Questions by Simon Thomas
There were two subjects I had been wanting to write about for a long time. One was London pirate radio. This is a fascinating and unique thing which has obvious potential as a plot point because it’s illegal and secretive and faintly magical. But I’ve never read a novel about it. People will go to a Richard Curtis film valorising the offshore DJs of the 1960s (rendered unthreatening by historical distance) without even realising that London still has dozens of active pirate radio stations. Moreover, I knew that writing about pirate radio would give me an excuse to set the book in south London. In The Teleportation Accident, I’d already written about Dalston, which I hate; here, I had an opportunity to write about Peckham, which I love.
The other subject I’d been wanting to write about for a long time was corporate imperialism in developing countries. This, of course, has been novelised extensively, going back past One Hundred Years of Solitude all the way to Heart of Darkness and probably even further into the nineteenth century if I knew my Victorian fiction better. But in the age of Blackwater there is still a lot to address. I’m told I could get into legal trouble if I suggest that I drew from the activities of any other real-life companies in my research, so I’ll just say that for various reasons I decided to set this part of the story in South East Asia. I wanted to write about both pirate radio and resource extraction in the Golden Triangle, and I had to find a way to connect them. The clear solution was the drug trade. And the rest of the plot emerged from that triad.
2. Raf is a likeable chap, but I note that (in the blog post we borrowed answer one from) you ‘find the practice of classifying fictional characters as ‘sympathetic’ or ‘unsympathetic’ to be pernicious and infantile.’ Eek. Is that because it’s never part of your thought process when writing a character, the concept is subjective, or you don’t think it’s the most interesting aspect of any character? Or secret option no.3?
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with finding a character sympathetic or likeable, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with finding that a character reminds you of your cousin. But both are banal observations that shouldn’t be part of an evaluative process.
What I can’t stand – what every author I know can’t stand – is the idea that a book is good because it has sympathetic characters or bad because it doesn’t, which is implicit in quite a lot of online book reviews. Who cares if you don’t find the characters likeable? They’re imaginary. You don’t have to be pals with them. Reading the book is not the same as consenting to invite them to dinner. One of the aims of serious fiction is to confound the reader’s moral and social values, and that’s a lot less likely to happen when all the events of the plot are seen from the point of view of a protagonist who’s straightforwardly ‘sympathetic’ – in other words, a protagonist who confirms everything the reader already believes about the right way to conduct yourself in the world.
As a writer, if you worry too much about creating sympathetic characters you’re going to create nothing but a warm bath of complacency. As a reader, this focus on sympathetic characters is literally infantile, in the sense that it resembles how we relate to book as children – ‘I wish I could be friends with Pippi Longstocking!’ – and it’s pernicious because it creates an atmosphere where new authors may feel that they’re better off writing comforting books full of lovely people. With that attitude, we would never have got Lolita, Heart of Darkness, The Trial, Animal Farm, The Stranger, Rabbit, Run, A Clockwork Orange, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jealousy, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Last Exit to Brooklyn etc. Not much of a twentieth century. (By the way, I’ve had people suggest that by ‘sympathetic’ they really just mean ‘engaging’ – well, then say that.)
3. Your work has been translated a fair bit – obviously that’s very flattering and nice, but do you feel at all anxious about losing control over your words?
I’ve met quite a few translators now – indeed, I used to share a flat with one – and I’ve found them to exceptionally conscientious and serious-minded people. For the most part, people don’t get into that difficult and underpaid line of work unless they have a real desire to do justice to prose. So I never feel as if I’m handing my baby to an axe murderer. No, a translation is never going to be as good as the original, but everyone involved understands that, including the reader; and – at least up until a certain point – a diminished book is still a lot better than no book at all.
4. What would you like someone to ask about Glow which no interviewer has yet asked about your books?
To be clear, there are few, if any, questions I don’t want to be asked. It’s just boring to answer the same questions over and over again – in exactly the same way that it’s boring when you’re wedding and you have to explain what you do for a living over and over again – and anyway it’s a redundant expenditure of everyone’s time, so I like to preempt the obvious questions where possible. In general, my favourite questions to be asked are very specific ones about small details of the book. However, with Glow in particular, I was hoping I’d have more opportunity to discuss the inquiry into the mind-body problem that is supposed to form the philosophical background of the book.
5. And what are you reading at the moment?
Undercover : Memoirs of an American Secret Agent by E. Howard Hunt, Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James M. Olson, The Prisoner & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity by Thomas Metzinger, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata.
Ned Beauman’s latest novel, Glow, is reviewed in our fiction section.