My festival kicked off with an interview with John Lanchester. You can’t help but feel the odd twinge of fluttery tummy when you are about to meet up with such a literary luminary – I seem to be becoming hooked on this particular form of terror. But he was a pleasure to chat to. It won’t be obvious from the transcript, but he thought carefully before he answered each question. It was fascinating stuff, see for yourself:
I’ve read all your novels John, but none of your non-fiction work. Yet I get the impression that you move effortlessly between these two types of content. Is that true and do they challenge your writing in different ways?
I wouldn’t say effortless, but I tend to do the thing that I’m interested in at any one point in time. In my book about my parents (Family Romance), I wanted to explain their story to myself because there was a mystery in my mother’s story that I only found out after she died and I wanted to make sense of it. The best way to do that seemed to be to write it and I didn’t think of it as: “OK now I’m writing a non-fiction book”, that wasn’t how it came about. I just wanted to tell it to myself. I finished that and started on Capital (a novel) and Whoops! (non-fiction) grew out of that.
The writing skills that I used for these books, both fiction and non-fiction are a weirdly similar skill set. The word for fiction comes from a word for shaping things on a potters wheel and not from the word for “I make things up” and shaping is the core skill that goes from fiction to non-fiction. Crucially the tools that I use for both fiction and non-fiction involve shaping and selecting. The way you present characters is amazingly similar, I think, between fiction and non-fiction. For example when I wrote about my parents, everything in that book is true to the best of my knowledge, at the same time you do end up using fiction techniques to make people seem real.
Library users have an expectation that librarians have read every book and can comment on all of them. I love Capital and want customers and friends to read it, but when I describe it (possibly in somewhat gushy terms), I can see the lights go out, one at a time. How would you describe the book in a couple of sentences. I need help!
If I could have summed it up I would have written it in that many words! I was interested in the size and scale of everything going on in London and the length is part of that. At what point do you think that what you’re saying puts people off?
It was really “global” and “financial” and ” crisis”, but that mightn’t have been much help in keeping the lights on either! The specifics of what really happened are very baffling to people which is partly why I wrote Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. Let me know if you ever get a good succinct description of Capital that works, I’d be interested to hear what it is.
There is an unsettling refrain running throughout Capital: “We want what you have”. Did you mean that to refer specifically to money and possessions or did you intend it to have a wider meaning?
A lot of the characters think that the wanting and the having is all about money. It was clearer to me after I was finished with writing the book that they tend to think it is about money, the idea that what they have is mainly economic. The extent to which some of the characters in the book come to realise that there are lots of kinds of capital other than financial capital, is one of the organising principles of the book, because to varying extents they all tend to forget that.
Right now in Christchurch there is a lot of writing about the city going on. People are being encouraged to get their quake stories down and to share their experiences. After all, we have had a disaster, in a city that we love and we have a whole lot of fascinating characters too. The same skeins are present in Capital. What pointers would you give to potential authors to pull these three strands into a cohesive whole?
The difference between a man-made crisis and a natural one is that it’s a lot easier to seek for meaning in a man-made one. The financial crisis touches on things that had causes that you might have been able to prevent at a societal level if not at an individual level. A man-made catastrophe you can kind of study for lessons and think through, whereas natural disasters are just great ill fortunes – nothing to be done about that and so would be harder to develop them into grand themes in novels.
I first heard about all your books in book clubs. What do you think of reading groups?
Book clubs are definitely a good thing. There is one tiny negative thing – overwhelmingly they are great but lately I’ve noticed that there is a trend nowadays for everyone to read the same book at the same time. I don’t quite understand what the drivers of that are. It is so much more common than 15 to 20 years ago. I feel that monoculture is bad in all fields of life and the same goes for what we read. People live longer and longer nowadays and reading and variety of reading is a way of keeping your brain active. It’s not going to stay active all by itself and it is going to be less stimulated if you’re all doing the same things at the same time.
What’s your take on libraries, how important have they been in your life?
Very, very important. It’s a really sore point that we have just lost a library in our street, just 30 metres from where I live. I’ve more or less grown up in libraries and my children were doing that too. It was a very, very important part of their early childhood. I do hope you will win the fight for libraries as places where people can be without having to buy a product. You don’t browse for socks or toothpaste, but you do browse for books and the act of browsing is what facilitates the discovery of newness and libraries are so important for that.
One last question, are you an e-book reader?
I use an e-reader for travel, it saves me about 10kgs in luggage weight. I’m not theological about it, but I am surprised by the extent to which I prefer physical books. I didn’t know that before I got an e-reader but I find I vastly prefer physical books. They’re just much much nicer!