Novelist Tibor Fischer was born in Stockport, near Manchester, England in 1959 of Hungarian parents who emigrated after the ill-fated Hungarian revolution of 1956. The family moved to a southern suburb of London in 1962, where he lived and grew up until he attended Cambridge University. After graduation, Fischer was a freelance journalist and the Budapest correspondent for the daily Telegraph. In 1993, he was on Granta's [specious] second Best Young British Novelist list, short-listed for the Booker Prize and won a Betty Trask Award for his first novel, Under the Frog. He has written a story collection, Don't Read This Book if You Are Stupid, and three more novels: The Thought Gang, The Collector Collector and recently, Voyage to the End of the Room. Tibor Fischer lives in London, a residence he is seriously entertaining changing.
Voyage to the End of the Room is a kind of fiction counterpart to the meditations of writers like Geoff Dyer (Yoga for Those who Can't Be Bothered to Do It) and Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel). The novel is the story of Oceane, who doesn't leave her apartment and yet using satellite radio, the Internet and other devices manages to simulate, if not recreate, a peripatetic life. In this tale of agoraphobia and wanderlust, she does get out of her London flat. As Sam Leith in the Literary Review opined, "Fischer is on average between 80 and 90 per cent as good as he seems to think he is: and that's very good indeed…But is he funny and engaging? Is it written with wit, brio and fierce intelligence? Hell, yes. And from under the great weight of cynicism, there does escape the tiniest bat squeak of compassion."
Robert Birnbaum: Do you know the Hungarian saying: "Life is like licking honey from a thorn?"
Tibor Fischer: If there is one, I have never heard of it. But there may well be. I am not completely up on all the Hungarian proverbs [laughs].
RB: Know anyone who is?
TF: [laughs] I could phone my father.
RB: My knowledge of Hungary comes from my initial curiosity after the '56 uprising and the sudden influx of Hungarian kids in my public school whose parents were fleeing—what should we call it— "Soviet oppression"?
TF: That is a fair enough term.
RB: And then my incidental contacts with various odd references here and there in my readings. Anyway, how is it that your family went to England?
TF: It's very simple. About 200,000 people left Hungary in the wake of the revolution in '56, and they all ended up in Austria. There were two places that opened their doors unconditionally to the Hungarian refugees—Britain and Sweden—said, 'If you want to come here, you are welcome.' Whereas, for America, there was a vetting process of some sort. So, it was partly that they could get to England straight away without any problems. My father, in fact, had one contact in England, so they went there.
RB: The "vetting process" in the US was the State Department's superheated vigilance in looking for undesirables.
TF: I don't know how extensive a process it was. But you had to say who you were and what you did and fill in a form. Whereas, with England, it was: get on the plane, and that was it. As I am sure you know, lots of Hungarians ended up here, too, after '56. I was born in a place called Stockport, which is near Manchester, in '59. So the first time I went back to Hungary, I was 22.
RB: Is the Hungarian community in England, such as it is, interested in maintaining its traditions and identity?
TF: It varies. A lot of Poles ended up in Britain during and after the Second World War, and the Poles are very cohesive compared to the Hungarians. But it varies: my parents left with the attitude that Hungary was a closed chapter and, "We now live in England." Although there were books about Hungary on the shelves, they didn't make a fuss. I am told, when I was very small, I spoke Hungarian. But when I started going to school, they began to reply to everything in English. So, they could have made a fuss and had me keep up my Hungarian, but they thought, "Well, why bother?"
RB: Isn't the language actually called Magyar?
RB: They spoke Magyar at home even though they, as you say, closed that chapter?
TF: Well, they spoke English with me, which is one reason I forgot Hungarian. Still, now, when I go back and visit for Sunday lunch and play the dutiful son, they speak English with me and Hungarian between themselves.
RB: My two recent reminders of Hungary history were literary. One, Arthur Phillips' novel Prague, which takes place—
TF: Mostly in Budapest.
RB: Yes. He creates a plausible but fictitious history of a publishing family in Hungary that requires some knowledge of the Hungarian history—which he didn't get enough credit for, by the way. So, that gave me some sense of Hungary, and then Alan Furst's Kingdom of Shadows, which focuses on partisan, anti-Nazi groups in Hungary in WWII. These books suggest Hungary is a fascinating place. Do you have any fascination with it?
TF: Apart from my parents, the whole family still lives there. And although Hungarian culture wasn't drummed into me in any way, the books were on the shelves and I always liked to read, so I read about Hungarian history and Hungarian literature in translation. It was always there as part of the background, and I worked there as a journalist. I went to Hungary for the first time when I was 22, after I graduated—I had a tough time finding work after I left university. I started writing about Hungary, and I was quite lucky that the first thing I had published was in the Wall Street Journal—a little op-ed piece about Hungary. And because of the fact that I had a Hungarian name—
RB: Fischer? [laughs]
TF: Tibor. People thought I knew more about Hungary than I did. But I started getting work to do with Hungary and started visiting regularly. So I did, in the course of it, really learn a lot about the place and the history. And I ended up living in Budapest from 1988 through 1990, through all the big fun and games.
RB: Just before the Wall went down and just after. "The fun and games" is an interesting way of putting it. Did you buy a piece of the Wall?
TF: No, no, no.
RB: And you weren't in a Pepsi commercial.
TF: In any case, you have to remember that the East Germans wouldn't have fallen if it hadn't been for the Hungarians. It was the Hungarian Communists who sank the Soviet Empire by letting the Germans out.
RB: Say more.
TF: I was visiting Hungary regularly from the end of the '80s onwards. I was there in the winter of '87, and it was quite obvious that the system was starting to crack in Hungary. So I thought, "I should come and live here for a while because it's going to be very interesting and I can watch it happen." Essentially, the Hungarian Communist Party got rid of Karda, who was the man that Russians put into power in 1956, because basically, he went gag-ga. The younger people managed to shove him out of the way, putting him into retirement. And they were a different generation. This is something I'm not sure is appreciated enough—all the changes in Eastern Europe in '89 were really due to the fact that the people who had power, Gorbachev and the others, were a different generation. They weren't a generation who had blood on their hands—hadn't butchered people to get into power or watched other people being butchered. And the Hungarian Communists, in particular, knew all about the Soviet Union, but because their system was more liberal and they traveled a lot, they also knew about the United States and western Europe, and it was a pretty clear choice which camp they wanted to be in. So they started easing up—the problem is when you start easing up in a system like that, things fall apart very, very quickly. In a short space of time—it was something you could see day by day—from almost nothing, you had a number of political parties, oppositional political parties forming, quite openly.
RB: And relaxed economic conditions?
TF: There has always been the so-called "goulash communism" —there'd always been a tolerance of the private sector, on a small scale. If you wanted to open a restaurant or you wanted to open a small boutique or make cushions or small-scale cottage industries or other stuff, you were allowed to do so. That had been going on for sometime in Hungary. Also, compared with the Soviet Union—even the bigger enterprises were more flexible. Similarly, agriculture, by the standards of the Soviet Bloc, was a success story because the Hungarians had plenty of food. So, there was that, and by the end of the '80s, they were opening up the doors to people from the West with lots of these so-called "joint ventures" where Hungarian companies could link up with foreign companies and go into business—it was very liberal, although basically, a rather awkward, one-party state. But it started to collapse, and the most significant thing about it, really, was that in the summer of '89, the East Germans weren't allowed to travel except within the Bloc. They liked to come to Hungary because there is a big lake called The Balaton, in central Hungary, which the Germans were very keen on visiting. To them, Hungary was a very glamorous destination.
RB: Like Miami here?
TF: Almost like that—more liberal and more choices of goods. And that summer, a lot of them had been hanging around with the hope of getting out to Austria because there were also things going on internally in East Germany. And the Hungarian Communist Party basically took the decision to open the border with Austria. So a large number of Germans could go out into Austria and on to West Germany and freedom. Basically, that was the thing that destabilized East Germany—a major factor in scuppering East Germany. And East Germany was the front line. That's where there was something like 20 Soviet divisions stationed—in East Germany. And Honecker's regime fell. That was really the thing that finished it off, because then it was clear to everyone in the other countries that it was a free for all—the so-called "Frank Sinatra doctrine"—you know: you could do it your way. Then you had the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and then in Romania, when Ceaucescu was deposed.
RB: What do you think about the claim that Ronald Reagan and his policies had sunk the Soviet Union?
TF: Actually, I think there is a valid case for it. When Reagan came to power—certainly in Britain they were very dismissive of him because he had been an actor. Similarly, with Thatcher, people said she was adopting this hard line and it won't work. Well, with all these political things, you can argue either way, but I think you can put forward an argument that because Reagan and Thatcher (you remember she allowed the Cruise missiles to be based in Britain, in the face of quite considerable opposition) showed the Soviets that the West meant business—that it would be very difficult for them to compete militarily. They were also in huge trouble in Afghanistan. And they decided they wanted to cut some sort of deal. Gorbachev, it should be remembered, didn't want to destroy the Communist system. He was interested in reforming it and making it more flexible and productive. If the Hungarian Communists hadn't known or sensed that Gorbachev would let them get away with it, they probably wouldn't have done it.
RB: You are correct that it can be argued either way since people do—there are arguments that the Soviets would have collapsed sooner and that hard line prolonged the Cold War. Anyway, we are quite far afield here. Let's talk about Journey to the End of the Room. What moved you to write a female main character?
TF: It's partly, I suppose, that I am not interested in writing the same book again and again. And I hadn't done it before. I probably won't do it again. When I was thinking about the idea—the central gimmick of the novel is that the narrator, Oceane, never leaves home during the course of the novel. Somehow it seemed to me—it seemed right that she should be a woman and it should be first-person narration and—it was visceral: I felt that's the way it should go.
RB: And what was attractive about this gimmick of writing about an agoraphobic woman?
TF: It would be pretty dull if she just stayed in her room all the time—so obviously, I cheat. Because, paradoxically, the other thing I wanted to do is—it's sort of a novel about travel. Travel is another one of the main themes, although Oceane never leaves home. I suppose partly for dramatic effect, because you need to have things happening in the book; otherwise, it's very dull. Also, because I wanted her to be someone who had been out and had been very involved with the world before she decided to stay in her room—I didn't want an introverted recluse who never left home because she didn't want anything to do with the world. The idea was she was someone who had seen something of the world and then decided to stay in.
RB: In her stay at this—what is it: a strip club?
TF: Sex club, really.
RB: At the sex club in Barcelona, Oceane exhibits the same agoraphobia there. She keeps intending to go places and never does.
TF: There is a running joke with her that she does actually go abroad—she goes to Barcelona, but she travels directly from the airport to the club and she has a room in the club.
RB: With a roof deck with a swimming pool and a fine restaurant next door—
TF: So she never really needs to leave, and out of laziness, she never really gets to see Barcelona. That's a running joke because in other parts of the book she went to India and saw nothing.
RB: Oh, right. She has an affair with an Indian and ends up again never leaving her hotel.
TF: Sorry, what was the original question?
RB: What is the genesis of her agoraphobia?
TF: One of the things I was interested in looking at in the book is that even in the 17th century you could always just stay at home—assuming you had enough money to do so—you could always stay at home and lock the doors. The difference now is you can stay at home and still, in a very curious way, be well informed about what is going on in the world, through radio and television and the Internet and so on. And it's partly a reflection on what it is, that makes you go out the front door if you don't have to go out the front door. Oceane is a computer designer, so she works at home. She doesn't have to leave, and she chooses not to, and it's about what it is, finally, that the world can offer you that would make you want to leave.
RB: She has these odd incidents going downstairs in her house collecting mail at what she calls 'the Beach.' Then she runs into an oddball debt collector named Audley. So, you do fill her life up with action of a kind.
TF: Otherwise, it would be very dull. Audley, who is the debt collector, ends up doing her dirty work for her.
RB: In Chuuk. Is there such a place?
TF: Yes, it used to be known as Truc, and they changed it 20 years ago because Truc was the German imperialist name. It was a German colony. The Micronesian Federation is the correct term.
RB: There is another standing joke—which is the regular reference to people who are local government officials, which becomes a synonym for "crook."
TF: Well, that's a reflection on my personal experience. I live in the part of London, which is run by one of the most inefficient and corrupt councils in the country.
TF: Yeah, it has a tradition of corruption and incompetence going back many decades. It's allegedly getting better. I tell people this, and they think I am joking. I actually had to sue them, take them to court, to get them to come collect the refuse every week. For two or three years my neighbors and I complained incessantly, and one of my neighbors even went to the depot and fell on his knees and begged them to come and collect the rubbish. And they didn't. Funnily enough, once I took them to court—as soon as the papers were lodged, like clockwork [the garbage is picked up] [laughs].
RB: That explains the reoccurrence of Oceane constantly suggesting she is going to call the police—and either they hang up or they come 40 minutes later.
TF: It is set in present day South London. One of the reasons she decides to stay at home is, because going out is rather unpleasant. Again, that is a reflection of the reality. People who don't live in London are rather surprised to hear this. London is falling apart. London now is like New York in the '70s. Nothing works. Everything is dirty.
RB: Why do you live there?
TF: I don't know, really [laughs]. It's partly because the publishing business is centered in London, and you have to show your face occasionally.
RB: Why do you live in England?
TF: I have been thinking about relocating for sometime. Before Christmas I was in Budapest for a couple of months. Generally speaking, Budapest is a much more agreeable place than London. I was there in the '80s, it was still—there wasn't a great deal of choice in the shops. It was difficult to get a phone line. Bladdy bladdy blah. Now the shops—if you have the money—the shops are pretty good. With the Internet, if I ever need a book or magazine or a CD or whatever—you can order it from Amazon. It's [Budapest] a better size. One of the basic problems London has is that has sort of become the capitol of Europe. So that young Spaniards, young French students, people who want to make it in music or design or architecture or business or whatever, gravitate towards London. A lot of people are there—not just as tourists—coming to live. And the city can't cope with the number of people that are there now.
RB: How did the plan to stop car traffic in the center city work out?
TF: There is a so-called "congestion charge" now in central London, which has helped a bit with the traffic—you go in the central area and you have to pay—I think it is 5 pounds, to drive through. That seems to be quite successful because it is noticeable that there is less traffic. That is a slight improvement. I have lived in London most of my life. I can remember—as a teenager—that July and August had the tourists and—Xmas shopping—the center of town was full, but the rest of the year it was fine. Now it doesn't matter what month it is or what time of day, the center of London is packed. Packed. And public transport doesn't work. And on top of all that, it's very expensive. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. And really, you get very little for your money [laughs].
RB: Your first answer about living in London was that you thought you needed to be near the center of publishing—
TF: The two big centers of publishing are New York and London, and you don't have to be there—it's not like a regular job where you have to be there on a 9-to-5 basis. It's like any other business: you sort of have to check in.
RB: You don't want people to forget about you?
TF: You have to keep an eye on your publisher and chat with your agent and stuff like that. So it's partly that I pay my taxes in England.
RB: Do you teach?
TF: I have done some teaching of creative writing but not a lot. For the last ten years I have been a full-time writer.
RB: Is it easy to support yourself? No, that's not how I want to ask that.
TF: Well, so far so good. I have managed to pay the bills with writing for the last ten years.
RB: You were on the second Granta list?
TF: That's right, the 1993 list.
RB: The future—
TF: Best of Young British Novelists—under 40.
RB: The future greats?
TF: Well, they didn't say that, but maybe that was the intent.
RB: And how did you feel about being included?
TF: Of the twenty people on that list, I have no doubt I was the one who got most out of it. My first book had only just been published a few months before the list was announced, and I was published by a very, very small Scottish press based in Edinburgh. So without the Granta list, I would probably have disappeared without a trace. I am sure I wouldn't have had the Booker nomination if it hadn't been for the publicity associated with the Granta list. For the others, many of whom were already very well established, I don't think the Granta list made much difference. [Kazuo] Ishiguro and [Ben] Okri already had Bookers, so they were very well known and successful. And some of the others, like Lawrence Norfolk, Louis de Bernieres and Will Self, also did quite well.
RB: How much of your life as a professional writer requires you to pay attention to such subsidiary things?
TF: That's the funny thing about being a writer: the writing becomes almost incidental.
TF: You don't have to do subsidiary, ancillary stuff. If you write a book, it's hard work, and you put a lot of time into it—or at least I do. And once you have done that, you want the book to have some sort of chance. For reasons I don't entirely understand, British fiction is still held in high regard globally. So, once you get to a certain level in Britain, you are pretty much guaranteed you are going to have a German edition, an Italian edition and French edition, and usually when the book is published abroad, the publishers want you to go over and do interviews and readings. Once you get to a certain level, you could almost spend your whole life doing readings and going to seminars and doing interviews and that sort of thing. You don't have to do it, but I think that most of us want to give the books a chance, and doing the publicity, kissing babies and shaking hands, can help a bit.
RB: Is it a sign of the times? Isn't that what a good agent used to do?
TF: It's a question of luck. There are still a few good editors out there and a few good agents, but generally, unfortunately, as a writer you are on your own.
RB: Is it a matter of scale?
TF: Maybe. [If you are] Salman Rushdie or John Grisham—I am sure people are working much harder for you than if you are a first-time novelist. Essentially, the way the system works now is that both in New York and London, it's like a game of musical chairs. The publishers move around so much, if the editor whom you sold the book to is still there when the book is published, you are quite lucky. That's quite rare. Maybe it's a myth that it was much better in the past, but the impression you get is that authors and editors would work together for ten or twenty years and build up a very close relationship: and that's gone. And to some extent, agents have replaced that function, but they are not always reliable. I have quite a checkered past with agents. Basically, you are on your own to very large extent.
RB: Is it distracting?
TF: It can eat up a lot—a certain amount you have to do, you don't have any choice about it. After that, it is a question of your temperament. Some people love to perform and go around, and if you enjoy doing it, why not?
RB: Do you?
TF: Up to a point. It's—one drawback to being a writer is that you are stuck at home on your own. Once in a while, it's nice to get out and do a reading and meet other human beings and meet your readers and get feedback about the books. But finally, I became a writer because I am interested in writing. I don't want to be a stand-up comedian or showman.
RB: Is there a noticeable difference your book's reception in England and in the US?
TF: I haven't spotted it. To be published here is always nice because there are lots of good American writers—there is a lot of competition. So, getting your book published here at all—my first publisher—what happened was, I tried to get an agent and couldn't, and I sent to about 12 big agencies. First of all, I started off sending out some sample chapters, and by the time I had worked my way through a dozen agencies, I had finished the whole book.
TF: They hang on to it for months. One or two were quite interested, and they finally chickened out. So after that, I was quite annoyed with agents, as you might imagine, and I thought, "Okay, I'll do it myself." So I started sending out to publishers in London—using The Artist's and Writer's Handbook, which has a list of the publishers—I think there were 58 working imprints in the UK at the time. And it was rejected by 56 of them.
TF: I finally had gotten to Polygon (on the 3rd floor of Edinburgh University Press building). It was an offshoot of that press. Actually, it's very small, but it has a distinguished pedigree. They published James Kelman and Allison Kennedy and others—
RB: Allison Kennedy also known as A.L Kennedy.
TF: That's right. I'd seen some of their books and, at this point, I wasn't expecting it to be published, but I thought, Well, let's go right through the list. Let's be thorough. And I just stuck the manuscript in the post and they read it and liked it. And finally, that's all you need. You need one person, one editor, who is in a position to publish your book, to like it.
RB: Your experience reminds me of Gerard Jones, whose experience with the publishing world in trying to get published led to his creating Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing, and now his novel Ginny Good is being published. It's hard for me to conceive of getting 56 rejection letters.
TF: It wasn't much fun.
RB: Did you become angry in this process?
TF: Well, uhhh, yes. Because I don't make any great claims for the novel, but the fact is, it got me on the Granta list. It got me a Booker nomination. It got me a Betty Trask Award. It's been translated into 18 languages. It has been optioned for film. People who don't know me, who don't expect anything from me, write me letters from all around the world saying they enjoyed it. So, there is something there.
RB: You are not the first writer to have received an inordinate number of rejections.
TF: Fifty-six is high. Finally, if a publisher takes your book on, they're investing a lot of money: if even—if you bring a book out cheaply, it's thousands of pounds. That's an investment. Where[as] agents, frankly, they stick manuscripts in an envelope and it's a bit of postage, that's it. It was the agents that incensed me more than anything else. Also, because I see what's published. While I think there are very, very few bad books that get published, there are an awful lot of vapid, insipid, pointless books.
RB: I don't know if you heard the recent news from the NYT and [editor] Bill Keller's remarks about the Book Review—its future direction. But there is brouhaha because he [Keller] suggested that they would be doing more non-fiction reviews, in part, because that's where there were a lot of good ideas and, basically, "There was a lot of shit out there." More than there ever was, do you think?
TF: I don't know. There is a lot of shit, but there is a lot of non-fiction shit, as there is fiction. That's a tough one to quantify. I think, from the publishers' point of view, they [publishers] still publish a lot of stuff on a sink or swim basis. It's like that famous sign in the Hollywood studio, "Nobody knows anything." And the same applies to publishing—finally, why one book is successful and another isn't is a bit of a mystery. Obviously, if there is a 2 million dollar advertising campaign behind the book, the odds are it's probably going to do well. Similarly, at the end of the year in Britain, the books that have done well have won awards. I can usually predict half the Booker short list. Those books are usually the ones that have been heavily hyped by publishers. Having said that, there are still [successful] books that come out of nowhere, and I think a lot of publishers in Britain still put out a lot of titles like putting out bait on a fishing trip, in the hope that they will get a nibble. From their point of view, they would be better off publishing less and working harder for the titles they do publish. Most books in Britain are not really published, they are printed and that's that.
TF: And if the booksellers like them and order them, great. And if they don't, it's off to the pulp.
RB: In the US, the conventional wisdom holds [that] there is a 6-week window and there is no pulp pile—books get remaindered.
TF: It's about that in most of the bookshops in Britain.
RB: Again, I wonder if it is a function of the exploding infrastructure of conglomerates and the cost of doing business. It seems like publishers are required to publish greater quantities to get their product into the distribution pipeline of the big retailers. Decently publishing a book at 15 or 20 thousand copies seems not to be an option.
TF: That's what I am saying. They would be more likely to sell more books if they worked harder for a smaller range of titles. There is the term that I am sure exists here in the States, too: "lead title." Every publisher has one a month, or two or three a year, depending how big they are. If you think about it, the fact that there is a "lead title" means that there are titles that aren't lead titles.
TF: And that's the unpleasant truth. That most books are just printed, and there is a hope that they will win an award or some film producer will option it or it will become some sort of cult hit. I see what happens to other writers, too. I am relatively lucky. It's a cruel thing to do that to someone's book. To put it out without any support. It's just going to disappear. In some ways, it's better not to publish it at all and raise someone's hope than to put it out and throw it straight into oblivion.
RB: That's why it's important to have a day job. I recently talked to Edward Jones. He published his first book of stories [Lost in the City] in 1992 and was nominated for a National Book Award. And he disappeared for 11 or 12 years, and [then] publishes his second book, a novel [The Known World] in 2003, and it's also nominated for a National Book Award.
TF: Well, short stories are viewed in the business almost like poetry. Publishers tend to make the sign of the cross when they hear "short story collection."
RB: They still put out a significant number.
TF: Well, sort of, but again, it's advance publicity for the novel or [done] on the [basis of] sink or swim: Why not? let's put it out and see.
RB: The commercial is at odds with the aesthetic—some writers believe that writers' best work is usually exhibited in their short stories, if they write them.
TF: It's become a self-fulfilling prophecy in England. There is more respect and also more a market in the States because there is the New Yorker and other magazines that run them fairly regularly.
RB: Not so in England?
TF: Not really. The only place that regularly runs short stories is Granta magazine. I think, really, for the last years, even the short stories that appear in Granta tend to be short stories from collections that are about to appear. If the collection isn't going to be published or you are not Salman Rushdie, there is not much point in sending stories in.
RB: Does the Paris Review have an impact in England?
TF: None. You can find it in some of the bigger bookshops and people in the business know what it is, but I don't think their [Paris Review] circulation is more than a thousand copies in the UK.
RB: So, here we are. You recently gained some notoriety here because of your Martin Amis non-review—it wasn't really a review?
TF: No, it wasn't. In a review, you have to justify and explain your comments.
TF: It was a column, and because there was an embargo on the book at the time, I had the pleasure of condemning it without having to give any justification, really.
RB: You didn't violate the embargo?
TF: I made fun of the embargo. One of the reasons I wrote it was because Andrew Wylie, the agent [known as the Viper] was making a great big fuss about the embargo. It was rather absurd—you could go to Amazon site and get the synopsis without any problem. But I was given an advance copy and the embargo letter, so, I felt it was rather silly, but I wanted to respect it to some extent. But nothing I said violated it. [I said] Something like, "I can't tell you what's in the book, but I can tell you that it's terrible." The other thing that is funny is that I spent half the article saying how much I admire Amis and how good a writer he is, but no one pays attention to that bit, to read that or remember that bit. The favorable comments about Yellow Dog—
RB: You are close to publishing your own book. You write an essay about a—
TF: A column.
RB: A negative column about a world recognized writer, who has the status of a rock and roll star—were you not then distracted from dealing with your own book by having to respond to any subsequent uproar?
TF: Many people quoted it, but very little of it reached me. I spend a lot of time with writers and booksellers and publishing people who are interested in books and, really, I have yet to have anyone come up to me and say, "You were wrong. How could you do that? This book is a masterpiece." On the contrary, people were slapping me on the back, saying, "It was about time someone…"
RB: I didn't think that book was horrible. I thought it worth reading.
RB: I have read a fair amount of Amis. He is not an easy writer to read, but he is always interesting to me.
TF: As I say, I am a big fan of the earlier books. The story behind this is that I got the advance copy of the book, read it and was outraged. The first half of the novel is okay, if very familiar for people who have read his other books. The second half: I got the feeling he sort of gave up and went off early for lunch. He had a deadline—as a professional writer, I know it's hard work producing any sort of book. If you are producing books year after year, some are going to be better than others. And any professional writer is always running the risk of producing something that's a bit flat or not particularly good. The second half of Yellow Dog was unprofessional. It was really sloppy.
RB: That's a more severe criticism. It would seem you are challenging his motive or intent, not his talent.
TF: As I said in the piece, I think he is a very talented writer—if you had given me Yellow Dog and said, "This a first novel by a twenty-four-year-old," I don't think I would have enjoyed it any more: I would have felt, Yes, there is talent here. And that's the problem with Yellow Dog: the talent's there. I don't think he delivers.
RB: Do you have the experience of rereading something and either having a diametrically opposed sense of it the second time or—
TF: You do change as you grow up. I used to read science fiction as a teenager and going [back to] most of those books now is disappointing. A lot of them weren't particularly well written. Some things still stand up—Dune, I think is very good.
RB: That's the last science fiction I read. I agree with you. The reason I ask is because I feel like some of our judgments of this thing called "literature"—or "story"—is really very personal and affected by a number of things that can and do change.
TF: Of course. It's highly subjective. I am sure there are some who will enjoy Yellow Dog more than I did. That said, I still think that [there] are some sort of criteria that are almost objective. And Amis may well be remembered, but I bet the bottom dollar it won't be for Yellow Dog. As I say, I talked to a lot of people, and people do have the habit of saying one thing to your face and another thing behind your back—
RB: You noticed? [laughs]
TF: I noticed. Most people I know just shook their heads in disbelief over Yellow Dog.
RB: Along with the Internet discussions of your column, there were more than a few who commented that Amis' last few books were not very good. What was terrible, besides Night Train?
TF: I actually admired Night Train. I thought it was an interesting experiment. I didn't enjoy it. That's the difference between it and Yellow Dog. I think he put in an honest day's work there [in Night Train]. The nuts and bolts were there. Koba the Dread is very well written and my objection—not my objection—my observation is that it is a little bit pointless because, if you are interested in that, why not read Solzynitzen or Robert Conquest or someone else? Although, he does precisely all that and writes about it very elegantly.
RB: I like it because it reminded me of my own blinders, and it saved me from reading larger tomes on the subject.
TF: There's that. But it is maybe not as well documented, as it should be, about the sort of fellow travelers of the left and their attitude toward the Soviet Union. Even up to 1989. I worked on a TV documentary for Channel 4 on British television, which went out in 1988, and it was called The Other Europe, and it was about the Warsaw Bloc countries. And we were attacked in the Independent by the television critic, who said we were too hard on [Nicolai] Ceaucescu. This is 1998, it's the Independent and we were "too hard on Ceaucescu?"
RB: He was a darling in the US, referred to as an "unaligned moderate Communist." He was the symbol—
TF: By 1988, it was public knowledge: people were starving. He was bulldozing villages, and he was bumping people off. But obviously, the television critic at the Independent didn't know this. And that was the most outrageous example. And twelve months later, the Romanians put him against the Wall and shot him. Which was far harsher criticism.
RB: His wife, too.
TF: Yeah, yeah, both of them together. And there are other reviews along those lines—"They are being a bit harsh on these countries." And this was in '88 and '89. And then, embarrassingly for the Left, the whole system fell apart. And people in these countries were saying, "How could you have been so stupid to think that there was real socialism here?"
RB: When you started writing Voyage to the End of the Room did you know what you wanted to do?
TF: Not entirely. There are writers who say or claim that before they start working in a novel, they have a blueprint or a road map of where they want to go. I don't do it that way because I get bored very easily. So, if I knew exactly everything that was going to happen from page 1 to page 300, I'd never get round to writing it because I would get so bored. I like to surprise myself and I work on the page. I rewrite a lot. So I had this idea, about someone who didn't want to go out, and to explore those possibilities. That was the starting point.
RB: And what gave you the sense that you were finished?
TF: Ummm [long pause]. I suppose when she leaves her flat.
TF: The longest walking out of a flat in world literature.
RB: When you have completed a novel, what is the feeling?
TF: Relief. Certainly, for me, by the time I have finished, I am absolutely sick to death of it.
RB: Many revisions?
TF: A lot of redrafting, and you never really want to see it again.
RB: Do you have any first readers?
TF: Obviously, your agent. These days, the book's usually contracted to someone, and there is an editor as well. So, they look at it.
RB: Some writer friends?
TF: Yeah, I have some friends too that I show it [to], and my father usually gets first look.
RB: What does he say?
TF: What he thinks [laughs heartily].
RB: That's good. You don't want to map things out, but in your life do you have a plan? Do you want to write x number of novels? Retire somewhere warm?
TF: Certainly, retire or — not "retire": live somewhere warm, would be quite nice. I was just down in Miami, and I found it very, apart from the fact that it's nice and sunny, I found it a very interesting place: There's a lot of energy there. It's a very self-confident city.
RB: As opposed to other American cities?
TF: Yeah. I'd say that—I mean, I don't know all of America—I know most of the big cities: I think it does have an energy and sense of growth that you don't get anymore in New York or LA, or at least I don't. There is a lot of thrust there. It's a fantastic place to be rich. The only other place where I have seen ostentation like that is the south of France. People like to show off their toys in Miami. And most of it is very beautiful. So I am quite tempted by that. What I intend to do is to write. That is what [I] want to do. I don't think I will be knocking out a book a year. Partly because I am lazy and partly because it is difficult to do a good job. But that's my main interest.
RB: You are not interested in writing short stories?
TF: I did the one collection. I found writing short stories is much harder than I thought it would be; foolishly, I thought, "Well, they are short, so they will be easier." If you take them seriously, they are not. It takes quite bit of concentration, and also, it's what I was saying: no one really wants them. The publishers are sort of unhappy. When I was writing them, I thought I would get them in magazines, but if you are turned down by Granta and the New Yorker, that's just about it really, in terms of someone paying you. So I intend to give the people what they want, which seems to be novels.
RB: Are you interested in making movies, screenplays? [Rosie walks in] This is Rosie, have you met her?
TF: [pats Rosie] Not particularly. I would be very happy for the books to be made into films and to receive a large check, obviously. It's a slightly different discipline. Having said that, for a long time I wasn't interested at all, but I have begun to think about it as a sideline, as a change from writing novels.
RB: What would be the things that you rely on, that are part of your informational mix: movies, read a lot of newspapers, fiction, watch TV, hang out in bars? What takes up your life?
TF: Like everyone else, I have friends, and then playing the writer can get you out of the house quite a bit and you travel all over. You meet people in bars and railway stations. People are everywhere.
RB: So, the answer is: you are more inclined to get information about the world in conversation with people?
TF: Literature is basically about human nature, and it's observing people, and people are much more inventive and entertaining than you can imagine.
RB: So what's next for you?
TF: I don't know. Once I finish here, I really have to sit down. I've got a few thoughts.
RB: Is that an uncomfortable feeling? Not knowing what's next?
TF: Not really. It's not uncomfortable. The two worst stages of novel writing are the very beginning, when you have really nothing and you are setting out and you know there are 100,000 words to go, and that is daunting; and by the very end you are sick of it. There is a golden period in the middle, when you know you have a novel, and you are still enjoying it, and it's still fresh.
RB: Well, l thank you very much.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing