Geoff Dyer was born in England and educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He published his first book, Ways of Telling, a critical study of John Berger, in 1986 and his first novel, The Color of Memory, in 1989. He has written two other novels, The Search and Paris Trance, and three books that are difficult to categorize: But Beautiful (about jazz), The Missing of the Somme (about WW I) and Out Of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With DH Lawrence. Geoff Dyer has written for a number of publications, including The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire, and Book Forum. To quote The New Yorker, "If Dyer weren’t so prolific, it would be tempting to crown him Slacker Laureate. A restless polymath and an irresistibly funny storyteller, he is adept at fiction, essay, and reportage, but happiest when twisting all three into something entirely his own." Dyer’s new book is entitled Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. He currently lives in London with his wife and is at work on his next book, his thoughts on some photographs.
Robert Birnbaum: I just learned you are ‘something-in-residence’ at LA Weekly?
Geoff Dyer: Oh. It’s a strange form of ‘in residency’ since obviously I don’t live in LA.
GD: It’s a gig to write ten or twelve book reviews a year. One a month. So yeah, it’s a new kind of cyber residency. Born of the death of distance and all this kind of stuff. A resident voice, let’s say.
RB: I’m sure many Los Angelenos are rushing to their book stores to get the new Sebald book that you recently wrote about—there being a great resonance between Sebald and the lives of Southern Californians—do you choose the books to be reviewed?
GD: He was big in LA, wasn’t he? (laughs) Yeah, I get to choose the books.
RB: I also just learned that LA County is the biggest book market in the country.
GD: Interesting, yeah.
RB: Who’d have thought it?
GD: I didn’t know it, but we are here to learn, aren’t we?
RB: Yes, we are. Thanks for coming to my seminar. Ironies abound. LA is the biggest book market and Miami, which is not noted for being a literary hot spot, has the most celebrated book festival in the US. So, here’s to fair weather.
RB: In any case, is your LA Weekly affiliation just literary license to call it a residency? What are you on the masthead?
GD: Maybe I’m reviewer-in-residence. It’s just a kind of forum where I will be holding forth on a monthly basis.
RB: Tell me how this book came to be. Were the chapters previously published?
GD: Yeah. Some of them were, but often as they always say in the beginning of these books, in very different form. A couple of the pieces were from an excellent, now-defunct online magazine, Feed. They sent me—it shows what a great magazine it was—they sent me to cover the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and also, since I was becoming interested in antique ruins, they sent me to Libya to write about Leptis Magna. What I wrote was duly posted but equally there was a whole load of stuff in the book that didn’t get into those articles. Quite a lot of the time, the stuff in the book is stuff that is more about me than you got in the versions that were posted. And also, I should emphasize it’s not like you’ll be getting any autobiographical revelations because a lot of this stuff that’s in the book is made up. It was a chance to elaborate in a different way. Although you don’t have the same space restraints in cyberia as you do on the print page, still they couldn’t let me drone on forever.
RB: Why not?
RB: Could you drone on forever?
GD: Mmmm. I could certainly drone on for longer. A couple of the other pieces had previously appeared, but nearly all of them were slightly rewritten to make sure they all worked together. To use them in a such a way that there was a structure in the book.
RB: Let me indulge a penchant for pigeonholing people. You strike me as one of the new uncategorizables: Except that there is something about your way of looking at things that reminds me of Alain de Botton and Pico Iyer…are those names that you mind being associated with?
GD: I don’t mind being associated with them. I guess the connection would be two-fold. One, there is the travel thing. All of us have written things which might be considered travel books or stuff about travel. But also there is that ease in being in some kind of essayistic form which isn’t quite an essay. A free ranging free…
GD: That’s right. Once you start thinking about people who have done that, then you come around very quickly to, say to Claudio Magris’ Danube, one of the great travel books which is also a form of discursive travel. And then actually you start looking back, and you find there is a very long and distinguished pre history of this kind of thing.
RB: Sebald would fall into this camp.
GD: Yeah, exactly. His narrative is very much like that, and then there are all sorts of other people. Sven Linquist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, which would be a very good example of this thing which is combining an actual physical journey with a voyage of intellectual discovery as well.
RB: I wasn’t thinking of travel as being a common denominator as much as the tendency to narratively turn on a dime.
RB: To look at something and move in an unexpected direction. Or at least unexpected to me as a reader. That coupled with your ouevre…is that how you say it?
GD: It could be ouevre…maybe that means egg.
RB: Your bibliography suggests a wide range of interests and interest in different forms. What was the jazz book?
GD: But Beautiful? I am always happy with this description of what I do—I am happy for them to be called books.
GD: So yeah, it was one of those.
RB: You’re a book writer. (Both laugh.)
GD: At the beginning of that book I coined this rather nice phrase. I say something like, “I would have these scenes regarded not just as fiction about the musicians but as a kind of imaginative criticism.” I find that I certainly do quite a bit of that. The Lawrence book as well. You might say that was a form of imaginative or creative criticism. I’m very keen on doing something that combines both the imaginative and the creative, something which is both a form of commentary and also a form of original and creative writing. And again there is this line of George Steiner’s that I always quote where he says that, "The literary tradition itself adds up to a syllabus of enacted criticism." So as Steiner says, Middlemarch is in some ways a commentary on Jane Austen. All the time, you see in the evolution of all arts forms, each practitioner is commenting and amending and elaborating on stuff that people have done before. I noticed it, very obviously, in the titles of jazz songs. Duke Ellington writes “Take the Coltrane” for Coltrane, Mingus writes “Open Letter to Duke” and then The Art Ensemble of Chicago do their song “Charlie M.” And in time that will itself be extended. Somebody will write their “Open Letter to Lester” or “Roscoe M” as a homage to one of the Art Ensemble people.
RB: It’s not cumulative. Is it progressive?
GD: I think it is, but also it tends to be increasingly elegiac as well. In that the occasion for writing something is very often someone’s death. Auden writes his elegy for Yeats. Brodsky writes his elegy for Auden. Heaney writes his elegy for Brodsky…but that’s how the tradition lives on.
RB: That would be an interesting way of assembling those poems, putting them together in one volume.
GD: And of course it ends up not being a linear chain but more like a web. I’ve always been keen on that. Ever since the way, when I was at university, it was disappointing that doing literature so often involved criticism. We’d read the actual books in the summer and then in term time we would read critics on those books. And they wouldn’t even be writers who were critics. They were—most of them—a lowly breed of academic critic. It was only subsequently that I became aware of just how much criticism was embedded in the ongoing literary tradition.
RB: Do people prefer to read academics on say, Lawrence, or other writers?
GD: It would be amazing if anybody did choose to read an academic on Lawrence. Having said that, the tendency is always to exaggerate in these conditions—of course there has been great writing by academics on Lawrence. In particular, there is this great three-volume Cambridge biography. Which could only have been written by people with the skill, training an resources of academia behind them, blah blah blah. On the other hand, it’s really, really exciting reading what other writers have said about Lawrence. It seems to me as well, that is the kind of thing which would encourage people when they have left university to go on to be writers as opposed to going on to be academics.
RB: Wait a minute. You think we should strive to increase the population of writers?
GD: (laughs) Maybe not.
RB: It’s tough going as it is.
GD: But yeah, I’m always really interested to read what writers have to say about other writers. It only has to be a glimpse or a paragraph. Just that moment when Virginia Woolf is on a train in Italy and she sees Lawrence on the station looking “pinched and penetrated,” she says. Okay, it’s nothing about Lawrence’s writing but it’s a fantastic little observation about him. I love that glimpse that people had. I’ve come to love these moments of artists coming together. There is a lovely bit when John Szarkowski says it’s quite possible that (Jacques Henri) Lartigue and (Eugene) Atget were on the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, both photographing at the same time—obviously, Lartigue was a kid of about thirteen and Ateget was very much in his maturity. I like these almost meetings that take place.
RB: You’re interested in photography, yet you don’t take pictures yourself. How have you managed not to?
GD: Oh, it’s like so much of my life. It’s laziness. If you don’t take pictures it’s one more thing not to carry. I’m looking across the table at this whopping great thing of yours [Nikon w/ a large telephoto lens]…
RB: The distinction between academics criticizing and analyzing and documenting a writer or an artist’s work is that they are looking for some kind of truth or reality or some institutionally accepted version. I’m not sure that’s what writers are going for when they are talking about another writer. In the same way that you do not hesitate to say that some of this autobiography is imaginary.
RB: And it doesn’t discredit or devalue what you have written.
GD: To that extent the writer has the great privilege of not having to be so responsible. So again, if you go back to Lawrence—I love his classic essays on American Literature—just wild extreme stuff which you couldn’t really get away with doing if you were an academic. I like that kind of lightening burst of originality. Sudden, incredible flashes of illumination. A lot of the time, Lawrence is wide of the mark. Another crucial difference is of course, writers are always writing in their own voice. Whereas there is this academic idiom which is imposed on everybody and everything, almost like a grid. This is about how literature is processed. Okay there are about three or four different ways of doing it. It’s always a unilateral thing imposed on people irrespective of the particular style of the person you are writing about. I much prefer an engagement—an intimate relationship where, the style of the writer that’s being discussed finds its complement in the way that person is writing about it is discussing it—so it’s that intimacy I like very much.
RB: For the uninitiated, can you explain the title of your book?
GD: It was always going to be a problem coming up with a title for this book. The jazz book it was very, very simple to come up with a title But Beautiful—which is the title of a famous jazz song, it’s a song that many of the people in the book write about. It sums up the book easily. But this was going to be a book where the title was always going to be—whatever title I was going to come up with was going to exclude a certain amount of stuff that was in the book. So I ran through a number of them and this seemed one that worked the best. Also, I just liked it at as a title. I liked the way I might cash in on the self-help market. Maybe the yoga thing has peaked somewhat and we have had all these versions of yoga for this and yoga for that and I thought well this is the ultimate version.
RB: Yoga for dummies.
GD: Also being less flippant about it, we are all the time being encouraged to believe that you might be able to get some kind of wisdom and enlightenment out of a Christmas cracker, but of course it doesn’t happen like that. We also have this idea that some kind of Eastern wisdom will come to us in the form of maxims. What we tend to forget is that whole other way in which we in the West have moved toward something like wisdom or enlightenment: through that boring old thing of reading Tolstoy and Rilke and all the rest of it. In fact, it was a way—at the risk of sounding incredibly arrogant—well this book is an incremental contribution to that ongoing thing of the way we learn stuff through literature, the humanities.
RB: Of the various locations that these pieces are set in [New Orleans, Detroit, Indonesia, Burning Man, Amsterdam, Rome, Libya], the one I felt you were most engaged was at Leptis Magna in Libya.
GD: There are a number of places where—it’s not a destination-driven book—but it is in search of these peak experiences. And of course that can take many forms. That phase of my life, I was really interested in and drawn to antique ruins. To generalize absolutely, these places where time has stood its ground. I spent a lot of time in the Roman ruins in Italy and Rome but was drawn to ruins of Leptis Magna. It really was an incredible place all the more for being so off the tourist map. And the fact that Libya was such an awful dump made the power of this particular bit of Libya, all the more remarkable. So yeah, it gave me something that I wanted. For a long while now, I have been into this thing of the pilgrimage. In secular times we don’t have—we are not obliged in one’s life to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Or whatever.
RB: What about Graceland?
GD: (laughs) We aren’t obliged to. But people do it. People do still have that urge to go to places. It might be the house where a writer lived. People still schlep up to where Thoreau or Emerson lived.
RB: Kerouac’s grave in Lowell.
GD: Absolutely. So, there’s that thing. When you go on these pilgrimages, disappointment is quite often quote close to hands. You go to a writer’s house and weirdly it often doesn’t quite work. You are not really getting the Laurentian vibes when you go to Lawrence’s house in Nottingham. But there is often that moment when all the expectation and hope and whatever else that you bring to bear is reciprocated by the place. And it’s just a really wonderful moment, and at that moment you have this great feeling of not wanting to be anywhere else. It’s very close to a feeling of homecoming. That was the thing that Leptis Magna delivered. It was one of those perfect moments. There are other moments like that, scattered throughout the book. I use the word ‘moment’ quite deliberately because the value of an experience like that isn’t in any way with how long it lasts. It can just be a moment, that peak experience.
RB: You wrote a book on jazz and I somehow expected more in the way of auditory cues or descriptions…are your senses more tuned to the visual?
GD: Nearly all of us rely—cinema is so dominant now, inevitably a lot of writing is kind of cinematically influenced. Maybe it’s more than that as well. One of the striking things (about the places in the book) is the amazing silence of Leptis Magna. One of the lovely things is there is this weird sense—one of the symptoms or signs—if you like, that you are approaching this epiphanic moment, is the way everything becomes still. That kind of thing of the timeless moment—the problem with wind and stuff you get a sense of time hurrying by. But when there is no wind, everything becomes still—you get really what seems like a moment out of time.
RB: When you went to this rave festival in Detroit I got no sense of the way it sounded?
GD: That’s a tricky one. It’s easy enough to write about jazz, it’s always been difficult to write about…
RB: “Dull, pounding” could work.
GD: So much rave writing has been along the lines of, “And then DJ Rush came on and we all went mental.” (Laughs)
RB: Do you do any teaching?
GD: In various universities in England and they have these courses which are like residential writing courses where you are secreted away with people for a week.
RB: In the US they are called light residencies, I think. Bennington College in Vermont and Warren Wilson in North Carolina…
GD: I’ve liked doing that. Obviously, the stuff I’ve done is not a million miles away from what academics might do. It’s never felt separate or a distant thing.
RB: Was this book assembled? Were there pieces considered and discarded?
GD: Yeah, yeah, when I realized I had a certain number of pieces I was thinking about the kind of gaps that needed to be filled in to complete the narrative shape of the book. As is always the case, there was a number of other things I could have put in. I felt enough was enough. There was an episode in India, in Hampi. I wrote that up to quite an extent and then I realized that it was just repeating something similar to what got in the sections about Thailand.
RB: You write about the Burning Man Festival [in Nevada]. How many times have you been there?
GD: Four times.
RB: Burning Man is a big annual festival. I am struck by never seeing coverage in the newspaper of record for New England, The Globe. Does it get coverage in other major news outlets?
GD: I’m not sure that’s quite right. In that about two years ago all the major papers had somebody writing about it.
RB: You met the pack there?
GD: (Laughs) One of the things now is that a lot of people have heard of Burning Man through whatever means, that they start to think, “Oh it’s over now. It’s past its best.” The irony of that is that the people who say this are precisely the people who’ve never been. The people who have been, one of the reasons they are so passionate about it is because they are part of something which, incredible though it may seem, is just getting better and better and better.
RB: Why do you think that is?
GD: Maybe it answers a need in people. One of the striking things as the population has grown, the great fear would be that it would just become more spectator dominated. In fact, most people would agree that the degree of participation and belonging has not diminished at all as the numbers have increased. Also, another stupid thing you get from people is a—it’s funny how people who have never been to Burning Man have such fixed opinions of it—they say, "The thing is too commercial now." Obviously lots of stupid things are said about lots of things. It’s particularly ludicrous in the case of Burning Man. How can something be too commercial where nothing is for sale? (Both laugh) It doesn’t make sense. What they mean by that, because a lot of things at Burning Man have become more lavish in recent years, all they mean by that is, "The scale of people’s generosity of what they have been willing to give to the event has grown." Which is completely in keeping with its ethos.
RB: There is a book that Wired published on Burning Man.
GD: Edited by Brad Wiener. It crops up quite frequently as more and more people have had this really quite phenomenal experience there, it’s cropping up in more and more books. There is a chapter about it in Daniel Pinchbeck’s book Breaking Open the Head, that came out a few months ago. It would be amazing if that wasn’t happening. People say why do you write and all this…One of the basic motives for writing is that you have had some incredible experience, well, you want to articulate it, both to make sense of it for yourself and to tell other people about it.
RB: Can you think of anything like Burning Man?
GD: No. (chuckles) No, I really can’t.
RB: That would enhance its stature. There are so many derivative things and to have such success and still be uncounterfeited…
GD: I think Burning Man has a long prehistory. It’s quite interesting to look at what Burning Man has come out of that’s quite easily done. Comparisons don’t really work though. There was an idiotic kind of debate in England about, they wanted me to debate with someone—Burning Man or Glastonbury. Which is best? They are incomparable. I would have no hesitation in saying that Burning Man is an infinitely superior experience. I don’t know anything like it. I like festivals.
RB: Well, you went to Detroit for one…
GD: This is a different order of thing. It’s a thing that when you are with like-minded people…If you are a great dog lover, you go to Crofts, the dog show, and that is a form of festival, and you are there with all these other people there who have the same interest, and you have a great time.
RB: Like-minded people? At Burning Man?
GD: Uhm, actually I’ll retract that then. One of the great things about Burning Man is that (laughs) it attracts such disparate-minded people.
RB: Yet, resonating around some commonality that keeps it from becoming some kind of mosh pit of…
GD: Yeah, I think people with a—it’s not an experience which is reducible, really. But if you did have to reduce it, I would say it was people who really had this craving for freedom, but at the same time because it’s a very mature event recognizing that the only way you are going to be given that freedom is if you respond with an equal degree of…
RB: People clean up after themselves. It doesn’t look like post-Woodstock.
GD: I think increasingly whenever you see things about Burning Man in the media they are always quite sensationalist and dwelling on the wild abandon and everything, what strikes me about it is the incredible degree of responsibility that people bring to bear on it.
RB: Do you still travel much?
GD: It happens that in the last year I have traveled less than ever. But I think that just happens. Also I am writing a book at the moment which is—this book that just came out was a “going out” book and the one I am writing, at the moment, is a staying-in book.
RB: Say more about the next book.
GD: It’s a photography book. I have all these heavy photography books at home and I just sit at home in my study looking through them a lot of the time. If you said to me what do I want to accomplish by the end of my life? I would say, “Oh, to have been everywhere.” For example I haven’t been to Japan. It doesn’t particularly bother me that I haven’t been to Japan because it means I have it to look forward to. And there’s a whole lot of other places…
RB: Have you been to every continent?
GD: Oh yeah. That’s not such a big achievement is it? There are only five of them.
RB: Wait a minute, in the US we include the polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctica…
GD: Oh right, sorry.
RB: Any place that you favor? Or is about moments that occur?
GD: There are particular places that I am drawn to. It’s interesting what draws you to a place…It might well be often you have seen a picture of it. Or it might be something you’ve read. Years ago when I went to Death Valley for the first time, I really wanted to go there. Why? Because I really dug what someone wrote about it. Other times you get to places, you have no real interest in them just because somebody says, "Do you want to go here?" And it turns out great or average or horrible but no less valuable for having been horrible. So I do want to have been everywhere once. And there are definitely some places I want to have been only once.
RB: (Laughs) Tell me more about the next book. Is it historic? Or your favorite photos that you are weaving into something new?
GD: It would be more like that. What can I say? If somebody asked me what my book on the First World War was like or my book on jazz was like, I would say, "Well, it’s just my thoughts on jazz. My thoughts about the First World War." So these are my thoughts about some photographs. As I am working on it more, so I am being drawn to certain photographers and the choice of the photographers is not really surprising. Mainly, the canonical figures.
RB: The Frenchmen?
GD: Actually, a lot of Americans as it turns out. It’s surprising me the extent that it is becoming so much about American photographs.
RB: I’m not fan a of Nick Wapplington and there is Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt. Who are other British photographers?
GD: I’ve become quite interested in this British photographer who did a lot of photographs in America. Actually he died in a car accident in Arizona in maybe ’91. Michael Ormerod. I’m sure he is not at all known here, but he is an amazing photographer. Particularly amazing because he was so steeped in the tradition of the American photographers.
RB: The immense size of America seems to require photographers to open themselves up…
GD: That’s what they do. Although Cartier-Bresson famously said America was too vast to photograph. But, of course, it is that absolute vastness that is the great appeal. As you say, Robert Frank does that Guggenheim funded road trip, and then Winogrand does that 1964 Guggenheim funded trip.
RB: Cartier-Bresson published a book of American photographs.
GD: America in Passing. And sure enough there are some great pictures of America in it. There are images that are absolutely of an equal of ones that—there are images very similar to ones done by Edward Weston when he was doing all the traveling for his Walt Whitman book.
RB: When do you expect to complete this one?
GD: Oh I don’t know. I’m at the outskirts of the periphery of the suburbs of it. At the moment…
RB: (Laughs) And past that?
GD: I certainly couldn’t think beyond that.
RB: Really? No concern about the arc of your career?
GD: Oh no, it’s very much the AA thing of one day at a time. I mean funnily enough when my first book came out in England, somebody said, "So this is a first novel." I remember saying I object to both of those terms, “A, I only call it a novel because I don’t know what else to call it. And the idea of ‘first’ suggests that this is just a stepping stone to when the action is really going to happen, the third or the fourth.” So I never felt like being that loathsome thing, a career novelist. I am very hostile to the model of the writer who finishes a book on a Friday, has the weekend off, does a bit of shopping on a Monday, and Tuesday they roll up the sleeves and get cranking again. I’m much keener on this kind of—the type of thing where you have to accumulate some experience or maybe do something that is going to mean that the book three is going to be more than just a slightly different version of book two.
RB: Let’s admit the possibility that there are writers who, as they are working on something, have such fertile imaginations and are well caffeinated that there are other ideas bubbling out and they just can’t stop. I wouldn’t describe Joyce Carol Oates as a career novelist [in your view].
GD: That’s a real thing isn’t? I’m always wondering whether that’s the best way to go because the more you write the more you tend to have this ability to instantly transmute what you are seeing and thinking into words. As we all know about writing, there are several ways to skin this particular cat. That’s not the way I go about it. On occasion when I have taught writing, one of the things I emphasize is there is no right way to do it.
RB: You do live in a real world. So you have an agent and relationships with publishing houses and deal with editors. Are there people that you find that have been kinder and more companionable and easier to work with that have made possible your episodic approach to making books?
GD: Yeah. I think that’s the thing. For me being a writer has always been about not having a career, about being a respectable drop-out as it were. But of course, all the time that kind of privilege is dependent on having people around you who are having careers and who are in a position of sufficient power to be able to publish your books and all the rest. I like that arrangement. When I was younger perhaps—I think Ian McEwan says this somewhere— that when he was younger he felt, as I did, that you are missing out on this world of taking taxis to urgent meetings and all that kind of thing. I can remember feeling that in my ’20s and then as you get older it is with a sense of relief that you realize you are not having to do that. And then on those rare occasions when you get a taxi to an urgent meeting like this, then it’s actually quite novel. To put it in the simplest terms, it’s just a way of living that you get used to and it doesn’t take much now for me to feel things are intruding on my time. Quite often if I have dentist appointment at 3 o’clock and I have got up at 9, I feel like, "Well, it’s hardly worth doing anything now, is it?" (both laugh)
RB: Somebody did suggest you might be the “Slacker Laureate”?
GD: I’m not sure. “Slackerness” was a quite American-specific phenomenon. There was this moment, when I left university, when it was such a period of mass unemployment in England, it was very difficult to get a job. I was never inclined to pursue a career path. I’ve always been drawn—it seems like a silly thing to say—to that Bohemian model of life. I’ve always liked that. That’s just a different version of the slacker thing, isn’t it?
RB: I think some journalists who cover the literary world are exploitative and opportunistic and essentially are hacks. As one writer said to me, "It takes a bit of wisdom to refrain from that clever but arguable remark." ‘Slacker’ does have a ring to it. I wonder if the literary world is based on a kind of Leibnitzian model where all the participants are monads bouncing off each other as opposed to one of tribal solidarity.
GD: Laughs. A bit of both isn’t it. The straight-forward inversion people who work in a office in the day want to do in the evening is come home and stay in. Of course if you have been in all day, in the evening you want to go out. So that’s why writers like to go to these 6:30 to 8:30 launch kind of things. Because there is this great urge to get out of the house. But to go back to the ‘slacker ‘ thing. Of course you think of Richard Linklater in connection with that. One is struck by, here he is, this classic slacker figure. Actually he has been incredibly prolific and industrious.
RB: You can’t make movies sitting around.
GD: To go back to this Yoga For Those Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It title, I have this impulse to not be bothered to do things but does actually doesn’t turn out to be a source of contentment and it ends up to be a goad to action. That is to say, after a certain amount of slacking, of doing nothing, of sitting around smoking pot, well most people will find that they really do need to do some work, to avoid lapsing into this awful kind of lethargy and depression. So eventually you move from idleness to a form of creative idleness to a form of living which involves a really nice balance between when you are doing some work, but there’s not that strict separation between work and leisure. On the one hand you are on holiday 365 days a years, on the other hand you are at work 365 days a year. And that’s pretty much an idyllic state of affairs, isn’t it? So that’s the thing, isn’t it, you want to be doing with your life what you want to do.
RB: After you have figured out what you want to do.
GD: Yeah. The awful thing is, often you have to spend eight or nine hours a day having to earn money to fund what you really want to do with the other eight conscious hours. But by then of course you are too tired to do anything but put the feet up and watch TV.
RB: And belch. You quote Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate in your book. Is he someone you admire, or had you just happened to have read that book?
GD: It happens that he comes up twice in this book, but yes I am a great admirer of his. A Flag For Sunrise is an amazing book. That for me is his absolute best book. It’s just a coincidence [that he is mentioned in the book].
RB: He has a new novel coming out this Spring. A great American writer. Who are other writers you read?
GD: Loads of them. I am of that generation of English people who were always drawn to American writing. So I have huge lacunae in terms of my English reading. I’ve never read Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch and just a bit of Evelyn Waugh. From an early stage it was Salinger and Kerouac, Heller, that kind of thing. Nearly all the novelists I’ve liked in the last twenty or thirty years, certainly until Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, they’ve nearly all been American. If I think about books that have had a huge effect on me I reckon The Names by Don Delillo is the most far-out work of fiction to have been published in the last—however many years. That’s not to say that other Delillo books were not fantastic but that was the one that really did it for me.
RB: Amis and McEwan strike me as being very American.
GD: Particularly Amis. What Amis does in Money is that he imports all that, he domesticates all that American linguistic voltage and all the time it’s going on the whole while. [I'm] Less sure about McEwan doing that. He’s become a lot more English. Increasingly, I notice all sorts of elements of the English literary tradition.
RB: Do you expect to live in England for the rest of your life?
GD: That would be a real thing of failure if I did. I really should end up in California at some point soon. Northern California. That’s where I’d like to end my days, and I’d like to begin ending my days as soon as possible.
RB: The sun? The culture?
GD: It’s the everything. My wife has a job in England, and as incredible as it may seem, she likes it in London. San Francisco is just a better place than London. I like everything about it. From the first moment I arrived back in the late ’80s, it was really like experiencing what life was a like a few rungs higher up the evolutionary ladder. You go back to England and it seems like you are slipping back down that ladder again. London was a fantastic place for a while, but now that particular phase is over.
RB: Well, thank you very much.
GD: Thank you. Okay. Done?
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing