Simon Crump is (as his wife would have it) a writer who is a little bit like Marmite. Some people get him and think he’s the absolute dog’s danglers – and some people don’t see what all the fuss is about. Those people are idiots. We spoke to Simon about his new book, Neverland, what draws him to celebrity and being happy…
Peter Wild (PW): Obvious question first but I’m genuinely interested in the answer: It’s been much discussed that Neverland was finished and submitted to your publisher hours before Michael Jackson actually died. Can I ask you how you felt when you saw the death on the news…?
Simon Crump (SC): I was gobsmacked actually and then saddened that such a great talent had been snuffed out well before it’s time. Then my first thought was. . ‘Any minute now the phone is going to ring and it will be my publisher.’ And I was right.
PW: I was going to ask you what is it about musical icons that attracts you (first Elvis, then MJ) – but then I wondered if it was in fact the character of Lamar that drew you back rather than MJ… What (or who, maybe) was the initiating spark of Neverland?
SC: It isn’t really just musical icons I’m interested in, it’s ‘celebrities’ with obvious talent who’ve got what they wanted and are still not happy. I nearly wrote a book about Mike Tyson. It’s all to do with being careful what you wish for. When I wrote My Elvis Blackout, I went off on some pretty varied imaginings, but in my wildest dreams I’d never have written a story where Elvis’s daughter married Michael Jackson. That was the link between the two books. Lamar was the obvious narrator and another link. In Neverland, he has much more of a ‘personality’ this time around, there are almost as many stories about him as there are about Michael.
PW: Wherever there is discussion of Neverland there is discussion of what is Neverland (a novel, a collection of short stories, an amalgam of the two) – so, Mr Crump: what is Neverland?
SC: If you’d asked me that question a couple of months ago, I’d have said ‘it’s a collection, but not a short story collection.’ Looking back on it, it’s a novel. There’s a story arc, people move about, there’s a plot, it goes somewhere. Or maybe not eh? I only wrote the bloody thing. You tell me. Why is it so important to people by the way? It’s a book.
PW: Part of the reason why such discussion kicks off, I think, is due in the main to several flash pieces that dot the book – some readers feel they are related to the novel (and represent different aspects of MJ perhaps) while some people feel they are standalone pieces. Do you like the fact that the readers who engage with your books really engage with them?
SC: Ah, I see from your question that you’ve decided it’s a novel! Yes, I do like the fact that readers reactions to my stuff are so polarized. They either engage completely or instantly dismiss my work as shite. My wife says I’m like Marmite. All of those ‘flash pieces’ you refer to actually started out as longer things and just got cut and cut until I was happy with them. They’re different voices, they’re ghosts of what Michael might have been maybe, but they’re all part of the same story.
PW: When I read Neverland I sensed a sort of bruised hurt behind the humour (a sort of shadow). I think this has something to do with a sense of neglect that comes when a writer is better than the attention he/she gets. If you could have one wish would you wish to sell more books – or would you rather more people ‘got’ you?
SC: I’d love to sell more books, I mean, who wouldn’t? But I wouldn’t want people to buy the book and be disappointed and not ‘get it’ whatever that means. I think there’s a certain arrogance to being a writer, the idea that what you’ve written in private is good enough to be printed and then released into the wild. At the minute, all I want to do is to keep having ideas, to keep writing and to keep getting the stuff published. That’ll do for me. The ‘bruised hurt’ is my nature. I think I’m just a mardy old bastard. Do you remember the line (Tony Hancock I think)?
‘When I’m happy, I think to myself.. ‘ I’ll never be this happy again’ and that makes me really sad.’ Well, that’s me.
PW: One of the great pleasures of Neverland for me was the bizarre, ‘off the wall’ (sorry) quality to certain MJ tales (such as the three bears story) such that you feel (even though this is as far from a real life MJ story as you can get) you are ‘really seeing’ the ‘real’ Michael Jackson. When you were writing, were there occasions when you’d sit back in your seat and laugh and think, fucking hell! I hit it there…?
SC: Hmm.. that’s a good question The notion that truth is best approached, distilled, considered and ultimately understood through fiction is not new. James Agee’s stream of consciousness prose passages in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men come closer to the essence of what life as a dirt bowl tenant farmer was all about than any gushing reportage, while David Jones’ In Parenthesis: A Retrospective Journey through the Landscapes of Art and War can be seen as a direct precursor for Dispatches, Michael Herr’s acclaimed frontline account of the Vietnam war. In fact, Dispatches really began to do its job when Herr fictionalised his account of the waste and complexity of war as the script for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. So far as my own efforts to ‘nail it’ are concerned, all I can say is that I’ve tried.
PW: For me, you are one of those writers (like Brautigan or Vonnegut) who can be read quickly, whose style of writing is such that you could (if you were so inclined/wrongheaded) dismiss it as flippant. Yet I sense that you spend an inordinate length of time creating that lightness of touch. Am I right?
SC: Those writers are my heroes, as of course, is Carver. Editing is always the name of the game for me. Get the story down and then make it less worse. I do spend a great deal of time getting the words right and I get a real kick out of performing major surgery on a four page story and hacking it down to ten lines. Anybody can spot the crap in writing and cut it away, the real trick is to lose the good stuff that’s getting in the way. Duncan Mclean, another hero of mine, once said to me. ‘Every paragraph, every sentence, every line, every word has to be perfect. It’s that simple.’ It’s something to aspire to anyway.
A recent review in the Guardian said Neverland ‘was as easy to read as a child’s language primer.’ For me, that was the best compliment I have ever received.
PW: Are you a writer who has to work another (not writing-related) job as well as your job of writer? If you are, how much would you give to be able to walk away from it?
SC: I have a day job and I would not want to give it up. I get ideas from talking to people, from seeing stuff happening, from looking at people and wondering what kind of day they’ve had. I don’t want to just sit in my shed ( I write in a garden shed) thinking ‘terribly important thoughts’ and slowly but surely disappearing up my own jacksy. Writing is about ideas, it’s about people and it’s about telling a story.
PW: Are you your own worst critic?
SC: Oh no! People have said far worse things about my writing than I could possibly come up with. ‘Primary-school prose and a plot out of a cokehead’s arse. This book is a waste of paper’ springs to mind.
PW: What is Simon Crump’s idea of fun?
SC: I like to be quiet and I like to be by the water.
PW: I’m already, stupidly excited about whatever it is you come up with next. Do you have any idea where you’re going to go next?
SC: I’m doing it now. The day after I finished Neverland, I bought some nice new grey hardback notebooks from ASDA (three for a quid actually) and made a start. I’m obsessed by Emile Zola’s Rougon-Marquart novels and I’m writing a kind of companion to his work. Zola’s ‘naturalism’ got him into a lot of trouble at the time and the critics didn’t immediately warm to his no-nonsense versions of ‘the truth’. I’m also becoming increasingly frustrated that my French is so rubbish that I’m only capable of reading his wonderful books in translation. Contemporary cartoons depict Zola as a flower sprouting from a chamber-pot or as a bespectacled, bearded midget carefully examining a prostitute’s bottom with his magnifying glass. Zola’s widescreen cinematic style of writing is the absolute dogs… This lad could write and Zola’s eye really was his camera. He could pan across a crowd and capture a dozen little moments, or focus right in and describe in far too much detail the way a drowned mans face slowly falls to pieces. Zola wrote four pages a day. Every day. It took him a month to write the brilliant opening chapter of Nana. I saw a copy of the first page of Germinal yesterday, written in Zola’s own hand and struck though and corrected many times by the man himself. I picked through it with my school dictionary and, as I read his words, I went cold with excitement…
Neverland by Simon Crump is published by Old Street and should be read by all!