It’s interesting to note that Thomson mentions Jim Crace and his novel Continent. Crace has in the past mentioned Thomson as being a novelist he reads because he’s a “risk taker“. How important is the risk or experimental element of fiction for Thomson? “If Jim Crace reads me because I’m a risk-taker, I think it’s probably because he’s a risk-taker too. I haven’t read much of his work, but what I have read I admire,” Thomson prefaces. “Writing fiction should always involve taking some kind of risk. I think of what John Cage once said: ‘Experiment endlessly, and stay humble.’ That sounds a bit glib, perhaps, but I’ll stand by it. I always hope that each new book is going to provide me with a challenge. At some point in the writing of that book, I will come close to giving up. What I’ve taken on feels too big, too difficult. I’ve now come to realise that that’s part of the process. If I didn’t feel that, I’d start worrying. I wonder if Jim Crace feels that too?”
Thomson is the author of seven novels, all of which seem hugely different. As a writer, looking back at his own work, are there prevalent themes that bind all seven together? “I always feel as if the articulation of a theme is something I am slowly working my way towards,” admits Thomson, while at the same time stressing that he tries not to be too aware of themes in his work,”and that it’s a life’s work. However, I do seem to be interested in lives that have been derailed, lives that have been twisted out of shape – characters who, as a response to some interior flaw or exterior trauma, set off on an unusual path or journey.
Obviously in life this happens all the time, but the example that always springs to my mind is that of Django Reinhardt. Two peculiarities shaped Reinhardt’s playing. Firstly, he had enormous hands, and secondly, following a fire in his caravan, the two smallest fingers on his left hand – the fretboard hand – were permanently bent at the second knuckle. It is these two unusual factors working in conjunction that make Reinhardt’s mysterious chords and unique melodic lines possible. In every one of my books, the engine for the narrative is a character who, to extend the Reinhardt analogy, is making extraordinary music as a direct result of some deformity or trauma.”
The one time advertising copywrighter (“Writing advertising copy and writing fiction are worlds apart. If advertising taught me anything, it was to be economical with words”), and Political Philosophy graduate, has lived in various different cities outside of his native UK, which, it could be argued, is unusual for a novelist. “The photographer, Diane Arbus, once said: ‘My favourite thing is to go somewhere I’ve never been’. You can do that in your work, but you can also do it in your life. I’ve lived in a lot of places, but it’s not because I’m disenchanted with the UK particularly. It’s a mongrel nation, and I like that; I like the richness, the mix. It’s part of what I’m celebrating in Divided Kingdom.
What effect, I ask him, has this nomadic lifestyle had on his writing. “Different books have been influenced by places and people I’ve seen along the way. There’s a lot of Australia in The Five Gates of Hell, for instance. If I hadn’t lived in Amsterdam, I’m not sure I would have written The Book of Revelation. The idea for Air and Fire came from a visit to Baja California in 1988.”
Ask Thomson about his favourite writers and the list is extensive, and largely from outside of the UK. Flannery O’Connor, Gunther Grass, William Faulkner, alongside Patrick Modiano, Samuel Beckett, Conrad, John Banville and Haruki Murakami.”The books that mean the most to me, – he explains, – are books that make me see the world as if for the first time, and yet, paradoxically, seem to be showing me something I recognise – books that somehow capture the mystery and beauty of being alive.”
While discussing the supernatural element in Divided Kingdom (one character, Odell, appears to have shape shifting abilities), Thomson outlines another element of his fiction writing: “What I do in most of my fiction is take a situation that seems unlikely, if not literally incredible, and write it in such a way that it teeters on the brink of believability. I’m constantly playing with the suspension of disbelief. As regards Odell, it’s important that Adrian Croy, her employer, doesn’t necessarily believe that she’s a shape-shifter, or that she can actually blend with the elements. I allow him to have ‘theories’ about her. He calls what she does ‘escaping notice’ – and we know there are people who can do that (people who run drugs across borders would be one example).”
As one of the finer novelists of recent years (The New Statesman suggested “When someone writes as well as Thomson does, it makes you wonder why other people bother”), and one with clear ideas about his art form, what does he make of Andrew Marr’s recent resurrection of the perennial ‘the novel is dead’ argument? Marr wrote: “The novel sells itself, rather desperately, as entertainment, competing with the telly or the PlayStation. It makes no claim to extend the boundaries of how we understand the world, other than when it opens us to other contemporary cultures – Japanese city living, or Indian village society. It is no longer a way of understanding the world freshly.” Is the novel an endangered art form? “What an extraordinary proclamation! -exclaims Thomson. Andrew’s assertion that the novel only makes a contribution when it opens us to other contemporary cultures is one that I fundamentally disagree with. It’s not the job of the novelist to introduce us to Indian villages or Japanese cities. A novel isn’t supposed to convey information. That’s what journalism’s for. A novel is about stepping into someone else’s shoes – someone else’s head. It’s about thinking like someone else for a change. About getting outside one’s own skin and into someone else’s. Fiction is active and enlivening. It’s far more interactive than either telly or Playstation. It’s less predictable, and richer in its rewards. Ultimately, I think a novel can actually teach compassion. Telly and Playstation can so often be passive and narcotic. You respond and absorb, but you don’t create. There’s precious little room for the imagination. But then, as Kazuo Ishiguro said recently at Hay-on-Wye, there seems to be a fear of anything truly imaginative at the moment. Critics are only happy, he said, if they can explain a novel by revealing how it originates in the author’s life. It’s all become so depressingly reductive. Why this fear of the imagination? Maybe because we’re living in a time where people are obsessed with reality. Fiction has always recognised that truth lies somewhere beyond our conscious experience, and it uses stories to try and capture that truth. It’s through these stories that we learn about ourselves. But perhaps, in the current climate, we don’t want to learn about ourselves. Fiction’s hard to shift at the moment. Ask any bookseller. Memoirs, though? Memoirs sell – because they’re ‘real’!”
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson is published by Bloomsbury Books