Duncan Fallowell interviewed by Georgia de Chamberet for Prospect magazine


GdeC: What started you writing?

DF: I don’t think I had much choice, I was writing before I could read, in the sense that I was scribbling at a very early age, 3 or 4 years old; doodles on little pieces of paper and clipping them together into a book. It was an instinct. 

GdeC: Were you sure that you wanted to be a writer?

DF: I’m a vocational writer rather than someone who chose it at a certain moment as a career. I just didn’t ever think of anything else. But how you make it a reality or how you survive on it is an entirely different question and that of course remains problematic to the end of your life. For me anyway. I’ve always been self-employed and free-lance, never had a job, never had a boss.

GdeC: How do you work?

DF: Books I have to write in the country, the first draft, whereas journalism I do in the town. I can’t do it the other way round. I can do revisions anywhere, but there is not the right form of pressure for journalism in the countryside, and there is not the right form of space for a book if you’re in the town. I write all my books in longhand first, the second draft is when it’s typed into the computer, then umpteen revisions until I’m more or less satisfied.

GdeC: The extent of revising and the number of drafts - how much does it vary?

DF: My last novel, A History Of Facelifting,  had 12 drafts. It was a very complicated book with 60 or so characters and many sub-plots. The first draft in longhand is always a mess, and it’s always don’t look over your shoulder, keep going. Although a book is read sequentially, it exists as one thing in a kind of simultaneous state. So it’s absolutely impossible to get the beginning  precisely right until I know what the ending is, and I won’t know that until I’ve reached it, so I just plough on. But once I have what I call  the Sketch - which if I were Raphael I would call the Cartoon - I can then go back and tighten it all up. Certain things will need bringing  forward, other things suppressing; rarely is any major aspect lost altogether.

GdeC: When you are writing a book do you try to avoid reading other books?

DF: I don’t read my contemporaries from my own background, because they’re standing in a similar place, looking at a similar  realm  of possibilities, and what they make of it is not relevant to what I might make of it. But I sometimes read contemporary writers in other cultures and I like watching contemporary films, especially non-Hollywood films. And I read classic authors - there are still couple of books by Dickens I’ve not read. So I don’t keep up with contemporary fiction in English – and it’s very important that I don’t. This is an artistic decision you might say, to stop me being influenced by irrelevant things. Whenever I read I’m looking for things to use, that’s the motive, to steal if you like, and to transform.

GdeC: How much affinity do you feel towards your contemporary writers?

DF: I have a lot of affinity with the thankless task on which they are also engaged, but I don’t want to be swallowing their stuff, that’s all.

GdeC: So do you ever show your work to other writers?

DF: No. Well - I have done once or twice and it’s been a deeply disappointing experience. It gives you absolutely no feedback at all. They’re really looking to see if there is anything they can use. One friend of mine said, ‘I’d love to read it,’ and I said ‘OK,’ and he read my manuscript. I thought I might get some thrilling reponse but all he said was ‘I enjoyed it.’ End of conversation. In other words he simply wanted to know what I was up to, to check out the competition. I don’t work with editors either, not until we’re copy editing. When the agent or publisher gets the book that’s it, bar the shouting. I don’t mind the shouting, and I love the copy editing  - I have to justify every comma – and I love the cutting, the tightening, but if somebody says the architecture of the book is wrong, or the style or the texture is wrong, I’ll say, ‘You shouldn’t be publishing the book because I know what it is I’ve given you.’ And in fact no publisher has ever said that to me. Every book is a battle to write and then to get published. So by the time a publisher says yes, the work is already honed. I know an amazing number of writers who actually present what I’d call the Sketch or the Cartoon to the publisher, and the in-house editors then do all the rest. To me this is scandalous, this isn’t writing, this is book production. To me authorship is terribly important - that the writing should be coming from a person not a committee.

GdeC: You enjoy collaborations, what kind?

DF: I love collaborations, but not on books. On other things. It’s very lonely writing a book so collaborations are a joy. The opera Gormenghast was one. It was a collaboration with a dead author, Mervyn Peake, and a live composer, Irmin Schmidt, and it was marvellous. Irmin is a fantastic person to work with - he gives you freedom and expects freedom in return and this allows the librettist and the composer to float together and their enthusiasm to interlace. He wanted the words first, so I did the libretto which was then adjusted to his musical requirements - though very little in fact. Irmin sometimes made different verbal patterns, and it was interesting to see how he, a German composer who knows English very well, but who is nevertheless German, reworked the rhythms in extraordinary ways - without changing the actual words.  

GdeC: How do you deal with bitchy reviews, which every writer can get?

DF: There’s two sorts of bitchy reviews: reasonable ones and unreasonable ones. The unreasonable ones I just say ‘silly bitch’ and move on. The reasonable ones, well, if there were a nasty or tough review, but I could see some point in it, I would try to deal with the issue. It doesn’t happen very often because I don’t write the sort of books it’s easy to be bitchy about. You can dislike them if you want to, but I think most reviewers, most readers, would smell that this was a high performance product, even if it was not for them. So I tend not to get the kind of bitchy reviews, say, Jeffrey Archer would get. I accept that I’ve written bitchy reviews myself - but I don’t think I’ve ever written a worthless or a cheap review.  

GdeC: Among critics do you admire Cyril Connolly, Martin Amis…?

DF: Literary criticism is more or less dead, it’s just book reviewing now, but when I was growing up it was very much part of the cultural world. We had Connolly, Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, Tillyard, Empson. Is George Steiner the last literary critic alive? A good work of literary criticism was a big cultural event and a vital adjunct to the avant-garde. I love avant-garde literature in the sense of literature that is adding something. You know, the obvious names of the twentieth century: Joyce, Kafka, Lawrence, Eliot, Robbe-Grillet, Genet, the Beats. They all enlarged the territory of operations enormously, often against terrific legal challenges  and terrible social censure. And Borges, Cavafy, Rilke, Baudelaire, Cioran, Pessoa,Waugh, Gogol, Flaubert, Pirandello, oh these writers I love, the list is endless, and then the rococo-esque writers: Peacock, the Sitwells, Laforgue, Horace Walpole. They are all adding, so each is unique. The literary adventure is exciting  for that very reason. If you are not adding anything, why are you bothering at all? You certainly aren’t in it for making money, well I’m not, though I’d love to make money, having written - but I don’t write for money, it’s not lucrative activity. But I’m not complaining. I love the modern cultural scene. It’s hugely stimulating for a writer. But we have to fight for quality and strangeness and astonishment and newness and adventure. As always. Society never wants a writer to write wonderfully. It’s too disturbing for people.

GdeC: Can creative writing be taught?

DF: No, not if it’s worth reading.

GdeC: Can a writer learn style?

DF: Oh, certainly a writer can improve himself, especially by reading the great writers. It depends what a writer wants to be. Some writers want to be very rough and primitivist in their art, others want to be mandarin and high falutin. Me, I want to be everything, I want all those different textures in my work. Sometimes a mandarin reviewer will give me a black mark for a passage which is deliberately rough, the way Michelangelo was in, say, sculpting the Slaves. The Slaves look unfinished, it’s like they’re escaping from the raw marble. But that is the point. The finishing point has been exactly judged by the sculptor. There are certain passages in my books which are like that, they are deliberately anarchic. It’s like meaning is escaping from the matrix of language. If  a passage is rough textured it’s intentional, always. I’m very, very, very controlling of the text. In a recent book, a few commas were sprinkled around by the copy editor without telling me, and I was outraged; this actually altered the meaning and undermined it. So that sort of thing I get very aggressive and grumpy about, and some people in that sense call me difficult, but I’m a perfectionist.

GdeC: Who are the writers you admire?

DF: Who am I influenced by? Almost everybody I have ever read! I admire almost all writers. They all have something to offer - I’m talking about quality writers of course.
I can’t read pulp. But do I read Milton on a daily basis? No - although I recently reviewed a biography of Milton and therefore started reading Milton again and it’s just sensational stuff; what he does with language  is absolutely awe-inspiring. But do I therefore regard him as one of my favourite authors? No. One’s favourite authors are often rather less important. If you were to ask me what book has influenced me most I would say Alice in Wonderland. I think it was almost the first book I ever read under my own steam and I was blown away by it and I’m still blown away by it. I’m  fascinated by the creation not of other worlds, I’m not at all a fantasist, but of subworlds, worlds within our world. I was always drawn to Surrealism and drugs and that kind of thing when I was young, not so much now.

GdeC: How did you end up at Warhol’s Factory?

DF: I was in New York interviewing Johnny Rotten and it was pouring with rain and I’d done Johnny Rotten and did not want to go to the Danceteria again which was the trendy club he went to all the time. I’d also been to see William Burroughs, whom I knew, open a nightclub called The Area in New York. That amazed me - here was the avant-garde opening nightclubs! But that is what happens in the post-Warholian world. I can’t remember if Andy Warhol was at The Area, somebody said he and Bill were sitting in a Cadillac parked on the dancefloor, but anyway I had the Factory number and I thought, ‘Oh I’ll go and see if I can speak to him.’ It was rather wonderful. I rang up, and the receptionist said, ‘I’m afraid Mr Warhol’s not here, he’s flying back from Milan and won’t arrive until 2 this afternoon. He’ll be very tired and need a little time. So why don’t you come here round about 2.30?’ I couldn’t believe it, that he would crawl in to the office from Milan at 2 and needed just half an hour to get his brushes out, and I could come at 2.30. Especially if he’d got back the night before and gone to The Area bash too! That man was so freed up. He was the most open, natural, clear, pure person I met in the whole of my time in New York; the only New Yorker who didn’t have a hidden agenda  or speak with an ulterior motive. He wasn’t expecting an interview and I said, ‘Oh well I’ve got a tape recorder here. Why don’t I give you a one word question and you give me a one word answer like one of those psychiatric tests.’ He said, ‘That sounds great, I can carry on painting while I’m doing that.’ So I would say ‘breakfast’ and he would say ‘vitamin pill’ ; I would say ‘California’ and he would say ‘weather’ ; I would say ‘Europe’ and he’d say ‘We have the best of Europe’s visitors here in the Factory’. It was printed out like a descending strip of ribbon on the page. It looks like concrete poetry, a visual work of art, which is appropriate. Back in England nobody wanted to publish it because this was in the 1980s and Warhol was deeply unfashionable - people forget that after his heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s he was out, he was old hat. That whole Studio 54 thing at the end of the 70s seemed so passé, Andy and Truman doing the rhumba,  well, we had punk in London so I would say that. It was only after Warhol died unexpectedly that he came back again. I’d always thought he was the first truly great American artist, the first one who didn’t defer to European culture for his relevance, I always saw that, and was outraged no-one wanted this delightful encounter. But when he died Marie-Claire published it and it's now in a collection of mine called Twentieth Century Characters.

GdeC: Did your encounter with Warhol, Burroughs and all that influence your first book, the collection  Drug Tales?

DF: No. The collection  Drug Tales was not my first book in the sense of being one that I wrote. It was an anthology of short fiction, which I edited and introduced, and I wrote only one of the pieces.  But all those guys were very important to me in many ways, which perhaps explains my combination of way-out drugged kaleidoscopic madness merging with a high European style. 

GdeC: Have you ever written under the influence of cocaine?

DF: No. I wrote a lot under the influence of speed. It gave me a wonderful sense - and other drugs, all drugs do this really - a sense of the sculptural nature of language. What it doesn’t do is allow you to put language forward in rational structures that other people can enjoy. So while I was taking drugs in my twenties nothing was publishable except short bits and journalism. Drugs are good for journalism – or were – they don’t publish much interesting journalism now, it all has to be worthy and fitting, but then there was the New Journalism and drugs were part of it. I took LSD when I was a student, but LSD has a built-in fade. If you take too much it tails off and stops working. Dope, speed, downers, you know, the recreational stuff, ketamine, smoked opium a fair bit, especially out East, smoked smack in Penang. I was never addicted to anything. I stopped when I was thirty. I didn’t start producing books until after I was clean because you can’t get your head round a book when you’re half stoned, you just can’t do it. A book is a brick, it’s not a puddle.

GdeC: With your first two novels Satyrday and The Underbelly in mind, if a writer explores violence in his work do you think he is in some way celebrating it?

DF: No. He is doing what you just said, exploring it. Well, a bad writer would be celebrating it. There is an awful lot of pornography of violence which I am very against, but I don’t think I’ve participated in that. One of the engines of the plot of my first novel was snuff movies. They do now exist on the internet I’m afraid, and they’re not very nice. Should therefore we not mention them? It’s a bit like saying don’t mention water in case someone drowns, which is a ridiculous idea. The whole point about writing is mentioning  things. One of the biggest purveyors of the pornography of violence is Hollywood. It’s absurd the way every Hollywood film seems to end up with a car chase and a gun-fight as if that defines reality, it’s so weird. That’s why I’ve stopped watching Hollywood films. I don’t consider David Lynch, Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson to be Hollywood. But if I know a film has come out of the mainstream American film industry it’s unlikely to interest me. France still has a wonderful film industry. Eastern Europe. There are very unusual films coming out of China and Korea, but you have to be careful. The Orient is the home of the pornography of violence . The levels there of ice-cold sadism are beyond anything Hollywood could reach.

GdeC: To Noto and One Hot Summer in St Petersburg marked a departure into a new kind of quirky travel writing spiced with intimate self-exposure - how different is the process of getting the idea for a novel and a travel book?

DF: Can I take up what you say about my writing a new sort of travel book? I would encapsulate that by saying I am the first travel writer who isn’t a wanker. Freya Stark, Wilfrid Thesiger, Lesley Blanch, they seem to have a self-enclosed, heavily edited relationship with the worlds they enter. OK, one can’t blame somebody from so long ago for being unrevealing  about themselves. But we’ve loosened up since. Yet it’s quite extraordinary how Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron never go to the loo! Let alone do anything more ambitious. The whole thing is deeply unreal and false. It’s a bit like coming back home and painting contrived views. I’ve tried in my travel books to capture the reality of being where I am. That’s why much of them is written in the present tense. They include a lot about my own emotional status at the time which is important to how you are seeing things. You know when you are joyfully in love the world looks and feels very different from how it is when you are deeply unhappy. I remember going round the Taj Mahal with an American woman and she said ‘God, this is ghastly, it’s like Mae West’s bathroom!’ There is something in what she said, I have to agree, if you look at the Taj Mahal in a certain way, especially it’s interior, it can be horribly kitschy, yes. If you want to talk about  Mae West while going  round the Taj Mahal it’s valid, this is where our heads were, and I want to have a real person with a real body and a real mind encountering these places. I say wanker because, literally and figuratively, it means self-referential and shut off from outside. What they leave out is so much more important than what they put in. I hope it’s the other way round with me.

GdeC: Your latest book Going As Far As I Can in which you journey around New Zealand in pursuit of rosé wine, the lost theatres of the 1940s, beautiful landscapes and sex, amongst other things, has provoked outrage. Did it not occur to you that an outsider looking in making observations about New Zealanders and the desecration of their European heritage could stir up a hornet’s nest? 

DF: I’ve written two previous travel books without doing so. Yes, I’ve had people making objections, but I’ve never had a whole nation having a nervous breakdown simply because I went there and wrote as honestly as I could about what happened to me. But of course my first travel book was in France and Italy and they don’t read English; the next one was Russia and they don’t read English either. New Zealanders read English, therefore the book is immediately hitting them. Also people don’t write books like this – intellectual, visceral books - about New Zealand. This is the very first such book on that country and for them it’s the shock of recognition, the shock of candour. But I wasn’t expecting it. I was very upset by the violence of the response. Because there is a great deal in the book that is not negative, that is fascinated and beautiful. They are seeing other aspects of the book now, taking me more seriously now, but what can you do? Lie? I say right at the begining of the book, on the very first page, ‘People tell less and less these days, frightened to speak up and say what they really feel. The whole world is increasingly cowed by fears of retribution.’ I think we are all lemmings going  to our deaths, and we have endless laws saying we mustn’t mention this and we mustn’t mention that. One thing everybody on the whole planet knows is that its getting very hairy down here. You can pass as many gagging  laws as you like, but there’s a terrific nervous crackle throughout the whole planet and we all know that. Everybody’s got an identity crisis, everybody’s getting too drunk on alcohol or religion or money, and the whole thing is getting very, very strange - I pinned that down particularly in the third part of the book. I think it’s too late to lie. I’d rather be hanged for the truth than just go to my death as an idiot. No, I don’t want to be hanged, by the way! But I don’t see the point of pretending that things aren’t deeply fucked on this planet. What we can hold on to for ourselves, personally, is a sense of humour and a sense of pleasure - but no surprise when the curtain comes down.

GdeC: You‘tabulate ‘some provisional thoughts on religion’-  do you enjoy controversy? 

DF: Is it controversial to mention religion? What I hate about religion is that it makes people unreachable as individuals and I am interested in individuals. I am frightened of thugs and mobs and I feel that religion is about making  mobs out of people.

GdeC: What about spirituality?

DF: Ah that is very different. Let me quote from the section you mention: ‘People confuse holiness with religion. The two rarely have anything in common.’ 

GdeC: There is almost something Continental in the way in which you scatter random musings and philosophical asides throughout the book.

DF: I’m glad you noticed that, as not many people have. I would take issue with your use of the word ‘random’ because everything is there for a purpose. But this sort of aphoristic approach to experiences, though met with in French and German literature, is rare in English. In fact the only other English example I can think of is Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. To say something more about my style of writing - when Drug Tales was published in 1979, on the flyleaf you have to do an author’s blurb, and I ended mine with the phrase, ‘He is the inventor of the electric novel.’ Sebastian Faulks asked me – and he was the only person who did - what I meant by that. I can’t remember what answer I gave him, but I was not quite sure. Since then in my published books I can now see I’ve been developing a distinctive technique which, for want of a better phrase at the moment, I am calling ‘Cyber Longhand.’ This is where you move a narrative forward by opening a series of different windows which represent distinct strands or facets of the story. If you look in one of my books you will see it is written in short sections, sometimes quite long but sometimes of just a sentence or two. It’s like opening windows on a computer and a person looking over your shoulder does not at first recognise how it is systematic. But this forward-moving kaleidoscope creates the narrative. Developing this system explains why I am a modern writer. Both Graham Greene and Harold Acton said that I belong to the 21st Century. At the time I was rather distressed by this as it seemed a form of rejection, but now I understand it a little better. Let me add one never wants to be too self conscious as a writer. I’m not Robbe-Grillet. My technique evolved spontaneously and came to me long before computers arrived on the general scene, but I do think it’s a method very relevant to a generation accustomed, for example, to rapid channel hopping. I do not believe young people have a short attention span, they are just organising information in a different way. My novel A History Of Facelifting had to be planned meticulously, there are so many sub plots and characters. That was the fun of it. I could not write it at a purely instinctive level because it was so complicated. I had a huge map on the floor so that every storyline got a tweak every so often and never went off the radar.  It was the technique of cyber longhand which allowed me to keep all these balls in the air.

GdeC: What kind of dangerous situations have you encountered when on the road?

DF: None. I’m a great innocent in that sense. I remember when I was in St Petersburg immediately after the collapse of Communism and The Times correspondent thought I was running huge risks by running around with young Russians. But I felt MUCH safer with them than I did with him! I was happy until he came along and told me I should be worried. Oh, yes, I was mugged in Acapulco. You can read about it in my piece on visiting Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Mexico.


GdeC: When it comes to journalism, which do you enjoy most - interviewing or reviewing?

DF: Interviewing because it’s collaborative. I don’t really enjoy reviewing, but I enjoy having reviewed something in the sense that I enjoy encapsulating my reactions to a book. I work hard on my reviews because they are intellectual exercises and I try to review only books I’m going to admire. Whereas, when I’m interviewing people, it’s a wonderful adventure into the unknown. Anything can crop up.

GdeC: Which of your books would you say stands up best to the test of time?

DF: They do or don’t according to your mood. My travel books are very time specific, being a slice of life at a certain moment, therefore they never date. Overviews in non-fiction become dated. It’s a bit like, say, a photo of Piccadilly Circus in 1900 which can never date in the sense of being outmoded because the whole point is that it is a wonderful record of that moment. With fiction it’s the opposite - if it’s too loaded up with time-specific details, then it will date. 

GdeC: What next…?

DF: Platinum Peepshow: Scenes From Art, Fashion and Entertainment 1979-2009. A collection of interviews, profiles, and meetings covering my work in this field over thirty years. It’s huge fun. The first volume, Twentieth Century Characters, was published in 1994. This is the second volume. The third volume will be with the writers, philosophers and historians, and that’s not scheduled yet, though it’s pretty much complete. In Platinum Peepshow we have Johnny Rotten, Sophia Loren, Paul McCartney,Tina Turner, Gilbert & George, Lord Rothschild, Peter O’Toole, Vivienne Westwood, Lord Snowdon, Norman Foster, Grayson Perry, Valentino, and many more, plus a bunch of rent boys who come under ‘entertainment’. It’s a very nice interview with three rent boys entitled Porn Jelly. One is gay, one straight, and one bisexual, and I ask them what they do. There is another one I like,  Among Shaved Women, which is in the world of female boxing . One of the girls is a black ticket inspector on the Tube, another is a psychiatric nurse whose boyfriend is an expert in restraint and he works at Broadmoor; they’re a darling couple. I’ve finished all the revisions and we must now find a publisher for it as well as do a few more to bring it right up to 2009. I’ve also just finished a novel and am about to start revising  it, which is a ghost story and a serious attempt to frighten people by polite means - it certainly frightens me!

© Georgia de Chamberet & Duncan Fallowell, 2008


Georgia de Chamberet writes for and and is literary executor to the Estate of Lesley Blanch. She also runs the agency BookBlast.