TBL Author Q&A Series: Joe Dunthorne
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person or perhaps an intuitive impulse, that guided you to forge your own literary path?
I think it began with computer games. When I was twelve, I remember playing—or watching my sisters play—the text-based game of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. (You can still play it online here. Be warned, it’s horrendously difficult.) After that I started making my own text games. They were short stories, kind of. The first one I made was called “Depression” and you played a man who wanted to kill himself. I think it was supposed to be funny. Then from games I went to lyrics, from lyrics to poetry, then to stories and novels.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? How have you changed as a writer over the years?
I go for the obvious themes. The big ones! Love, death, family. As for how I’ve changed, it’s hard to say. If you’ll excuse the use of such a horrible word, I’ve professionalized. I treat writing as a job. I have a regular writing routine. My spinny chair, my Thermos of tea. But I hope I haven’t changed too much in my approach to the actual writing. I still try to be free and playful, to believe that each story could go in any direction.
You write both poetry and prose—how does the one form inform the other and does the creative process for each differ?
For me, I find they have a productive relationship. Often, I strip out the best images from poems and recycle them in stories or novels. Or vice versa. I also like the idea that poetry gives me another way of solving problems in a story or novel. I think of it like in a musical when the protagonist has decided against, say, climbing fire mountain—because it does sound really dangerous—and then everyone sings a song together and, by the end of the song, the protagonist is packing their bags for the big trip. Poetry, in a novel, allows you to bypass conventional logic.
You’ve published two novels—did you approach writing your second novel any differently in comparison to the process of your first? Did the way you related to your writing shift?
My first novel, Submarine, like many first novels, was semi-autobiographical. My second novel, Wild Abandon, was very different because it required a fair bit of research. It’s set in a self-sufficient commune in South Wales so I had to spend time in various different communities around the UK, learning about that way of life. I cooked, meditated, dug trenches, did spirit dancing and I interviewed people. It was great to get away from myself and be more outward looking. There’s something suffocating about writing a novel that purely feeds on your own experience.
As well as two novels you’ve also had a poetry pamphlet published. What can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? And how has that shifted over time?
I’ve always collected my rejection notes, as though I were collecting Pokemon. Gotta catch ‘em all. I keep them in a special folder. Nowadays, I don’t send things out as often as I should. I’m getting precious, which is a bad habit.
You have had numerous pieces published in many different literary journals—how do you choose which journal to submit to and how important is this type of publication for you as a writer?
When I’m struggling away in the middle of a novel, it can lift the spirits to have a story or poem published in a magazine. I usually submit to magazines that I think will say no. I always try and reach just beyond my abilities.
In terms of publication, was there something in particular that you looked for when approaching a publishing house? Both of your novels have been published by Hamish Hamilton—what factors played into choosing and developing a relationship with this publishing house?
Hamish Hamilton, to my mind, have the most exciting list in UK publishing. So I was first drawn to sharing a publisher with Camus, Salinger, Eggers and the Smiths: Ali and Zadie.
On top of that, I loved my editor and I loved the visual style of their books.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
The film of my first novel, Submarine, undoubtedly helped my writing reach audiences it never would have otherwise. It’s incredible to me how far the film has travelled, and the book sitting on its shoulders.
How involved were you in the process of Submarine becoming a movie? And what was it like to see your writing transformed into something for the screen?
I was quite involved. I helped in the development stage and I was a script editor. I visited the set a few times and that was amazing. To see scenes that I’d written in my bedroom in Norwich suddenly being performed by fifty actors in a schoolyard in South Wales! It was like being a ghost in my own head.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Just the clichés: read lots, write lots, find friends who you can share your writing with.
Looking to the future, what direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
I’ve just handed in my third novel, The Adulterants. It will be published in February 2018. This coming year, I’m doing lots of different things. I’m finishing my poetry collection. I’m writing an original film script and adapting The Adulterants for TV. I’m also working on a script for a virtual reality experience.
In terms of craft, I am only just starting to feel that I understand how to tell a story. It’s taken three novels to get to that point. I hope I can keep getting better and keep surprising myself.
Oliver, the obnoxious anti-hero of Joe Dunthorne’s debut novel, is nothing if not a lover of words, and Dunthorne himself is essentially a poet.
His earliest pieces, such as ‘Intelligent Animals’ (a poem written for Liberty about the treatment of terrorist suspects) and ‘Eating Out’ (a poem about food, excess and waste), display a strong social conscience. At the same time ‘Eating Out’ undercuts any sense of self-righteousness by satirising the middle-class complacency of the speaker:
'so the really good restaurants
have a cage,
a big steel cage in the alley out the back,
to protect the scraps
from these poor sods
with their bellies cramping
and their sunburnt eyelids
and so, I mean,
it makes you feel terribly helpless really,
forty slightly overdone scallops
going to rot in a cage, imagine.'
In a slightly different manner, ‘A sestina for my friends’ sends up the pretensions and potential pomposity of the poet. The speaker (named Joe in this poem, as if to leave no doubt) gradually reveals his apparent spontaneity (the gifting of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, for instance), is premised on a calculating and self-conscious ‘cleverness’ that makes the piece cringe-worthy to read. Similarly, in the introduction to the poem,‘This is Crispin’, we get a parody of pretension that is hard to miss:
'The weather was palindromic on the day we tried to infiltrate experimental French literature. Rain, clouds, sun, clouds, rain. We wanted to be part of the Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who formed in Paris in the 60s.'
The undeniable element of humour that underpins much of Joe Dunthorne’s poetry also provides the backbone for his first novel, Submarine (2008). Frequently described as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Adrian Mole, Dunthorne’s 14-year old protagonist is South Wales’ answer to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. If Oliver Tate’s off-putting obsession with dictionary definitions ('ultrasound, cognitive dissonance, pansexual, triskaidekaphobic') recalls Sue Townsend's classic Mole diaries, those familiar with Dunthorne’s early poems will make connections closer to home. At points the book seems more like a series of dictionary rather than diary entries and each day, Oliver Tate memorises new words that form the chapter headings for his narrative.
Like the poems, the novel experiments with voice as much as words, typically exploiting the narrator’s youth to speak the unspeakable or inappropriate. He has no qualms about bullying the ‘fat girl’ at school, and an otherwise innocent trip with his dad to a bottle bank becomes something else in Oliver’s head ‘I’m high-fiving wine bottles through a stiff brush. It is a bit like a mass grave and all the green bottles are Jews. There are brown bottles and clear bottles too but not nearly as many. With Gestapic efficiency, I pick out another green bottle from the crate. All the bodies will be crushed, recycled, and used in building motorways’ (16/17). Beyond the overdone extended metaphor there is a blunt literalism to these lines that characterises Oliver’s story more generally. All is on the surface, and, without flinching, he can tell his mum to ‘fuck off’ and confess to the doctor next door that he has been sick on his yellow Lotus. His sentences tend to be, rather like a concise dictionary, abrupt statements of fact. At the same time his irrepressible urge to let everything spill out is notably lacking in precision, merely calculated to generate reaction from what he feels are the repressed lives of the adults around him. When he is not observing his parents' dreary sex life by the dial on the dimmer-switch, he is striving to lose his own virginity before he comes of age. Oliver’s actions seem a deliberate affront to his parents whom he feels won’t tell him anything; are holding back secrets. As Carrie O’Grady sums it up in her Guardian review, Dunthorne:
'… loads a great deal on Oliver's skinny shoulders, since the boy narrates the whole book, and his adolescent self-obsession means he is mostly turning the lens on himself. Dunthorne keeps this from becoming tedious by varying Oliver's character subtly, so that in one chapter he seems like a lovable, quirky oddball, in the next a creepy little weirdo. It may be a lack of authorial experience or it may be a deliberate device to keep us interested, but either way, it works: this feels like an authentic portrait of someone floundering around in an attempt to discover his own identity as he grows up.'
The novel is full of set pieces that arguably fail in places to sustain a plot that stretches over 300 pages, but the critics are unanimous in their overall assessment of Submarine as an engaging and evocative read.
Dunthorne may yet find his greatest talents lie in the short story form, and his 2010 tale, ‘Critical responses to my last relationship’ was runner up in The Sunday Times Short Story Award. Along with an earlier story, ‘You Are Happy’, ‘Critical responses to my last relationship’ experiments with the boundaries of the genre, combining the discourses of journalism, or (in ‘You Are Happy’) the role-playing format of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories associated with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.
Joe Dunthorne’s literary career is still in its infancy. However, if the publishers (Penguin, Faber) and reviewers (The Independent, Time Out, The Observer, The Times) are anything to go by, the young Welshman is a talent to watch.
Dr James Procter, 2010