resumé | writing | other work | altitude | blog

return to index


Killing time with Geoff Dyer, Friday 4th March, 2005, Camden.

Kevin Braddock: You wrote a piece for Vogue a while back….

Geoff Dyer: [British Vogue’s Features editor] Jo Craven called me out of the blue to say did I want to write for Vogue, and it ended up being a terrific experience. I was really pleased with the piece. It was to go to the Haute Couture shows in Paris. I had a fantastic time and they were really pleased with it and ran it without any cuts and it was all one of those assignments, everybody ended up so happy about, where so easily one or either party can be pissed off – the person it’s about, the person it’s by, the person who’s publishing it. I was handsomely paid, had a great time win Paris – I went with the boss, Alexandra Shulman. Almost immediately after Jo called, I ran into her at the Venice Biennale the year before last. Super glamorous!

In The Missing of The Somme you write a lot about Wilfred Owen, who comes from my own home town, Oswestry. You also mention you had relatives from Shropshire…

One of the really big war poets, Ivor Gurney, is right from where I grew up, from where my dad grew up a few miles outside of Cheltenham and the Cotswolds. Wilfred Owen from Oswestry. My mum grew up in a little village called Werthin, outside Shrewsbury. I can’t remember where Oswestry is now in relation to Shrewsbury or Werthin, but certainly it’s one of those places whose name was around a lot during those years. I liked that idea of these two poets who happened to come from the same place as the Dyers did.

You often make mention if your ‘non-career’; yet the non-career is actually a very successful career.

I’d really have to give quite a lengthy explanation of this with a lot of historical context. The crucial thing is that I left university in 1980, not really knowing what to do, and in the early Eighties there was huge unemployment. It was the advent of Thatcherism. But at the same time, all the benefit of the welfare state that successive Labour governments after the Second World War had set up were still in place. So actually, for someone who’d come out of Oxford where you go for one tutorial a week, it’s quite an easy segue to living on the dole.

When people talked about the Eighties, it was always this booming scene in the city and people doing cocaine. But there was the alternative counterculture, the fag end of the hippy movement, that was still very much alive and thriving. Particular when I moved to Brixton and the whole squatting, anarchist, feminist left kind of world was a real scene - a great scene. It was very nice to go from Oxford to there. All the things were in place to have plenty of time at your disposal. The analogy I’d always make would be someone wanting to be a writer and living in New York, and of course you’d have to wait on tables and that uses up your time. And it’s probably more like it is now in Britain where it’s probably quite hard to live on the dole for years. Really, it’s not so much wanting to be writer as not being sure what you want to do. And you need a certain amount of time to get round to writing. The important thing to have is that sense of what you don’t want to do, and go straight into a career. And also the feeling that you have something that you want to say, you want to express yourself in some way. It takes a while to come round to working out a way to that which is both suitable and available for you. At different moments, it might manifest itself a bit differently.

So that’s the historical context. In terms of an autobiographical thing, it’s really important – and my wife can’t believe I bang on so much about it so much, that if you come from a working-class family, the idea of work never seems very attractive. It didn’t seem that the jobs my parents did, especially because I became a scholarship boy and went to Oxford and stuff, just never seemed a very attractive thing. So when I discovered literature, I took the values I found quite seriously. That’s to say that life isn’t just to get a fleet of premiership footballer-type cars and a whopping great telly, but maybe it’s to do with some personal growth. It seemed a terrible indictment of the way English was taught at Oxford that so many people spend their three years doing English and then decide to got to Law school. That seems almost a cancellation of the stuff you’d learnt. I felt I was so right for that life of some kind of creative leisure: not so much indolence. It seemed to be a time to be busy, and actually, here was an incredibly nice life being the opposite of busy.

One can read your books in a relatively shallow manner, like I do, and assume that everything that’s described is how you’ve lived and where you’ve been. You’ve said you write ‘ an inch away from life’. How much in the books is what you’ve done, where you’ve been and what you’ve thought?

The persona is a somewhat of an invention, but it’s not a million miles away from Me. Out of Sheer Rage takes a few aspects of what I’m really like and exaggerates them to the extent that it ends up quite a distance from what I’m like. The method would be not that different from the typical fiction writer. The important thing for me is that is that you don’t see the joins, really. I’ve done readings where I‘ve read the bit about trying to change the rousers when I’m all tripped out in Amsterdam. People have been a bit disappointed when I said ‘that never actually happened’. That was an anecdote that somebody told me had happened to them at Glastonbury. I think it really is seamlessly stitched into the story of our day in Amsterdam, the rest of which is pretty well not invented. That’s the crucial bit of it, the best bit of the story. All I did was change the Amsterdam Steve to Amsterdam Dave, because we didn’t know him so well. Afterwards he said, why did you change my name?

The first novel, The Colour Of Memory, is so close… let’s put it this way, the novels are no further from life than the non-fiction is. The Colour Of Memory is almost a straightforward transcription of the life I was leading in Brixton in the mid-Eighties.

It’s necessary to classify the kind of books you write – for the book trade at least. I browsed in Waterstone’s this afternoon and noticed that some were of your books were in the self-help category.

Self-help is a great category to be in!

Did you decide on fiction or non-fiction?

It doesn’t bother me, I’m happy for it to be I the self -help section, but so often it will end up in the help-yourself section, i.e. the books that have fallen so completely through any kind of market safety net that they have no value at all. But it means nothing to me when I’m writing or how I go about writing. If I was writing a scene of you and I talking, I’d be doing it in a slightly different way to if I was writing an essay. However, it’s just writing to me. I would be, in some weird way that its too pious, I hope, contemptuous of anyone who had any idea of what is gonna result from this writing. Dictated to one purpose or another. Thinking I’m gonna write this kind of books because it will sell so much… there’s nothing really wrong in that, but I take a dim view of it. The act of the writing books is just – I just do that and then there comes a point when the book is going to come out and then other people make decisions. So in America it looked like Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It was going to be published as fiction and non-fiction over here. What was in the books didn’t change, but the way it was perceived would have been changed totally.

As it tuned out they both released it as non-fiction. But it could have gone either way. So it’s not a problem for me, but it is a problem for the publisher, so then it becomes a problem for me because I like to say in this rather confident, arrogant way ‘I just do the writing’. But then if the book only sells two copies, I seethe and feel as hard done by as the next person.

So this idea this idea of what kind of book it is such a huge thing because of the expectations that people approach the book with. It’s very rare to go to a book and think, Is this a good book? Instead, you’re saying, Does this conform to my idea of this kind of books, and your assessment of its merit will be based on how large or small that gap is – between your idea of what a particular form of book should be, and where this particular instance is in relation to it. But these things are getting more flexible now. Some people have been able to exploit this quite cleverly. In my view a not very good writer like Bruce Chatwin got a lot of mileage out of whether The Songlines was a novel or not. And also WG Sebald, there’s quite a lot of debate about that. But typically, everybody is more comfortable with something they know what to do with. Is this a novel? And once it’s a novel, publishers can predict quite accurately what percentage of the population it is of going to be of interest to. For me I felt that for ages I went from one subject-defined ghetto to the next. The jazz books came out: ok this is interesting to jazz people. Oh! A war poets book, a First World War book - military history. And there was very little overlap of readership because there it was by the person who wrote the jazz books. That’s only just starting to happen now, and people are aware that this is a rather interesting body of work.

You’ve pursued your own interests in remembrance, Thailand, jazz, the war poets… do you feel ‘the market’ is beginning to meet you half way?

I think that is happening. None of the books have been very great commercial successes, let’s suppose that one of them had been, then maybe there would have been an overlap. Since that hasn’t been the case, it’s happened late in the day, and now people are looking back and going ok, this is interesting. Maybe they read Yoga... hopefully would be surprised to see that it’s by the same guy who wrote the jazz books. I can see all sorts of similarities between them, but the important thing is that it’s not just as diversity of subject matter. You could write a book about gardening and then one about space travel in exactly the same way. But there is a real change in form and style between one book and the next and in retrospect that degree of variation constitutes and ongoing thing. The consistency is in the variation.

Have you lived in all the places you mention in your books?

Oh sure…

Traditionally, this is what writers do. Or at least it’s what DH Lawrence did. Can writing in that respect be considered a career if you’re living an itinerant life?

I wouldn’t call it a career, I’d call it a life. I’m so hostile to the idea of a career, on many levels. One reason is that if you’ve got a career, it’s nearly always under the control of someone else. At any moment it can be terminated or set back by someone else. Whereas if you’ve got a life, it’s completely yours. It’s up to me what I make of it. Somebody said that I was a successful writer and I thought, Oh that’s nice. And then I realised I’d been as successful writer since 1989 in that I’ve done whatever I wanted without any regard for what publishers might want, for whether a book might sell. It’s perhaps not unusual for someone who writes a book and it’s a big-selling thing that they then might have to think they have to duplicate it. The absolute lack of any commercial success with the books - I don’t think I’d have fallen prey to this anyway – but because the books sold so badly, none of the publishers gave a toss that I went from writing whatever it was to jumping ship and writing about the First World War. It wasn’t as if I kissed goodbye to a huger readership I’d attracted with the previous book. I think I’m too selfish to have been bothered with any pressure that was brought to bear by a publisher. I did hear from a friend that she was under some kind of pressure form a publisher to write this kind of book. It’s ludicrous to me. They are there to publish. The idea of doing something to keep a publisher happy is just completely anathema to me. Goodness…

In some weird way a lack of commercial success – and I do believe this – I think it kept me young. I was always living like a student. It certainly never felt like any kinds of hardship at all. The scrimping and saving I seemed a minute price to pay for the huge benefit of freedom it gave me. So I jumped ship and having been a member of the leisure class - that’s to say living on the dole, quite happily – I then became a member of the international leisure class. Not with huge amounts of money. There’s an exemplary letter from DH Lawrence that says something like, ‘often my wife and I made do on £100 a year and I kick around Europe as I please and I spit in the face of anyone who insults me.’ It’s very easy to keep delaying that freedom – waiting until you have really made it in some way, but of course typically, you can start that much earlier than you think.

Then how do you define success?

In a very simple way – to be doing what you want. Again it’s Lawrence who was quite keen on this. The idea of never needing a holiday because you’re always on holiday and to completely do away with that difference between work and leisure, so all you’re really doing is leading your life, spending all your time doing what you want. People have this idea that to what they really want to do is retire. But you realise quite quickly that you get bored. However attractive it might seem, you really don’t want to spend your life retiring to the Costa Del Sol and drinking whatever is by the pool like in Sexy Beast. And equally, to take it to a more Bohemian level, you don’t what to lie around smoking pot all day. You want to begin having a life and reading, doing a bit of work. Work is important because it’s difficult writing but at the end of the year you’ve spent writing a book and you’ve done it to the best of you ability, irrespective of what other people say… I would recommend the afterglow, because you’ve come to a great sense of your limits and what you’re capable of. Just really taxing yourself. It’s really difficult writing books. It’s quite difficult to write a shitty book. It’s nearly impossible to write a really good one..

How does is become apparent when you’ve found the subject you want to write about?

That’s a really good question. The first thing and sad thing to say is that I was interested in more things when I was younger. So I’d been interested in the First world War for a long time, and it wasn’t a surprise when I ended up writing a book about it. When I wrote the books about jazz, I didn't know a lot about jazz. I really loved it and in that weird way of being confident when you’re younger. I remember thinking ‘I’m going to write a really great book about jazz,’ and it didn’t bother me that there were all these people around who’d written books about jazz and knew more about it that I did. And recently when I was thinking of writing a book about photography – relatively speaking I know much more about that than jazz - as I got older I was much less confident about it. Before the exact moment I decide to write about something, there’s a long period when I’m just passively interested in something. Then I become actively interested in it. And then I think I would like to write a book about this as a way of fixing in my mind what it is about it that got to me, what it was about the First World War. But then there’s a further stage when I’m so resistant to the awful effort of committing myself to it. But then I do that thing of getting to grips with something and reading all I can about photography.

That’s the thing about the Oxford educational system. Each week you do an author and it turns out to be quite easy to know what you need to know to become familiar with the field. What you than have to bring to the table is some originality or quirk that the experts don’t have, and quite often that quirk you bring is precisely to the fact that you are coming to it afresh. And interest in a particular subject me has often begun with and experience of places. The First world War book was so specifically occasioned by going to the cemeteries on the Somme. Ruins, that stared in Rome. If I hadn’t started travelling I’d have run out of things much more quickly than I have.

In your writing you often describe things that are so obvious they’ve become all but invisible. There is a quality of looking outside of the frame of normal vision – to some degree you notice and describe things that are missing as much as those that are present.

That’s a real wager isn’t it? The First World War for example: what does it mean to us now. You can imagine somebody from a newspaper commissioning and article on that. The thing that I believe absolutely is that that if you are going to achieve any kind of universal value, in response to question, it’s about being really faithful to the vagaries of your own nature and the peculiarities and specificities of your own experience. It’s only buy doing that that you arrive at the universal thing.

Why is it a wager?

It’s that, you have to have that confidence. Out Of Sheer Rage is about Lawrence, obviously, but it’s also about a my wavering and prevaricating. In a sense it doesn’t matter that it’s not about Lawrence. It could be about your attempt to build a scale model of the HMS Victory.

The experience of being in Thailand, taking drugs and getting off with someone you describe in Yoga… is so common an experience as to be not really considered worthy of recording. On line sticks in my head from the passage: ‘we continued sitting.’ This describes exactly what happens in Thailand – the continued act of sitting around while nothing happens…

The time that I was recoding in Thailand was a peak experience and a blissfully happy time. And that sitting around was part of that happiness. There were plenty of times during that trip that I was so aware that this was really idyllic and fantastic. Because every detail of it was fantastic, there was nothing you want to be improved. I wasn’t dissatisfied.

It is far easier to describe drudgery than happiness?

Paris Trance was my books about happiness. It could have been My Idea Of Happiness. I wanted to address in that book what happiness meant to this guy. It described this life of absolute bliss that he lives. Fitzgerald was interested in this stuff as well. It happens that they guy’s experience is bound up with ecstasy, and he’s completely in love with this wonderful woman and they’re having this great time, and then he realised that he’s had his great time and he has no interest in moving to the next great time.. It’s always interested me, this idea of trying to fix happiness. There’s a famous lines from an American poet: ‘happiness writes white’. So let’s see if it’s possible not to write white.

You refer often to your ‘ongoing debt’ to John Berger. Can you talk about the influence his writing had on you?

I left university having done English and it was all so boring reading criticism. A real let-down about how English becomes doing criticism. When I left I got into European stuff like Foucault. It was great writing but they weren’t writing novels. There was Raymond Williams and he was a huge thing for me, and though he was writing novels, he was someone who came out of an academic tradition, and then there was Berger who was writing all these different kinds of books that had this incredible originality, was writing all these books that completely did away with the idea of the specialist and expert and the ever-narrowing field of focus. And also, very importantly, he made the boring paintings of men in ruffs seem interesting. A whole world opened up and I particularly liked the way your aesthetic experience wasn’t just something that happened in a university department, but was completely bound up with how you were living your life. So often he would be writing about what happened to him on his way to see a Holbein in a particular place. I really like that thing of the lived and the experiential, all bound up together. I just really liked it, I particularly like this way of imaginative writing which was also a form of critical writing and also maybe a form of fiction; fiction that was a discursive, and essayistic way of writing that was a form of storytelling. I never felt that drawn to writing proper ‘bicycle race’ novels an Kundera calls them.

Then when we got to know each other and he was so fantastically encouraging. Just a model, really. It was also important that he wasn’t an academic. He was completely at the mercy of his existence as a writer. Berger has had these big changes in his life, a huge shift from being seen as a modernist intellectual to writing about peasants. I like the method of immersing himself in that other world.

Then will you be staying in Camden?

There’s no doubt in my mind I should be living in San Francisco, and I’m not. Apart from seeing my mum and dad every now and then, I’d never leave California. It’s got everything I want. Whereas at least from London, you’re perfectly placed for the European city break, or indeed to fly off anywhere in the world, on a day to day basis, most of what’s going on I find I have to avert my eyes from. London, I find, is so much question of, ‘I don’t want to look there anymore’. This is just the place I happen to be.

What will you do next?

I’m going through the phase of not being sure what my next big interest is going to be. Let’s take the worst case scenario in which I never found anything I wanted to write a book about. Well that’s fine. Many people said suggest you’ve got something in you and you can’t get it out. For me I’ve always written when I’ve had something to say, and not when I hadn’t. So I’ve gone through quite long phases only writing about stuff that happened to come my way. I would like to a write a version of Death In Venice that takes placed during the Venice Biennale.

How do you write?

Computer. I had my old laptop, it and I were one. It was my writing machine. My wife persuaded me to go from PC to Apple. It’s great. It’s become everything but my writing machine. It’s a music thing, photos… I think it was better for me to have this crappy thing that all I did was write on. Not is this thing that I’m meant to be concentrating on. So I dunno. Certainly I make notes when I got to places. As long as I’ve got a table and a chair I can do it anywhere, assuming the vital psychological conditions had been met, which is a whole different kettle of fish.

What do you do when you can’t write?

I potter around. There’s a lot of opportunity for electronic pottering around. I could happily potter away the next 20 years. There are days I have now where I play tennis at 12, have a shower … it’s certainly no problem killing time.

© Kevin Braddock 2005


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

website designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.