‘Repudiating bitterness’ – Bookmunch Classic Interview: Ian Sansom

Peter Wild (PW): You come across as quite a genial chap (in your very thoughtful preface and footnotes to Ring Road, for instance). Is this a guise you adopt in between prowling the streets Hyde-like to take your unholy passions out on the world?

Ian Sansom IS): Well. Huh. I don’t know. Genial? Really? That’s very nice of you to say so. Most writers are completely demented, in my experience; honestly, awful, the whole lot of them, though I’m sure there are exceptions, and it would be nice if I was an exception, though I doubt it; you’d have to ask my wife; or the neighbours. I’m trying to think of genial writers, if there are any. Stephen King? Maybe Muriel Spark. Jeanette Winterson (maybe not genial, but I like the sound of her). She puts her money where her mouth is. But I mean generally they’re completely bonkers, writers, aren’t they? Would you want to spend even five minutes of your time with a writer? Thomas Mann, or James Joyce? E.B. White even, or Thurber? Elizabeth Bishop? You read the biographies and you think, Jesus, these people are the absolute pits; you’d avoid them like the plague in the school playground or at the shops. Ezra Pound in ASDA? You’d walk the other way. Robert Louis Stevenson maybe would have been OK, and I believe Kipling was unobjectionable personally. Marianne Moore I wouldn’t have minded meeting. And Auden, briefly.

Anyway, I think the problem with writers is that you have to be a bit of a manic-depressive in order to keep at it. Not literally a manic-depressive, mind, terrible thing, mania, depression – but metaphorically. You have to generate all of these ideas and all of these sentences and words and then you have to pick at them and sort them and criticise them and throw them away and start again, and I think it unbalances you in the end. Mentally, you become self-consuming. You have to. So it’s important to find some way of circumventing that, switching it off, or you just become a complete … well, you know. Odd. To say the least. Randall Jarrell was fond of quoting Goethe Heaven gives us habits to take the place of happiness. I think a routine, an orderly existence is very important. Auden lived his life by the clock.

I think maybe I seem genial because of the mode of address I employ. It’s unfashionable to address a dear or gentle reader these days but I do think readers are dear and gentle, on the whole – I certainly like to think of myself as a reader as dear and gentle – and I tend to adopt a narrative voice that’s polite and welcoming. That doesn’t necessarily make me polite and welcoming, though one does one’s best. There’s no point wasting time being miserable, is there?

PW: In the preface to Ring Road you mention that your wife gave you advice between your first book (The Truth About Babies) and your second book (the aforementioned Ring Road). Did she have anything to say between your second book and your third book (the aforementioned Case of the Missing Books)?

IS: Wives are very important: Mrs Nabokov, for example. Husbands are important also, of course; parents; grandparents; children; pets. You take advice from whoever, wherever, editors even, agents.

The best advice my first agent gave me after three years of failing to sell any of my books was: don’t staple manuscripts. And then he dropped me like a hot potato. It upset me at the time, but then I stopped stapling my manuscripts, and hey presto! So even he had a point.

There’s a story about James Herriot on his silver wedding anniversary: he’s a vet, he’s doing OK and he says to his wife that he thought he might write a book and she says to him something like Yeah, right, which upsets him and then he sits down and starts writing in the evenings while the family are all watching telly, and a couple of years later If Only They Could Talk becomes a bestseller.

So. One listens to one’s family, obviously. And then ignores them, usually. For better and for worse.

PW: The etymology of footnotes interests me, particularly the etymology of footnotes used by fiction writers. I like to imagine it as a very posh residential area Nicholson Baker at no. 4, Dave Eggers across the road at Dunroamin, David Foster Wallace up the street in a caravan on the embankment. All of which leads me to the question: what in particular drew you to using footnotes in Ring Road?

IS: There’s a book by Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History. Do you know it? It’s great. Well, its good. He claims (I’m paraphrasing here) that there are as many types and uses for the footnote as there are footnoters. Which is obviously correct. Some novelists use footnotes, it seems to me, simply to amuse their friends. Which is no bad thing; friends need amusing; one is supposed to amuse one’s friends, especially American friends; they need amusing, particularly at the moment. Others use footnotes because they are busy exercising what Sherlock Holmes would have called the scientific use of the imagination. I used footnotes in Road Road – I think, I’m not sure – because of an uncontrollable urge to qualify.

I like your neighbourhood analogy very much. It’s pertinent. In a letter to Fliess (Aug 6th 1899) Freud describes the opening chapters of the Interpretation of Dreams as follows: The whole thing is planned on the model of an imaginary walk. First comes the dark wood of the authorities (who cannot see the trees), where there is no clear view and it is easy to go astray. Then there is a cavernous defile through which I lead my readers through my specimen dream with its peculiarities, its details, its indiscretions and its bad jokes and then, all at once, the high ground and the open prospect and the question: Which way do you want to go?

In the neighbourhood of my novel the footnotes are the flat-roof extension (without planning permission) and the shed, and the other, littler shed, and the greenhouse, and the kennel, and the boiler-house, and the little paved area by the back gate where you keep the bins.

PW: The reviews of Ring Road made many a comparison to the League of Gentlemen and other up and coming risky humour types. I wondered what you made of all those comparisons? Flattered? Insulted? Bemused? Bewildered? Ambivalent? Something else entirely?

IS: The Devil is people listening to themselves; or listening to other people. I’d much prefer comparisons to Bohumil Hrabal. Or G.K.Chesterton. Or Ronald Firbank. Robert Burton. Kafka, Brecht, Mervyn Peake, Sir Thomas More, Laurence Sterne, Gogol, Turgenev, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Joseph Roth, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Knut Hamsun, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever. Really proper writers, that is. Not that anyone is going to compare me to any of them. But when you’re writing you’re not hoping to be compared to some blokes off the telly. Not that I’ve got anything against blokes off the telly. I like blokes off the telly. But I mean, Goethe, do you remind yourself of Melvyn Bragg at all?

PW: Your latest book The Mobile Library: The Case of the Missing Books was introduced to the world via a strange new publicity campaign (giving out however many thousands of copies free with The Times toward the end of 2005). Are you (or is your publisher) mad?

IS: Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askalon, in the land of the Philistines, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice! You’re taking a risk when you publish something, anything, anywhere and anyhow, but actually the risk is usually that no one is going to read your book at all, so frankly you’re pathetically grateful if your publisher comes up with some marketing wheeze which guarantees you a readership. So I liked the idea of the book being given away. And by a Murdoch paper; I’m old enough to remember Wapping. Maybe it’s crass – like those sachets of lotion you get in women’s magazines, or the free DVDs you get with the papers – but I guess I’m not above crass.

Having said that, I don’t think publicity as such is something any sane person would wish to pursue, because really, what’s the point? One minute you’re the flavour of the month, and the next, well …. I think it was The Caravelles, wasn’t it, who were the first British act to enter the Billboard Hot 100 with their single You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry in November 1963? And who these days cares about the Caravelles?

PW: The Mobile Library trumpets itself as the first in a series. Is this your bid to set yourself up as something of an Ian Rankin? And how long before we see Ken Stott as Israel Armstrong (on ITV on a Monday night at 9 of the clock)?

IS: The Mobile Library is intended as a series (the second in the series, Mr Dixon Disappears, is scheduled for publication later this year). I like series. To be honest I think most writers only ever write the same book again and again anyway, under different titles, maybe with different characters, and with different scenery, though sometimes using almost exactly the same words, so you might as well call their books a series I mean, Paul Auster, Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Iris Murdoch, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Beckett. They’re all ploughing a certain furrow, arent they? I mean different furrows, but each their own. I think an actual series is therefore a form of politeness, in a sense. Or a plea in mitigation. My favourite detective series is Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi David Small books, but no one seems to have read them.

As for the telly, I doubt it.

PW: I want to say that your concerns are or a parochial or provincial nature (ring roads, mobile libraries, etc) but understand such terms are these days considered pejorative. Are you looking to reclaim parochial (say) in much the same way that certain gangsta rappers look to reclaim the n word?

IS: PWA? Hmm. If you take, say, one of the founding texts of gangstaism, the Snoop Dogg album, Doggystyle (This is another story about Dogs / For the Dog that don’t pee on trees, is a bitch / So says Snoop Dogg / So get your pooper scooper / cause the niggaz talkin shit / Woof woof) the shocking transgressive use of the n word seems to me to be clearly and explicitly related to Mr Dogg’s claims of transgressive sexual power, and in that regard, no, I don’t think were in quite the same business. Also, I think parochial and provincial are only pejorative terms, if indeed they are, because most of the centres of power universities, government, the media are located in or around cities, so academics, policy-makers and journalists, most of whom have come from scabby wee towns themselves, are keen to look smart and to distance themselves from their childhoods and to celebrate and promote what they think is grown-up city-living. My concerns – if you can call them that – are with tragedy, comedy, loneliness, heartbreak – and you can find that sort of stuff anywhere: towns, cities, villages. I come originally from Ongar, in Essex. Plenty of it there.

PW: Your new book [this interview was conducted at the time of the first in Sansom’s Mobile Library series Ed.] has a lot of fun at Israel’s expense with characters left, right and centre coming out with all manner of vernacular. Do you ever find yourself out and about and overhear some gem which you scoop up in your handkerchief, slip in your pocket and think, I’m having that!?

IS: Yes, definitely, absolutely, I save everything. Waste not, want not.

PW: I always hate it when people say such and such a book was tremendously funny because books are strange arent they? You rarely see people laughing out loud at a book. If books are funny then you register the humour with a kind of inside smile. And The Case of the Missing Books is big on the whole inside smile thing. I’m just curious whether the inside smile thing works both ways. Do you ever read what you’ve written and think, Now that is funny?

IS: Good grief no. I never think it’s funny. To be honest, usually when people think I’m being funny I’m being deadly serious, and vice versa. My book The Truth About Babies, that was supposed to be funny. And people took it seriously. The Mobile Library, on the other hand, is in fact a miniature mock epic rewriting of the myth of Odysseus and the story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis, but absolutely no one believes me when I tell them that. Also, when I read what I’ve written at the end of writing a book, or a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence, or a word even I usually just think Huh, or Ugh. Depletion, disgust, disappointment, the sense that one has made a terrible mistake, turned manna into gall, brought more misery into the world – I think Philip Roth uses the phrase somewhere ‘repudiating bitterness’ – that’s much more what one thinks and feels. I never think it’s funny. Eric Morecambe, he was funny. My sister is really funny.

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