This morning I went to my first reading of the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I was greeted at the Spiegeltent by a man wielding free coffee. I have never been more pleased to see anyone – I really needed some coffee. I didn’t realize how much until I tried to milk it with another jug of coffee, at which point someone asked me if I was there from The Scotsman. I take heart that whoever is covering the book festival from there is as dazed and confused as I am first thing.
Suitably caffeined I sat down to await the arrival of the author, Joe Dunthorne (probably best known for his first novel, Submarine, which was made into a film this year starring Paddy Considine and Maria out of the Sarah Jane Adventures). All around me people were reading; which is a truly beautiful thing but it made me feel like a bit of a freak because I was scribbling away in a notebook. In red ink, no less. I consoled myself with the fact that some of the best novels are written in red ink, even though I have no evidence to support such a statement.
Then the man himself appeared, optimistically clad in shorts, and explained a bit about the reading he was going to do from his new book, Wild Abandon. The scene was based in a commune in the Gower in South Wales, he said, and contained a lot of different characters (as is the nature of such places).
It was really good. The thing I liked was that there was a quite literary colour to the language but it wasn’t overdone or pretentious; there is a lot of humour involved. I jotted down a couple of lines that stood out to me that illustrate this to some extent: at one point he described the main character in the scene as “shivering so hard he could have turned to gas,” and then a bit later on the group as whole “felt like a cult then – in a good way.”
In the Q and A that followed, Dunthorne explained that this had actually been his second attempt at the difficult second novel.
“The first was an ill-advised multi character fantasy gangster book. It was the most opposite thing to Submarine I could think of and it was ludicrously ambitious – I only got to about 15,000 words.”
The idea for Wild Abandon, meanwhile, came from somewhere closer to home.
“I have a friend who grew up on a commune in South Wales, and her childhood sounded amazing. Children who are born in communes are not impressed by the same things suburban teenagers are, their rebellion is normality. They aren’t interested in taking drugs because they’ve seen their parents doing that stuff, it’s passé.”
He doesn’t plan his books, he says, because then he gets bored.
“I’m an anti-planner, go headlong, plan it in the edit kind of writer. The only trouble with that is I can write quite a lot and then realize it’s not the story I wanted to tell…”
The first story he told was in the form of a text based computer game he wrote at the age of 12.
“It was called Depression and the only outcomes were different kinds of suicide. That was kind of my rebellion, if you like. There were too many books in my childhood – my parents were academic and my sisters kept trying to get me to read stuff so I just played computer games.”
He got over it and went on to do an MA in Creative Writing at UEA, writing short stories and poetry before embarking on Submarine.
“I thought Submarine was unfilmable,” he admits, when asked what he thought of the adaptation, “but it worked because Richard (Ayoade, the director, better known for roles in The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The IT Crowd) had to bring a lot of himself to it. The book is entirely Oliver’s inner monologue, so he couldn’t just re-write it. So it was like another artist’s take, the end result was a new product. I’ve been describing it recently as the evil twin – related but with a different personality.”
One question that came up which I thought might be interesting to readers of this blog was whether or not doing a Creative Writing course is stultifying.
“I think that’s an example of confirmation bias,” he says carefully. “If you’ve got a prejudice against something, you can find evidence for it anywhere. If you’re a good writer a course won’t stop you from being good, and it can help you through things quicker because you avoid pitfalls that you wouldn’t see if you were doing it by yourself. But it doesn’t lend itself to all kinds of writing. Experimental writing is not at home in that setting.”
When not writing novels, Dunthorne is part of Aisle 16, a group of poets who do various different projects including the Homework ‘literary caberet’ night in London. They try to engage in something a bit silly every year and at the moment are all working on becoming poet in residence at an unusual place – Tim Clare, for instance, is trying for the Weetabix factory.
He is also involved in The Ministry of Stories, a space in London where young people can go to work on and get help with their writing. It’s based on 826 Valencia, a project founded in Brooklyn by Dave Eggers (author of the novel of Where the Wild Things Are). To get in, you have to pass through a shop called Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, a Victorian boutique that provides everything the discerning monster might require (tins of fear, virgin blood, and extra virgin blood). Rather excitingly, plans are in the works to expand the project to other cities including Edinburgh. certainly beats the notion of another tartan tat shop…