‘A New kind of novel? I honestly do think so, yes’ – An Interview with Leo Benedictus, author of The Afterparty
Every novelist is a character inside their book. What we know, or think we know, about Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Archer, Ernest Hemingway, everybody – has a significant effect on how we experience their novels. Easily as much as some aspects of their writing do. I think more novelists could cultivate this deliberately to enhance their work. In the finished edition, but not in the proof, I coin the term “hyperfiction” to describe the notion, which could be summed up as: “Novels need not stop at their own covers.”
Peter Wild (PW): Leo Benedictus. Award winning features writer for the Guardian. Novelist?
Leo Benedictus (LB): And yes, now novelist. Although I’ve spent so long feeling like a novelist trapped in the career of a journalist that I don’t think I dare announce otherwise just yet. Both job titles are a nightmare for insurance premiums, in any case. “Magazine writer” is the cheapest option, surprisingly. Perhaps they are less likely to be hurried or drunk.
PW: (Sort of) apologies for the first question. I interviewed DBC Pierre a few years back and I was all polite and I think the day after my interview appeared, out came all the ‘Ooh I’m not really DBC Pierre at all’. The – shall we say? – playful nature of your novel (if it is your novel – see? I can’t stop) has me on my guard. So don’t try your tricks on me, Benedictus! Let’s start with the deal, shall we? At which point in the writing (if you etc etc) did you know that the book would be published?
LB: When it was all finished.
No tricks today. I am showing you my open palms.
PW: The reason I ask: a lot of the correspondence that dots The Afterparty feels like the kind of thing that could have only been concocted post-deal (or you are one confident young man). Was the inclusion of the correspondence a late in the day flash of inspiration or has The Afterparty always kind of sort of been the book that it is?
LB: This must make me a confident young man, I think, or at least a man who is confident that he can give that impression… Because yes, the email correspondence – which contains the whole novel as a series of attached chapters – was part of the idea from the very beginning. When my agent submitted it to publishers, each one was given a bespoke version of the manuscript in which their own publishing house featured in the story. (We had mixed reactions to that.) If nobody published it, well, at least my arrogance would be thwarted privately.
Obviously, to those who’ve read the book, I had to co-ordinate some aspects of the text with the publication process, which was a headache, but no worse. Here and there, I have also used some extracts from real emails that my agent and publisher sent me along the way (and been banned from using others).
PW: I do like the high handed tone the author of the book takes with other books and writers (take that Raw Shark Texts etc). I also like the way we have the book explained to us at various points (with the author saying this is obviously a book about celebrity and the distance between the public and private perception and all that). These things are good for a bear of little brain like me. But I have to ask – ‘a new kind of novel’? Really?
LB: Is that a note of doubt you’re sounding? Because I honestly do think so, yes. And here’s why: the last important innovation in the novel was the re-arrival of metafiction in, roughly, the 1960s. Novelists turning up as characters in their own novels; books about themselves, that sort of thing. When I first came across these ideas, in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, they hit me like a hallucinogen. It had simply never occurred to me that such things were possible.
Yet that is what metafiction still remains: a glimpse of possibility, rather than a useful tool. Because in the act of confessing its fictionality, a novel also sabotages many of its pleasures. Characters and their stories mean nothing to us unless we believe in them, but metafictions will not permit this – and often seem to call their readers bourgeois for being bored. (Yes, I’m looking at you, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller…) At the same time, metafiction restricts a novel’s scope; self-referential books can only have one subject. After trying the idea in Money, Martin Amis has said that he will never again appear in one of his own novels. He called the idea a “cul-de-sac”, if I remember rightly.
But it isn’t. Amis, Auster, Calvino and the others have just never gone far enough. It is not sufficient to plant pieces of the real world inside a novel. One must also plant pieces of the novel inside the real world. As you said in question two, you are not, even now, quite certain whether the Leo Benedictus who will answer your questions is a real novelist or a fictional character. And what can I do to prove it either way?
This is a fundamental, but underexplored, feature of all fiction. Every novelist is a character inside their book. What we know, or think we know, about Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Archer, Ernest Hemingway, everybody – has a significant effect on how we experience their novels. Easily as much as some aspects of their writing do. I think more novelists could cultivate this deliberately to enhance their work. In the finished edition, but not in the proof, I coin the term “hyperfiction” to describe the notion, which could be summed up as: “Novels need not stop at their own covers.”
To the best of my knowledge, The Afterparty is the first novel ever to include some characters who are real people speaking lines of dialogue that they have really spoken (in newspaper interviews, on TV etc). It is also the first novel ever to include readers’ own contributions inside the story (when the paperback appears). It is also the first novel ever to contain prescriptions within the story for how it should be packaged and marketed. Having read the book, you will look at its cover, my picture, the author bio, everything, in a way that you have never looked at any of these things before. This interview will look different too. I am writing The Afterparty, and you and your readers are reading it, right now. This is new.
PW: Now. Without giving too much away, the storyline of The Afterparty flirts with a real news story (the legal ramifications of which are ongoing). I’m aware of writers like, say, James Ellroy, who say occasionally terrible things about famous people no longer with us (Frank Sinatra, say) and David Peace who has said potentially litigious things about people whose families are still alive (I’m thinking of Brian Clough, in particular) but I can’t think of a book that has quite done what yours does. You give some clue towards the way in which the publisher’s legal team treat things as the book goes on but I wondered if there were any hairy moments?
LB: Yes, there were. And a number of people have asked the same question. Having thrown away my right to be believed, I must now come crawling back and make a promise: The news story that you are referring to (with similarities to the novel’s central incident, if I infer correctly?) actually happened after I had already planned the book. I think I can actually prove this with documents that I saved by email. I certainly have no special knowledge at all about the case I think you have in mind, and no theories to offer about it.
There were discussions with lawyers about many aspects of the book, in fact. A character who appears in the final third was something we had to think particularly carefully about. (Readers will know who.) Needless to say, everything was approved by a libel barrister in the end. At times, however, it has been positively alarming how real life has repeatedly found ways to resemble my book.
PW: The Afterparty is provocative in many other ways, as well, offering readers and reviewers all manner of opportunities to appear within the paperback version. Do you not think so many gimmicks will put off as many people as they attract?
LB: I do worry about that in the early days, yes. Obviously the book will get attention for its marketing, so I think it is quite likely that many people will cynically presume that attention-seeking is all the book is good for. In their shoes, I would probably presume the same. Once a few people have read The Afterparty, however, I hope then that its more conventional qualities – its story and its sentences – will be the ones they talk about.
Nevertheless, I must stress something else: though the gimmicks are certainly gimmicks, they are also intrinsic to my artistic aspirations for the novel. Marketing is usually something outside a book that is used to get attention for its inside. Indeed, literary novelists are often advised to quarantine their artistic purity by shunning all thoughts of what the market wants, or what might get attention, and concentrate instead on what feels important to them. But this is a false opposition, if you ask me.
[Hold on while I press Caps Lock.]
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY FEEL MORE IMPORTANT TO AN ASPIRING NOVELIST THAN WHETHER ANYBODY WILL BUY THEIR BLOODY BOOK? Leaving those feelings out, it seems to me, is less artistically pure, not more so. And suggesting that novelists should feel shame about their obvious attention-seeking is positively perverse. In a book about the lust for fame, I wanted to admit this about myself, and let the book’s readers admit it too, by entering a competition where the prize is their own name in print [ed. the end of The Afterparty offers to print any tweet about the book as well as both the best and the worst review].
PW: The real danger with gimmicks is, of course, that you could quickly become a sort of literary M Night Shyamalan. What happens if novel 2 isn’t a new kind of novel, is just – yawn – a regular, standard-sized novel? Where’s the gimmicks?, your hungry audience cries. Do you worry about building a rod for your own back?
LB: I know it’s a cliché to flatter one’s interviewer, but crumbs, yes, that’s exactly what I worry about. Or rather, what I used to worry about until a few months ago, when I finally cracked the idea for my second novel, which I am now very excited about. (I worry about my third instead these days.) Although in truth, I do also seem to have timed my appearance as a novelist more or less perfectly to coincide with the greatest revolution in writing technology since the printing press. Any author who can’t think of something extraordinary to do with ebooks isn’t trying.
That said, I do often wish I didn’t feel the urge to do something different all the time. Style is my obsession, really. Nice phrases, that’s where the buzz is. When I read Updike, I don’t wish he was reinventing fiction. I just purr. I idly hope that this is just a restless phase, before I settle down to write some classy slabs of prose about the potterings of a remorseful divorcee.
PW: For some reason, this interview has got all tough sounding when I enjoyed your book and should be all jovial and matey. So let’s lighten things a bit. I think The Afterparty makes something tremendously difficult (writing comedy) look easy. I’d like to think that there were points where you amused yourself. You certainly seem to be having a lot of fun. Can I ask if there is anything in the book that, as you wrote it, had you grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat?
LB: Oh, absolutely tons of things. It’s awful, isn’t it? If you’d watched me writing the book, you would have seen this guy just chuckling incessantly at his own jokes. I love the dog sex scene, for instance. That’s a very obvious, but nicely bitter, comic turn. There’s one moment, concerning an unexpected email response (watch me not giving things away) that used to make me laugh on every read-through because I always forgot that it was there. I cried too, actually, in a couple of places. You can probably guess which ones. That surprised me more.
And look, you are absolutely right to give me a going over. I have invited it by writing such a cocky novel. Not everyone will love it – not everyone loves anything – so I want, and I expect, to hear some criticism. What I would really find humiliating is the suspicion that my feelings are being spared.
PW: The Leo Benedictus in the book has been writing a novel for 10 years. Is that a different novel from this novel? Will The Afterparty be the Remainder to your next novel’s C? Or is The Afterparty the Then We Came to the End compared to your next novel’s The Unnamed?
LB: Will you allow me an enigmatic “Aahh…” in answer to that question?
If you won’t, I will admit that, as it stands, my next novel is fairly obviously from the same author as The Afterparty. That’s probably even more enigmatic, isn’t it? Oh well. Let’s be enigmatic.
PW: I think I’d like to see a movie of The Afterparty – but I suppose the danger would be that they would just take the plot and leave out all the groovy meta stuff. Has anyone been sniffing around about a movie adaptation?
LB: Funny you should ask that… Yes, they have. I have been talking to one quite well known production company about turning the book into a film. The idea we have would preserve the meta stuff in a way that would work on screen. Instead of being a novel about a novel, it needs to be a film about a film. Simple really.
The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus is published by Jonathan Cape and is in all good bookstores right now
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- March 4, 2011 / 6:38 am