TBR: You claim that it's not possible to plan the kind of book that you write
in any detail. How do you actually write your books?
N.H: I start with a fragment of narrative, or a character, something that seems
to have resonance for me and which allows me to explore the kinds of themes I'm interested
in. But I don't begin to write for maybe a year, and in the meantime other elements start
to attach themselves to the initial spark. A character or scene from another idea might
suddenly start to make sense in a new context, things accumulate...And then I sit down
with a very rough sense of a beginning, a middle and an end, maybe just a tonal sense
rather than plot points. Most of the work, the jokes and the observations and the smaller
narrative episodes, come with the actual writing rather than with the preparation.
TBR: Youve said that the difference between writing novels and
screenplays is that novels do not necessarily pass through the hands of a good editor,
whereas screenplays are constantly scrutinised and, therefore, improved. Yet it strikes me
that the quality of writing for the cinema is far lower than that in contemporary novels.
N.H: Well, I'm not sure you're comparing like with like. If you're talking about
subtlety and sophistication, then novels of course have the edge. But so many novels don't
work - they are undisciplined, shapeless, they lose their readership. Whatever you think
of film scripts, they frequently work as far as an audience is concerned. All I meant was
that if the degree of scrutiny given to a screenplay - sometimes by the wrong people,
financiers and producers who have no sympathy for the material - were given to a lot of
contemporary novels (by sympathetic readers!), then those novels would be improved no end.
To me, Elvis
Presley is a greater artist than Virginia Woolf...
TBR: Both you and Zadie Smith have repeatedly stated that as readers and
writers you feel more American than British "My content is British, my style
American," you said at one point. Yet you come across to a non-American foreign
reader as very English.
N.H: Both Zadie and I write about our own cities and countries, but we probably
both feel that we've been shaped much more by American writing than by our own. It's that
American simplicity and inclusivity, its soul, its lack of allusion....My own literary
heroes and models, the people who made me want to write, were all American: Tyler, Lorrie
Moore, Tobias Wolff, Carver, Ford, Roth....
TBR: Martin Amis says novels should stand the test of time, yet you say
that youd "rather be read now than in the future" and also that you write
to entertain, that you deal with "the affecting of the emotions in some way." Is
this the definition of a popular writer, or has it something to do with reflecting popular
culture in your novels?
N.H: Oh, this stuff.....! One thing I know: you can't be read in the future
UNLESS you are read now. This idea that literature can somehow survive without
a contemporary readership is new, and I suspect wrong. There is a particularly dreary kind
of literary writing which quite clearly aims for posterity - I'm not interested in reading
it, and I'm certainly not interested in writing it. As for the reflection of popular
culture - I don't think this has much to do with anything, because clearly one can write
about popular culture in a way that excludes. I don't want my books to exclude anyone, but
if they have to, then I would rather they excluded the people who feel they are too smart
for them! It seems a very worthwhile thing to do to me, to write books that are about
something, that aren't beach books or genre books, and that are read by large numbers of
people. How much more fun it is to be told by people at a football match (as I was last
night) that they enjoyed How To Be Good - and these are not people who are going to
read Rushdie or Bellow - than to have to wait a few hundred years......
TBR: In your view "the gender thing doesn't apply anymore."
Your work should be read, in other words, as a declaration of the mutual understanding of
the sexes. Yet you - and in a certain sense Helen Fielding - are saying that this new will
to understand each other means accepting the other as they are without romantic illusions.
Dont we, though, need some kind of romantic illusion to make relationships survive?
N.H: I'm not sure that this is how my work should be read at all, but never mind.
We need a romantic illusion to embark on relationships in the first place - after that,
they survive or fail for other, more practical reasons.
TBR: The humour in your novels is one of their distinct and most enjoyable
characteristics. The idea of making people laugh is something you have repeatedly
criticised literary fiction for not considering "an important job." Yet your
novels are becoming sadder; you have even said that youd like to make them both
sadder and funnier. Are you worried that readers may typecast you as a comic writer and
find comedy where theres none to be found?
N.H: I'm really not worried about anything! I write the books I want to write,
and readers will either respond or not respond. All I want to do is make sure that I
continue to try to exploit the potential I have.
How to be Good
TBR: In Hanif Kureishis Intimacy a man walks out on
his wife and children showing no regret. You, in contrast, have your heroine Katie agonise
throughout the novel over whether she can leave her own family and still be good. Is How
to be Good the (semi-)humorous answer to Intimacy? Do you personally believe in
N.H: It wasn't intended as an answer to Intimacy, but I can see that the
characters are diametrically opposed in their attitudes. Do I personally believe that one
should agonise before walking out on one's partner and children? Well, yes.
TBR: Katie Carr, the narrator, is a 40-year-old married mother of two on
the brink of divorce. This is the first time youve used a first person female
narrator. You claimed she was the natural choice given your need to describe her husband
Davids spiritual crisis indirectly. You have also said that there was no special
difficulty in using her narrative voice and that you checked with female friends for any
possible lack of credibility in her words and feelings. What strikes me most about Katie,
though, is how terribly old she sounds for a 40-year-old woman. A reviewer referred to her
as a "middle-aged woman," and I got that impression until I realised she is not
N.H: Anyone who is disappointed can sound old, and Katie is disappointed. But in
any case, I disagree: I don't think the reviewer was being pejorative, simply descriptive
- if 40 isn't middle-aged, then what is? I am 45, and I am not ready for carpet slippers
and 10:30 bedtimes, but I am middle-aged. Anyone who doesn't think that 40 is old has
swallowed the propaganda pushed by advertisers and the media.
TBR: David, the angriest man in Holloway, as the
title of his column proclaims, experiences a sudden politico-spiritual conversion to
become an unstoppable do-gooder. How to be Good is actually the title of the
self-help book he is writing with his self-styled guru, DJ GoodNews. Katie, for her part,
is ready to accept a certain measure of good (which is why she works as a doctor) but not
the kind of altruism that threatens her middle-class lifestyle. Is your novel a
conservative acknowledgement of the failure of liberalism?
N.H: If I had to summarise it in that way (and I don't really want to) I would
say that it's a liberal acknowledgment of the contradictions of liberalism.
TBR: This is not directly a novel about fatherhood but it does have much
to do with your own experience of fatherhood. You have explained that, in part,
Davids spiritual conversion comes from the "alternative" offers of help
youve had to provide a cure for your son Danny, an autistic child. It seems to me
that you are simultaneously negotiating through Davids conversion your rational
scepticism and your perfectly understandable wish that something would work in the case of
your son. But what I find more intriguing is something else: you have edited a collection
of short stories, Speaking With the Angel, to help raise money for TreeHouse, a
school you co-founded with other parents of autistic children. This means that in your
personal life you are doing good and you do believe in Davids idea that maybe
you cant change the world but you can change your own street. Why, then, are you so
cynical about Davids plans? Or is Katie the cynical one?
N.H: The book really doesn't have much to do with my experience of fatherhood -
that's really quite a small piece of plot, and it's really not what the book is about. And
as far as Speaking With The Angel is concerned: it was relatively easy, it didn't
encroach on anyone's personal space, nor did it cost anyone anything - in other words,
it's an old-fashioned and relatively painless piece of charity work, with very
clearly-defined boundaries. It's Katie's cynicism, and I think it masks a moral panic.
TBR: In Chapter 11, Katie yearns to be like Luke Skywalker in The
Empire Strikes Back and find a Yoda-like master that will "teach me how to do the
things I needed to know to survive the rest of my life." Shes embarrassed
because shes looking for "meaning and comfort" in her sons favourite
films and not in George Eliot or Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf. "But then," she
says, "thats precisely the point, isnt it? There is no time or energy for
Virginia Woolf." Why should Virginia Woolf be the referent and not George
Lucas - or Nick Hornby? Or are you poking fun at Katies layered view of culture?
N.H: If you're going to use popular culture in general - and Star Wars in
particular - to help you think about your life, then you're going to find it wanting - or
at least, I hope so. That's not what it's for. To me, Elvis Presley is a greater artist
than Virginia Woolf, for all sorts of reasons, but his ability to philosophise and reshape
one's internal monologues is not one of them. The point is surely that you need both in
your life, and in any case the choice of Star Wars was not hers, it was her son's -
she's not making her own cultural choices.
TBR: My final impression of How to be Good was that Davids
conversion to selflessness is a red herring and that the book is essentially about
Katies negotiation of the boundaries within which she can be reasonably satisfied
with life in a material sense. When she decides to return to the loving arms of culture,
buying books and CDs, she asks herself: "Can I be a good person and spend that much
money on overpriced consumer goods? I dont know. But I do know this: Id be no
good without them." It seems as if the final message is a call to be selfish (or
selfless) within reasonable limits: Davids plans must be limited by common sense,
Katies spending habits by the rationalisation that shes spending on culture.
Am I reading this as you intended it?
Yes, David's conversion is a red herring in that it is there only for the light it sheds
on Katie. I'm not sure that I would want to be as reductive as you are, but certainly her
negotiation of the boundaries is important. To me, people have focussed more on the moral
dilemmas than I'd intended; the book ends with a bleak image of family life, and yet the
one or two reviews I have allowed myself to read acted as though the book ended when Katie
rediscovered culture, as if the book had a comforting ending. It doesn't.