees will still be extant come the (so to speak) deadline. With that said, there follows a painfully incomplete list of names that happen to be passing through my mind right at this specific moment: Pynchon; Coover; Neal Stephenson; Junot Díaz; Joe Hill; William Gibson; Bruce Sterling; Samuel R. Delany; Iain Sinclair; Brian Catling; Michael Moorcock (his currently underway “Whispering Swarm” trilogy is astonishing); Eimear McBride; the remarkable Steve Aylett for everything, and in particular for his indispensable and quietly radioactive “Heart of the Original”; Laura Hird; Geoff Ryman; M. John Harrison; screenwriter Amy Jump. . . . Look, I can either go on forever or I can’t go on. I’m already mortified by the pathetic lack of women writers represented and find myself starting to come up with wretched excuses and squirming evasions. Best we end this here.
What genres do you prefer? And which do you avoid?
To be honest, having worked in genre for so long, I’m happiest when I’m outside it altogether, or perhaps more accurately, when I can conjure multiple genres all at once, in accordance with my theory (now available, I believe, as a greeting card and fridge magnet) that human life as we experience it is a simultaneous multiplicity of genres. I put it much more elegantly on the magnet. With that said, of course, there are considerable pleasures to be found in genre, foremost among which is that of either violating or transcending it, assuming there’s a difference, and using it to talk about something else entirely. Some subversions, paradoxically, can even seem to reinvigorate the stale conventions that they’d set out to subvert or satirize. All genres, given enough ingenuity, can be adapted to this strategy, and the sole genre or subgenre that I personally am pathologically averse to would be that pertaining to the superhero, but apparently that’s just me.
What books did you read while working on your new novel?
Bearing in mind that it’s been almost a decade since I commenced work on “Jerusalem,” I’d have to say that I read very little fiction while I was writing it. I think I read Mike Moorcock’s “The Vengeance of Rome” quite early in the process and also read the first volume of Brian Catling’s monumental “Vorrh” trilogy, and it was around then that I decided that it would probably be best not to read any more massive and beautifully written works of fiction until I’d finished the one that I was personally engaged in. I suppose I didn’t want to subject myself to the pointless torment of “maybe I should have written it more like this,” and as a result for the past few years I’ve been largely engaged with nonfiction. This has consisted of a lot of work by the prolific Iain Sinclair, including his superb “Ghost Milk,” “American Smoke,” “Black Apples of Gower” and a half a dozen others. Then there was “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds,” by the immaculate John Higgs, along with the same author’s revelatory history of the 20th century, “Stranger Than We Can Imagine.” I also read a whole stack of books by Slavoj Zizek, like “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” and “Living in the End Times,” but the bulk of my reading over the last several years has been research. Very little of this has been pertinent to “Jerusalem” (most of the research for which was concluded before I commenced the book itself) but has instead been focused on my current comic-book series Providence, which is a serious fictional engagement with the works of H. P. Lovecraft. As a result I have roughly half a bookcaseful of contemporary H. P. Lovecraft criticism and biography, much of it by the inspiring S. T. Joshi, along with numerous invaluable works on some of the more obscure corners of early-20th-century America, like the Boston police strike riots of 1919, or gay culture in New York prior to 1920. One interesting insight that I gleaned from working on both books at roughly the same time was that a lot of post-World War I American history was predicated upon the Russian Revolution having occurred in 1917 — the original Red Scare was 1919 — while the dismantling of the Boroughs, the working-class area that Jerusalem revolves around, was commenced in 1918 and was presumably precipitated by the exact same thing. A sufficiently heterogeneous reading list can sometimes yield vital and unexpected connections (but it will always devour your precious time).
Were there any works that inspired or otherwise influenced the writing of the book?
While it’s obvious that visionaries such as John Bunyan, James Hervey, William Blake and John Clare cast long shadows, or, perhaps, long lights, over “Jerusalem,” the single book which most inspired it and to which it owes the most has to be a slender volume published locally in 1987 by Northampton Arts Development and titled “In Living Memory — Life in ‘The Boroughs,’ ” compiled by numerous people including my dear friend Richard Foreman. The book consists largely of interviews with the ancient area’s older inhabitants, many of them known from my childhood, augmenting my own familial history of the neighborhood and providing a few of the book’s more memorable characters; names like Freddy Allen, Black Charley, Georgie Bumble and Tommy Mangle-the-Cat, that I’d heard my mother or grandmother mention when I was a child but with whom I’d been mostly unfamiliar. If anybody can manage to track down a copy of this marvelous but marginal booklet, I think they’ll be surprised by how little of “Jerusalem’s” improbable narrative I had to make up.
How do you organize your books?
Huh. Yes, I suppose I could organize my books, couldn’t I? That might actually work a lot better than my current method, which is to tell myself that I know roughly where all my books are according to a kind of literary form of proprioception; a psychic gift which, glaringly, I don’t possess.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Probably most of them. I know I always am. Of the volumes I can see from where I’m sitting now, there’s a copy of Captain Fuller’s “The Star in the West,” co-signed by Aleister Crowley and the politically questionable British Army officer-cum-occultist who invented the concept of blitzkrieg; but possibly everyone would expect that to be on my shelves and wouldn’t be surprised at all. How about my first-edition copy of William Hope Hodgson’s “The House on the Borderland”? I’ve got five or six different editions of this book, including the Arkham House version with the Hannes Bok cover, but as far as I know, my 1908 Chapman & Hall edition isn’t even technically supposed to exist in the immaculate rebound condition that I have it in. And please be advised that this isn’t humblebragging: This is plain, unreconstructed old-school bragging. Envy me, bibliophiles.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
That would be the second unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, one of the first of many marvelous gifts from my wife, Melinda. Aleister Crowley once stated that the most important grimoire, or book of magical instruction, that anyone could ever conceivably own would be an etymological dictionary, and in my opinion he was exactly right. I keep it right here by my desk, and just 10 minutes ago it confirmed for me that I had the spelling of “proprioception” right all along, even though my spell-checker had raised a crinkly red eyebrow. Quite seriously, this is the one book in my collection that I’d save in the event of a fire.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I’m afraid I’m rather dubious about the whole concept of heroes and villains, and feel that there are probably more useful and less simplistic groupings of complex human personalities that we could come up with if we put our minds to it. Of course, when I was 13 it was a different story: The brilliant and sociopathic underclass anarchist Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s electrifying “Gormenghast” trilogy was definitely an early role model, which perhaps explains some of my misgivings about the whole hero phenomenon.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister?
You can bet that if I could compel the president or prime minister to read one book — other than “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — then I definitely would.
What do you want to read next?
I think it should be fairly transparent by this point that I want to read a couple of critical or biographical works concerning David Foster Wallace, in order to test my developing hypothesis that a particularly bleak interpretation of the phrase “death and taxes” is at the heart of his last, supposedly uncompleted novel, “The Pale King.” And, after that, perhaps some poetry.