[Dan Rhodes is the author of the short story collections “Anthropology” and “Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love”, and the novels “Timoleon Vieta Come Home”, “The Little White Car” (as Danuta de Rhodes) and “Gold” (released March 2007). He was named as one of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” in 2003. This interview is from 2001, when I was accidentally working in the book business.]
OB: The last time I spoke to you, “Anthropology” was just about to be published. A year later and you’re a famous writer, respected by your peers and pursued by some of the world’s most desirable women. How has success changed you?
DR: I’ve had to have my number changed a few times – Sabrina The Teenage Witch just wouldn’t take no for an answer. But, disappointingly, my life isn’t like a non-stop Dave Lee Roth video. My days are drifting by in much the same way as they were a year ago – I’m still struggling along with my third book, and I haven’t come close to earning out my advance (which I spent on drink and shelving a long time ago) so I’m still keeping the wolf from the door by unpacking boxes at a bookshop. I don’t mind the work, though. The money’s a joke but I can wear jeans, listen to my own music and use foul language without being fired, so as jobs go it’s not too bad. I took most of the summer off, but ended up watching Wimbledon and Big Brother and listening to records when I should have been writing. The Rhodes 2001 tour kicks off soon though, which should be good – so far I have one date in London, a possible reading in Aberystwyth and a two-week tour of Belgium to look forward to.
OB: In “Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love” a man pines his life away over a mysterious girl who lives in the council dump, another bloke loses an eye, another gets turned into a cello, and a painting of a beautiful woman destroys a whole village. Anyone would think you were saying that love is an entirely dangerous business…
DR: Do you know the fantastic Shangri-Las? They’ve got a song called “What Is Love” that goes: “Love is a funny thing you can’t explain. It makes you happy, but it brings a lot of pain”. I can’t really add anything to that. In fact it renders both my books as good as redundant. But occasionally the world will throw up freaks like my parents, who met over a ping-pong table in a Streatham youth club when they were about 16 and have been happily married for forty-odd years. I suppose those are the stories I’m telling, in an oblique way. Lots of them have happy endings, it’s just the happiness is often between the love interest and someone other than the leading man. Who wants to read about happy, romantically secure people? Not me. But there are plenty of them out there in real life.
OB: Dostoyevsky reckoned that “love in action is a harsh and terrible thing compared to love in dreams”…
DR: Didn’t the Human League say that too? But yes, I’m with Fyodor on that one. It’s very easy, and probably even natural, to construct a romantic fantasy around someone, to make them almost superhuman without really knowing them. Don’t tell me you haven’t done it.
OB: Er… well, Tolstoy said that “it is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness”…
DR: Oh, those Russians… The women in Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love are predominantly foxy, but I wouldn’t say that they weren’t good people. The ones who break the leading men’s hearts aren’t doing anything wrong except not loving him. And that’s hardly criminal – the girls can’t help it. They are angels in the men’s eyes, but they aren’t bad in real life – they just don’t love him like he thinks they should do.
OB: So what’s the best cure – long years of despair, introspection and self-loathing; drugs and drink; or immediately falling in love with someone else?
DR: My opinion on such matters is mud. I don’t know jack shit. I can only speak from experience, so if pressed I would recommend becoming a ludicrous, shambling drunk, and obsessively writing experimental short fiction at the expense of every other aspect of your life. If you do that everything will be fine. But really I’m not qualified to dispense advice to the broken hearted. My fiction offers warnings, but not solutions. They are cautionary tales aimed at myself, but others are welcome to take heed.
OB: What do you think of the state of the rest of British fiction at the moment?
DR: It’s not much worse than usual, is it? I’ve never had high expectations of British fiction. That said, one of my favourite new books of 2000 was Simon Crump’s “My Elvis Blackout”- he’s sticking his neck out and doing something new, which is rare – and his book manages to be playful without being cloying. My other favourites last year (Martin Parr’s “Autoportrait”, the Dave Eggers book, “The Creation Records Story” by David Cavanagh, and “Catfish And Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham) weren’t British fiction, though. But as long as there are new books coming out that are worth reading I don’t really mind where they come from or whether they are fiction or not. There are a few British writers out there publishing interesting stuff, but I’m a slow reader so I don’t get through nearly as many new books as I would like to. And lots of my favourite writers are working in other fields. The people who write “Viz” are geniuses. And I know they aren’t particularly British, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still coming up with some of the funniest and most fiercely moral writing I’ve ever come across. It’s fascinating watching “South Park” being misunderstood. I’m not a fiction fetishist, I’m just a good writing junkie – I love well-written stuff, whatever form that stuff may take. But really, as far as I can see the book scene is pretty much the same as it’s been for years. It’s heartbreakingly conservative, and clogged up with mountains of dismal crap (I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before there’s a Jamie Oliver novel, God help us) which, thanks to the majority of the book-buying public’s love of dismal crap, often sells very well. But there are occasional golden nuggets that make it all seem worthwhile. When something interesting comes along it’s always cause for celebration. And it does happen from time to time.
OB: So have you bumped into any of the “New Puritans”?
DR: I’ve not met any of them face to face. I share a publisher with the New Puritans, but I wasn’t invited to the launch party. Maybe they thought I would get drunk and start a fight with Alex Garland or something. Which is fair enough – I probably would have done.
OB: You started with very short stories, the new book has longer short stories, and now you’re working on a novel. Will it be short? Or an epic?
DR: The business is very novel-centric. If I hadn’t had one on the go I’m not sure I would have got a deal. I’m contracted to write 90,000 words, but believe me, a 300-page novel by me would be interminable. I’m aiming for it to be somewhere around 200 pages though, so if the publisher uses thick paper it will almost look like a proper novel. I would get into trouble if I handed in a pamphlet. I’m quite optimistic about it at the moment. It was hard to readjust to normal fiction after writing “Anthropology”, where I found that almost every word I was tempted to use was unnecessary. So I hardly wrote a thing all last year, I just took words away from what I already had. I think I’ve overcome that now though. I’ve just written a ten-page chapter in which almost nothing happens, and I’m very pleased with it. The book’s way over deadline though.
OB: There’s a rumour that the novel will be your final book. Surely not?
DR: That’s it – three slim volumes and I’m outta here. That’s set in stone – when I came into the biz I had no intention of writing a fourth book, and nothing that’s happened since has made me reconsider, not for a second. I am blessed with an awareness of my limitations, which is a rare and wonderful thing in show business. Everyone else seems to be striving for longevity, which is a mug’s game. People should quit more, then there would be less rubbish stuff cluttering up our lives. Imagine if Bowie had vanished behind a wall at the end of the Seventies – he would have left a fantastic legacy, with no Tin Machine or Glass Spider. Did you see him at Glastonbury this year? It was shocking – his voice was shot to pieces and he looked like a cross between Britney Spears and a scrotum – and this is the man who used to be Ziggy. Like Venus Williams, I am very keen to be able to look back on my work and be proud of it. My entire output will total around 105,000 words, and I want to be able to stand by every one of them. Although there’s a rogue word on page nine of “Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love” that shouldn’t be there… Damn. Ultimately I only have so much to say, and once I’ve said it I’m not going to hang around. I’m very uncomfortable in the business, and I know I won’t be missed. I’m not easy to get along with, and my books don’t sell that well.
OB: So what will you do instead?
DR: Most writers say that they have to keep going, because without writing there would be a vacuum in their lives. I’m sure this has resulted in mountains of crappy books. I’m going to find a vacuum in my life too, but I’m planning on filling it with lots of interesting and fun stuff. I’m not going to shut myself away and churn out increasingly unoriginal and diluted versions of my best work.