July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
East London, quantum physics, Weimar-era berlin, not getting fucked for love nor money: wondering what on earth connects the spurious dots here? The answer is The Teleportation Accident – one of the freshest, most exciting and darkly comic novels written in recent years – and its author Ned Beauman.
Written in the uniquely ambivalent authorial voice that had Beauman’s first novel (Boxer, Beetle) shortlisted for several prominent prizes, The Teleportation Accident’s blurring of fact and fiction oozes confidence, resulting in the definitive historical novel for people that detest the genre. Its creation, at this early point in his career, has cemented Beauman as both a promising voice for the future of the written word and a force to be acknowledged in the here and now.
Dazed Digital: You had some
success with Boxer, Beetle, making The Teleportation Accident the ‘difficult second novel’. Did you feel the pressure, particularly?
Ned Beauman: Most of the prizes I got shortlisted for were for first novels – those are ruled out now, and a lot of the best reviews were mostly premised on the pleasant surprise of finding an interesting new voice, I think. So that’s ruled out as well. If anything, it’s worse than starting from scratch, but there’s an extent to which the new book is a reaction to the ways that the first was received: a lot of the things that people found annoying about the first book, I’ve deliberately emphasised in the second book.
DD: Things like the sexual content? One reviewer called it ‘gobsmackingly smutty’…
Ned Beauman: Yes, although there are no actual sex scenes in this book.
If I picked up a copy of Boxer,Beetle in a bookshop and read the blurb or the first few pages I don’t think I’d buy it. Hopefully there’s enough going on in the new book that, in the same situation, I would pay for it – and I think I would
DD: And yet the book is full of sexual imagery and innuendo – was that a conscious decision?
Ned Beauman: Yeah. So much of The Teleportation Accident is about (protagonist Egon) Loeser not getting laid that when he actually does, I made sure it happened between chapters to better emphasise the fact that it turns out not to be that important after all. None of the other characters were likely to get any action either. So, no sex.
DD: How do you reconcile topics like quantum physics, Nazism and sexual deprivation?
Ned Beauman: I was reading another book, City of Quartz, by Mike Davis – it’s about the history of Los Angeles – and there was a small extract about a scientist working at Caltech. Things really just evolved from there. If I hadn’t been reading that book then this novel probably would never have happened.
DD: So, there’s some
truth in the scientific elements
Ned Beauman: Some – but not teleportation. As far as I know there was no teleportation device, but it was such a ludicrous time and place there could well have been people working on it. Only in California or Moscow – it just couldn’t happen anywhere else.
DD: There are quite a few similarities between Boxer, Beetle and your new novel; they’re set in similar time periods and touch on similar subjects – how do you set them apart?
Ned Beauman: If I picked up a copy of Boxer, Beetle in a bookshop and read the blurb or the first few pages I don’t think I’d buy it. Hopefully there’s enough going on in the new book that, in the same situation, I would pay for it – and I think I would.
DD: A successful first novel, and a second on the way – was there a point at which you realised you had transitioned to being an ‘author’?
Ned Beauman: It happened as soon as I quit my job, a few months after I got the deal for Boxer, Beetle. My job before was working three days a week at Another Man, so it wasn’t exactly tyranny. But there’s no reason to think it will continue forever. At the moment I can afford to write full-time as long as I maintain approximately the same level of success. But at some point, maybe soon, I will want to spend more than two years writing a book, and at some point there will be some economic change which will mean not getting the same advances. I don’t expect to live like this forever.
DD: Is it possible to get by as an author just by writing novels these days?
Ned Beauman: I do quite a few events, but most of them are just a few hours in the evening, and festivals are pretty fun. There is a difference between the US and the UK: in the UK the publisher still puts a lot of resources into publicity, but in the US they can’t afford that any more.
DD: Being from London, have you noticed that it’s a lot more difficult out there for authors at the moment?
Ned Beauman: I wasn’t around ten years ago, but I get the impression that publishing is a lot more rationalised now – there’s less of the ‘midlist’, so unless you’re doing major things they’re not going to keep buying book after book when you only sell a few thousand copies, and let you be subsidised forever by their really successful authors. It’s like you’re a failing line of vacuum cleaners at an electronics company – they’ll stop producing you almost immediately.
DD: There is a spattering of ‘real’ historical figures in the novel, but compared to your own characters they seem completely two-dimensional – why include them at all?
Ned Beauman: I’ve always hated those historical novels where the characters are consistently bumping into exaggerated versions of those kind of figures – I wanted to send that up in the novel. I had a rule that I could include ‘real’ characters but they’d never be centre-stage; they’d never have any real dialogue.
DD: I get the
Berlin in The Teleportation Accident isn’t all it seems – is there a bit of the east-London
Ned Beauman: Definitely – Berlin, as it appears in the novel, is a parody of what the east-London scene was a few years ago: everyone knows everyone, everyone’s slept with everyone – it’s borderline incestuous. It’s one of the reasons I had them all doing ketamine – that’s not exactly historically accurate – and the character of Brecht is based on one prominent figure in particular from that scene. My next book, though, the one that I’m working on now, is actually set in London.
DD: Can you tell us much about it at this point?
Ned Beauman: Not a lot – except that it addresses more directly some of the same questions that are touched on in The Teleportation Accident. Namely, what do you do when all the good drugs run out?
DD: You’re out in New York at the moment. Are there any parallels you can draw from that city that will work in the same way as Berlin and Los Angeles do in this novel?
Ned Beauman: I don’t think so. It’s a very different experience. The other day I was wandering around listening to the latest burial EP, but it was so jarring – it doesn’t work at all in the context of New York. It’s a real testament to artists like him, that they can evoke the feel and spirit of a place that’s in such a constant state of flux so vividly. It’s just unfortunate that this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to write about London and I’m not there. but we’ll see – hopefully it works.
Photo by Dylan Forsberg
The Teleportation Accident has been long listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
(the following interview was written for v man and can be found on their website here)
Two of Palahniuk’s novels have already been made in to big-deal Hollywood movies and he’s been afforded the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award twice (one for Fight Club, one for Lullaby). Yet despite seeing his previous titles brought to life on the silver screen with the help of Brad Pitt and Sam Rockwell, as well as what one can only assume is fast becoming a very shiny mantlepiece, the author isn’t a booming bestseller or a cash cow. He’s not, and never will be, Dan Brown. And he knows that. How does he feel about constantly being prefixed with the word ‘cult’? “You tell me.” he answers, obviously well aware of this phenomenon. “It’s not as if I’m an authority on ‘success.’ Or cults. Ask some marketing person-someone who invented these distinctions. Perhaps using the modifier ‘cult’ preserves the ‘street cred’ of a writer who has made it onto the bestseller lists.” I get the feeling he knows where he stands and that he’s more than okay with it, “But if I were a real success,” he muses “I’d have flunkies peeling grapes and dropping them into my mouth, and I wouldn’t be forced to refill my own sherry glass every three minutes.”Whether he’s planning to lead three or four hundred gullible nitwits into group suicide or not, the cult moniker has stuck, and it does have some advantages: leeway for one. The shock-factor in his novels gets a little extra room to breathe and he’s happy to take full advantage of that–surely, it can’t be a coincidence that at a time of powerful right-wing religious resurgence, he’s chosen to taken on theology as a subject. “Good-hearted Christian readers got a huge treat with those ‘Left Behind’ books: novels set in a post-Rapture world where sinners fought violently for a final chance at salvation. Lots of blood and horror, but it was okay because they were the damned folks who were going to Hell, anyway. God hated them so it was fine to torture them as characters.” So, this novel is a counter attack? “I just think that secular humanists ought to have a similar fiction franchise where liberals get to reinvent theology.” But Damned is more than just a Fuck You to the Bachmanns and Palins of pop culture-it’s been carefully considered from all sides, meticulously plotted down to the smallest detail. “Damned follows a classic form,” Palahnuik explains, “an innocent character is thrust into a new environment and must adapt quickly. In Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret the narrator is relocated from New York City to some dismal suburban no-place, where she waits in dread of her impending menses. In The Shawshank Redemption a small-town banker finds himself in prison and must wait in dread for forced butt sex. I could name a million examples of this form, and it resonates with everyone’s first day on a new job or in a new school. InDamned I just chose the worst possible place you could find yourself.”Asking anything of Chuck Palahniuk—even if he isn’t in the room when you’re asking–feels a lot like boxing with Charles Bronson: you know what you’ve asked and you know what sort of reply you should expect. All that aside, you still can’t help but feel as though he’s just waiting for the right moment to butt you…hard…and right in the face. It’s this no-holds-barred approach to narrative and character development that singles him out from his contemporaries: it’s why Victor Mancini, Tyler Durden and Madison are all somehow more contemptible than Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman-these constructs aren’t just deeply flawed human beings (who isn’t?), but they’re flawed in such a way that it becomes hard to empathise with them, and even harder to pity them. “Is that the ultimate goal—to create a character whom readers pity?” I get the impression it isn’t, or at least it isn’t high on his list of priorities, “Quick, someone tell Ayn Rand,” he quips, confirming this impression.
At this stage of his career, Palahniuk is a seasoned professional. He knows that as much as it’s fine for his readers to dislike, or even detest, his creations, there has to be room for them to claw something back; to reclaim some relatable part of their humanity. “The three-act structure,” he’s a big fan of Dante’s seminal work he says, “and patterning the three ‘Madison’ books after the Divine Comedy gives me Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to demonstrate a huge redemption, not just for Madison, but for all of humanity. By the end of the third book, we’ll have a new meta-narrative covering damnation, redemption and salvation.” This is a bold claim—high falutin, even—but it’s not a patch on what comes next: “The secular humanist will be united with the Creationist. The Liberal will embrace the Conservative. All religions will melt together.” Here comes the head-butt: “All peoples will fell akin with one another in a celebration of joy not seen since the United Benneton ad campaigns of the 1980′s.” Black eye. “I cry simply thinking about how good those books will be. You should cry, too. Now if I can just stay off the damned sherry, I might actually finish writing the next two books.” Broken Nose.
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.