Geoff Dyer

Geoff DyerGeoff 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.

RB: Yes.

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.

GD: Really.

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?

GD: (laughs)

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.

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…

RB: Digression?

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.

GD: Umm.

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.

RB: (Laughs)

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.

geoff dyerRB:

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.

GD: Hmm

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: Sure.

RB: (laughs)

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.

All the time we are 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.

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?

geoff dyerGD:

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.

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.

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.

geoff dyerRB: 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

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