GEOFF NICHOLSON IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID BELBIN
Geoff Nicholson is the author of seventeen novels and several works of non-fiction, including two books about walking.
I met him at an Ambit launch in 1992 (this fine magazine was first to publish our early work. Geoff later took over from JG Ballard as its Fiction Editor). Afterwards, we had dinner and learned we had a lot in common – not least that we were the only novelists we knew who came from Sheffield.
I soon began to read his hugely entertaining novels and non-fiction. His work is quirky, funny and hard to describe, but the interview below and the embedded reading should give you a sense of it. We corresponded occasionally over the years but didn’t meet up again until 2018, after Geoff moved back to the UK from LA.
When Nottingham Creative Writing Hub gave me the opportunity to host a writer of my choosing at Five Leaves this year, Geoff was my first choice. We’re both very disappointed not to be able to do this, and decided, with the support of the Creative Writing Hub, bookshop and enthusiastic backing from everyone at NUCoL, to move the event online.
Below you’ll find the questions that I would have asked Geoff, which he’s answered at the rate of approximately one a day over ten days. Geoff has also recorded a reading of his latest short story for us. All this despite his currently having no landline and a near non-existent internet connection. Geoff was going to take follow up questions on Twitter for the next few days (@GeoffNicholson9) but his internet connection has now gone completely (his final answers were dictated over the phone!) so that’s on hold. But if you direct any questions or comments to me (either using @DBelbin or the contact button on my website www.davidbelbin.com I’ll make sure they reach Geoff).
And don’t forget to watch our opening act, NTU PhD student, Victoria Callus, who has recorded her full story for us on video. also agreed to take follow up questions on Twitter (https://twitter.com/vzreads) for the next few days (although replies are unlikely to be instant).
Finally, please buy Geoff’s books, and books generally, from the much loved Five Leaves Bookshop (Independent Bookshop of the Year 2018). List at the end.
How did you first come to be published?
I had what you might call a long apprenticeship as a writer before I became a novelist and prose writer.
I was an only child and spent a lot of time on my own in my bedroom and did a lot of reading. I don’t think I read anything very ‘improving’ and I went straight from Enid Blyton to Ian Fleming. My first ‘novel,’ written when I was 12 or so, was Half An Agent is Better Than None featuring Troy Carter, an agent of BOA.
I did English at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, where I was keen to take a course on the novel but I didn’t, only because I couldn’t see myself getting through vast novels by Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot on a weekly basis, but I continued to read ‘contemporary’ novels and found Kerouac, Burroughs, Pynchon, BS Johnson, Angela Carter, and to a lesser extent Ballard: the usual suspects.
Still, my first ambition was to be a playwright. It was the age of Pinter, Beckett, Ionesco et al, and I had a couple of ‘experimental’ plays produced by student groups. It also became apparent that my writing could amuse people so I wrote a comedy revue that went to the Edinburgh Festival and was well received. If we’d lived up to all our ambitions we’d have been the Mothers of Invention, but we were, inevitably, a pale imitation of Monty Python, though with some fairly thrilling obscenity and guitar noise.
After university I did various bum jobs, wrote plays for the fringe of the London fringe, and also some comedy sketches for various TV and radio shows, with varying degrees of success, but eventually I was given a contract to write for a now long-forgotten TV show featuring Chris Tarrant called Saturday Stayback.
That made me some money and I was able to work part-time, so I had two whole days a week for writing, and churning out comedy sketches just wasn’t very satisfying, and so I wrote my first novel, Street Sleeper, which is a sort of English parody of an American road novel, featuring Volkswagens and Hitler. I was in my mid-thirties by then and had very little idea how publishing worked, but I had half a contact in the publishing world at Quartet books, who read it and liked it enough to publish it, and the rest is some version of personal history.
I can’t help but notice that three of your novels concern Volkswagens. What’s all that about? And is the trilogy ever likely to become a quartet?
My first novel, Street Sleeper, was about various characters, and one character in particular, obsessed with Volkswagens. I think that in some way or other most of my books are concerned with obsession and obsessives. I did happen to own a VW Beetle, and I became aware that there was a whole tribe and culture of VW obsessives, mostly for the Beetle and the camper van, and I explored it, going to VW festivals and meetings, initially without any thought that I’d write about it, but then I saw there might be a book in it. I’m sure there are fewer VW obsessives now than there used to be – the book was published in 1987 – but equally the ones who’ve hung in there are probably even more obsessive.
I could see that the VW story was something I could hang a lot of different things on – its origins in Nazi Germany, its great American ad campaigns in the States (from a Jewish advertising agency), its adoption by the counterculture, Ted Bundy using it to lure his victims – a murderer surely wouldn’t drive a VW, Charles Manson stripping down stolen Beetles turning them into dune buggies of the apocalypse. And there was an international dimension, VWs were made in Mexico and Nigeria and sold all over the world. Colonel Gadaffi had one, Haile Salassi was driven away in one after he was deposed and so on – it seemed to offer a lot of narrative options. The second novel Still Life With Volkswagens found an American audience, and the third Gravity’s Volkswagen really didn’t find much of an audience at all, though it has my favourite book jacket design. So I suspect I’m done with VWs.
I’ve been thinking about how best to describe your work. You don’t like being called ‘a comic novelist’ but, while it’s true your novels don’t have gags, they do have plenty of absurd situations that lead to comedy, as well as satirical elements. There are parallels with Jonathan Coe, whose work I’m also fond of, but he’s more relaxed about being entered for comedy prizes. How do you self-define?
I’m probably more relaxed about it now than I used to be. If anybody wants to give me a prize – for comedy or anything else – I will accept. My first agent said to me when she signed me up, ‘Geoff, I think you could be the next Tom Sharpe’ which she intended as a compliment – but I didn’t really take it as such. I didn’t want to be the next anybody. For better or worse, I wanted to be the first Geoff Nicholson.
Of course, ‘public taste’ in novels changes all the time but I think taste in ‘comic fiction’ changes even faster. Obviously you’re right that I don’t do gags per se, but more than that, I just write the stuff, not exactly in a fugue state, but in a way that seems best at the time – the humour just happens – it seems inevitably to be there when I write.
I’ve always been happier being called a satirist, although of course that comes with its own baggage and problems. But I do like the Northrop Frye line, which is more or less written on my heart: ‘Satire demands at least a token fantasy, a content which the reader recognizes as grotesque, and at least an implicit moral standard, the latter being essential in a militant attitude to experience”
I think that pretty much describes what I do. The militant attitude seems especially important. And of course the militancy has to extend in all directions. If one were foolish enough to write a satire about climate change, the militancy would have to include the Greta Thunbergs and the David Attenboroughs as well as to the Donald Trumps. (I’m certainly not that foolish)
The majority of your novels have flawed, first person narrators who I – rightly or wrongly – tend to read as a self-deprecating, absurdist version of your own personality. Frequently they’re morally compromised in some way and this compromise provides the novel’s plot engine. In ‘The Miranda’ however, the immoral behaviour is in the past and the narrator is having to deal with its consequences. It’s a darker, more sombre story. How do you decide what form of narration to use and how do you feel your writing has changed over thirty-odd years?
I suppose narrators who aren’t flawed aren’t of much interest. That may need some discussion.
I do often struggle with whether to write in the first person or the third person, or a mixture of the two, or in the case of The Knot Garden (that difficult second novel) in a maddening variety of multiple unreliable narrators.
Whether any of these is a version of myself is I hard for me to say, though there’s no denying the flaws. Obviously I share some of the same interests as my narrators: fetishism, guitar noise, ruins etc. My characters probably have a harder time in life than I do, though they probably also have more fun.
In my own work and in the novels I read I’m always drawn to ‘ordinary’ people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. In one sense everybody is extraordinary but we’re not all Jack Reacher.
There’s a fabulous story told Tom Stoppard. I may have some of the exact details wrong but essentially it involves a friend of Stoppard’s who decided to keep peacocks as pets, and one morning he’s his bathroom, half-dressed, doing his ablutions, and after he’s lathered up one half his face to shave, he looks out the window and sees that one of his peacocks has wandered into the road and is likely to get run down by a passing car, so he runs out of the house, half dressed, half his face covered in shaving foam, into the road and scoops up the peacock, and at that very moment a car goes by and the driver looks out and his mouth drops open in amazement.
And Stoppard says you don’t write about the man with the peacock because everything he’s doing is perfectly rational as far as he’s concerned. You write about the man in the car who’s confronted by this incredible sight that he has to try to make sense of. I think that’s where I’m coming from.
To address the question of moral compromise: I suppose the answer is that we’re all compromised to some extent, even if it’s only cheating Tesco on the self-checkout, and perhaps none of us treat our parents or wives or children or friends with the moral scrupulousness we can imagine we ought to. This I suppose is at the heart of the realistic novel. Will Oliver Twist escape the clutches of Fagin? Will the ‘Gone Girl’ get her comeuppance? Can Jane Eyre be happy? In life I’m as aware of these dilemmas as anyone else, but it’s not exactly what I write about.
As for whether my writing’s changed, well yes, I would hope so and yet I worry that it hasn’t matured as much as I’d like. I suppose it’s less full on, less throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. It would be nice to think I was developing a ‘late style’ – (see Adorno – “The maturity of the late works, does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are for the most part not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation”) but again that’s for others to say.
You’re from Sheffield but the city doesn’t feature in your novels, whereas your adopted city, London, does. Meanwhile, LA, where you lived until recently, has only served as a location in your most recent novels. What do you think is the importance of place in your work – including, of course, the two walking books?
To get the chronology straight – it’s basically 20 years in Sheffield, 20 years in London, 20 years in the States – 5 of those in New York, 15 in Los Angeles, with a year or two elsewhere.
I have written about Sheffield a little. Barry, the narrator of Street Sleeper comes Sheffield, and parts of Hunters and Gatherers take place in and around Sheffield, but I agree that Sheffield doesn’t appear much in the fiction, though rather more in the non-fiction. I suppose one answer would be than for the first part of my life I was too close to Sheffield to be able to see it clearly, and this was combined with a low-level adolescent misery and the urge to get away. The idea of a writing coming of age novel never appealed, largely because it seemed so typical and done; it would have been a bit sub DH Lawrence.
I know that writers are always banging on about a sense of place – and although I think I’m a pretty good observer of places, I never really feel I belong anywhere in particular. I can be happy in all kinds of places but I never feel particular settled. I hope this doesn’t sound too much like an excuse.
More generally I’d say that novels are always set in made up places, be it a made-up version of London or LA or Sheffield or Timbuktu.
A thing about The City Under the Skin, I pictured it as a sort of mythical malleable city in which everything and anything could be found. As it did the rounds of various publishers it acted as a sort of Rorschach test – American publishers tended to assume it was a European city, which in a sense parts of it are, but Angelinos tended to see it as a distorted version of Los Angeles.
Perhaps this takes us back to Northrop Frye – the element of fantasy and the grotesque; although the real world cane be grotesque enough without any need for fantasy.
As for the walking books – well, yes, they are non-fiction books which requires walking in a real world place.
But I do think all cities are constructed – Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles really doesn’t match the real world place but accurately – but why should it, Joan Didion’s even less, but I they capture the spirit of the place. The same could be said for Dickens’s London or Jane Austen’s Bath.
The walking thing came to me largely unbidden. I’d always been a walker in Sheffield and in the Peak District and when I arrived in London, and that led to Bleeding London about the Sheffielder (very much not a version of myself) who comes to London, and a Londoner who attempts to walk every street in London. I had never done anything like that but I did spend days ‘being my character’ and walking the streets. I think it was a more unusual idea at the time than it must seem today. As a launch for the book I did a reading in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road with Iain Sinclair and I think we were both surprised to find there was this other geezer mining the same territory.
In your most recent novel, The Miranda, Joe decides to do the equivalent of walking around the world by trekking round his back yard for a thousand days at twenty-five miles a day. Like the French guy in the current crisis who’s running marathons on his seven foot balcony but way bigger. This sounds like a typically quirky Nicholson premise, but the novel’s a lot darker than much of your work, starting with the protagonist’s back story. What drew you to this subject?
Walking still fascinates me, and the idea of a man walking 25,000 miles in his own back yard came to me and I saw the appeal. Then of course you start asking why he’s doing this. And various characters come up to him and they ask is he doing it for charity, for a bet, as some environmentalist statement, and I wanted him to say no to all those things – and then as a writer, you say, well is it because he’s in hiding, is it because somebody’s coming to get him and then you ask who and why, is it because he did something terrible? And being a novel, the answer of course is yes, and then you ask what, and before you know it, there’s a narrative.
I’m rereading Bedlam Burning (from 2000), which could be seen as a very satirical, cynical attack on the Creative Writing industry. Many writers, including myself, make their living from this. What’re your thoughts on the study of Creative Writing?
I think ‘attack’ would be overstating it. I haven’t done a lot of creative writing teaching but I’ve done some – most recently at the ‘prestigious’ California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Obviously teaching is a noble profession and passing on the craft seems like a good idea, but I really don’t have the temperament for it. Of the people I taught, I thought maybe five per cent were really good, and they probably didn’t need me. The vast majority were sort of dull and weren’t ever going to be ‘real writers,’ and there were another five percent who equally untalented but also incredibly arrogant, and they made me want to kill.
The other aspect, certainly in the States, is that the students were coming out with debts of $60,000 or more. If I’d had $60,000 at their age, I’d have moved to Paris for a couple of years and written in an attic.
I hope that some readers will want to track down your novels. Which would you guide them to – either because they’re most representative, or your particular favourites?
This is hard. On one hand I’m tempted to recommend the “greatest hits”, which would be ‘Bleeding London’, ‘Footsucker’ and ‘The Lost Art of Walking’. I think that if you don’t enjoy ‘Bleeding London’ you’re not going to enjoy much else of mine. But I’m also tempted to recommend the neglected ones – ‘Female Ruins’ would fit into that category.
And which would you advise them not to start with, either because you don’t think they work as well as you’d hoped or because you’ve found that some readers find the subject off-putting?
There are enough people slagging off books without me joining in. But the one book of mine that I think doesn’t really work, and that I sometimes think I’d like to go back to and do a complete re-write of, is ‘The Errol Flynn Novel’. I’d put a lot more Errol Flynn into it!
Thanks very much for giving us such a considered interview at such a stressful time. You’ve also kindly recorded a reading of The Father Figure from The Book of Sheffield. Would you care to conclude by introducing it for us?
The story is ‘The Father Figure’, and one part of the story actually happened. I did see a man at my Father’s funeral who looked exactly like my Father. And I suppose the fact is that we’re all haunted by our parents for better or worse. And perhaps the story is also about the way you can take the man out of Sheffield, but you can’t take Sheffield out of the man.
I’m pleased to say that Nottingham Creative Writing Hub are still paying Geoff his fee for this event, which was sponsored by them. Five Leaves Bookshop ordered in stock, including some books that are incredibly hard to find. Please support them by buying Geoff’s books directly from them (email firstname.lastname@example.org) post free in the UK, from the list below. They have great stock and can still speedily get books in, too, so please consider using them for all your book buying needs (or, outside Nottingham, do use your local independent bookshop if you have one).
Still Life With Volkswagens (HB) / Quartet £14.99
Lost Art of Walking Harbour Books £12
Walking In Ruins Harbour Books £12.50
Bleeding London Harbour Books £8
The Hollywood Dodo Simon & Schuster £16.99
City Under The Skin Farrar & Strauss £11.99
And the new short story collection
Book of Sheffield (also featuring Helen Mort & many more) Comma £9.99
Five Leaves have published several of my novels, including The Pretender (£9.99), Student and Love Lessons (both £6.99) and Secret Gardens (£5.99). They also stock Provenance, new and collected short stories (£12.99). All are available more cheaply as eBooks. They have a couple of the Bone and Cane novels in stock too.
Their website is: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/
Thanks to Caroline Gannon, Rory Waterman and Matt Turpin for helping to make this happen. Many thanks to Victoria from Nottingham Creative Writing Hub and NTU’s PhD programme, for being such a splendid opening act. Do join in on Twitter and let us know what you thought of the event (and what we can do better) Btw, we’ve been in touch with Faber and I hope to be able to do something similar for the David Peace event in May. Watch this space.