Ian Sansom (IS): Self-plagiarism? Obsessive compulsive disorder? Pure laziness and lack of imagination? I don’t know. No idea. But you’re certainly right, I do seem to return like a dog to its vomit or a sow to its mire – the same thing, again and again. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve always enjoyed reading series books: Just William; the Nero Wolfe novels; Simenon’s Maigret. Maybe I’m not really interested in telling stories at all. Maybe I’m only really interested in creating alternative worlds. I’m terraforming.
PW: With the Mobile Library series, did you take it as far as you wanted to – or did more commercial imperatives lead to its demise?
IS: Oh, I like that: ‘commercial imperatives’. Which is just a nice way of saying that no one read the books, right? Right.
PW: The County Guides seem to take your book, Paper, as a jumping off point, in that they wear their erudition on their sleeve. Did trying your hand at nonfiction inspire the County Guides?
IS: I’m not sure they wear their erudition on their sleeve – maybe as a pocket-handkerchief, or a nice jacket lining? I suppose one of the reasons I write is in order to educate myself. In all of my books – fiction and non-fiction – I suppose what I’m doing is conducting my own education in public.
PW: Swanton Morley is, of course, a wonderful character, an extremely learned man who can often miss things occurring beneath his own nose (his amanuensis Stephen Sefton is a bit like the cat from Hong Kong Phooey – which makes Swanton a bit like Hong Kong Phooey, I suppose). Is concocting the exuberance of a Swanton Morley a lot of fun in the writing?
IS: What? You mean Swanton Morley is a bit like Hong Kong Phooey, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character – the mild-mannered janitor and martial arts superhero? Not sure. It’s certainly good fun writing about Morley, though in my mind he’s more of a cross between Karl Kraus and Conan Doyle. Or if we’re talking cartoon characters maybe more like a cross between the Pink Panther and Droopy the Dog. I think the cat you’re thinking of in Hong Kong Phooey was called Spot.
PW: There’s a crime element to both the Mobile Library series and the County Guides – and yet you wouldn’t describe them as crime novels per se (or only as much as I’d describe them as gentle dramas or comedies). I get the sense of you walking a bit of a tightrope as you write to make sure your books don’t necessarily fall into any specific genre – is that fair to say?
IS: Oh, marvelous, marvelous! I don’t think I’m trying to avoid falling into any specific genre – I think I’m trying to avoid falling, full stop. Fall – stop. I am indeed a tightrope walker, a funambulist! Aren’t we all? ‘Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’ – isn’t that Empson? And ‘It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange./ The more things happen to you the more you can’t/ Tell or remember even what they were.// The contradictions cover such a range./ The talk would talk and go so far aslant./ You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.’
PW: One of the things I really like about the two County Guides I’ve read so far are the brief forays into a very dark kind of darkness – whether via Stephen Sefton’s memories of war or the brief glimpses you afford us into the anti-semitism that would have been acceptable at the time. These moments feel tantalising and suggestive of greater darkness to come. Can you see Stephen having to confront his past and his views at some point?
IS: Indeed I can. As the books go on they’re darkening and deepening – like a coastal shelf.
PW: One question implicit in the writing of a series is how far do you want to take this? According to Wiki (which I’ll accept may not be right) there are 83 counties in the UK. When Stephen talks about Swanton Morley’s output (looking back from some point in the future), he makes mention of about 100 books. Are you clear in your mind how many County Guides Morley gets through?
IS: Surprise! Wikipedia is wrong. I think I’m right in saying there are 92 historic counties in the UK (check the excellent Association of British Counties website for details). But I’m sticking with the 39 historic counties of England for the moment – I had to start somewhere. I’m also throwing in the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey for good measure, plus a separate book based in London, and I’m dividing Yorkshire into the Ridings, so … there should be about 43 or 44 books in total. And then I’m moving on to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. So in answer to your question: I’m taking it all the way.
PW: There’s something tremendously wholesome and edifying about the County Guides (the reader always learns something) – something a bit Famous Five, in that thrilling ‘this reminds me of what it first felt to be excited by a book when I started reading as a child’ sort of way. What kind of feedback have you had from other readers of the series so far?
IS: I’m delighted you find the books wholesome and edifying, though it does make them sound rather jolly hockey sticks, doesn’t it? Are they? Maybe they are. I’d be happy for them to cause any kind of emotion, frankly. Is it David Foster Wallace who writes somewhere about the ‘pleasure bursts’ provided by great literature? It would be nice to be a cause of some small joy in others. Goodness knows, one causes enough pain. I’ve received a few letters and some emails – most of them pointing out errors, actually, but some of them expressing delight, so that’s nice.
PW: In the Mobile Library series, your protagonist Israel Armstrong’s life went, arguably, from bad to worse as the series progressed (I remember reading The Bad Book Affair and thinking, cut the poor lad some slack – even as I couldn’t help but be amused by his worsening state). I know that the third instalment of the County Guides series promises to see Stephen Sefton ‘increasingly haunted his past’ – I just wondered whether Stephen can expect some happiness at some point. Maybe with Miriam?
IS: Happiness is like a deer: seek it and it flees. As for Miriam … Suffice it to say that the relationship between Sefton and Miriam becomes increasingly turbulent.
PW: Both The Norfolk Mystery and Death in Devon are an unutterable pleasure to read and (as with the Mobile Library series) I could imagine them forming the basis of an excellent TV show (Midsomer Murders for people with half a brain). Have you had any interest in that direction?
IS: Interest, yes. Action, alas, no. If you know any hotshot film and tv producers do get in touch with my agent, Georgina Capel, 29 Wardour Street, London W1D 6PS, tel. 020 7734 2414. She’d love to take your call.
PW: Last question – although I know that the County Guides must be taking up a lot of your time – I wondered if you had any plans to write any more nonfiction, as Paper was also rather good.
IS: I’m currently finishing a non-fiction book about one of my great heroes, W.H.Auden. And then there’s a book I want to write about John Coltrane, and a history of breakfasts, and a book about Gogol, and about Bohumil Hrabal, and some collections of essays, and a book about origami, and something on psychoanalysis, and about mystery religions, a couple of travel books … But I’m beginning to sound like Swanton Morley. Yes, in short, there are plans. There are always plans. What else is there?