TOBY LITT – A CLUB OF UNCERTAINTY
September 4, 2010 § Leave a comment
Having gained somewhat of a cult following over the last two decades for producing gripping novels and short stories that are, at once, as self-contrasting as they are socially introspective, British author Toby Litt talks to Alchemy Index about his newest book and meeting JG Ballard, but not about being called a ‘bald accountant’ at a London book signing or when he was a New Romantic. Stories for another day…
ALCHEMY INDEX: Your eleventh book; that’s quite a feat – but for an author who names his books alphabetically, it’s something else – we’re up to ‘K’ now, have you struggled with any of the titles so far?
Toby Litt: The titles themselves? Yes. I was expecting Book I (I play the drums in a band called okay) to take a lot longer to write than it did. In fact the stories, as they went along, were all called ‘tourbusting’ followed by a number. I thought a whole book of them would take me twenty years to write and end up as Book T. So, when it arrived quickly, I had to think of a title beginning with I. I was reading about Japanese literature, where there is a genre called ‘I books’. One of the most fAIus of these is called ‘I am a cat’. So, I thought I’d make this an ‘I book’ and give it the simplest, most direct title I could. What would Clap, the character, say if you asked him what he did? He’d say…
AI: Do you ever think about abandoning your current christening system? I mean, which really wins out in the end: the need to follow suit or the idea of putting together a relevant and interesting title for your latest novel?
Toby Litt: I think about abandoning everything. Almost every day, I consider what it would be like not to write. And some days, I’ll even get in the car, head out east, get as far away from the desk as I can, then end up scribbling notes in a lay-by on Canvey Island.
AI: I imagine sometimes it can take almost as long as writing the book to come up with a title that, by all accounts, just feels right?
Toby Litt: The books take different AIunts of time to write, though it may seem as if they are coming out at regular intervals. Hospital took about seven years, start to finish; I play the drums took over ten. But I’m writing other things, and I do set books aside for long, long months and sometimes years.
AI: Your newest novel, ‘King Death’, has more of a slant toward Corpsing or ‘deadkidsongs’ (two of your earlier and slightly darker books); what pushed you to pen another book in that vein? You know, rather than, say, one more upbeat like ‘I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay’?
Toby Litt: I tend to react against myself. Whilst writing one book, I daydream about all the other books I might be writing instead. And then, sometimes, I end up writing them. I began ‘King Death’ with a couple of little things – the image of Kumiko’s hair (Kumiko is one of the two main characters), the image of a heart on the roof of Borough Market, the idea of a couple splitting up but continuing to communicate through the tiniest details of what they do and don’t do. Over quite a few years, these things came together until I had the basis of the story.
AI: Going back to that sense of darkness in your writing… In even the most simplistic and seemingly innocuous scenes (of books like deadkidsongs) there is an overwhelming feeling of impending menace and dread – is that something you aim for consciously?
Toby Litt: deadkidsongs was a book that I simply wanted to be as intense as possible, in every way. I don’t think I was aware of trying to create a sense of dread. But I knew the story was building and building – intensifying and intensifying. Once you’ve established that a character is really dangerous, all you have to do is sit them down beside another character – an innocent, likeable character – and the tension is there.
AI: You also focus a lot on childhood and growing up – the rites of passage that take someone from child to adult or boy to man – what do you find so interesting about that kind of personal evolution?
Toby Litt: Evolution’s an interesting choice of word, because the boys in deadkidsongs are obsessed with the death of the dinosaurs. They see evolution as a reason for being as violent as possible. Because if you’re not maximally violent, then someone or something is going to think you are weak and kill you. I think, honestly, I’m more interested in the states themselves – of boyhood, of manhood – than of the transition between them. I’m fascinated by how one state can exist within another, simultaneously. I don’t really believe that grown-ups are grown up. The world is far easier to understand if you realise everyone is still a child.
AI: The ending of deadkidsongs left me (my colleagues, and my friends) with a bitter taste of uncertainty on our tongues; I realise it’s a bit like asking a magician to explain his tricks, but could you offer some insight in to what that ending really meant to you and to the characters?
Toby Litt: You make me feel like I’ve created a Club of Uncertainty. I thought that the ending was very clear, and that everything you need to understand the book is there in the book. The serial number on the final page, the one that’s crossed out, that’s one important factor. From that you can work out who has written the book, and who they’ve written it for, and why they’ve written it.
AI: So, it wasn’t intentional?
Toby Litt: If the book’s ambiguous, reread the book.
AI: The sincerity in your characters can make them loveable and abhorrent in a single moment – do you think that juxtaposition reflects your feelings about humanity and society in general?
Toby Litt: Oh Lord. How can I pretend that they don’t? I have my own ideas about ‘humanity’ and ‘society in general’, but I find them quite boring ideas. I think, within my head, lots of other ideas exist at the same time. They float around and occasionally take form. I’m an anarchist. I’m a Marxist. I’m a fascist. I’m apolitical. I’m a hippy. All these statements are true, at one moment or another.
AI: At Latitude Festival 2008, when you read from ‘I Play The Drums…’ it was received well and came with a few good-natured anecdotes from your end about exactly how Jewish this book was or wasn’t. But afterward there were some rumblings at the tempo and tone; some people who might have only read one or two of your books know you as ‘Toby Litt: Deep, Dark and Mysterious’ – what’s your take on that?
Toby Litt: Another Club of Uncertainty. I’m sorry to disappoint. Really, I am. I try to make each book as strongly itself as I can. Just because I write something like a romantic comedy, I don’t think that discredits the darker things. Quite the opposite. Isn’t a writer more interesting when – halfway through their book – you don’t know which way things are going to go? If you’re always a Dark Writer then the reader is cosily secure in knowing that things are going to go badly.
AI: While some of your work does venture a little more on to the light-hearted side of things, I Play The Drums… is definitely the most far reaching in to that category – what made you decide to write a novel like that?
Toby Litt: I didn’t really decide. And now I’m tempted to say one of those silly things novelists say about the characters having a life of their own. The truth is, I loved writing about the four guys in the band okay. The first story about them came off the top of my head. I was really surprised when I wrote a second story to go along with it. I’d never written any kind of sequel. Certainly not one involving the same characters. Then, a couple of years later, a third story came along. The guys were a little older, a little more damaged. I realised I could write about them very gently, just by checking in every now and again to see what had been happening. So, in a sense, they were alive in my head – and they still are. The answer is, really, I wanted to hang out with those characters. It was my way of being in a band without being in a band.
AI: A lot of your writing, books like Adventures in Capitalism for example, have a real sense of wider knowledge…I mean, you can’t satirise something without having a firm grasp on your target. Growing up in (fairly) rural Bedfordshire at what point did you start to come by these bigger ideas? What influence did they have on you and your writing?
Toby Litt: I think I came at big ideas via pulp. At the Ampthill Festival, in the mouldy 1980s summers, there weren’t books by Roland Barthes or Gilles Deleuze in the cardboard boxes beneath the fold-out tables. There were books by Erich von Daniken, T Lobsang Rampa, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. So, those were what me and my friends picked up and read. I liked the questions that science fiction raised. Things like Tharg’s Future Shocks in 2000AD – which were often little puzzles about time and space. When I first started reading philosophy, a lot of it seemed to be about evading the question. It took me a while to realise why the questions it was raising were interesting. This wasn’t until I was in the sixth form, studying Classical Civilization. Recently I’ve found these pulp ideas are making their way back into philosophy. If anyone’s interested, I’d recommend they check out the periodical Collapse magazine, Volume IV, about ‘Concept Horror’.
AI: On the subject of Bedford, your book Beatniks – a novel about being young in the area and the desire for escapism often found in those of us from rural England – was hailed by some critics as a modern On The Road; I’ve also seen comparisons to Douglas Coupland a few times, though I’d be tempted to put you somewhere between Kerouac and Easton Ellis in a sort of authorial Venn diagram. In the literary world, in terms of their writing, to whom do you feel you most relate and are most influenced by?
Toby Litt: I was certainly influenced by Coupland when I started out – although often influenced in a way that led me to do something opposite. Beatniks was partly my answer to Microserfs. I wanted to show how some young people live in a backwater or eddy of time. We’re not all at the bleeding edge of technology. Some young people are just proudly reaching 1973. The biggest influence has probably been Henry James, though this is probably harder to see than Coupland. I think I share a lot of his fascinations. You could see Beatniks as being a novel, like Daisy Miller or The Europeans, as being on the ‘international theme’ – that is, about relations between England and America. The characters in Beatniks are besotted with American culture of the 1950s. We follow them as they meet the place in the mid-nineties.
Other influences have been James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, JG Ballard, Thomas Bernhard. And, for short stories, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges.
I realise this list probably sounds massively pretentious…
AI: Have you met with any of them at all, or any other interesting or prominent figures in the literary world? If yes, whom were you most taken by?
Toby Litt: Muriel Spark. She was the writer I most admired. And she told me she liked my writing, too – which was the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. I only met her on a few occasions, but she was someone you felt you had to live up to.
I only met JG Ballard once, to interview him, but he has become a model for me. His writing is amazingly ambiguous. Sometimes it seems so obvious as to be banal. Sometimes I think we don’t understand what it’s about at all.
AI: As well as being a practising author, you also lecture in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College; loaded question: which do you find more rewarding? Is it important to you to help set up a new generation of talented and relevant writers for the future?
Toby Litt: The diplomatic answer is to say I find them rewarding in different ways. And luckily it’s also the true answer. Writing, just writing, even though it is for other people in the end, can seem extremely selfish. Teaching allows you to try and help other people along. You’re able to make some suggestions – for a new approach, for an author to read – and you can have a huge influence on a beginning or developing writer.
AI: What’s next for you? Is book L (12) already in the pipeline – any clue as to the title?
Toby Litt: Life-Like.
I don’t doubt that at all. And that terrifies and excites me.