Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The People’s Act of Love – Author James Meek in interview

TMO: You’ve written a novel about religious fanatics, war, and terrorism.Despite the fact that it’s set in 1919 in Siberia, it seems particularly relevant to today. How much, if at all, has the post 9/11 ‘clash ofcivilizations’ weighed upon the writing of the book?

James Meek: Although the book was far from finished on 11 September 2001, its outlines and content were already set. It wasn’t revised in the light of that and subsequent events. If it seems relevant, it is neither because Iwas influenced by 9/11, nor because I foresaw it, but because religious fanaticism, war and terrorism are eternals. Like any of civilization’s diseases, the necessity to treat them by the best means available doesn’t preclude acceptance that they will always be with us. Historicallyspeaking, of course, to say that the clash (there hasn’t been much civilized about it) you refer to began on 9/11 is like saying that the Second World War began on 7 December 1941.

The foregoing doesn’t mean that the book isn’t relevant to what has become a three-way conflict between Islamic fundamentalists, Christian-Jewish fundamentalists, and secularized liberals in the US, Europe, Israel and the Arab world. In the actions of the present-day Islamic suicide bomber you see the perfect fusion of Balashov and Samarin’s idea of sacrifice. Like Balashov, the suicide bomber sacrifices his body for an intangible ideal, for the love of God; like Samarin, the suicide bomber sacrifices innocent civilians for an ideal, for the love of the People. Like Balashov and Samarin, the suicide bomber turns his back on the world of parents, children, lovers and friends – or triesto, at least. The jails of the world are full of suicide bombers who, when it came to it, like Balashov and Samarin, couldn’t turn their backs. If  itmakes some readers uncomfortable that Balashov’s religious fanaticism is Christian, and that Samarin ultimately sees in that Christian fanaticism a solution to personal distraction, I’ll have had one success.

TMO: The book is epic in terms of subject matter, and also length. As someonewho has written prize winning journalism and short stories, as well as novels, how difficult was it to write and sustain the narrative of ThePeople’s Act of Love?

James Meek: Difficult. Are there any writers who find writing easy? It’s hard work.It makes you tired and it makes you hungry. I should say that I don’t think of the book as being particularly long. 400 pages – it’s not Remembrance of Things Past, is it. But it is the longest book I’ve written, it does have a large cast of characters, and there are a lot of events. This, togetherwith the fact that I wrote it at intervals over a period of ten years ,meant that the proportion of thinking and note-taking to actually writingthe book was unusually high for me. By note-taking I mean taking notes about what I was thinking, about how the characters might develop. At one point, when I had about a dozen characters all interacting in a single chapter, I wrote all their names on little pieces of paper, folded the pieces so that they sat upright, and arranged them in front of me, like an audience, to make sure I didn’t forget that any of them were there. I had them there for weeks.

TMO: Speaking at the Edinburgh Literature festival, you commented about some ofyour previous work that “I think I avoided difficult tasks in writing by making it all surreal, I wasn’t looking my characters in the eye”. Did youset out deliberately then to change style with this book, or did the subject matter automatically lend itself to a less surreal, traditional narrative?

James Meek: Many of the writers I admired and tried to emulate in my teens and twenties – I still admire them – were characterised by one or more of four elements. First, an element of unreality, of surrealism, of absurdity,which can’t – unlike magic in a generic fantasy novel, for instance – be used by any of the characters as a tool, but is rather a phenomenon which has to be endured, like the weather. Sometimes the unreality is not metaphysical, but behavioural. Examples would be the transformation of humans into rhinoceroses in Eugene Ionesco’s play of that name, or the unsettlingly narrow reactions of Kafka’s characters to the extremity of their experiences. Second, a spare, lean style, low in topographical description and in modifiers, where characters’ appearance is seldom mentioned, adverbs are shunned, and anything which resembles fussiness or euphimism or cliché is subject to a rigorous test for survival in the finished text. Third, an avoidance of the strictly culturally specific –always a generic city, a generic man or woman, a generic country at ageneric present time to be preferred to, say, a Catholic Irishman in Dublin in 1916. Fourth, an identification with the underclass, with people in trouble, with people with disabilities or little money or an abrasive disdain for convention which makes them into outsiders wherever they are.

I learned a lot, I hope, by reading the likes of Kelman, Brecht, Kafka,Beckett, Ionesco, Hamsun, Bukowski and Carver. I shall continue to read them and learn from them. Yet there were other writers, very different writers, whom I loved and admired, and they taught me different lessons. The richly eloquent writers, wordy in a good sense, the writers of the specific, the writers of place and time and detail: Nabokov, Bellow,Proust, Dickens, Hardy, Joyce, Melville, Balzac, Zola.  For convenience, I’d call the two kinds the tough writers and the rich writers. I knew early on how difficult it was to be under the influence of both kinds. I wrote my first novel, McFarlane Boils The Sea, under the influence of Kelman andProust, which is like drinking a cocktail of Bowmore and Châteauneuf du Pape.

Looking back, I think I turned the influence of the tough writers too much into a set of rules, and, at worst, an avoidance system which not only limited the scope of my writing but prevented me from seeing the deeper arts which the tough writers and the rich writers had in common. The fact that the tough writers tended to focus the point of view of their narratives on a single character, or refused to allow you access to the thoughts of any characters, whereas the rich writers hopped about in a seemingly casual way between giving the readers access to this or that characters’ innermost thoughts, acting as an omniscient narrator and commenting on the characters’ behaviour, blinded me to the thing which united the tough and the rich writers – that they all understood how vitalpoint of view was. As I worked my way through the books of writers who wereboth tough and rich – Dostoyevsky, Calvino, Pynchon, Maupassant, Hrabal, Bulgakov – I came to believe that another thing which united all thewriters I liked, regardless of the apparent discrepancy in their styles,was the intimacy with which they knew their characters. I’d confused a difference of approach to the same end with a right way and a wrong way of doing something. The important thing is the end, which is to watch your characters closely, study them, and not to flinch from what it is that you know they must do. I became aware of this when writing passages for a series of short stories published in 2000 in the collection The Museum Of Doubt. I spent days working on a brief encounter between two characters over a table, watching them in my head. At the time, I wondered why I was taking so much trouble. Afterwards, when I read it through, I understood that it was because I had taken so much trouble that I liked it; that Ibelieved it.

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