The book steps away from the ‘fictionalisation’ of real events and people you used to great effect in But Beautiful, something usually sparked off by a single black and white photograph. Was this technique something you felt less comfortable with when dealing more with the photographer rather than the photograph’s subject?
Well, the difference is that photography is defined by its subject. Or at least that’s one of the big debates about photography – the extent to which a picture is defined by what it’s of or who it’s by. I think a key difference between But Beautiful and The Ongoing Moment is that for me jazz musicians were these mythic figures and what they did was infinitely mysterious, whereas photographers, even the very best ones are, um, photographers! And I roughly knew how they took their pictures – they pressed a button. I stand more chance of being able to take a picture than I do of playing a tune on a piano.
When you speak of Kerouac writing the introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans whilst, quite possibly, listening to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, one feels you regard this as a real highpoint in artistic creativity. Is there music or photography being made today that inspires you in the same way?
It was an amazing period wasn’t it? But, just for the sake of accuracy, I don’t think Kerouac was necessarily into Ornette Coleman. I think his jazz tastes were a little earlier, but yes, there is an interesting overlap between Frank and Coleman and free jazz. Jazz is not so interesting now, though there are groups or individuals doing amazing things: Nils Petter Molvaer and the Necks, for example. The Necks, as a friend of mine so pompously – and accurately – put it after we saw them at Pizza Express, have completely re-written the language of the jazz trio. One difference between then and now is that what was going on in the ’50s and ’60s was central to jazz – now the interesting things are going on at the fringes of the form, where it’s maybe not jazz at all. The same could be said of Miles Davis electric stuff of the ’70s – which sounds more contemporary now in the wake of things going on in electronic music. Molvaer has been very important in making that period of Miles’s work sound current again.
I think this is a very interesting time for photography though I don’t deal with this at all in the book. There’s tons going on and lots of people doing it, but, because we’re in the midst of it, it’s rather difficult to tell what will survive. The whole digital thing is exciting. I think a lot of the people doing so-called ‘art photography’ are less interesting from an artistic point than people doing ‘photographic photography’, so to speak.
We see a final culmination of many of the images and aesthetic approaches discussed in the book in James Nachtwey’s recent photographs of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ reappears as a Kosovan refugee, W. Eugene Smith’s boy’s handprints return as blood prints in a deserted house. Do you believe that such powerful work re-establishes photography’s ability to move and inform the viewer? Or will its greater artistic significance always be tied to the 20th century (as Jazz is now tied to America in the middle y
ears of the same century)?
Very interesting question and, as such, not sure I’m able to answer it. The problem increasingly is that everything is done with the camera in mind whereas there was a time, up until quite recently, when things happened and then happened to be photographed. DeLillo says that if a thing can be filmed then film is implied in the thing itself. Now the thing itself is predicated on the fact that it is being filmed. Hey, I’m sounding like one of those dreadful po-mo theorists!
You did not own a camera yourself for your travels. How do you think the incredibly rapid growth in cheap digital cameras, camera phones and the internet in recent times will change our relationship with both photography and travel?
I guess it’s the culmination of a process that’s been underway for quite a while. But as a punter I enjoy all the conveniences of late capitalism, of course. By the way, I do now own a camera. I was going to Syria for the Observer and they needed some pictures so I bought this little 7 mega-pixel camera at Heathrow. This was at the time when I still needed a picture of the open road in America for the endpapers of the book as a way of suggesting that the book would be a kind of visual journey. Anyway, we were driving from Damascus to Palmyra and I thought “Shit, this road looks exactly like it’s in Arizona!”. So the endpaper picture is actually by me. I’m a published photographer!
In your work and in past interviews, you’ve discussed your growing detachment from writing ‘traditional’ fiction. Is this still the case? Have you now found your niche or do you still hanker after writing the ‘great novel’?
I think I have drifted from it quite away now, though I could drift back to it. For many years I failed to write the novel that eventually became Paris Trance. This failure weighed very heavily on me and, when I did complete it, I felt a great relief. It’s an important book for me so some kind of ambition was satisfied with that. That’s one answer. The other would be that in a sense I reject the question. I don’t make any distinction between the different kinds of writing I do. It’s all just writing to me. I can’t bear it when, as occasionally happens, some middle-brow novelist asks me if I’m no longer writing fiction, as though that means I’ve slipped down a tier into non-fiction – even though my non-fiction is, of course, far more novel than most fiction coming out at the moment.
With many of your books apparently ‘difficult to place’ in today’s bookshops, how would you now describe the genre you work in? Are there many other contemporary writers whose work you feel akin to?
I just call it writing. Sometimes I quite like the way that the books end up in so many different sections. Basically I’m relieved if a book shop stocks some of them somewhere. I think there are people doing similar things but by definition they are doing these ‘similar’ things rather differently: Alain de Botton, Sven Lindquist, Claudio Magris. And, lest we forget, John Berger, who played a big part in getting me going in this direction in the first place.
You’ve said in the past that you are happiest doing nothing, and have even been described as a muse for the so-called ‘stoner generation’, and yet, you now have an extensive and broad bibliography. Watching the new Charles Bukowski film adaptation, Factotum, I was reminded of how easy it is forget, in a life of apparent drunken indolence, quite how much Bukowski actually managed to write and publish. How to balance this apparent affection for ‘indolence’ with the sheer amount of meaningful work?
Yes, I have a great urge to do nothing, but to give in to that is to sink into despair and depression. I have a vested interest in being happy and, although I find writing incredibly difficult, doing it contributes greatly and in many ways to my well-being. Having said that, there are many other things that keep make me happy. Playing tennis, for example. I never love the life of the writer more than on a Tuesday afternoon, say, when I’m playing tennis. You know, there I am out in the park and these other people are stuck at work. What bliss! Playing ‘well’ I should say. Playing badly – those days when you can’t even serve properly – is a fast-track to real despair. I guess I’m painting an idyllic picture of things. The reality is that life is a constant search for tennis partners who are free in the week. I’ve never read Bukowski, by the way.
In both Yoga… and Out of Sheer Rage, you talked of your affection for New Orleans and for the time you spent living there. How did news of hurricane Katrina affect you and is the ‘wanderlust’ of earlier times now beginning to dwindle?
I feel that my life is a failure at some level because I have ended up living in London when I believed so strongly – still do, in fact – that it was my destiny to live in California. I find England such a depressing country. Katrina happened during a week when I was at Burning Man in the middle of the Nevada desert and somewhat out of touch so I didn’t see all that apocalyptic footage as it was unfolding. By the time I returned to what Burners call the default world it… Well, that’s something about the news isn’t it? You have to live though these events as they unfold to experience them fully.
Obsessions / interests always seem important in your work; jazz, D.H. Lawrence, the Burning Man, photography… Do you like the description of ‘intellectual nomad’?
Yes, I’m quite happy with that.
Watching Richard Linklater’s About Sunset reminded me at times of your work, especially Paris Trance. Any interest in writing for the screen yourself?
Not really, though I would like to make a film. The problem is that the process is anathema to me. I don’t even write proposals for my books – I just write them and then hope someone will publish them, whereas film is all about proposals, treatments and so on, building up to a script and then, finally, doing the actual filming. If it was possible to skip all the earlier stages I’d like to do a film. What I like about writing is that you don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission or say so to get on and do it. Parenthetically, I really like what Linklater does. I loved that animated one, though the name escapes me for the moment. [Editor’s note: Waking Life]
“Quite possibly the best living writer in Britain” – quite a quote to now live up to?
Better than being either the worst or dead, isn’t it?
The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer is published by Little Brown.