Interview with Rupert Thomson


The dancer protagonist of Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation starts out for cigarettes on a sunny April day and winds up shackled to the floor of a cavernous white room. There three hooded women make him their sex slave, subjecting him to various ministrations and indignities before driving a screwdriver through his foreskin, looping a chain through the wound, tethering him to a wall, and forcing him to dance, naked, before a masked audience. At the end of part one, they abandon him to the rest of his life.

This opening section is a gripping portrait of sexual coercion and its immediate psychological impact. It was also my introduction to Thomson. When I reached the end of the first hundred pages — when the women dropped our unnamed protagonist off somewhere in suburban Amsterdam, with a hood over his head, and told him to count to a hundred — I was stricken and amazed, and wholly engrossed in his plight. But I didn’t have high hopes for the remaining 150 pages. I’ve overloaded on transgressive fiction, so much of which gets by solely on the shock value of brutal or improbable fucking. And I didn’t expect Thomson to pull back from the graphic sex and reveal something altogether more true and disturbing: the way trauma can transform a victim into a monster.

Thomson’s fiction excavates the fears and longings that churn in the deepest subconscious. In The Insult, a man is shot in the head and told he’s lost his eyesight. While recovering in an institution, he finds he can still see, but only at night. Alone with his secret — he gains release from the hospital only by pretending to accept his blindness — he holes up in a squalid hotel where he can sleep all day and embark on a new life under cover of darkness.

Divided Kingdom, Thomson’s latest book, opens as a young boy is taken from his home in the middle of the night pursuant to a scheme to reorganize Britain in accordance with the four personality types, or humors, identified long ago by Aristotle. He’s assigned to a new, sanguine family and expected to be content there. (Longtime readers may remember how pissed off I was when I left my copy on a plane after reading up to the family reassignment.)

“If you’re already a fan of Rupert Thomson’s novels,” Andrew O’Hehir observed last year, “all I have to tell you is that he has a new one. You’ll understand already that it won’t fall readily into any known literary genre, but that it’ll crackle along like a thriller … driven by sharp and luminous writing. You’ll also know that in the end there’ll be something mysterious about it, as if its exciting events and characters are just a sort of smokescreen for something deeper and scarier still.”

I’m the kind of Thomson fan O’Hehir describes. Then there are people like the friend of mine who read The Insult on my recommendation, and was underwhelmed and annoyed by the structure. He picked up Divided Kingdom, which he loved, only because he didn’t realize it was written by the same person.

Even Thomson’s most devout fans are more willing to enter some of his nightmare worlds than others. Take James Hynes, a recent convert who happens to be one of my favorite contemporary American authors. In “The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson,” he writes beautifully about the allure of Thomson’s fiction. Once he sets in on the relative merits of the individual novels, though, I’m all, “I’d love to debate that assessment over a couple pints of beer sometime.”

Thomson and I started a relaxed and very slow email interview last fall. I didn’t manage to ask even half the questions I’d hoped to, but once he got to talking about his new (already completed) novel, I knew it was time to finish this thing up and post it.

In 2001, you told an interviewer that when you start a new book:

I have nightmares. Night after night. For a long time I didn’t understand why. Recently I came up with a theory. To write fiction of any power and authenticity you have to draw on the deepest, most secret parts of yourself. That’s where fiction comes from, but it’s also where dreams are made. Small wonder, then, if there’s a certain amount of cross-fertilisation between the two. I often think of Louise Bourgeois in this context. She once said, “I trust my unconscious. The unconscious is my friend. . . .” You might say that I want my fiction to have that relationship to reality. I want to be able to look at reality from a standpoint that feels unpredictable, surreal, and yet, at the same time, entirely cogent. I seem to be attracted to ideas that allow me to do this.

How does this immersion — I’ve read that you work “in five-month stints of seven-day weeks” — in the darkest reaches of the unconscious affect the rest of your life? Do the nightmare worlds of your books bleed into everything else, so that you’re spending much of your life in a distressed, hyper-aware state? Or can you shake yourself out of that world without much trauma?

As a writer you have to immerse yourself completely or you won’t produce anything that works, let alone anything that is powerful and alive. There are no half measures. Rainer Maria Rilke put it beautifully in a book called Letters on Cezanne: “It seems to me that the ‘ultimate intuitions and insights’ will only approach one who lives in his work and remains there, and whoever considers them from afar gains no power over them.” I think that says it all, especially the part about remaining there.

If you live in your work, though, it’s often at the expense of your life — temporarily, at least. There just isn’t too much energy left at the end of the day. People who know you well can sense the change in you, the not-quite-there-ness; they can feel it, as you can feel the cold draught from a half-open door. There are dreams too — or nightmares — but that’s because the pathways to the sub-conscious are open. The people you’re writing about feel real, and real people feel ever so slightly ghostly. All I ever want to do when I’m in the middle of a draft is to go to sleep, wake up again, and carry on writing. It doesn’t make you a very easy person to live with. But in spite of all the difficulties, I feel happy — and, though it sounds odd, useful — because I’m doing what I most love doing.

I don’t really get over-stressed unless I’m not working. I lose all sense of what I’m here for. I seem to have no purpose.

The only time I get distressed — though panic-stricken would be a better way of putting it — is in the middle of a book. All of a sudden, I feel that I’ve taken on too much, that what I’m attempting is either over-ambitious or ludicrous. This phase usually lasts for three or four days. It used to worry me, but now I’ve come to recognise it as a crucial phase, or even as a sign. These days I would worry if didn’t feel it. It would mean I’d undertaken something that was too obvious or too easy. I suppose I want every book to be a challenge. To take me somewhere I’ve never been.

That desire to let fiction carry you someplace new must be what makes each of your stories so distinctive. I hate to dwell unduly on what you’ve said about the cross-fertilization between fiction and dreams, but I’ve thought about that one quote so often while struggling with my own first novel (and with the effects of writing it on my mental health!) that I can’t let go of the idea just yet.

The events depicted in your novels, no matter how improbable, seem to partake of an impeccable nightmare logic. The things that happens are often astonishing — even impossible — but always feel inevitable. Do you know the direction a story will take before you start writing, or does the trajectory build over time?

I never know what shape a book is going to have, or even what it’s about, certainly not in the first draft anyway. If I knew, I probably wouldn’t write it. The pleasure — and the pain — is precisely in not knowing.

The first draft of a new book has an excitement all of its own. I wrote the first draft of The Book of Revelation in 29 days. Flat out. Absolutely instinctive. No idea where it was going.

I tend to write at least six entire drafts of a book, and sometimes as many as twelve. By a draft, I mean writing the book from beginning to end, no matter how long that takes. I will often go back and forwards as well, within a single draft. By the time I reach the third or fourth draft, I have a good idea of the final shape of the book, but I still might not have found that extra level that’s crucial if the book is to have the depth I want it to have. The best novels are like cities built on cities built on cities. Once you start digging, there’s no end to what you can discover.

The actual writing process feels a lot like sculpture. I start with something amorphous and vague — the equivalent of a piece of wood or marble — and do my best to find out what it’s supposed to be.

I usually ask writers what, if anything, they read when they’re at work on a book. Some shy away from reading fiction while writing because they’re too susceptible to other people’s prose styles. Others read books that counteract their own stylistic weaknesses. And William Faulkner, whom you’ve named as an influence, advised writers to “read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” How does this advice strike you?

I think the one thing you hope to have achieved after writing for twenty years is a voice of your own, and it’s that voice that you never tire of exploring. But yes, I do read certain writers to try and work out how they achieve their effects. I recently read The Great Gatsby for the third or fourth time. It’s extraordinary how tightly that novel is constructed. The whole story is told in something like thirteen scenes. It’s a triumph of economy and discipline. Earlier this year I read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow for the same reason.

Also, there are certain books that I use as talismans. They will often be on my desk when I’m working – or not far away, anyway. The books are The Violent Bear It Away (or almost anything by Flannery O’Connor), Song of Solomon, As I Lay Dying, Wide Sargasso Sea (or almost anything by Jean Rhys), Coming Through Slaughter, Let It Come Down, Junky.

There are probably others, but those are the ones that spring to mind tonight. It’s not that I imitate them. They simply remind me of what’s possible, what’s good.

It’s funny: I was going to say that your thoughts about following your stories where they lead remind me of Flannery O’Connor’s comments about the climax of “Good Country People,” when the Bible salesman runs off with the philosophy PhD’s prosthesis, taking with it her “assured belief in Nothing.”

I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.

And I know just what you mean about the structural perfection of The Great Gatsby and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Both are amazingly slim, given the ground they cover.

I’m constantly rereading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room for the same reason. So few books stand up to repeated examination, but those do. I return to the Greene book at least once a year and I’ve yet to come upon a passage and think, why did he do that? Every scene, every action — every single word — belongs exactly where it is. The Book of Revelation, too, is a feat of precision. And, like many of your books, it seems to break down into roughly three acts. As do most screenplays.

I read year before last that you were working on a screenplay based on Soft! Given the intensely psychological character of your work, have you had trouble adjusting to a more action- and dialogue-driven form? Are you involved in the film version of The Book of Revelation?

I haven’t worked on the adaptation of Soft since the summer of 1999, so you must have been reading something pretty ancient!

At the time, I was very excited about the project because Samantha Morton wanted to play the part of Glade, and I was a huge fan of Sam’s work. (Still am.) I had a very hard time trying to turn that novel into a screenplay, though. There were two problems. Firstly, it’s just not true that a novel that appears to be “cinematic” is easily turned into a piece of cinema. The structure I used in the novel — what I like to call a “precipice narrative” — wasn’t a structure that was ever going to work on film. I soon realised that I would have to cut between the characters in an entirely different way, and that it wasn’t going to be easy.

Secondly, there was an enthusiasm problem. I had lived with all those characters for such a long time already. I had taken the material as far as it could go. When I returned to that material, those characters, I just didn’t have the energy I would normally have with a new project, even though the medium was different. After spending three months on the screenplay, I had to call a halt, even though I had just made what I thought might be a breakthrough. In the end, I suppose I resent spending that much time on something that isn’t a novel — and Divided Kingdom was starting to take shape in my mind. I was ready to start exploring something new.

As for The Book of Revelation, I’m not working on it at all, though I have seen the screenplay at every stage. I have been in close consultation with the writer/director, Ana Kokkinos, and I have given her notes on at least two of the drafts. The screenplay is all her work, however. Andrew Bovell — of Lantana fame — was also involved. You would have to ask Ana exactly when and for how long. I think she’s trying to have the film finished in time for the Berlin Film Festival this year.

An architect-in-training who picked up Divided Kingdom at my insistence kept thinking of Berlin and Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture as he read. Judging from comments you’ve made in prior interviews, he had a good sense of your inspirations.

As a child I was inculcated in Evangelical self-help books based the four humors that were published by Tim LaHaye (of Left Behind fame). I read your novel envisioning not just post-WWII Germany and a political dictatorship bent on breaking up a city but also a world rent asunder by quasi-religious happiness fanatics. So I probably have a different take on the dystopian vision of Divided Kingdom than your average reader.

Still, the book invites many interpretations, and I believe it has at least as much cinematic potential as Soft! Like the former novel, it’s grounded in a very personal story, but also operates at the larger, social level. Any chance of a film version?

Maria Campbell, who used to scout for Steven Spielberg, read Divided Kingdom and thought it would make a wonderful film. She said I should talk to Sylvie Rabineau, a very high-powered Los Angeles-based film agent who specialises in turning novels into studio pictures. This sounded ideal, since I couldn’t imagine Divided Kingdom being made cheaply. Despite all her best efforts, though, Sylvie has so far failed to sell the rights. This is no fault of hers. The Hollywood response to the book seems to be that it is ‘too much of a personal journey’, which, interestingly enough, is exactly why you thought it would make a good movie. I agree with you – but who are we? The short answer is, Divided Kingdom is still available.

Well, of course it is. Far be it from Hollywood to put money behind a story that’s poignant and moving, and has a larger point to make about the human impulse to classify people and push them into arbitrary hierarchies. After all, it’s not as though a book like Divided Kingdom has any relevance to the way we live now…

Ahem, sorry. I know you just finished a new novel and turned it over to your publisher. Care to talk about that?

The new novel is set during a single night in November 2002. A police constable is guarding the dead body of a famous murderer in a hospital mortuary north-east of London. It’s a twelve-hour shift, from seven in the evening until seven the following morning. The body in question is that of Myra Hindley, though her name is never mentioned. Together with her lover, Ian Brady, Myra Hindley was responsible for the deaths of five people in the early 1960’s. Three of those murdered were young children. For the British public, she became an icon of evil. She was a woman, and she had killed children. People never forgave her for what she’d done. They never forgave, and they never forgot. Even today, she’s something of a taboo subject.

At the beginning of the policeman’s shift, everything is normal and routine — except, of course, that the situation is, in itself, extraordinary. As the hours go by, though, and prompted by the body he is guarding, he begins to meditate on his own life, and the wrong he has done. The novel has something of St Augustine’s Confessions about it, I hope, in that it shows a man being completely honest with and about himself. It is also a gloss on Myra Hindley’s life, since the policeman is reflecting particularly on obsessive relationships with other people, and how they can lead you into patterns of behaviour you never thought possible.

Like The Book of Revelation, this novel stepped up and demanded to be written. The first draft took 41 days. It may be an odd coincidence, but it’s another novel set in a small room, After the cinemascope of Divided Kingdom, I probably needed a project that felt small-scale, but at the same time I think this new novel is the strongest book I’ve written yet. It’s very specific, both in time and place, its language is stripped right down, and all the power comes from emotion.

Can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Rupert.


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