Interview with Toby Litt
I’ve read that you began as a poet and that it was only during your final year at university that you wrote a short story – ‘Happiness’ – and then made the decision to write a novel length work. Was it an easy/happy transition and for what reasons did you make it?
I have to admit, this is a bit of a mystery to me. Whilst I was at university, I couldn’t understand how anyone managed to write a novel. Then, after writing that story, I realised that if you put 1,000 words a day on paper for sixty days running, you’d have a novel-length thing. This novel-length thing stood at least some chance of being a novel. So, I moved to Glasgow and wrote a novel. It was called The Lost Notebook of Babel. But I didn’t stop writing poetry – that was still my main ambition for several years. In many ways, I think poetry is a better form of expression than prose; prose tends towards oversimplification, and the illusion that you know what you’re saying.
Your first book, Adventures in Capitalism is a collection of eighteen short stories, varying in length and subject matter. Given that it is notoriously difficult to publish new collections of short stories in this country, how did its publication come about?
I took the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. When the time came round for us to hand in a piece of work, we used to place it in a tray in one of the secretary’s offices. One week, Malcolm Bradbury, who had taught me the previous term, nicked my submission out of the tray. I’d put together four very short stories under the title ‘Adventures in Capitalism’. A few days later, I bumped into him as I was walking into Norwich. I knew already that he was editing a collection of stories by people who had been associated with the UEA course. (This eventually came out as Class Work.) He said that he’d like to publish the four stories. By divers means, an editor got to read these stories in a proof of the collection. He liked them, got in touch and, when I said I’d like to do a book of stories rather than a novel, he said fine.
Your work is very varied, from English road movie, to boyss adventure story (with a twist) to chick-lit parody – is this a deliberate ploy, to keep on the move, to avoid being categorised?
To avoid being bored. To avoid being myself.
In deadkidsongs you touched on a particular element of growing up that I think is rarely mentioned – put simply, a young adultss hatred for their parents. Was this influenced by your own experiences of growing up?
I think I’d go further than you: young adults’ hatred for age. This is something I certainly remember feeling. One of the scenes lurking behind deadkidsongs was an argument me and a friend of mine had with one of our fathers. He was driving us in to school; we were about eleven or twelve. We were arguing, over his objections, that there should be voluntary euthanasia for everyone reaching a certain age. I think we thought sixty would be about right. (Which gave my friend’s father another four or five years to get his affairs in order.)
The impression young adults get of grown-ups is that they are hypocritical, corrupt, incompetent, irrational. Geopolitical events have a deep and long-lasting effect. deadkidsongs is also about the Cold War.
There’s plenty of examples of recent tragi-comic works from the likes of Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer or Mark Haddon; young(ish) writers telling sad stories in a funny way. It’s identifiable in your work too. Not like I’m attempting to underline some sort of trend here, but have you any thoughts as to why the recent surge?
I’ve never really thought about what I write in terms of the tragi-comic. I think I, like many people, have lots of different senses of humour. Different ones come into play when I’m writing different things. Both Corpsing and deadkidsongs are, in one way or another, revenge tragedies.
Which, if any, of your contemporaries do you align yourself with? Or which of your contemporaries do you most admire?
I don’t feel particularly close to any other writers. I think David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten has something in common with Corpsing. There were some spooky coincidences between Ali Smith’s Hotel World and deadkidsongs. At the moment I am editing the British Council anthology New Writing 13 with Ali, and so we’ve been able to compare our reactions to the submissions. I’ve been surprised how little (so far) we disagree.
As for admiring, it’s the people who do things I feel I can’t. The example I usually give is Lawrence Norfolk. The historical novel is a deranged old dragon to try to slay. I have too many problems with the accessibility and so writeability of the past to feel able to take it on.
I feel a lot closer to Henry James than to anyone living – which I realise sounds pretentious, but is true.
The obligatory Desert Island Discs type question: If you could take two books, two films and two albums with you what would they be?
If we’re including Shakespeare and the Bible, the books would be Finnegans Wake and Henry James’s short stories. The films: Godfather 1 and Godfather 2, because it would be a bit like being part of a very large family – and even though lots of people die, there are some really fantastic parties, some good food, etc. The albums: The Velvet Underground and Nico and Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Runners-up include Dylan’s Street Legal and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. But if the albums can be classical, I’d take Pablo Casal’s recording of the Bach Cello Suites and Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Copyright 2004 Paul Cunliffe