Not only is Matt the author of six novels, his latest, Cherry, being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, he’s also the co-author of All Hail the New Puritans, a literary compilation aimed at bringing authenticity back to the British literary scene. But despite having released six books in little over seven years, Matt has been quiet of late. We catch up with him and see what’s in the pipeline.
TTI: So, your starter for ten points, and it’s an easy one: tell us about your new book! It’s been three years since your last novel was published, quite a gap for an author who’s managed to average a book a year for most of his career. Do you see your latest novel as a progression of the themes of your earlier books, or have you taken time out to make a clean break with your past work?
MT: OK, my new novel is called Privacy. It’s about a fifty-something child psychotherapist who is invited to Sweden to investigate a phenomenon called ‘apatiska barn.’ This is a true syndrome where two hundred refugee children in the last ten years have entered comas after coming to Sweden. No one knows what causes it—some people say traffic exhaustion, others the normal trials of starting in a new country, the climate, etc. But the experience of investigating this phenomenon brings to the surface all the emotional problems the psychiatrist has been experiencing, primarily his difficult relationship with his depressed daughter and his interest in one of his teenage patients whose father is in prison for assisting the suicide of a teenage student. It’s a very dark book and deals with subjects (suicide, depression, sadomasochism, sexual extremity) that seem to make people very uneasy. It doesn’t really connect with my previous novels at all, but it is a continuation of some of the themes I have addressed in short stories over the years. If all goes to plan, I’d like to follow up the novel with a book of short stories called Paying My Friends For Sex, which is a companion piece to Privacy in a way.
TTI: It seems that you’ve developed a penchant for creating quirky, slightly oddball characters, from romance obsessed film buffs to lonely foreign language teachers. Would you say you’re striving for greater realism in your stories, and creating characters who have more depth than the average character in a novel?
MT: People often attack realist fiction as being boring, or unimaginative, or even suggest that ‘realist fiction’ as a concept doesn’t even make sense. But for me, very few novels or films feel realistic, and I want to find a way of addressing that in my fiction. For me, the challenge of writing novels is to find a way to depict characters and situations that a reader will feel is realistic, but then push it into dramatic areas, without the reader ever feeling that I’ve manipulated them. I find real life endlessly strange, and the most autobiographical scenes I write are always the ones that readers don’t believe actually happened.
TTI: Many of your characters seem to be defective in some way — The extent to which Steve Ellis goes to to secure his love for Cherry is perhaps the most obvious example, but even in Eight Minutes Idle, Dan, the seemingly ordinary narrator, has a conviction for GBH and manages to starve a perfectly innocent cat to death… yet we’re usually invited to symapthise with your characters, particularly when we get inside their heads. Is ‘damage’ a key ingredient in the motivations for your characters, and does it make a difference to how we view them?
MT: I don’t think my characters are damaged, but certainly lots of readers have found the behaviour of some of my characters disturbing. The two you mention, Dan and Steve, are the ones that most people have problems with, and the reactions to both seem to split into two: some people get cross because they’ve identified with someone whose capable of murder (whether of an animal in Eight Minutes Idle, or a person in Cherry), whereas other people just hate them from the beginning. It’s funny, though, even Gerald in Child Star, who is a relatively kind person, was attacked by critics for not having enough sex. I’m interested in how people judge fictional characters. Most novels are like American films are supposed to be: you immediately know who the good guy is, who the villain is, etc. Or there’s a twist where you’re led to like someone who turns out to be evil. But almost all of my characters are capable of both good and evil. When I wrote my children’s books, I tried to carry this idea into genre fiction. In each novel, it becomes harder and harder to know who to trust. And in Eight Minutes Idle, it was strange because some readers were more upset that Dan betrayed his friend Teri than anything else in the book, whether it was killing a cat or being convicted of GBH. I think I must be a bit of a sociopath because sometimes I’m genuinely astonished by readers’ reactions. For example, a reader said to me that the final scene of Pictures of You was the most shocking thing he’d read because the narrator abandons a person with broken arms in a car accident, while for me that was a perfectly reasonable response to the awful experiences he’d been put through in the rest of the book as a result of that person’s previous behaviour.
TTI: Of course, every novel has to be viewed in the context of the time in which it was written, certainly from a critical point of view. It’s rarely possible to separate the concerns of the times from the concerns of the characters in the book. What do you feel your concerns are at the moment, and how have they filtered down into your writing?
MT: It’s interesting, I’ve always argued how important it is for contemporary fiction to be connected to the era in which it’s written, but sometimes the era can change on you while you’re writing a book. The most dramatic case of this for me was 9/11. My novel Pictures of You came out on the 12th September, 2001 and the world had changed irreversibly. So that novel became immediately redundant, even though it’s my favourite of my books.
It makes sense that your concerns as a writer will evolve over time. When the New Puritan manifesto was published, it was never intended to be the sort of statement that would nail anyone’s trousers to the mast in terms of writing in a certain way forever.
TTI: How do you feel your own writing style has developed over the years? Does practice make perfect, or do you feel its that you’re reinventing yourself with each new book?
Well, you’re absolutely right about the New Puritans: the whole point was that it was a one-off experiment. I usually feel my books come in pairs, and then I reinvent myself. So Eight Minutes Idle was a development of the themes and style of Tourist, Pictures of You was an attempt to rewrite Dreaming of Strangers in a darker vein, and Cherry was a response to the criticisms of Child Star. Privacy is the beginning of a new cycle. But I don’t think practice makes perfect, I think sometimes you’re in a good phase and sometimes you’re not.
TTI: We’ve also exchanged words with Charles Thomson of the Stuckist movement in this issue of the magazine. The Stuckists created not one but several manifestos to suit their needs. Have you ever considered laying out your ideas in a manifesto again, or has that idea now served its purpose? Is it important to make bold statements in contemporary British fiction to get the attention of the publishing industry, particularly when so much of its resources are diverted to ‘big name’ authors like Martin Amis or fashionable novels like Malkani’s Londonstani ?
MT: I’m not sure I could go through something like the New Puritans again. I think one manifesto is fine, but if you keep coming up with them it can seem like you’re just publicity-seeking and you can become more well-known for coming up with manifestos than doing your work. I don’t really care about the successes or failures of other people’s books any more. It used to seem obscene to me that critics could go on saying Martin Amis was one of Britain’s greatest authors when he was producing novels like Yellow Dog, but now I think, who cares? It does irritate me that it’s getting harder and harder for quieter novelists to continue their careers, but I can’t get worked up about people paying lots of money for debuts. Londonstani’s a perfectly good book, in its own way.
TTI: Finally, is it important to state your aims — or at least make them highly visible — for every book you write, or are you happy to let the reader make up his own mind? Have you always striven for clarity in your work or is it always going to be the case that you can’t herd cats – or, for that matter, lead your readers?
MT: I always strive for clarity in my book, but only of prose. I like to keep my aims secret. Most of my novels have come into being for completely perverse reasons. I like to experiment with plot and narrative and character, but it’s important for me that the reader is hooked by a straightforward style. But I’ve no interest in trying to make the reader like my characters, or my books, for that matter.
Interview by Richard Allday