- “The Trail of Tears” William Basinski
- “I’m a Dreamer” Josephine Foster
- “No Right Thing” Blood Orange
- “Advanced Falconry” Mutual Benefit
- “Paper Trails” Darkside
- “Parallelograms” Linda Perhacs
- “Caramel” Connan Mockasin
My interview with Margaret Atwood is in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine today and you can read it here. I admire her and I found her fascinating. I also found her kind of exasperating. Below is the almost-full almost-two hours of our conversation, although it never really felt like a conversation, more like intermittent lecturing and syllogistic correcting on her part. Here she is – infuriatingly dogmatic, impressively erudite.
Congratulations on Maddaddam. It struck me that this must be the longest time you’ve spent with a collection of characters.
So are you missing them now that the trilogy is finished?
Well they’re not entirely gone yet. They’re not gone until you’re not promoting the book any more. So they’re still with you until that time so there’s this kind of penumbra of hovering afterlife in which yes the story has finished but the characters are still with you – you don’t get time off to not think about them. They go off into the other world, the outer world. There used to be the convention of saying goodbye to the little book, you know, as it goes out in the world
Like at the end of The Canterbury Tales.
Yes. Yes. That was a well-known literary convention and lots of people do it. If you look at the end of Vanity Fair he does much the same thing. At the end of The Tempest it’s the same, but we don’t get to do that anymore, we don’t get to say goodbye little book.
I got the impression reading this that you might quite like to be a God’s Gardener…
I think I’d be a pigoon!
Ha. But that perhaps like Toby, you’d embrace the lifestyle while resisting the dogma?
That tends to be my stance in life. Of what’s on offer at that time it’s preferable. If you wanted to be in that world and belong to any thing, you’d probably like to want to them, but it’s a fairly steep price to pay.
Yes all the descriptions made me feel their longing for clean clothes.
You could be a Craker and not have to have any clothes at all.
The Crakers are my favourite creation and I love how both irritating and endearing their need for stories is. Are you intimating that a need for stories is not something you can bioengineer away?
Not if you want people to remain human. It does seem to be something that comes with the kit. So music, stories, an interest in visual images, dancing…anything kids do before the age of five that they do naturally and you don’t have to spend time teaching them. So with reading you have to teach, it’s not just one click, it’s a couple of clicks. Higher math, you have to teach. Seven is apparently the highest group of things we can assess at one glance. And ten of course comes fairly naturally to us. e=mc2, you’re not born with that.
The Crakers aren’t going to figure that out any time soon…
They’re not interested in figuring it out. But they are interested in stories. As soon as you have a language that has a past tense and a future tense you’re going to say where did we come from, what happens next. They’re mostly interested in where did we come from right now. None of them has died yet. Other things have died, they’ve seen dead things, but it hasn’t occured to them that maybe that might be them, that maybe might be then.
The thing I find so interesting is that the stories Snowman and Toby tell them are about where they’ve come from, but you seem concerned not with where we’ve come from, but where we’re going.
Well yes I’m me not them. But where we’ve come from- the answers are multiple, from culture to culture. They do include out of an egg, but they also include out of clamshell.
The storytelling seems to be serving Toby and Snowman as well.
In a way. It situates them. The ability to remember the past is an adaptation, it helps us plan the future. So if we can’t remember the past you’re not usually very good at the future either. Because you can’t situate yourself on a time continuum, you’re in the present.
I had a moment of struggling to orient myself in the time continuum while rereading Oryx and Crake. It was published in 2003, a decade ago, but I found the sections in which Crake and Jimmy are looking at online porn and live execution sites so dizzying because I wasn’t sure if they had existed in 2003, if they existed only now, or whether they were all, to use your phrase, speculative fiction.
Some of them did, yes. Well the porn pretty much does. The executions not in the way they’re described although in some countries they do. Public execution is a spectacle and it’s supposed to be an instructive spectacle – “this will happen to you if you step out of line” – so those are quite public in some countries and they were very public in our country until the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century they were practically street carnivals and Queen Elizabeth the First – everybody turned out to watch them. So it’s not very far back in time, in our own culture, that such things were being done, and they could easily be done again.
Right, so their inclusion in the novel is both backward looking and potentially prescient…
Anything we have done we could do. The human smorgasbord, all of the things on it are things we have done and could do. There’s a lot of things that aren’t on it because we’ll never be remotely interested in doing them so we don’t even think about them. So if I say to you, as it says at the beginning of the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t eat stones, well you’d think well I wouldn’t do that anyway.
Does that mean you don’t really believe in progress?!
No, I don’t believe in inevitable progress. Do I believe that some things can be improved? – Obviously. Do I believe that means everything will inevitably be improved? – No. We’ve seen cultures develop certain abilities that they’ve lost. So the people on Greenland on the Inuit side lost the ability to make kayaks for reasons we don’t know, whereas the ones on the other side retained it.
I’m interested in why you differentiate between “speculative” and “science” fiction.
The divide is “couldn’t happen” – science fiction was not called science fiction until the late twenties, early thirties. Those kinds of books were called scientific romances.
And the word romance is meant to indicate the fantastical element?
The word romance is meant to indicate it’s not a realistic novel, so it’s not Zola, it’s HG Wells, of Time Machine and War of the Worlds. So those things actually cannot happen, though it’s an interesting explanation of human nature to say well what if it could, what if they could. So there are what ifs and where ifs, and there are in speculative fiction too, but they’re possible what ifs and where ifs. So 1984 as you know was 1948 backwards and it was a placed in England transliteration of the Soviet Union. So it was basically what if we went this way – here’s the result of what that would look like. Brave New World was based on Aldous Huxley’s somewhat traumatic visit to Hollywood. So there’s all the perfumed washrooms and these kinds of things. And the little personal helicopters, all of that. All of that was possible, it hadn’t happened but it could happen – it wasn’t in a galaxy far far away in another world. So that to me is the distinction. Now it depends on how people use those terms – if you wanted to you could have a big banner over the top saying, wonder tales, and under wonder tales would be all these different things – include fairy tales and the Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter all those things, but you could not call Harry Potter science fiction. So what does science fiction mean? Is is what’s on the cover, is it where you shelve it in the bookstore? What does that mean.
But why is speculative rather than science -
[interrupting] Because I prefer to say “maple tree” rather than “tree”.
Right. I sense that you’re exacting.
Well I prefer to be precise otherwise you find yourself talking about something about which people have different ideas. If somebody says to you well why are you writing science fiction, or, I never read science fiction, you have to say well what do you mean by that. That’s all. It’s a useful distinction that enables us to agree on what we’re talking about. Some people get very prickly about it because they think you’re dissing science fiction. That’s not what I’m doing, I’m simply pointing out I cannot write those books. The ones inside the spaceships, much as I’m a devotee of Star Trek, I’m not good at writing them. And I can’t write dragons either. I’m not good at it. Not my forte. Not my wheelhouse. That doesn’t mean I can’t read them. Can’t write Moby Dick either. Very keen on it. And that’s not a realistic novel by the way.
You pride yourself on the veracity of the science in your novels…
I have to be within the realm of probability, or my brother, who is older than me, will let me know.
Has he ever called you out on anything?
A bit. He thought I was pretty good on the sex in Oryx and Crake but he didn’t buy the purring. My sister in law said that she did and she’s also a biologist, so difference of opinion, but we won’t know until we do it. I don’t think anybody’s working really hard on that one but they are working hard on the knockout transgenic pigs. I think they’ve now succeeded. And the glowing green rabbit, and the silk and the milk, those things have already been done, they were already done by the time I wrote the book. So some of the things were real in 2003, some of them they were working on and now they’re real, and others aren’t quite real but they could be.
I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you that a lot of your fiction seems prescient. Your book on the financial crisis -
[interrupting] Yeah but it wasn’t about that, it was about how people exchange things and how that is one of the building blocks of our culture that we had never thought about in that way. So we hadn’t really thought about the amazingly preponderant role that money plays in the nineteenth century novel. It’s omnipresent, it’s very very important to any character – how much money they’ve got and how they have it. Old money and new money, is it a little bit of money, is it invested in something that then goes bust and nobody knows why as in Cranfield, are they improvident as in David Copperfield. People were just obsessed with it as far as I can tell. All of a sudden there was new money and it had come out of nowhere and nobody knew how it was generated and it was just like, what’s happening.
But when things do come to pass -
Do I feel an “I told you?”
Yeah, a kind of grim pride.
An “I knew it?” Um. Well I don’t think it’s rocket science. And also it’s not accurate. I can’t say that I’m going to predict this and it’s going to happen in a year. If I did know that, number one people would pay me lots of money for that knowledge, number two I’d probably be extremely rich, but that isn’t the area in which we’re operating here. We’re operating along a – so here’s the future, it has many branching paths, this one over here is quite improbable but not out of the question. This one here is extremely likely and then there are some over here which is what I’m writing about.
In lots of interviews with you I’ve come across this quote from William Gibson -
“The future’s already here but it’s unevenly distributed”.
Exactly. That resonates with you?
Yeah I’ve quoted it a number of times. Yeah it’s unevenly distributed.
Have there been specific instances where a particular thing has happened as you’re writing, before publication?
Ok here’s the weirdest thing that happened. We did the opera of the Handmaid’s Tale and it premiered in the year 2000 in Copenhagen. And it opens with a film reel of the events that have lead up to the situation that you’re about to see and there’s this and that and this and that and one of them is the twin towers blowing up. So then we did it again in 2002 and we had to take that part out because it had in fact already happened. But that wasn’t me, that was whoever made the film clip. It came as a bit of a shock.
I always think of the cover of Underworld, with the twin towers and the plane – how that cast DeLillo as prophetic.
Yeah. Well if you saw Star Wars, the plot of 9/11 is in that film. As you can see, you take this plane and you fly it into the death star – in the movie they get out – but in real life let’s pretend you wouldn’t be able to.
I’m surprised you’re a Star Wars fan…
Why would I not be! Remember when I grew up – I grew up in the golden age of Flash Gordon and sci-fi, so when we told stories as children they were always on other planets. Where else would you have it. So we came along in that genre, which in both in cheap magazines and comic books was flourishing quite well thank you very much in the late fifties. Ray Bradbury was publishing his classic works right then and there. I mean you were reading them hot off the press. Him and a number of now considered classic writers, that’s when they were publishing. So…we also had stuff like the collected HG Wells, it was just around, there’s no chasm that has to be jumped there. It’s very familiar territory to me – that doesn’t mean I can write it.
Does your imagination ever disturb you?
In what way – “how could I have thought that”?
The only disturbing thing is, “if I could have thought it so could other people.” So, if I think I’ve thought something up all on my own I’m wrong – somebody else is thinking the same thing. That’s the disturbing thing.
But do you have to overcome a certain self-censorship?
Am I squeamish?
No, I don’t really mean visceral horrors – I mean more psychological ones – the entire world of these three novels is so frightening – do you have to be brave to imagine it?
I don’t really think of it in those terms. I think they’re cheering books because so far they’re only books. And you close the cover – it hasn’t happened yet. There are no zombies. On the other hand, with anything like that it’s no good to say to a three year old, there’s nothing under the bed. What you have to say is, I’m aware of the monster under the bed but I’ve made a deal.
Like talking to a Craker.
In a way, but my point being, people like to walk through in imagination potential disasters, because number one there’s always somebody who survives otherwise there isn’t going to be a story. Number two, they like to think about what they themselves might do – how would I do this. That is why zombie stories are so popular at the moment. In societal collapse, how would I, me, you, make it through with my band of buddies. How am I going to make the lights go on, where am I going to get the food. What about the flush toilets.
Where have I stashed my mushroom elixir.
Yes, what about those bees, where do I get some.
When you’re deep in the writing of a novel is it literally full time – by which I mean, does it occupy your mind even when you’re not writing?
In an ideal world yes. In the real world things interrupt. So in theory yes, in practical life…I think you switch back and forth. Because otherwise there’s going to be no laundry. There are phone calls to make. You can’t just stop having your life.
Would you rather be fully occupied by it and not have to ever do the laundry?
I think that would get boring and claustrophobic pretty quickly. I’m happier coming and going. You always think oh if only I had a little chalet in the mountains and people to deliver me three meals a day and how great that would be and how I’d do all this writing except no I wouldn’t – I’d do the same amount of writing I do now and the rest of the time I’d go stir crazy. If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive.
Do you find you have a foolproof routine?
I have no routine. I have no foolproof anything. There’s nothing foolproof. There are a lot of hints and tips but if you can’t use them then they’re not for you and it doesn’t work. People have their stuff that they do but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s transferrable.
Do you write every day?
I would like to lie and say oh yes of course I do. Who was it, Arnold Bennett, who prided himself on writing a certain number of words every day like clockwork. I actually don’t do anything like clockwork, I’m not a clock!
But I understand that you work in very long stretches – that you can sit down and write for eight hours at a time.
Towards the end. Towards the end, because you know where you’re going. Or if you think the horse race – what you want to do is pace yourself so you keep up with the pack and then make your breakaway at the end and that’s what you’ll see in any good horse race and what you’ll see in any foot race unless there’s somebody way out ahead. So…as you approach the end you speed up because you can see the barn door and it’s open. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been around horses before, but they say always close the barn door because if the horse sees it it’ll make a bolt.
And you map out your characters’ lives – can you tell me about that?
I like to know when they’re born. I like to know what month and year so if you do the months down the side and the years across the top you can pinpoint when their birthdays are so you always know exactly how old they are in relation to each other and then you can put world events if it’s a realistic novel. And if it’s not a realistic novel you can put the events that are in the novel to figure out how long ago this thing happened in relation to that thing. And that’s just a useful, easily referred to thing. So since you have to choose their birth dates in months and years you can look up their horoscopes if you want to. There’s a lot of online programmes where you put in the year and the month and the day and you get their entire horoscope.
So you don’t have to do any work! There’s your character delivered to you.
Well it’s supposed to be their characteristics but as you know with horoscopes there’s a lot of contradictory things. You have a lot of choices but at least you know that this person on a given date is not three years older than that other person but two years older.
What happens if the horoscope really clashes with your idea of them!
I change it!
I can’t remember actually having done that but I would do. The reason I’m conscious of it is that my birthday is in November so people always think I’m a year older than I am, because they’re only looking at the year. But I’m the age that I am which is always the last digit – at least until the middle of the month. I keep having to correct them.
So you’re 73.
That’s right, you gottit, it’s 2013.
Would you consider the world “polemical” a compliment when applied to your writing?
It depends which kind of writing. If it’s applied to my polemical pieces which are usually published in newspapers, absolutely. Absolutely they’re polemical. Applied to my fiction? Not so much. So which piece of fiction, are we going to talk about Alias Grace which is about a Victorian person who got incarcerated – where’s the polemic? It’s not about prison reform. It’s about did she do it.
So do you think it’s the responsibility of fiction to resist polemic?
Ok if you go to my only work that I’ve written of this kind called Negotiating With The Dead and look at the chapter, I think number four, there’s a point where I say to another writer, should the writer put in a moral. And the other writer says pretty much what Chekhov said, which is, the reader supplies the moral. I think what Chekhov said is if you need me to tell you what the moral is you’re not a very moral person. So, you lay it out and let other people make up their minds. And they have a lot of choice and often there are moments of decision in which it’s the reader who decides. So at the end of Oryx and Crake you’re not told whether Jimmy Snowman is going to shoot the other human beings or not. You have to decide what you would do at that moment. And often people can’t decide, they don’t know. But often they can decide. Reading is extremely interactive. The brain is the most active while reading as compared with movies or television because those forms supply a lot for you, whereas with reading you’re doing the set design, you’re doing all the voices, you’re doing whether a person looks like James Mason or not. You’re casting it, you’re essentially building your own inner theatre. So it is very interactive, therefore the reader is a highly active participant. The reader is the performer of the book in the way that a violinist is the performer of the written music. Every new interpretation – every person reading a book is going to be, as it were, performing a different interpretation of that book, just as one acting troupe’s Hamlet is not the same as another acting troupe’s Hamlet.
Or one group’s version of your hymns.
Yes, it’s different. So that’s the moment when the black stuff on the page comes back to life and all of those black things on the page are like musical scores.
As Blackbeard in the novel struggles to understand…
Yes. The voice of this person. So yes you’re hearing the voice of this person but you’re hearing it through your own performance. It’s Mozart, but it’s me playing Mozart. Would he like it? We don’t know. But we know that Mozart is not Berlioz, so that’s what we know.
A friend of mine thinks the book might be the most radical medium there is in terms of it being an art form you can’t put an ad in.
Ohhhh yes you can. When I received the paperback of Surfacing back in 1973 or 4 and it had this honking big ad for menthol cigarettes
What! In the book??
Yes, in the book. And I said what’s this doing in here and they said, you didn’t tell us not to. The publisher had sold ad space in the middle of the book.
What did you do?
Get them to do it again. So never say never, for any form of advertising. Product placement.
Does that horrify you?
I’m too old really to be horrified by these things because they’re part of human nature. It’s like saying are you horrified that there are cockroaches living in nuclear reactors, well no I’m not, because it’s life exploiting every niche. So you may not approve of it. I think the book to read on that subject is probably Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift in which he says there are some things we consider to be out of the commercial world, such as selling babies and peddling your internal organs. We consider that some things should not be bought and sold in the common marketplace and so far we consider that should apply to works of fiction but we may not always consider that.
I often think of that David Foster Wallace essay in which he talks about the difference between art and advertising – that art loves you and ads don’t love you.
Yes. They want something from you. And that’s what we mean by polemical. Polemical is when you want people to take action as a result of your, what is in essence, a sermon. And some novels are like that and there’s a long history of the novel doing that – Nicholas Nickleby was targeted expressly against certain kinds of exploitative boys schools and the result was there was an investigation into them and the worst ones were closed down. So that’s…that’s polemical fiction. We read it now as fiction because we think those kinds of schools aren’t with us any more.
But we are in environmental crisis so…
Yes. But on the other hand what kind of action to take is unknown to everyone. So there is no clear, thou shalt do this, that you can do. So it’s not really the same, quite. I mean, saying, I think we’re in a bad position is different from saying, convert to Christianity. It’s different.
But do you know of action happening in the world because of your novels?
Because of novels yes, because of my novels I can’t say that I do but then on the other hand people come up to you and say your writing has changed my life. You don’t actually want at that point to ask them what they mean. They may not be able to give you a concrete example. What they really mean is, you’ve changed the way they look at the world.
I’ve read that men write to you to tell you their marriages might have been saved had they read your work.
Yes one person did say that to me. No, even better than that, I’ve had people say your book saved our marriage. So I didn’t even want to go there. But yes, I’ve had people say things like that. But I think they say them to every writer. So somebody probably will say that to every writer and it means that something of yours has fit a little niche in their life at the appropriate moment.
I guess out of necessity you don’t take it personally?
I can’t. You don’t know about other people’s lives and if something of yours happens to be of help to them that’s wonderful, but it wasn’t me waving any kind of magic wand. The book is the intermediary. So Chapter 5 of Negotiating with the Dead is about the eternal triangle which is the writer, the book and the reader. There is no direct writer to reader communication. It’s always through the book and the reader identifies with the book. I mean they may think you’re a nice person and all of that and thank you for writing the book but their real attachment is to the book.
You’re very active as an author – you tweet, you do a lot of signings and readings -
That’s a different form of activity.
But is it discomfiting when people approach you and effectively jump that intermediary of the book?
Well what they’re saying essentially is what you say in a gift economy, which is thank you. You know, that is the most basic, most minimal thing that happens in a gift economy, which doesn’t happen in a commercial economy. So if I buy a motorcar, thank you very much here’s the money goodbye, I don’t then come back and say oh the experience of driving this thing, thank you so much for selling it to me…you don’t do that, you’ve done the exchange, that’s it, goodbye. Whereas when people receive the gift of the book they do say thank you because that’s what you do in a gift economy. So when I was explaining this to people, which I do sometimes, I say, so when you open the door for somebody and they go through and don’t say thank you how do you feel. So let’s make it worse, you’re in your car and you let them go in in front of you and they don’t give you the wave, how do you feel. So that’s what it is. Now, with art you’re putting it out there into the world, so there isn’t that moment when you say I’m giving this to you, but nonetheless, people feel bestowed, they feel a gift has been bestowed on them and then they will write you a cute note.
But is that a little bewildering to you?
No, because I understand it. I understand, thanks to Lewis Hyde, the gift economy and how it differs from the commercial economy. They’re two different ways of exchanging things. We’re so used to just the one thing that we think that’s all there is but once you start to think about it you realise that isn’t true at all. There are all these other exchanges that we’re constantly making that come under the banner of, this is a gift.
Yes, and I guess problems arise when people are operating on different economies.
When they’re confused about which it is. So how he sees publication is as a stage – and I understand this because I grew up with an entomologist – it’s a stage a work of art has to go through in order to transform back into the gift. So this thing, that I’m spinning from out of air, and then it gets made into a book and through the hands of several intermediaries including the publisher and the bookseller and it gets into the hands of the reader and then it transforms back into a gift. Various confusions are possible along the way. One of them is: “I should get everything for nothing”, one of them is, “although my Auntie Mabel gave me this for Christmas I didn’t really like it and I’m going to write to the writer and tell them I hated their book. So all these different changes can take place. But essentially you’re making nothing into something, then it goes through a commercial stage that takes it back into something into voice, which is what the reader does with it. If the book is only in a library it’s dead for the duration of the time it’s there. I mean, ok so you write a book, nobody’s reading it, it’s in the library, it’s inert. So books are alive when they’re being read. Music is alive when it’s being played. When it’s not being played it’s potential music, but it isn’t music.
Do you crave the physical presence of books or do you read a lot electronically?
My house is filled with books, up to the rafters. It is a different neurological experience, we are now being told. What people worry about is that young people are losing the ability to read in depth, I kind of don’t think that’s true…it’s based on the belief that once upon a time everybody was intensely literate, which was never true. Anyway, the jury is out – the idea that in the nineteenth century everyone read all these long Russian novels, I mean it’s rubbish, they were mostly reading porn.
Right. But also novels then were thought of in the same way we think about reality TV now.
They weren’t considered art until the last quarter of the nineteenth century and then Flaubert got hold of it and Henry James and Oscar Wilde turned it into an art form and started dismissing lady novelists. Before that time the novel was considered a much inferior form to poetry. So the great artists were Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, people like that and the inferior writers were writing novels, for entertainment – crowd-pleasing entertainment. But George Eliot was serious about it but she wasn’t serious about it so much as a form as the content. The person who made it into the high art form was basically Flaubert. You can read about that in Negotiating With The Dead. Which is the great debate about priests of art, high priests of art, and whether you can be a high priestess of art.
I’ve actually read you described as a “high priestess” in one interview.
Me? Yeah well they haven’t thought about it much have they.
So do you read electronically?
I read in every possible way. I experiment with every delivery form, I take note of various desperate measures that people adopt. I am aware of serial reading online and participate in it. So you name it, I’ve done it.
And have you drawn any conclusions?
Not yet, jury is out. Jury is out.
Tell me about your environmental awareness. I know you grew up in a family of scientists, deep in the woods for much of the time, but were there any revelatory moments in terms of realising the crisis we’re in?
No I just grew up with this stuff, it’s been dinner table conversation since 1948 – this is not new stuff and it’s been predicted time and time again and we’re on course for what was predicted before. So give or take a decade, you know? Some things are happening faster than people thought, other things are happening more slowly. But it’s happening. So this is not new stuff. And there have been a couple of near-misses in the past. One of them was the Rachel Carson moment and one of them was the Agent Orange moment that killed the marine algae – and there goes our oxygen. So we almost did that during the Vietnam war because we were shipping vast quantities of Agent Orange across the Pacific and if a couple of those had gone down and leaked that would have been the end of us. That stuff is extremely potent.
Do you feel privileged to have had the childhood that you did?
Well it didn’t feel privileged at the time because we didn’t have any money. What I really didn’t have is a lot of frilly dresses. So no, it did not feel…but any child’s life, if you’re living that life, that’s what feels normal. You don’t think privileged, not privileged, it’s just what you’re doing. So in a way privileged, but in a material way certainly not.
I loved your disavowal of the “pink angora sweater” version of girlhood – does that mean you were quite a tomboy?
Well only as a switch hitter, which I’ve always been. So in the woods yes but in cities I would have quite liked to have the pink angora sweater. Or other forms of angora sweaters. But I think probably people who live dual lives, as I did, are adaptable. You adapt to each one as you’re living it, so you don’t go to the fancy restaurant with the white table cloth in your jeans, running shoes and soot covered t shirt.
And there was a clear moment when you decided to be a writer, can you tell me about that?
In high school, I was sixteen. If you go to Negotiating With The Dead and look at chapter 1. So yes, I came back to writing when I was sixteen and followed that past ever since.
And you wrote in your high school yearbook that your ambition was to write the great Canadian novel.
Yes I wrote all those write-ups for the people in my year, so that little thing that’s written about me I wrote. And the things that were written about all the other people – I wrote them too.
So you were already taking the authorial path…
Well no you got elected to do these things – “who’s going to write our school year book” – “how ‘bout her.”
Returning to the pink angora sweater thing -
[interrupting] Oh I was quite girly, I sewed my own dresses. I was the girliest person in my family but all that means is I was the girliest person in my family, not that I was the girliest person I ever knew. So I liked the decorative arts, I liked dresses, I liked sewing. My mother was a tomboy and only ever went shopping with me once that I recall, she just had no interest. So I did all of that myself and everybody else thought I was quite girlie, everyone in my family did, but of course if I ran into other people who were afraid of mice and other squeamish silly things, that wasn’t me. So was I catching fish and bludgeoning them to death, yes I was.
But you also liked pink angora sweaters.
Yes, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There was this girly thing in those days where girls were supposed to go “oo! ew!” and I just thought that was stupid.
In this book there seems to be an impatience with women who are overly concerned with their appearance – I’m thinking of Lucerne in particular.
But that is a sexual rivalry. Toby is overly concerned with her appearance as well. It’s like anybody that you’re jealous of and think is a sexual rival – you don’t approve of their clothing choice, you know that from your own experience.
That, as well as all of the plastic surgery in the novel, made me think about the narcissism of this age.
It’s not more narcissistic than other ages.
But do you think it seems that way because social media facilitates that? – I’ve been thinking about Instagram and how socially acceptable it is – more than acceptable – expected – that you post lots of pictures of yourself.
And this word “selfie” has entered our discourse…
Yes I just heard about that.
It’s kind of bewildering to me…
I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. It’s very very human nature. Body decoration, decoration of self, sexual display – they’ve all been there for a very very very long time and it does no good to puritanically say oh you shouldn’t be doing that, because people do. So there are ages in which it’s discouraged and there are other ages in which it’s wildly encouraged and we happen to be in the wildly encouraged age at this moment. It’ll change back. It’ll go here, it’ll go back there, it always has. So the puritans in the seventeenth century, very plain. Followed by the restoration, extremely self-indulgent and narcissistic. So end of the eighteenth century, right before all the heads got chopped off, extremely decorated. In comes the revolution, get rid of your fancy white wig and put on the white collar, get rid of the bustle. Moves into the Regency – we’re going to do Grecian. You can see it morphing. If you go through a book of costume, then the waist comes in the sleeves go out. And then we get modesty in the middle of the nineteenth century and then that morphs into extreme decolletage and a great big bustle. So it goes back and forth. And then all of a sudden something happens and the skirts go up. After World War One to the late 20s. Nobody knows what to do about that. Crisis. You’re not supposed to have a bosom either. Flat chest. Invention of the two way rubber stretch girdle. That facilitated the thirties bias cut evening dress, which you couldn’t have worn otherwise.
Yes I’m thinking of the maximalist, outre clothing of the 80s and then how that changed into the minimalism of the 90s and Calvin Klein and so on…
Yes. What are we doing now – just about everything. Look at what’s come back see – [pointing to jeans of woman beside us] – we thought those were gone forever, the skin tight pedal pushers. Capri pants. The other thing that always happens is that new fabrics and pieces of tech facilitate different fashions. So the extreme high heel – you couldn’t have had them before the invention of whatever they’re putting inside of them. Probably some kind of steel.
I’m interested in how your personal definition of feminism has changed over the years.
Ok so there’s all different slices. One of them has to do with the law – what is it legal for women to do – I’m interested in that one. What is it approved of or not approved of for women to wear. Ok, so I say decorate to your heart’s content, because people will anyway and it’s a fallacy to suggest that women dress just for men. It’s just not true. And most of the time men don’t notice what you’re wearing anyway, but women do. They dress for their own self image – this is who I am, this is what I look like. It becomes constraining when they feel they’re being forced to put on stuff that they don’t want to wear. Other than that it’s how about it, it’s fun. It’s fun. I think it’s bad when it’s connected to a lot of anxiety – “I don’t look good in this” – that’s when it becomes bad. And I think airbrushing and photoshopping and all this stuff – but all you have to do is look at the before and after pictures and you know it’s all done with mirrors and lighting so you can make anyone look good, you can make anyone look terrible. Social behaviour. Ok, social behaviour we’re still having a problem with. When you get a woman being essentially kidnapped and raped to death you know you’re handling a big problem. So hunter gatherers, women were more equal and children were less numerous. We get into agriculture and women’s position goes down and hierarchies form and slavery comes in, the number of children go up. The industrial age hits – technology like typewriters and computers comes in and upper body strength is no longer so important – women’s equality goes up. Is there push back? Yes. So, if by feminism you mean all women are wonderful all men are terrible, no, it’s a) not true and you know if you went to school that girls have their own hierarchies and bad behaviour. So that should not be a secret any longer. Do I feel that feminism is a set of human rights? – Yes, because I radically think that women are human beings and therefore they have all the variety that other human beings have and some of them are wonderful, others are terrible and most of them are in between. But just because some of them are wonderful, some of them are terrible and most of them are in between, that should not have any bearing on the laws. Because with men some of them are terrible, some of them are wonderful and most of them are in between. Do I feel that men are hard done by in certain areas of the world, such as child custody? Yes I do. That’s gone too far in one direction, having been very far in the other direction – in the nineteenth century women didn’t get custody, even if the divorce was not their fault. Then it swung all the way over to women and it has to come back more to the men.
One thing I’m seeing is the way that it’s sort of acceptable for women to behave unpleasantly to men and justify that in the name of “feminism”. I’m thinking particularly of domestic scenes in TV ads.
That’s been going on since the forties. But as people point out about humour, if there are two people that are unequal, by structure and law, and the superior one is mean to the inferior one, that’s not funny. It’s the reverse that’s funny and you get them in sitcoms. But being mean to people is being mean to people whoever those people are. That’s why I was saying human rights – women are human beings.
I think a lot of readers come to your work through The Handmaid’s Tale…
There again, it’s not all men having a wonderful time and women not – the men at the top are having a wonderful time, it’s a hierarchy. The women at the top are having a less wonderful time than the men at the top but they’re still doing very well compared to those at the bottom. Think Nazi Germany.
Have you reread it, reappraised it?
What are your thoughts?
That would be another quite long conversation. You don’t get to feel proud of things. That’s not how it works. It just isn’t. I think it’s lazy. In my puritanical way. In my puritanical, workaholic, fifties way, I think it’s lazy. That generation was post-war workoholic. It was the sixties that went into the tune in tune on tune out. Which we just thought was lazy.
I love that a T shirt was made with the quote “every woman writer should have Graham Gibson as a husband.”
He thought it was funny.
How is he your best supporter?
That’s like “when did you stop beating your wife” – I don’t even know he is my best supporter. But nonetheless he’s pretty good – he mostly just keeps out of the way. And I don’t show him my books before they’re in print. I recommend it. Supposing your spouse doesn’t like your work – then you’re in trouble. I show my editors and agents and usually some people who are just good readers.
Who gives you the most joy on Twitter?
Little moments of serendipity happen and they’re really quite silly. People send me things they think I would be interested in and I usually am. I think one of the most fun things recently was this gender flipping of covers, that can provide endless entertainment. I think 10 Scariest Easter Bunnies is pretty good. Look them up. I didn’t realise people dressed up as Easter Bunnies.
And that list is in the book! – So life finds its way into fiction…
Oh yes. I crib from life all the time.
I know you’re a technophile, a great engager with new technologies…
[interrupting] Engaging with contemporary technology and being a technophile are two different things. I’m a techno-experimenter and I feel I’m old enough to do it and report back to the youngers because they could do it and ruin their lives. They might be made to feel inadequate because they don’t like it or they don’t get on with it. So my general thing about it is try it out, but if you don’t like it don’t do it. If it makes you unhappy don’t do it at all. I think it can make you unhappy and it can especially make you unhappy to be told you ought to be doing it and then you don’t like it. And then you feel oh, I’m not doing what I should, if only I did blah blah blah. It’s like anything else, it works for some people and not others.
But Twitter it seems is a pure pleasure for you?
It’s like having a little radio show. It’s also like being at a party. And therefore, although I might pass along stuff that concerns me, I mostly pass along stuff that concerns other people. So you will see things about science, things about other books, things about people’s books that I like, events that I think people might be interested in, competitions I think they might be interested in. And your followers sort themselves out. They’ll go on and off depending on whether they think you’re sending on anything of interest. It’s also like a party in that you wouldn’t go to a party and say, here’s my book! I don’t think that’s the way it works best – you can do that on your website, because people going to your website are looking for that. It’s a billboard. Pinterest seems to be mostly here’s my sofa – a lot of interior decoration, so I’m not sure that it’s for me. There’s various different ones that people have started… Wattpad I support because I think it facilitates reading and writing, for younger people I think it’s an entering gateway, it makes it possible for young writers to put their stuff up without people knowing who they are, it’s pretty friendly, I don’t think it allows a lot of cursing and yelling. And therefore, if you’re looking to see if somebody might read your thing, there it is. Byliner replaces the glossy magazine market for fiction and non fiction so I’m in favour of it. What am I not in favour of…There are so many different ones. If you’re a knitter you might like a site called rabbit thing. If you’re an artist and you’re putting your stuff up to be sold, etsy… And so and so forth. Glossy if you want to make a thing that looks like a magazine. You can go on Glossy and see my brochure for the Happy Zombie Sunrise, where you can send your zombified relative and have them well taken care of.
This is the project you’re doing with Naomi Alderman, yes?
Yes, it’s up on Wattpad. We did it basically for fun and I play the grandmother and she plays the granddaughter and the opener is that the granddaughter phones the grandmother and says, mum has just eaten dad in the kitchen, what should I do. And the grandmother says, I never liked that woman, but she’s family, so we can’t eliminate her. So we’ll have to get her on a plane to England where they have the Happy Zombie Sunrise centre as they would.
Do you take the same approach to technology as you do to contemporary culture -
[interrupting] Stirrups are a technology. Spears are a technology. So the idea of people making things that change the way they can do things is very very very very very very old. And if you go to the presentation I did called Tools Of Change one of the slides says every technology there are three sides – the good side, the bad side and the stupid side. There are plusses and minuses and then just pieces of unexpected stupidity, for everything.
But I wondered, for example, whether you watch much TV.
Do I watch movies, yes, do I watch a lot of television no but I get the boxed set afterwards. So I prefer to watch it when it’s finished.
I know some writers feel like it’s their professional obligation to be very engaged in contemporary culture…
It’s not a professional obligation because I’m too old.
Yes. I could sit in a rocking chair and everyone would think I was normal. Instead I get oh my goodness you’re so engaged. But that’s just curiosity, it’s not a feeling that I have to be engaged. Yes I’m afraid it’s my insatiable curiosity. Like Rudyard Kipling The Elephant’s Trunk.
Do the words “national treasure” strike horror in your heart?
I think more horror is struck by the word “icon”. Icons are essentially inert objects made of wood and they lead to iconoclasm. And national treasure…I think all of these things set a standard of behaviour that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave yourself like a pedestal type of person. So pedestals actually have a very limited circumference, not much room to move around. So I prefer to remain the Elephant’s Trunk. He didn’t have a trunk until his insatiable curiosity caused him to have one. It’s how the elephant got its trunk. He asked too many questions and finally they sent him off to the crocodile who seized hold of his nose and pulled and pulled and pulled and that’s how the elephant got his trunk, but it came in very useful to him. Poking their noses into things that are none of their business. Insatiable curiosity. It is very very interesting you have to admit – the world, this moment of technology which is like the Burgess Shale moment of technology. That will be something you can look up on the internet. It’s a geological stratum which a time period captured in some shale discovered by a man called Burgess. In these layers of shale were all these extremely unusual creatures, most of which became extinct – so there were ones with eleven eyes and fifteen and a half legs and things that we just don’t have any more and that’s the period of technology that we’re in on the internet, you can say we’re in the early age of the typewriter, there were very many models of keyboards but only one survived. So people are experimenting with all these different things – how many of them will survive, we don’t know. People have largely failed to solve is how do you monetise a website. So we know – if you go on to the O’Reilly’s tools of change you’ll know that the string which connects a with b – writer – reader – string – the string is the connector, so it’s the telephone, it’s the internet, it’s the bookstore, it’s all of these places that enable you to access what people in the business are increasingly calling content. So the people making all the money are the string and they’d like it very much for the writer not to make any money. They would like for the string to have all of the money – if you do that you’re going to end up with essentially a big wad of string and nothing much being connected. So that’s what my presentation was about.
As a journalist it’s pretty worrying…
That’s why I believe one should pay for subscriptions to newspapers online. You don’t get these journalistic pieces out of nowhere. And there are various schemes coming up now – there’s a new one called cents up in which you’re able to reward the pieces of writers that you have liked. It’s just in its infancy. But newspapers are going into all sorts of different models – they’re rewarding their subscribers and doing this and that and this and that. There’s a reinvention of how you provide that content and how, as they say, it’s monetised.
The phrase “content provider” makes me feel a bit queasy.
And it should. It should make you feel a bit queasy. The idea of profession of any kind goes out the window because a content provider can be anybody. Anybody can do it and they’re increasingly looking for gatekeepers again – so how do I know this is any good -
And I think Twitter is great in that respect – so often the way I’m lead to a piece isn’t, for example, through going to the New York Times homepage, but through five people in my feed tweeting a link to it.
Yes. You can create a news story by having it hit social media first. And it is creating, through Avaaz and Change and some of those kinds of things – the ability to create petitions and get large numbers of subscribers to them. You can actually change political decisions that way.
Did you ever think about going into politics?
No, I would be a terrible, terrible, terrible politician.
I would not be able to lie. Politics is the art of the possible, as you know. You have to be very very pragmatic, you have to be a dealmaker and I just wouldn’t be very good at it. It’s also exhausting – it takes a huge amount of stamina and the hide of a rhinoceros, because much as you may feel that bad book reviews are excoriating, once you’re in politics everybody feels they can have at you – it’s the French Revolution every day.
They’re beheading you constantly.
Yeah, constantly. I’m interested in certain moments of politics and I’m also fascinated by the extent to which modern politicians do not yet get social media. They don’t get it but if somebody catches them with their hand in the cookie jar they should immediately fess up and apologise, otherwise it just looks wriggly. It just looks very squirmy, very dodgy, so their best move is to say I don’t know what got into me, I’m so sorry, what can I do. But they just shouldn’t do it in the first place, because don’t they know yet that everything leaks like a sieve.
As I think Crake says in the novel.
Yeah. Leaks like a sieve. That’s why the God’s Gardeners back in 2009 or whatever it was said you can’t use phones. No phones, we’re not letting you use any computers because it’s too visible.
Do you ever feel email and Twitter become tyrannical for you?
Oh constantly. Well things were tyrannical before – it used to be the typewriter and letters and everything but you had a bit more time – nobody expected an instant reply. So yes, they are tyrannical and you could do very well with a summer camp when you check those things at the door – so you say, I’m away for two weeks, I’m offline. And people are resorting to that more and more. I welcome the fax machine, I thought that was good, but it quickly got discovered by spammers and then the floor would be covered in paper. They’ve given up on that now. It’s a big problem – we want to communicate, it’s a human thing, but we want to communicate when we want to communicate – and then we want everybody to answer our inquiry. We don’t want to answer theirs!
I hate that when I tweet I’m then cravenly checking to see who’s replied – I wish I could just serenely send it off into the world and then ignore it.
That’s mostly what I do. I go back over the ones – I scroll down and see if there’s anything I need to answer or retweet.
But do you find you have to limit your Twitter time?
About ten minutes a day.
Unless I get sucked into it. Because it does suck you in and it is addictive and so are emails and the reason they’re all addictive is the easter bunny egg – there might be an easter bunny egg for me. I remember the feeling of the old mailbox – oh there might be something in the mailbox for me, and often there is but it’s just a stupid old flier but it’s there. It’s the same thing – you’re rewarded for paying attention with a little bit of adrenaline – oh what has the easter bunny left for me today – oh it’s a pile of shit.
But presumably people on Twitter do send you a lot of easter eggs?
They do, but if they send me piles of shit I block them. If they’re respectfully sending me piles of shit I don’t. But the ranting and swearing – you’ll usually look at that and see they have a followership of about three. So you think oh you don’t get it yet.
Right, learn the Twitter manners.
Yes. And I think it is becoming a lot more mannerly than it used to. Every one of these things when they hit, there’s a moment when people are working out the codes. With cellphones it took a relatively long amount of time for people to remember to turn them off in the theatre. And they had to start giving the warnings, and now people do turn them off. But I remember in the early days they’d ring. If you read early books about etiquette – you shouldn’t lean your chair against the wall and put your hair-oiled head up against the wall, when hair oil came in. All of these things. Spitoons – warnings about spitoons. We don’t have to worry about that any more.
I feel like you’re enacting that within the God’s Gardeners – the way etiquette builds, the way a group of people form codes together.
To return to fashion for a moment – I liked the way in which the women in the God’s Gardeners choose different bed sheets depending on their mood.
You would wouldn’t you!
Of course – the world’s ended but these things still matter.
Yes, well..we talk about the world ending but in fact the world hasn’t ended in this book – human beings have been severely diminished but the world itself – and let me just drive into your head that one of the most flourishing wildlife zones right now is the area around Chernobyl because there aren’t any people there. The second one is the demilitarised zone between north and south Korea. I just got this book from George Monbiot called Feral and I’m looking forward to reading that and I think one of the things he’s going to tell me is that farming areas that have been abandoned because they were no longer viable are growing in again. And that will be very interesting to see how that all plays out – so will we increasingly live in cities, will we start growing vertical gardens, will we conquer the energy problem which is our biggest problem right now – it’s all technically possible. Do we have the political will to do it? – Question.
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Any writer is an optimist. Why. Number one, they think they’ll finish their book. Number two they think somebody will publish it. Number three they think somebody will read it. That’s a lot of optimism. No matter what the content is, it’s optimistic in and for itself because it believes in human communication and it believes in the possibility of accomplishing that.
That seems like a pretty good note to end on.
So happy to be profiling Lake Bell for the (London) Sunday Times – yet to run, but I can’t wait on sharing this from her. She’s talking about vocal-fry, or what she calls the “sexy baby voice pandemic”, her character’s bete noir in the truly great In A World. Trailer here.
“I think it stems from an attitude that’s “I’m twelve years old, – I’m submissive, I’m so cute and delicate.” Or feminine, but in a childish way. It’s weird! It’s weird. But at the end of the day you can’t bust a girl for trying to be sexy, right? There’s a way to do it but be sexy as an adult. I grew up thinking, oh my god, Lauren Bacall is hot. Fay Dunaway: jesus. Ann Margaret: oh my god. That sexuality. Those are deep voices, holding their own. I mean I’m getting goosebumps thinking about how…they knew how to be a woman. It’s like…you know, do you want to baby talk with a little girl or do you want to fuck a woman? You know what I mean?”
“…we usually know how things will end, how they will evolve and what awaits us, where things are going and what their conclusion will be; everything is there on view, in fact, everything is visible very early on in a relationship just as it is in all honest, straightforward stories, you just have to look to see it, one single moment encapsulates the germ of many years to come, of almost our whole history – one grave, pregnant moment – and if we want to we can see it and, in broader terms, read it, there are not that many possible variations, the signs rarely deceive if we know how to read their meanings, if you are prepared to do so – but it is difficult and can prove catastrophic; one day you spot an unmistakeable gesture, seen an unequivocal reaction, hear a tone of voice that says much and presages still more, although you also heat the sound of someone biting their tongue – too late; you feel on the back of your neck the nature or propensity of a look when that look knows itself to be invisible and protected and safe [...] …it is as if we often went against our own knowledge, because that is how we tend to experience it, as knowledge rather than intuition or impression or hunch, this has nothing to do with premonitions, there is nothing supernatural or mysterious about it, what’s mysterious is that we pay it no heed to it. And the explanation must be a simple one, since it is something shared by so many: it is simply that we know, but hate knowing; we cannot bear to see; we hate knowledge and certainty and conviction; and no one wants to be transformed into their own fever and their own pain…”
I’m picturing Karl Ove as an Aspergian Alexander Skarsgard, standing too close to me and not blinking as he recounts every single thing he did that day in a mechanical monotone. I know that’s the point; that it’s everything, life to page, but the exhaustive, absurdly lifeless accounts of making breakfast, sitting down to breakfast, eating breakfast, washing up breakfast spoons, drying breakfast spoons etc, make me long harder for the lyrical departures like this one. I find literature-as-solace an obtuse attitude – this shit is above Oprahfication and thinking of it purely in that way is insulting and gross – but, nonetheless, there’s solace in these lines.
“No traces of yesterday’s emotional outbursts visible; I just looked tired. So, back to where I was. Because yesterday had not left any traces internally either. Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings. Not even the worst grief leaves traces; when it feels so overwhelming and lasts for such a long time, it is not because the feelings have set, they can’t do that, they stand still, the way water in a forest mere stands still.”
When I interview people the conversation tends to be between an hour and two hours, which usually yields about six or seven thousand words of transcript. But I can only ever use about ten percent of that as quotation in the piece. So I thought I’d just start publishing transcripts here, particularly when, as in Kushner’s case, the content is this interesting. We met on the 1st May on the far western end of Gansevoort Street, where, in the novel, the main character’s lover takes her to see a Gordon Matta Clark building cut (the image above).
As I walked here every person I passed made me think “MONEYED”
It’s so funny being over here now, in the context of the book it’s obviously a totally different thing. The Meatpacking seems like it’s only for Russians, I don’t even think it’s an American buying power any more. I’ve stayed at the Standard a couple of times, on someone else’s credit, and it just occured to me…I mean, I have nothing new to say that a resident New Yorker wouldn’t know – but the Meatpacking District now, to me, it’s all about the brutality of the very near future. There’s nothing from the past. And the Standard is such a mean environment. When you stay at that hotel and you leave there in the evening it’s completely bling and these women are piling out. It’s like they’re selling sex, and it seems now, you have to be rich to buy it. The Standard Hotel is like this weird beehive for people to pay to have an erotic experience. That was my read on it, but maybe I just have a dirty mind. I was in one of those tiny little rooms. It’s like this mean, tight, glass honeycomb and you’re walled off in this little space where you’re pitched over the river and exposed to the world. For the people that are paying for it, they’ve been told that that’s where you can have an erotic experience, through the Standard Hotel. It’s like the last thing people can do to each other for free is now monetised!
So we’re looking out to where Sandro takes Reno to see the Gordon Matta Clark building cut…
Yes – so the pier is gone that Gordon Matta Clark did his project on. I always knew about Gordon Matta Clark and my aunt had been friends with him in the 70s, but I didn’t know the whole milieu of the work until there was that retrospective at the Whitney, in 2000 or something, right around the time I started working on the Flamethrowers. That really crystallised things for me. That piece was called “Day’s End” and it’s not a very good title for a book but that was my title for a little while. He kind of used all of the techniques of inhabiting a squat in 1970s Europe, which is to do it carefully and slowly and then you go in. And also this whole area was where a whole sector of the population could have discreet romantic encounters and so that speaks to a romantic, pre-AIDs era, the Chelsea piers. And Gordon Matta Clark cased the building and broke in and made these cuts so there was a daring and an illegality. He had to climb up and put himself in danger. It’s a really beautiful piece too, the way he lets light shine through – a fragile, poetic gesture but with power tools. Somebody asked me why I didn’t name any of the films [in the novel]; I’m never really motivated to register cultural references. My work isn’t really about that. In the same way, a lot of the trappings of the 70s I tried to avoid. No one’s wearing bell bottoms. It doesn’t fit in to the kind of sheen I’m trying to create. I want everything to matter in a way that’s internal to the logic of the book. I don’t want to bolster the effect by annexing other cultural references. But I do bring some of that in, but only if it matters to me in some way that isn’t just about being from the 1970s. The films I mention are films that I really really love but a person in the 70s wouldn’t have known to name them as cultural touchstones. I want all the work to have undergone some transformation in order to arrive at its place in the book. I don’t want to lift anything whole cloth and put it in the book.
Tell me how these two worlds, downtown Manhattan of the mid-70s, and Rome during the Years Of Lead, came together for you? Did one come first?
The New York 70s definitely came first, as it does for me in life, because I came to New York as a child. My dad’s from New York City and my mum’s oldest sister is an artist, she’s a video activist and artist and she knew all these people in SoHo and she’d worked for Richard Serra and her son worked for him for several years. So when I would come I’d ride around in my cousin Toby’s truck and we’d run errands and go to Leo Castelli gallery. So I have these impressions of being in this empty, renegade neighbourhood. But I came back to New York and lived with my best friend from Oregon and stayed with her family at 225 Mulberry Street. Her mother’s boyfriend worked for Donald Judd. But living with them on Mulberry Street, I think that planted a seed. But it’s a very different engagement with the place, trying to write New York from the experience of a young woman who wants to be an artist. So I think in a way more important than my own autobiographical childhood memories, is just having developed an interest for years now, from writing about contemporary art, in that period in the art world. If you write about it you have to contend with the ideas and the epic and the discourse and the major figures of the mid 1970s. It’s a turning point. Lucy Lippard wrote this great essay “The Dematerialisation of the Art Object” and it wasn’t that this essay spurned or solicited this work, she was just trying to describe what was going on around her. People had no money, but they had freedom and time. You could just have a part time job and make this work. And they didn’t want to make sellable objects. Painting was really passe, demode. The minimalists still kind of had the most power in the art world but there was this post minimalist move through artists like Eva Hesse and then this surging sensibility…these very ephemeral gestures that looked like life but were being called art.
Like the guy with the red and white pole.
Right, that’s actually a real artist, Andre Cadere.
I’m guilty of romanticising the dirty old downtown of the 70s. Do you pine for that time?
You know I don’t…I’m interested in the past and I do have a nostalgic part to me but I very much live in the present. And I think that I may have learned a certain lesson about pining for the past in the art world from having spent a bunch of time around older people, some of whom had trouble accepting the easy success of younger people. And I thought I never want to be bitter, I never want to wish that yesterday was better than today, because it’s an entirely abstract argument. And I actually think there’s a kind of vitality in the art world. It can be a cynical game and there’s a lot of money at stake, but because I’m an outsider to it, it’s not a word that I want or need anything from, so I’m free to enjoy it without feeling beaten up by it. I still want to think that the basic decision to become an artist or a poet or a writer is a way of saying “no” and not wanting to be part of the straight world. And even if there’s a kind of game to it, where you get over and you figure out how to navigate the gallery system and the social world of the collectors, you’re still avoiding…you’re doing something that is almost outside of…you don’t have to have a regular day job and you’re using creative, but not in a way that’s instrumentalised to sell products.
How did you reach that point, how did you find that conviction?
I don’t think I really had any choice, to be honest. I think it’s the thing that I’m maybe suited to do. I have a college degree, I went to UC Berkley, I was a very good student, always got straight As. My major was political economy, but I was young and idealistic and part of a radical protest culture always, from when I was little. And for a moment I thought I would…I mean I was supposed to, the logical track was to go to a graduate school but I never really took that trajectory seriously. When I graduated from college I worked at menial jobs, I was a sandwich maker, a bartender etcetera, in San Francisco and I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to have my days free and I made pretty easy money tending bar, but that’s a very dead end job, so I decided to go to Columbia. But I think that committing to trying to become a writer and a novelist seemed more and more like…if I could improve, would be the appropriate form for my kind of sensibility. I felt like I had potential. I’m sort of an anti-authority type of person and I just couldn’t imagine having a regular job and working for somebody – having to look respectable and deal with people every day…working in one narrow discipline, which I would have done had I gone into graduate school, seemed like lopping off or excising some major part of my personality or sensibility that I wanted to activate in some way. Being a writer sort of requires everything you have. So it was a way to not have to deal with what I thought of when I was young as “the straight world.” Here we are walking under blooms – it’s like a Douglas Sirk movie, New York right now with all these blossoms.
Ha. So, Rome and Manhattan…
So I had this idea…I’d been having conversation with my husband and we sort of agree that the 70s are one of the most interesting times, and there are these central figures, like Yvonne Rainer, for instance, and she’d just written this fantastic memoir called Feelings Are Facts and it really narrates that whole world in such a wonderful way. I was thinking about all these different figures, mostly women, really interesting artists of the 70s and the kinds of things they did and I thought maybe the most interesting work gets made when no one has any money. New York was failing as an urban center and as an economy – the city had declared bankruptcy and that all seems to crystallise in the blackout of 1977. So I was thinking it would be neat to write a book that uses the art world as a context so it can kind of track the death of the industrial age. Because that’s really what the 70s are about to me, and the death of the city as an urban center. And I was thinking about how all the artists were moving into these former manufacturing houses and it was a perfect symbol of that decline. And they’re using detritus that they find on the street that’s being cleared out of these buildings as they get repurposed as lofts. So…I thought that would be a cool context for a novel and I was thinking about writing it even when I hadn’t finished Telex From Cuba, but then I started encountering some of this Italy stuff. I guess through my husband, because he’s written theoretical texts about the political theories of some of the Autonomists in the 70s and Semiotexte republished this reader, this compendium, of everything from Autonomia. And I looked at that and I thought this is really complete and really complicated, but there’s something here for a fiction writer. And my husband and I went to Italy together and I met friends of his who had connections to the movement and were eager to talk about it. And they knew I was a fiction writer and everyone was so open with me in sharing their stories that I thought I just cannot pass this up. There was never a moment when I thought, why don’t I combine these two things – it was a foregone conclusion that they needed to be together for me, because the crystallising moment of the autonomous moment in Italy, from my perspective, is this March in Rome, on March 12th 1977, and so I thought, there’s that and there’s the blackout and what is the relationship between these two things. I was interested in the idea of the crowd and in both cases there are large groups of people involved and something that’s been precipitated but not foreseen or directed occurs. And I thought it would be a cool challenge as a fiction writer to try to do something with the blackout, or do something with the March in Rome. And the more I worked on them the more interrelated they started to seem. But not in an constructed, nineteenth century novel sort of way, when at the end it turns out these two things have been interrelated all along through uncanny coincidences. I like that challenge of overlapping two different things. This is a little abstract but I was thinking of the late work of the artist Francis Picabia – he did these images where it was one image overlaid on the other. They produce a third thing. And so for me, I thought of my tasks as to be to overlay these two different things but not overly connect them. They started to seem related in these strange ways. I was reading everything I could about The Living Theatre and Judith Molina…
It seems pretty appropriate that we’re meeting on May Day…
I was getting texts from friends this morning reminding me to “go shopping”. I don’t shoplift, because I was caught doing it when I was fourteen years old. I was humiliated and angry. I had like, three hundred and ninety dollars worth of clothes under my clothes. I was stealing Guess jeans. [laughs] But anyway, I don’t shoplift but many of my younger friends do. They say you just get into that reality when you’re aware of all the clerks in the store are but my feeling is everyone eventually gets caught.
I really like that it’s a book so concerned with radicalism, but formally, it’s actually fairly conventional. Or, at least, not “experimental”.
I felt like I was looking for the form for this novel that would best allow me to activate my own sensibility…which is most unique to me, and create a kind of totality of parts that would allow for the range of my own sensibility. And I felt like the book did that. Part of that is the shift in tone from one speaker to the next and the formal challenge of having a first person narrator who is not a “voicey” narrator and then having her drowned out so by the end of the book there’s something like a thirty page sequence where she’s just not speaking at all. So those things for me were formally inventive, because I hadn’t tried them before. And also doing the shift from her to other narrators, through the Valera story and the story of the Burdmoore and the Motherfuckers. Which seems like it’s told from an omniscient third person narrator but it’s supposed to be Burdmoore. He’s trying to present this series of facts as if in the voice of an objective. Having the narrative also be propelled along by causality and event – she reacts to one thing and then moves into another frame – like being betrayed and then getting in a car and going to Rome – it’s a natural way of writing. It has something to do with the way life events take place – you go from one thing to the next. I’m not interested in giving the big reasons why, in an old-fashioned psychologisation – like, oh this character’s this way because of her childhood. I’m not denigrating those things but they just don’t move me as a writer. But having a basic infrastructure that contend with causality, where the reader can follow along with the character and care what happens next – I have discovered buys the writer a lot of space to play and be inventive. So I’m not opposed to plot altogether and I find, as a consumer of culture, that there are times when I encounter something that’s really smartly plotted where I go wow, there’s nothing wrong with plot – I love the movies of Michael Haneke for that reason. He does plot so well. The first five minutes of Cachet take your head off and you think it’s actually ok! – plot is not retrogressive and dowdy.
Reno’s passivity: how much of that is formal necessity, how much is character?
Yeah, the passivity – there is something that’s a little mysterious about it to me, because one is always told that’s serious folly when creating fiction – you’re never supposed to have a protagonist who’s passive and that the main actor in the book has to be exactly that – someone who acts. And when I was trying to develop the right tone for her that was really the work of the book for the first two years. I was writing this chapter when she’s on the bike and going to the salt flats and trying to work out what sort of person she is and the only way for me to do that was through locating the right tone for the way she tells the story. And I wanted it to be first person, but to be somewhat elusive, in that the way she narrates to me would be more like thought and less like performed person who’s sharing with the reader a sense of who they are. She is not so interested in who she is. She’s young and impressionable and she’s interested in other people. And my own experience from being young is that you learn the most when you listen to older people. And in terms of picking up a discourse and trying to get into a fast lane with other people whose interactions are all based on familiarity with one another and familiarity with a way of being and attitude – and in the art world a discourse – so she has not been exposed to that yet and it’s not something she can go home and read about. She has to plunge herself into it and just listen to the way people interact. And that registers for me as something true. So I wanted her to be a young woman who immerses herself in an environment, doesn’t announce herself in…doesn’t…there’s not a technique in the book by which the reader has some objective view of her. She doesn’t have a name, the reader doesn’t really know what she looks like. There’s no point at which the author steps into the book and gives a kind of precis of who she is. So I meant for the reader’s experience to be as closely bounded as possible to her perceptions of other people in the book. As a reader myself I sometimes find that the treatment that the third person gives to the primary narrator can seem very fiction-y – like, “I’m constructing this person, we know that they’re fake, look how real they are.” They get up, they stumble to the mirror and confront their visage and proceed to tell the reader what they look like. Which is not at all to denigrate that form – some great things have been written in the third person, but for me, right now, I’m more interested in a first person voice. And it doesn’t have to do with me in a way, god forbid that anyone should think that the book is autobiographical, because it isn’t, it’s more about creating a certain kind of woman, who because she’s young, is open outward to the world and not focussed inward on her self. So in terms of her passivity, she does act, in certain ways, but she’s not a dominant figure in the group, and the group is comprised of what I’d call silverbacks – like the gorillas – the men who are very egotistical, have large personalities and want to hold court at the dinner table. And some of the women are of that stripe as well, so they’re stronger figures than she is. And it also allowed me to ventriloquise through them all these other sensibilities, in contrast to her own. I think that there would have been a conventional logic to having her triumph in some form by the end, even if it was in a subtle way. I kept thinking the thing not to do is have her ride off on the motorcycle and decide to take destiny by the reins. I didn’t want her to take the reins by the end so you get that dot dot dot. It even relates, in a way, to why I never use ellipses in the book, I always use the em dash. And the ellipses is, I’m going to give you a portrait of this person and let you know that they are ok, and they’ve undergone a series of traumas and learning experiences that have allowed them to acquire the life skills and the wisdom they need to carry forth into the future. And that’s the dot dot dot. And everything’s going to be ok, even though it’s been changed, and that’s the end of the book. And I wanted the end to be much more like a cut. There’s no reason to know anything more about these people because I’ve given you everything that I want you to know. I wanted to end with a cut where the story that doesn’t matter any more, because all that was pertinent to the novel was the experience that she went through. And then she is faced with an open moment when she’s been passive through the course of the book and that’s a kind of radical passivity in the final scene because she’s waiting for someone. There’s sort of structurally nothing more passive than waiting. And she doesn’t even know if he’s going to show up or not. And she hasn’t made any decision in regard of what to do, but the reader knows she has to make some kind of decision so she’s sort of forced to act. I guess that’s partly the message there – that she will have to act in some way and she’s been stood up. I guess I’m interested in the way that people make miscalculations about other people and misread them and I think that there’s something sort of sweet about trusting people even when you’re wrong. The book is partly motivated by an interest in that.
When we first me you told this incredible story about nearly dying when you came off your motorcycle. Would you mind repeating it?
Well…My dad had a motorcycle when I was growing up, it was a Vincent Black Shadow, he still has it. He bought it in England in the 60s and my mother and older brother would sit in the sidecar as they motored around Ireland and England. My parents are both scientists but a lot of their friends were beatnik bohemian types a lot of whom had odd things that they tinkered with in their garages. And then we also lived near a racetrack so we used to go to the drag strip on Friday nights and I was always interested in that world, in machines, in people who were really brilliant mechanics and people who rode – it was romantic to me. And I liked men who rode motorcycles. I was forbidden from getting a motorcycle when I was a teenager – my mother thought they were way too dangerous. But my best friend was a kind of gearhead and had lots of different motorbikes that he raced. Another friend taught me to ride his motorcycle, a Yahama 2d-50, which is a very cool 70s bike and I learned to ride it in the rain in the middle of the night in the parking lot of a grocery store in San Francisco. And I thought this is so great – I’m getting a bike. I was 21. I’d graduated from college. And so I saved up and bought a Motorkutzi v-50 500 – they have this particular orange coloured gas tank and a particular torque and sound. So that was my first bike and I was 21 but I didn’t tell my parents that I had it. And one day my mother called my house and my roommate said, she’s outside working on her motorcycle, – because they were all cool normal adults who didn’t have to hide what they were doing from their parents – and my mother got on the phone and said, your roommate said you were outside working on your motorycle – your father is going to be very upset, I’m going to put him on the phone right now. And my dad got on the phone and he said, hey, whadjyo get? [laughs] I guess there’s a kind of renegade, or counter-cultural world in San Francisco of people who rode motorcycles. And I’m the kind of person that when I discover a counter-culture, maybe not now, but when I was younger, I’d want to learn everything about it. And with that world I just entered it fully. But I’m always slightly an outsider because I knew that eventually I’d want to move to New York City and expand my ambitions, or possibilities. I got other motorcycles and eventually had a 600 Ninja Kaosaki that I prepared to do this race where you span the Baha peninsula in one day. It’s a really crazy race. It was an illegal race that’s been ended because people were killed doing it. It was on a public road, which is a very rare and dangerous thing, and it goes on highway 1, it’s like 11060 miles and you leave at 4 am on the first full moon of October. It was actually my birthday, I was turning 23, but I’d prepared for it for almost a year. I had a race bike, stainless steel valves. It’s incredibly dangerous and many people die doing it and now I can’t believe I would have risked my life in such a way. I was young. You leave at 4 am and you have to average really high speeds to make it in one day and there are all kinds of treacherous contingencies that you encounter along the way. Lakes of diesel fuel from trucks, rocks on one side cliff on the other, trucks going twenty miles an hour that don’t have headlights, cows sleeping in the road…it’s just an incredibly dangerous ride. And the top part of it is very twisty turny and it’s really foggy so the roadway’s wet.
Were you terrified?
Yeah I think I was pretty terrified, but I was soberly so. But I was intent. I was intent on staying alive and finishing. If I was that terrified I wouldn’t have done it, but I was committed to doing it. And I think that helped me to write this book. I did ok, I was a pretty steady rider, and I was near the front of the pack until about halfway down, and then another motorcyclist had pulled over to help someone who was broken down and got stoned with him and he pulled back on the road and was going ten or twenty miles an hour. And he was in front of me and it was a sharp left hand turn and there was a truck coming from the other direction and I had to get around him. It’s a radical differential when someone’s going twenty miles an hour. And then this thing happened all of a sudden, and it was either run into him, or get killed by this truck and luckily for me right there there was a sandy burn to the right and so I just rode off into the burn. But a transition to a different surface at that speed wasn’t tolerated by the motorcycle and so it pitched me and flipped end over end over end.
Did this feel like an exhilarating book to write?
I think all fiction should be kind of terrifying and exhilarating, because you want to get to a point where you are kind of going out on a limb and taking a risk. I look for that…I mean, I guess the whole project of writing is sort of that way. And there are points at which one is not sure what one is doing. Like, I’d written a draft of the book and gave it to my husband to read and he knows me and encouraged me to keep going, but I thought what if none of this is any good. Then I gave it to another friend and they gave me an objective thumbs up to keep going. But I think it should always be that way – there’s part of me that knows how to please myself and so if I go out on the right kind of limb and take a risk and then that miraculous good luck thing strikes, where I get on a jag and I’m inspired, I sometimes know I’m writing the kind of thing I want to read. But in terms of the general risk – it’s a very different book to the first book – there’s a lot of my sensibility in it and that’s the more risky part. You know? But now I’m glad of it in a way because people who know me have said oh there’s so much of you in it.
Was there a point when it felt like things suddenly cohered?
It took me a good two years to write that long first section. And once I’d done that, things started to happen much more quickly. I guess there was a point halfway through when I knew how the book was going to end, I knew what kind of emotional register that was going to be. But, you know it’s a process. The Valera chapters came easily to me and they seemed like they utilised an aspect of my sensibility that for better or worse is a kind of given but that I’ve suppressed on occasion because it’s more poetic. And once I figured out that I could intersperse those with her and do the careful work of mapping to the reader how it is those two things are related, even as I felt all along on an instinctual level that those two things were related, I was pretty confident about what I was doing, because I had allowed myself these alternating tonalities and different spaces by which to move forward. For me the best writing happens from a space of real confidence, and I want that confidence to translate to the reader, so the reader knows they’re in good hands. When I know exactly what I’m doing I feel I can reassure the reader. I want that as a reader – the sense that the writer has a kind of mastery and they’re saving for me, their reader, the good stuff and not giving me everything because they can’t edit down. There are ways of making contact with the reader, being present for them, or alert to comedy and irony and poignancy. It really is a kind of…you have to lift each stone when it’s not going well, but when it is going well it suddenly becomes easy. And I always want to keep a certain kind of intensity that will reassure whoever’s reading it that I’m in control, but it’s really about reassuring myself.
Did you have any sadness at completing the novel, leaving its world behind and so on?
I don’t miss characters, I just move on. I wasn’t tired of them – because there’s an engagement that intensifies with revision, because you know exactly what kind of thing that needs to be added. But I wasn’t tired of it because I was proud and there are some very personal elements to it. Not about my life, but about aesthetics and a sensibility that I recognise. I’m already in the obsessive mental space where the entire world is a set of signs and symbols that relate to the novel I’m trying to write. Which is a fun place to be.
Has success been in any way bewildering to you?
I don’t know if it’s been alarming. There’s a few different levels on which I register it or don’t. Initially, when I got certain forms of good news it made me anxious for some reason and I don’t know why. I guess it’s just attention from the world which is not something I’m acclimated to. I don’t live in New York, I don’t circulate in the literary world socially or otherwise and even when I did in New York I never did – I always hung around in the art world. So the stakes are different for me. I want to be able to write books. I think the main goal of qua success is to be ensured a life as a writer, to be able to write books, and that’s all I really care about. Certainly success can help with that, because people who publish my books have gone out on a limb for me, it’s an act of faith, and success rewards them and underscores that they made good decision and so I’m happy to make other people happy and proud and I’m happy to be able to write more books. But…I’m also somewhat removed from success, I think. I take a distance from it and I don’t want to be ungrateful – I’m very grateful to people who were early supporters of it. But one cannot anticipate or control these things and I am more interested in what I do have control over – so I don’t really tie my ego or my sense of myself as a writer, or my emotional life, to my reception in the world.
Does that take work?
No, that’s just how i am and I know that about myself from having undergone this experience. People were calling me and saying, you must be on a cloud after the James Wood review in the New Yorker, which was fabulous and very luck – I don’t think he reviewed mine because it’s the best – I think part of it is simply luck, it just got into his hands and spoke to him in moments and he wrote about it and that’s great. But I wasn’t on a cloud, I guess because I was living my life in Los Angeles and I was at home with my family and it was just the day for me. And the day for me is real life and I feel very grounded by having a family and habits and a structure and friends I’ve known for a long long time. And I guess those things matter to me more than this wonderful praise that comes from outside and it’s in the mind and the words of someone who is a stranger to me. And that really is wonderful, but I don’t attach myself to it. I don’t get on a cloud because if I’m ever on a cloud I want to put myself there. [laughs] it just seems dangerous to me to. If I really did respond to praise then how would I respond to criticism – it would be the same kind of thing. I think I got a taste of this early in my career – it was just another lucky thing that my first book got nominated for a National Book Award – and that really is luck on a lot of levels – or fortune. It was kind of a grand ceremony at Cipriani and I just thought if I release myself into this I’m kind of a goner. It’s just…it’s a territory of no ideas. It is not the land of inspiration. It is not about writing, which has to do with being separate from other people’s values. So I think I numbed myself a little bit, or it numbed me to it somehow through that process. Even though for a moment it was seductive and I was happy to be there, I was really happy to come home.
Do you think you would have had as much wherewithal if you’d published your first novel when you were, say, 25?
I can’t imagine my first novel having come aged 25. I didn’t have that kind of intellectual confidence. I had a different kind of confidence. I mean I was sort of a directed person, I had a lot of life energy and spunk, but I wasn’t directed as an intellectual. I knew that I was smart but I wasn’t necessarily precocious. I moved to New York and went to Columbia and everyone had gone to Ivy League schools and they were different kinds of writers. Most of them wanted to write more conventional…they loved Jane Austen and I do too. There was a kind of conservatism at work when I moved to New York that made me feel I was separate from all of that. And I was not in a hurry to publish a book. I wanted to take my time and figure out my place in that kind of matrix – like who were my peers. And it took me a while. I was 27, which at the time seemed old for an MFA programme. I think I had a sort of corny, Nelson Algren idea about how you become a writer – you work on a ship or you work in a bar and you collect stories and you find a way to tell them and I got to Columbia and I was told that’s all completely wrong and everyone repeated over and over again the Flannery O Connor comment – everything you need to know to be a writer you’ve learned by second grade. I think for some people that’s true but for me, some of the stuff I picked up in my twenties did filter in to the book that I wrote. And some of that is from life experience.
Have you been influenced by Occupy?
Occupy was happening while I was writing the Flamethrowers and it did filter into that book in a certain kind of way. My friends who were involved in Occupy think that certain parts of that book relate to – my Oakland friends thought that the list of the Motherfuckers’ actions was about them. And that was all going on and when I needed to describe the effects of tear gas I really did just watch the live feeds from Oakland. And of course there’s Greece and the anti austerity movements and the Arab Spring and the riots and the looting in London. And when that was happening I was writing the blackout section in New York City. So I feel like life as it happens, and the way it gets interpreted into a book, even if that book is about a different time, is always about that mysterious engagement. Because so much novel writing is what is just beyond you – everything goes into the book. But from knowing people who were involved in Occupy and who’ve lived a life of illegality, that has reintroduced me to my own adolescence, which was knowing a lot of people who went down really dark paths. I didn’t know a lot of people who went to college growing up – I knew a lot of people who went to jail and my new book will be able to utilise a lot of that material. And I guess Occupy makes me think about various crises of neoliberalism and my book is sort of about the effects of that. But to me, the subject that I want to write about is I think the most pressing crisis that America is facing. It’s about women in prison.
I remembered his name! A couple of weeks ago my friend Leon asked me to read something at his Refresh Refresh Refresh series. I wrote and read this, a thing about travelling in India a decade ago and ending up in a music video. For the past nine years or so, Lucy, Lucy and I haven’t been able to remember our bhangra star’s name. And then it just surfaced: Daler Menhdi, you of the inscrutable pointing gesture and the baby smile, this is for you.
This is a story about feeling total dreadlessness and uninhibition. In other words, a story about being eighteen. If you still feel that delicious delusion of invincibility I salute you, but you’re also probably a bit of a dick. Because thinking of the world as one huge playground in which you can not possibly hurt yourself feels great, but also makes you sort of obnoxious.
In the small, sodden island that I’m from, we don’t say “gap year”; we say “gahp yuhr” because for some reason, a year out before university has become the preserve of the posh. I do indeed have a Harry Potter name, but I’m not posh. I was, in fact, a bit scared of posh people, until that is, I found myself on a plane to Delhi with people who’d gone to the kind of terrifying English boarding schools where eating disorders are compulsory.
A week before that flight I got an email from the woman who would become my best friend, or rather, the girl who would become my best friend – because yes we were eighteen and so technically women, but, we were totally not yet women. If I’ve just planted Britney’s “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” in your head I’m sorry, or, you’re welcome. Unlike Britney, I had no desire to take the time to find the woman in me. I just wanted to have the best six months of my life. I was not a high school student, not yet a university student and that felt both the safest and the wildest place to be.
Lucy’s email was an invitation stay with her at the Hilton Heathrow the night before our flight. Since we and eighteen other strangers were going to spend the next six months together, I saw no reason to say no. My parents said goodbye to me in the vast and shiny hotel lobby and I waited and waited. I was just thinking, this is how it begins – sleeping next to my rucksack on the floor of the lobby of the Hilton Heathrow – when Lucy materialised. Two days later we were peeing in front of each other in an Rajasthani palace and I knew we were set. As every girl – or woman – knows – an uninhibited shared bathroom break is the first rite of passage of female friendship.
My teaching partner was not brown haired Lucy though, but blonde Lucy, who was instantly just as stalwart a bathroom and everything else comrade. Lucy, Lucy, seventeen others and I, were spread out over four villages along a valley in Himachal Pradesh. On weekends we’d ride on the roofs of buses to go visit each other. The decapitating potential of the power cables strung across the road was, just like everything else to us, hilarious. We’d shriek round sharp corners, hanging on, ducking death delightedly, as though the bus were there purely for our pleasure, like a rollercoaster.
At the end of those three months , Lucy, Lucy and I set off for three months of travelling. My rucksack was stuffed with pupils’ drawings of me and more than four of these were captioned with the words: “you are very fat and beautiful.” I was indeed kind of fat. We all were. That’s what three months of fried carbohydrates and Mirinda orange soda does. In the Bollywood movie that had played on the flight out, the characters used “butterball” as a term of endearment and we took to calling each other this – happily, affectionately, because, like everything else, our weight gain was funny.
The night before we left, the headmaster and his wife invited us to their house up in the hills for dinner. We sat out under the trees, tilting our heads to watch the stars emerge. And, in that perfect peace, with the night air finally cooling, our headmaster, skinny and pot-bellied and wearing nothing but a tiny white dhoti, effortfully lifted one buttock and released a fart so plangent and rippling that you could almost feel the sonic disturbance as a physical phenomenon. There was a short pause. He said: “Did you hear a noise?” We swallowed our hysteria and shook our heads. We were English, remember. He then said: “I cannot help my cylinder leaking gas.” – A line which we would repeat to each other over the next three months – the next ten years, in fact, because it still makes us laugh, not because it’s funny now, but because it was that funny then.
But he also said a non-hilarious, poignant thing. After we’d gabbled about all the places we were going to, he looked at us, this sixty year old man who’d lived in the same village all his life, and he said: “you’ll see more of my country than I ever will.”
He was right, but we were too callow then to really take it on board. Eleven weeks later, after too many places to name, we’d ended up in Mumbai where we’d heard that all you needed to do to get cast in a Bollywood film was walk around and be white. I was skeptical. Nonetheless, we walked around, being white, being hopeful. Then, one morning, in a moment of such prosaic serendipity it was absurd, a tracksuited woman with a clipboard appeared on the street in front of us. She spoke this fated question – “hey you girls wanna be in a music video?”
Yes. Yes we did.
She then said: “no bikini no problem”. Which, at the time, I interpreted as, “we will not make you wear a bikini” but in light of what went down, I can only think of as having meant, “if you don’t have a bikini it’s ok because we will give you one – one so absurdly small that your friend will have to present her bottom to my face to demonstrate that it does indeed only cover one fifteenth of her buttocks.”
A few hours after that cursory street audition, we were bussed to a vast warehouse where a stage had been set up in front of wind machine as big as a house. There were a couple of elephants hanging around, placid and enormous, as well as phalanxes of shirtless drumming men. Clipboard lady showed us to our trailer which had a sign on the door saying “International Models”. We cackled and took pictures of ourselves pointing at it while pulling “sexy faces”. Inside, were some sullen girls from Belgium who didn’t want to be our friend.
We were all handed stringy little scraps of shiny red material and told to get dressed. We did, hysterically. Or at least the Lucys and I were hysterical. The Belgians looked tearful. And then brown haired Lucy, who has, by her own admission, a truly magnificent bum, demanded that clipboard lady behold it. The bikini briefs were to her bottom as an elastic band is to beach ball.
Our “international modelling” rates were about five dollars. Which, to use an approximate currency convertor, is a proper shitload of rupees. Lucy though, managed to leverage Bikinigate into a pay rise for all of us.
She also commanded clipboard lady to go source some larger briefs. As she returned, I overheard her manager shouting at her and I felt pretty sorry for her. Then she snapped back, “If you’d given me another day I could have got Swedish chicks!” and my sympathy wilted.
Once clothed, or semi-clothed – the swimwear was mandatorily accessorised with white furry leg warmers and white plastic sandals – she lined us up and appraised us grimly. “Swedish chicks” we were not. She reminded us, as if this would magically make us more attractive, that the singer we were about to be dancing round was really, really famous.
“He’s a really big deal, yah?” she said. “So…this” and she pointed to the stomach region of one of the Belgian girls. “Hold this in, ok?” We all looked at the Belgian girl with horror and sympathy, but hold it in she did – tears and tummy both.
We shuffled to the stage, clacking in our plastic sandals, and lined up for Choreography. A woman crossed her arms and frowned at us. Finally: “Ok,” she said, “raise your right arm. Now your left. Now cross your left arm to your right.” It was the macarena. We were doing the macarena. The music blasted, the lights flashed, the drumming men drummed and as the cameras rolled we macarenaed the fuck out of the macarena.
Many takes later the director/ slash choreographer had one last direction for us. “Ok now just freak out!” she said.
We were confused.
“Just freak out!” she said, impatiently. “Like you would at home!”
Brown haired Lucy pretended to be a chicken, blonde Lucy recreated every move that Christina Aguilera makes in the video for Dirrty, and I, short on inspiration, just flung my head around like I was in Kiss.
Several months later, when we were all back in England, and when we still remembered this massive pop star’s name, we went online and found his video. Our video. Frenetic jump cuts of elephants and drumming men, and yes, for a few brief flashes, some slightly doughy white girls in red bikinis, freaking out like they never did at home.
Everything is hilarious when you’re eighteen but some things – like, dancing the macarena with your two best friends in white leg warmers next to a tubby Punjabi pop star – are hilarious forever.
I still can’t find the video.