Tuesday, 31 August 2010
A quick chat with Ned Beauman
As promised, Ned Beauman has kindly answered some questions I sent him - I don't often do interviews here at Stuck-in-a-Book, mostly because my favourite authors are dead, but after reading Boxer, Beetle, I was keen to find out more... and since I'd already met Ned at an event put on by the lovely folk at Sceptre Press, I thought he wouldn't mind me asking. Over to you, Ned...
• So, we were both born in 1985… but while I’m writing a little book blog, you’ve gone and got a rather good novel published. What am I doing wrong and what are you doing right?
My mother gives some credence to Malcolm Gladwell's theory that you have to practise something for ten thousand hours to get good at it. I've also heard somewhere that you have to write a million words before you write your first worthwhile sentence. I don't know, but I did spend most of my school holidays since I was very young trying to write novels, and I'm sure that helped a lot. At university I finished one called The Martyr Street Theatre Company which I couldn't find an agent for, but then I started on Boxer, Beetle, and Lutyens & Rubinstein took me on after reading the first half. I finished it, they sent it out, and I got an offer from Sceptre immediately. Acquaintances often say to me, “Ned, I heard you wrote a book, that's amazing,” which I think is the wrong way to consider it. The writing isn't the impressive thing. Any literate adult can (and should) write a novel if they're willing to put in the time. But finding myself (at least provisionally) in a position where I can write fiction full-time is a rare miracle for which I'm incredibly grateful.
• Beetles, boxing and Nazis – on the face of it, not natural bedfellows. Did one of these come first, and the others follow, or were you always going to write about all three?
I was browsing the “Did you know...” section on Wikipedia when I came across a page about Anophthalmus hitleri (which is real) and a page about a nineteenth century Australian boxer who I won't name because many of the details of his life are spoilers for the book! It struck me that either one would make a terrific starting point for a novel, but then I realised I could save time by knocking them together. Most of the rest of the book emerged from trying to work out what those two things could possibly have in common.
• How do you feel about the word ‘quirky’ being applied to the novel?
I think words like 'quirky' become useless unless you bind them to a relatively specific meaning. And so 'quirky', to me, means films like I Heart Huckabees which are so eager to be distinctive that they end up as totally anodyne. I'm sad to say there's probably a bit of that in my Claramore chapters, but it doesn't apply to the novel as a whole.
• One of your central characters has trimethylaminuria, a genuine condition which causes the sufferer’s sweat, urine, and saliva to smell of rotting fish. How did you find out about trimethylaminuria, and why did you decide to use it?
Some friends of my ex-girlfriend's sister (try to keep track) had a kid who had trimethylaminuria. Novelists love physical externalisations of psychological traits because it means you can accomplish some of your early characterisation duties with nice straightforward visual description instead of a lot of abstract interior finessing which the reader can't picture. (Dickens does this better than anyone, of course, although a lot of writers might dismiss it as childish.) And trimethylaminuria is amazing because it's like a simple metaphor - 'I felt so rejected that I might as well have stunk of rotting fish' – made real. After I started the book there was a documentary about trimethylaminuria on BBC3, so I was worried it was suddenly going to be everywhere, but in fact almost nobody's heard of it and a lot of people assume I made it up.
• How much research, in general, went into the novel, and how did you go about doing it?
A lot of research. I consulted about fifty or sixty books, and I was on Wikipedia every day. I'm privileged to be a member of the London Library in St. James' Square, without which writing Boxer, Beetle would have been impossible (or at least very expensive, or very time-consuming).
• None of your characters are wholly likeable, and most of them are the opposite. Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach, for example, is more or less an unrepentantly selfish, cruel thug. Is ‘likeability’ something you think about when writing?
I disagree with that: Sinner's trainer, Sinner's sister, Evelyn's maid, and Evelyn's second husband (if you can remember who that is) are all good souls. But, yes, most of my protagonists are vile people, and I think this because the protagonist of any novel derives quite a lot from its author. I'm not saying Ned Beauman is necessarily a vile person, but the fact is that no one is wholly likeable to himself or herself. If she is (default use of female pronoun derived from my philosophy degree) she is either inhumanly self-satisfied or slightly mad. On the other hand, one of my models for this book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and Chabon's protagonists are truly loveable. A novel with such sympathetic heroes should be a bit insipid, but it's not at all. I don't know how Chabon accomplished that. I would love to know.
• Dull question, but needs to be asked - which authors have influenced you in your writing?
Limiting myself arbitrarily to ten: Ballard, DeLillo, Fitzgerald, Gibson, Greene, Nabokov, Pynchon, Updike, Waugh, Wodehouse. And also the criticism of James Wood, even though I disagree with the bulk of it.
• Regular Stuck-in-a-Book readers will have noticed your surname, and put two-and-two together… yes, you are the son of Nicola Beauman, who runs blog-favourite Persephone Books. I’ll be shot if I don’t ask – what do you think of Persephone, and have you read many of their books?
Asking me what I think of Persephone is like asking me what I think of a brother or sister! Well: I love hanging out in the shop on Lambs Conduit Street, and of course I'm very proud of my mother for having accomplished it all, from scratch, almost single-handedly, without compromise – but if someone said to you, 'Of all the out-of-print books in the world, select the hundred that Ned would be least interested in reading', you couldn't really come up with a more accurate list than the Persephone catalogue. But my mother knows that and is perfectly happy about it; the line's not aimed at someone like me. The only ones I've read are the few that I've helped her proofread, although I do of course plan to read her Elizabeth Taylor biography.
• We’re always interested about what’s on your to-be-read pile – what are you reading; what have you just finished; what’s up next?
I tend to juggle several books at a time, perhaps because the internet has destroyed my attention span. But recently I've finished Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton, I'm now mostly reading Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier is one of my favourite books), and I'm soon to start Exiled in Paradise by Anthony Heilbut.
• And what’s next from Ned Beauman?
I'm about half-way through my second book, which is called The Teleportation Accident. It's (predominantly) 1930s again, and it's about an Expressionist set designer from Berlin. There is a clue to the plot in my previous answer.