THE WRITING LIFE ... Toby LITT
THE LITERARY SHAPE-SHIFTER
LEON WING talks to British novelist TOBY LITT about how he adopts a different literary genre and style for every new novel and on what he looks for in good writing
TOBY LITT is one of Britain’s most exciting writers today and the author of 10 novels, including Adventures in Capitalism, Beatniks, Corpsing, deadkidsongs, Exhibitionism, Finding Myself, Ghost Story, Hospital, I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay and Journey into Space. His latest novel, King Death, is due out in April 2010. Accolades from the British press abound: The Sunday Mirror calls him “one of the most inventive and original writers around” while The Guardian hails him as “one of the most prolific of the newer generation of British novelists.” Granta, the influential literary magazine, named him one of 20 Best Young British Novelists of 2003. In October 2009, The Manchester Writing School at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) awarded Litt the 2009 Manchester Fiction Prize for his body of work.
When The British Council in Kuala Lumpur held a real-time video conference in 2005, readers in Malaysia got as close as was possible to actually meeting Litt in person. They had the rare opportunity to ask him questions about his writing, and listen to him read from his then just-published novel, Ghost Story. Four years now, LEON WING, one of those people in the audience then, catches up with Litt.
Along with Ghost Story, I think Hospital is one of your most innovative novels to date. I call it a graphic novel for people who want to enjoy a graphic novel without the pictures. As one of those people, I especially enjoy the variety of genres you instil into your novels. A nurse falling for a doctor—so very Mills & Boon. All the violence and sex—so very Manga. And, of course, there’s the Rubber Nurse. What is your take on writing mere straightforward fiction and experimental fiction?
Thank you for your close reading of my books. I think ‘a graphic novel without the pictures’ is very much what I was trying to do, although I didn’t think of it that way at the time of writing it. I did, however, fantasise that it might be adapted into anime by Studio Ghibli (the producer of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle). This is because, as you’re hinting, the characters don’t all exist on the same level of reality. Although they may come from different genres, they have to find some way of collaborating with one another. So, a Mills & Boon nurse ends up in a slasher-movie scenario with a fairy-tale boy, etc.
With Ghost Story, you wrote an immensely long one sentence for an entire chapter; and on ending the novel, you placed the final punctuation onto an entirely new page. I wonder if anybody else besides me caught all these? Tell me how you came about doing these.
A writer can rarely be certain that any reader will ever notice this or that detail. The only confirmation comes at moments like this. All the writer can hope to do is create something which will bear repeated rereading. Ghost Story is a very deliberate book. It contains lots of textual details, some of which are almost imperceptible. However, at a glance it doesn’t appear in any way metafictional. There are no footnotes, no diagrams. As to where these things came from, they came from trying to write the most ghostly book I could, and from my reading of other ghostly books.
You are always surprising your readers by not repeating the style or genre of the last novel you wrote. Some of the genres you have attempted include (Bildungsroman (deadkidsongs), thriller (Corpsing), chick-lit (Finding Myself), manga/graphic novel (Hospital), and, of course, your most recent, science fiction (Journey into Space). I understand that you are already working on a novel with a title beginning with the next alphabet: K. What genre or style are you going to take on this time round?
King Death is a novel narrated by two characters, Kumiko, a Japanese artist, and Skelton, an English improvisation musician. It’s a sort of crime novel, but whereas Corpsing was, as you say, a thriller—a revenge thriller—King Death is more about an investigation. It’s also a romance.
Quite a number of your works get adapted into films. The BBC, for one, adapted Rare Books & Manuscripts into a little filmic snippet. Some years back, a story from Exhibitionism was made into a film. And now, King Death, which you’re still writing, I presume, is now optioned by CMP Film. Could you tell us more about this?
The novel version of King Death is finished; I only have to correct the proofs. As for the film script, it’s now into a second draft. I have been working with the film director Gerald McMorrow, whose first film was the fantasy drama, Franklyn. Even though I thought King Death was extremely filmic as I was writing it, I am realising more and more how differently books and screenplays work. The on-screen world has a different physics.
Is Journey into Space going to be made into a movie? I wonder who is going to play Orphan? Though Orphan is retarded, the others in the ship look up to him as a leader. Am I being too far-fetched to opine that there’s a little bit of George Bush in Orphan?
Journey into Space has been optioned by Glasgow-based Sigma Films, to be written and directed by David Mackenzie, the Scottish film director. He’s made some great stuff in the past, including Young Adam and Hallam Foe, so I’m optimistic. He’s very into science fiction. As for George Bush, I was told by some early readers that this was their interpretation of Orphan. This was their way of reading a character whose political platform, if you can call it that, is happiness, is being happy. I’m not sure if I’d see this as Bush’s defining characteristic. He was more blithe than happy, though the two are easily mistaken.
Still on the note of Journey into Space, what is your take on the future of books, particularly on eBooks and eBook readers?
I think that eBooks will take over from paper pulp books as the main technology for distributing long texts, texts such as novels. There will still be books printed, but I think they’re more likely to be desirable limited editions. Although I love books in their physical form, I would be glad not to be personally responsible for deforestation. The real issues arise around publishing. How are books going to make their way to readers? I could email you the manuscript of King Death right now, but would it be satisfying for you to read it that way? Probably not. But if you gave me the right program, I could put it into a very finished form, then send it straight to your Kindle. The publisher, at this point, becomes a mix of editor (guaranteeing textual quality) and publicist (trying to make sure that you are excited about my book rather than someone else’s).
Your story, ‘The Fish,’ was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2007. Though not a graphic novel, Hospital actually won an illustration award for its cover. And I Play the Drums for a Band Called OK is currently shortlisted for the 2009 British Book Design and Production Awards. Penguin UK won Best in Show Award at SXSW, and you have a fictional blog, Slice, in it. And finally, a couple of years back you got into the Granta hall of fame as one of the Best of Young British Novelists of 2003. If you have your wish, what awards would you covet and for which of your novels, and why?
It is very hard not to covet awards. They are one of the ways in which readers decide which books they are going to spend their time reading. And I would like to have as many readers as possible. Because of this—because they bring readers—I covet awards. However, I try not to covet awards for themselves. To think too much about things like this, rather than the writing itself, eventually becomes corrupting.
As a writer who is able to write in any style or genre, you were just the right person picked to edit New Writing 13. I believe that in the year Hospital came out you offered to read some writings by university students. Of the two pieces you picked as the most promising, one was unusual and certainly innovative: a story written entirely in text messaging. As for picking them as winners and as for selecting the pieces for New Writing 13, what do you look for in the writings?
Formal invention—like humour—is always going to be attractive to an editor reading a great number of manuscripts by unpublished writers. If a writer sets him- or herself the task of writing in an unusual form, and pulls it off with style, then he or she is doing something more daring than merely creating a believable set of characters whose actions and interactions are emotionally resonant. I like high-wire acts, magicians, illusionists. But I’d argue that, say, Raymond Carver, as edited by Gordon Lish, was another kind of high-wire act.
Are you still a member of the New Puritans? Tell us more about the kind of writing its members strive for?
No. The New Puritans anthology was a one-off, just as the Dogme 95 movement in Danish film only required directors to sign up for a single film. The general idea of the New Puritanism was that many of the older generation (Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie) were writing in a way that was self-satisfied. Literariness was, for them, an established, unquestioned value. They didn’t think they could learn from genre writing. Their writing was ponderous, unpleasurable. This, I’d say, was the view of the editors, Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe. I was asked to be in the anthology just after Corpsing came out. Since then, I’ve become more sympathetic to the older generation. I think they are more ambitious than the New Puritan writers were, certainly within that anthology.
What is the most recent book you’ve read? Are there any books you would like to recommend? Who, in your opinion, are the most interesting, innovative or creative writers we should be looking forward to reading more of now?
I’ve just finished Ian Carr’s biography of Miles Davis: Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. I’d recommend Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He is an admirable writer, but you could read everything he has published in a day. (Quite a long day.) I have been reading the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I think he was trying to do something extremely difficult, but totally worth doing. He was absolutely not dumbing down. I think that, even if it turns out to be a great disappointment, his final novel, The Pale King, will be essential reading.
LEON WING cannot take apart a car or bike, but he enjoys doing it to a poem and putting it back together in puisipoesy.blogspot.com. Other times, he edits for themalaysianpoeticchronicles.blogspot.com and blogs about books in leonwing.blogspot.com.
Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine