‘Nobody is convinced by my truthful answer’ – An Interview with Daniel Davies, author of Isle of Dogs

daniel daviesAs one of those surly cynical mid-thirties types who like stuff without loving anything a great deal – I can’t remember the last time I read a book, especially a debut novel, that shocked me and amused me and had me nodding and shaking my head like a Daily Mail reader all in the space of seven or eight pages as much as Daniel Davies‘ debut Isle of Dogs did… We simply had to speak to the man in question to see what was what…

 

Peter Wild (PW): There’s a quick Mark Danielewski-esque slight of hand at the beginning, Isle of Dogs being a book within a book. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it device but I wondered if you did that to put some distance between you and your narrator. (People thinking all first novels are autobiographical and that…)

Daniel Davies (DD): Subconsciously, maybe. But it clearly didn’t work as people ask me about biographical accuracy anyway. The main reason is probably that I like the idea of a book being a ‘found document’. It’s a device that frees the author up because it creates psychological space between author and narrator. That’s important if you’re writing what is effectively a sustained dramatic monologue. It helps you think of the narrator as a character rather than just a disembodied voice. It prevents you backsliding into your own thoughts and observations, which is a constant danger when you write in the first person. So, yes, I was trying to put some distance between myself and Jeremy Shepherd – but more out of concern for the quality of the writing than for biographical parallels.

PW: Let’s dispense with the vegetables and cut to the meat: your novel is in large part concerned with what we’ll politely call (but I think you very carefully refuse to refer to as) ‘the dogging community’. I’m curious as to whether you… did much in the way of research?

(DD): Well, seeing as nobody is convinced by my truthful answer, I may as well repeat it – all the research I did was online. Well, most of it anyway. There are countless websites, chatrooms and forums devoted to dogging. Just tap ‘dogging’ into google.co.uk and marvel (or grimace, according to taste). The internet is a godsend to novelists. But generally I try to keep research to a minimum. It can become a kind of crutch that you lean on out of insecurity. I think research should inspire a novel, but not dominate it. It’s vital to have confidence in your imagination. Most writers do too much research. You can often detect it in novels – it’s the writing that feels most lifeless and, ironically, least convincing.

PW: Jeremy Shepherd is a wildly compelling character. Throughout the book I found myself agreeing with him on a whole host of points (from the uselessness of office life to the seeming fall Britain seems to be pursuing aggressively). Would you say Jeremy was a device (in the same way that, say, Updike’s Rabbit, who you reference in the book, is a device) for exploring taboos…?

(DD): He probably is, but I think that’s a critic’s perspective rather than an author’s. It’s hard for authors to see their characters as devices. Personally, I think you sometimes create a character as a means of leading an alternative life – a life that you wanted to lead yourself, perhaps, or might have ended up leading. Maybe you use your characters as avatars to do things you haven’t done, or couldn’t do, in reality. Everyone says that Rabbit is the Updike who never went to Harvard (and the Updike who, like Rabbit, enjoys golden showers in the bath with his friends’ wives, although I don’t know Updike personally, so who knows?) Maybe Jeremy Shepherd is an alternative Daniel Davies who longed to embrace nihilism, drop out of the rat race and cruise provincial car parks.

PW: I wondered as I read if you were a fan of Peep Show. That’s the only comparable thing I could draw a parallel with as I read. As a reader of Isle of Dogs (and, I suppose as a viewer of Peep Show) you inhabit some quite uncomfortable spaces. So: two questions: what do you think of the Peep Show connection (I expect you to deride it for some reason) and (two) how important is it for you to make your reader squirm (even a leetle bit)?

(DD): I’m a huge fan of Peep Show. Despite its brilliant technical qualities, like its point-of-view camerawork, the main reason it’s become so popular and so lauded is actually very simple – it tackles taboos. In fact, it doesn’t just tackle them – it flies in with two feet from behind, knee-high, studs gleaming. That fearlessness is admirable. It’s the same kind of fearlessness you find in Michel Houellebecq and early Martin Amis. Good fiction – one might loftily say good art – challenges us to reassess our values and assumptions. So much cultural output is designed to make us feel good, which is anaesthetising. It turns us into passive observers, and passive consumers, which of course is its purpose. Art can shock us out of this stupor. So the more people squirm when reading Dogs, the better.

PW: I also wonder (and I suspect you might not like this either – am I going to be one of those cunty interviewers that you eventually get pissed off with start to give one word answers to?) at the sort of middle class revulsion at chavs that seems to permeate the book… Care to comment?

(DD): I’m not sure that such revulsion is inherently middle-class – or even inherently English. I think people from all social and ethnic backgrounds are disturbed by certain aspects of UK ‘chav’ culture, such as binge-drinking and teenage pregnancy. Having lived abroad, I’m acutely aware of the way the English are perceived, especially in continental Europe. Jeremy Shepherd is no snob – he hangs out with a refugee, a cheesy boy-band member and a former estate agent. Also, he’s equally repulsed by the flashy bourgeois world of glossy magazines that he leaves behind. He suffers from a kind of pan-revulsion that incorporates the whole of contemporary culture. More importantly, I didn’t intend him to be a likeable character. He may have a satirical outlook, but he’s also an object of satire (mine, as the author). The novel is partly a parody of people like Jeremy Shepherd.

PW: Perhaps the most surprising thing readers of this interview might find about the Isle of Dogs is just how bloody funny it is. That scene right at the start of the book where he’s shagging the old woman through the car window while she fellates her elderly husband.. I was sitting on the bus, chuckling away and simultaneously feeling slightly shocked, looking sheepishly about to make sure nobody could see what I was reading. You had me in what I believe Eastenders refer to as a right two and eight. Pleased with yourself?

(DD): I’m pleased you found it funny, yes. I always intended Dogs to be a comic novel – and, let’s face it, dogging is crying out for comic treatment. In fact, to write a serious novel about dogging would’ve been a much greater challenge. But I did try to counterbalance the inherent absurdity of dogging with other themes, such as racial tension, social fragmentation and omnipresent surveillance. My intention was to write a state-of-the-nation novel, for which dogging provided an oblique and unusual angle. It’s interesting that you mention EastEnders Steve McFadden, who played Phil Mitchell, is alleged to be a devotee of dogging. I seem to remember reading in a tabloid that he was fond of wearing a pink afro wig to help him get into his dogging persona. It was an unproven allegation, of course.

PW: Are you one of those quiet types? Since the publication of your book have your folks and your mates started looking at you suspiciously? You don’t want to say but you can see in their eyes, they’re thinking ‘So that’s what’s going on beneath the cool, quiet exterior…’

(DD): Funnily enough, nobody is as shocked as I expected. But then, I did warn people that some of the subject matter was racy, to say the least. Also, I think people understand that it’s a novel, not a memoir. That’s not to say that I haven’t had lots of tongue-in-cheek grillings about research methods – I have. But it’s just teasing. People generally accept that it’s fiction. Besides, friends and family have known me for years. If I had a serious dogging habit, they know they’d have clocked it by now. What’s surprised me and impressed me most is that dogging is the theme that people least want to talk about. They’re far more interested in what the novel says about contemporary England as a whole. In a way, the sex is a red herring and people have recognised that. It’s partly comic relief from the novel’s other themes, which are pretty bleak.

PW: Toby Litt says you’re a new JG Ballard. Obviously there are whiffs of Houellebecq. Who else has been an influence on your writing?

(DD): It was very kind of Toby Litt to say that – and very flattering. But I’ve actually read very little Ballard; I must read more. Houellebecq is a strong influence, although I don’t subscribe to all his theses. It’s more his tone I admire – simultaneously sincere, mocking, sinister and comic. He makes it looked easy, but it’s highly sophisticated. I love William Golding for the audacity and imaginative power of his fables. It was the final line of Pincher Martin, believe it or not, that inspired the final line of Dogs. I wanted it to change, instantly, the reader’s perception of what they’d just read. I admire JM Coetzee for the clarity and economy of his language; there isn’t a spare word in his entire corpus. I enjoy Zadie Smith for her warmth and soulfulness. And WG Sebald I read for his sheer weirdness. It’s as if you’re eavesdropping on somebody’s thoughts.

PW: The big question for me as a – gulp – fan of your work: where the fuck do you go from here? Is there a lovable paedophile on the cards, perhaps…?

(DD): That would certainly be a challenge, but Nabokov wrapped that up a while ago (although you might argue about how sympathetic Humbert Humbert is). But your question taps into a crucial aspect of characterisation: ambiguity. I love literary characters who divide us internally – who simultaneously attract and repulse. In other words, anti-heroes. For me, some of the most memorable characters are anti-heroes – from Milton’s Satan through to Iago through to Camus’s Meursault through to Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman Although I wouldn’t pretend he’s as memorable as they are, Jeremy Shepherd is an anti-hero too. Now I’m trying to create another one. My new novel is about a man who gets robbed and brutally beaten on a late-night train. It tracks his psychological journey from crippling timidity and paranoia through to fantasies of vengeance and, finally, vigilantism. If you liked Dogs, you’ll love this.

Isle of Dogs by Daniel Davies is published by Serpent’s Tail and it’s oot the noo…

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