James Meek Interview Part 2 of 2

The View From Here Interview:
James Meek
Interview by Mike

Part 1 of this interview can be found here.

How did your friends and associates in journalism react to you becoming a novelist?

I was writing novels and short stories before I became a reporter, and continued to write and publish them during the twenty years I did that job. Everyone who knew me knew that I was a novelist, although it is true that it was easy to forget, since my earlier books were not commercially successful and I didn't talk about it much. If you mean how did they react to me becoming a novelist who sold enough books to enable him to give up full time journalism, which happened a few years ago, they were curious, as journalists tend to be, and congratulatory on the whole. If anyone had negative thoughts about it they didn't share them with me, naturally.

Your main character,Kellas,imagines a street towards the end of the book as being "like a waiting room leading to the place in which some final account would be delivered to him." How do you feel about the final account that is often delivered at the end of novels where, despite life’s tendency not to unfold a grand ending that explains all, an ending that neatly ties everything into The End is delivered?

It's difficult to answer your question without talking about specific novels. Few serious literary novels are as neat as you say; not everything is explained, not all questions answered, not all fates resolved. On the other hand, the death of one or more people is an ending, in life as in fiction. Their personal narrative has stopped. Similarly, a union of two people who had previously been living separate lives is the end of something, as well as the beginning of something else. I suppose what I'm saying is that in life there are endings; sometimes they are grand; but that doesn't mean everything is explained by them.

How did writing We Are Now Beginning Our Descent differ from The People's Act of Love and do you think you have developed as a writer?

I wrote Descent more quickly - it took less than two years - and it was the first book I worked on as a writer who was writing more or less full time. That wasn't an easy adjustment to make. Suddenly you find yourself in what seems like a vast space of time without edges to do something you're used to doing in the margins of something else. It was tough, too, to go from the setting of a foreign country with all-foreign characters in a foreign time to writing about something much closer to my own time and experience, while depriving myself of the absurdist, surreal elements I had used in the novel before People's Act, the 1995 book Drivetime (which is being republished by Canongate in August, by the way). I don't know if I've improved as a writer. I hope I have. I know I've improved as a reader.

What advice would you give new writers?

Learn to read. I don't mean to be facetious. I mean teach yourself to read as both a reader and as a writer. If you like a book, try to work out what it is that the writer does that makes you like it. Study the use of metaphors and simile, the sentence structure, the relative frequency of description, reflection, dialogue and action, the dramatic interplay between the characters, the overall shape of the narrative. Note the differences between writers. One describes how his characters look; another doesn't. Does it work for either of them, for both? Why? And read up, not down, by which I mean it is preferable to read a writer you think is better than you, and try to close the gap, than to read a writer in the certainty that you can already do better.

Have you started your next book and can you tell us anything about it?

I have. It is about love, children and money; about betrayal and sacrifice; it is set mostly in Britain, now.

Thanks James it's been great interviewing you, good luck with the next book.

For James Meek's web site click here.

For an extract from We Are Now Beginning Our Descent click here.

Picture Credit: Sarah lee at the Guardian - approval requested.


Paul said...

Very informative interview. I enjoy these a lot, Mike. Thanks.

kathleenmaher said...

Wonderful interview: I like the discussion of what makes an ending, in life, in novels, for one character, and/or two.
And Meek's concise description of how writers can read productively throughout their lives.