Adam Thorpe - Photo by R. Freiburg
"I don't see much point in
writing a novel
unless the reader works."
An Interview with
Cologne, 10 November 1995
S.H.: Adam Thorpe, could you first of all tell me a little about your early life and artistic development?
A.T.: The important bits? Well, I think I first wanted to write early, when I was eleven. I remember trying to start a novel in the back of the optician's where my mother worked; I got to, I think, chapter two, where I realized that writing novels was very tough, and then I started doing all the usual things that you do. I started writing poetry, seriously, I
suppose, as a teenager, and really started writing poetry before I wrote prose, and published poetry before I did prose, of course, and then fell almost, in a way, by accident, into novel-writing. I didn't think of myself as becoming a novelist, and it happened by way of the short story, and particularly when I conceived the idea of Ulverton.
S.H.: So you did start /Ulverton/ with a short story, didn't you?
A.T.: I suppose so, in a way. I mean, it's not a collection of short stories, but I conceived of the whole idea quite some time ago, about six years before it was eventually published, and then wrote the first story, and started on the second, and then gave up for a couple of years. I thought of the first one as a story complete in itself and indeed one of the problems was to incorporate that first story, to explain it; it is explained in the last chapter, although very subtly,
why it is not written in the authentic manner, the authentic text and style of the period. But as for artistic development, well, that's for others to analyze, isn't it, if they want to.
S.H.: So these are what you consider the salient bits, then?
A.T.: Well, a writer, in all his work, writes his own biography. That's a sort of accepted truth, really, so that everything that happens to a writer is important.
S.H.: In what ways does biography come into, say, Ulverton? It seems to be a very detached novel - not detached in an emotional sense, but it's got nothing to do with biography.
A.T.: No, but most of the folk stories I based Ulverton on were known to me due to personal connections with certain areas of England: some of them are from my family's area of Derbyshire. One side of my family comes from Derbyshire, and so I went up to Derbyshire a lot and heard these stories, and the others come from an area I knew from the age of thirteen, which was the Berkshire-Wiltshire area, so the reason I liked certain stories and they excited me was for personal, maybe
autobiographical reasons. I think that the obsession with place, with one particular place, and the tracing of it back through time is possibly something to do with the fact that I've had a fairly peripatetic life, born abroad and living abroad.
S.H.: Actually, I'd like to come back to that: you have spent a good portion of your life abroad, haven't you, and you're now living abroad as well. Do you think that makes you more or less English?
A.T.: Oh, well, in some ways it makes you less English - or British - but in other ways it makes you more conscious or aware of what it is to e British, or what is Englishness - or Britishness.
S.H.: So how does the fact that you live abroad now affect your writing? ould you consider it particularly strange or particularly symptomatic of an English - British - writer living abroad to write a book like Ulverton, which is so deeply concerned with England?
A.T: Well, I started that when I was living in England. I wrote three chapters in England, and then the rest in France. Obviously that must have made a difference, and I'd be interested to know what I would have produced had I written the whole thing in England. Possibly something different, maybe the same, I don't know, it's very difficult to say, but
I certainly think not being there was important. I mean, London is so different from the area around Ulverton that it would have been the same as living in France, in a way. But no, I think living abroad obviously sharpens your instincts and your understanding because you're surrounded by what isn't English or what isn't British, so therefore you're more conscious of what is British. As for writing about the landscape, obviously not being there in one sense is a problem and in another sense is an advantage because the poetic element of memory comes into play - that Wordsworthian notion of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity". You filter it down to what you can remember; whereas sometimes being in front of something is bewildering, you know, there are too many details. So I was left with trying to capture, in a way, an
essence that I remember and that I feel within me about that area, which is more important to me than detailing things.
S.H.: It does come across very well, though, it's very intense. So when you wrote Ulverton, did you conceive the village as a sort of mythical prototype of the English village or England and English culture?
A.T.: Yes, taking those few hectares, that valley, is obviously going to become a crystallization of Englishness - and it obviously has, in a lot of the responses: I think in the American reviews it said it gave a very good idea of what it is to be British, and that, in a way, sort of surprised me really. I don't know if I set out to do that consciously, it wasn't part of the programme, but it is sort of inevitable. Particularly the last chapter, I think, is very important in that
context of what's happening to England - and to the English language as well. In relation, anyway, to certain values that are to the fore at the moment in England, a certain feel: that chapter was set in 1988, so that's already seven years ago and things have changed since then, I think; things have probably got worse, in fact; what I was picking up in that last chapter has probably intensified. It's interesting that a lot of people who liked the book hated the last chapter whereas others thought it was the most important, so obviously for a lot of people it was too close, too truthful in a way, they wanted to stay with the past.
S.H.: It's interesting to hear that people didn't take to that chapter. It took me a long time to get used to it, I found just reading the script very difficult, but then Ulverton doesn't make for easy reading anyway.
A.T.: No, no, it makes the reader work.
S.H.: Actually, another thing: it seemed to me that two key concepts of Ulverton were reproduction and archaeology. My theory is that reproduction dominates the first stories in the book which seem linked to creativity and myth-making, and archaeology dominates the last stories which convey self-consciousness, intrusion from the outside and also barrenness. Would you say that our age, especially where art is concerned, is a chiefly archaeological one? Do sort of modern writers
tend to dig up rather than create?
A.T.: I do actually. It's funny that it's never really occurred to me before about the book, that division or shift between those two concepts. Again it wasn't conscious, I didn't set out to do that. But yes, I feel we're very dispirited at the moment and nervous of the future and actually ironic, you know, about creation itself, really. We're sort of sceptical, aren't we, about the nature of creation, it makes us pause, it makes us hesitate about creating the new. That's what
postmodernism is all about, borrowing, putting models together in a collage of things of the past or contemporary things, and the two sort of jangle together. Which is partly the point about Ulverton, you know: putting things up against each other. So yes, I think, it is difficult now for an artist; I think artists have always referred to the past to some extent, but maybe it's never been so self-conscious. I also think the other problem is that artists feel - they probably always have done, but particularly now - feel this enormous weight of the heroic days of modernism, the great heroic days of literature of this century, let alone the great heroic days of the past, the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare and Dickens and so on, certainly in Britain. But the particular problem of contemporary writers
is that the modernists did make it new and in an amazing way, a monumental way and it is very difficult for us to be modern after the modernists. That's why I suppose postmodernism is a kind of playing around with modernism, but it doesn't feel as conscious [...] it feels like playing, rather than this huge project to create something really fresh and by doing so being subversive and changing society.
S.H.: So you would consider yourself a postmodernist writer, then?
A.T.: Well, I wouldn't, no, because tomorrow I might not be, but I suppose one has to say that postmodernist ideas were going through my head as I was writing Ulverton when I was writing in that context, and the same with Still, my next novel. But I wouldn't like to be limited by that label, you know.
S.H.: It's a fairly vague label anyway, isnt' it?
A.T.: Yes, it's nicely vague, that's why I don't particularly mind; but it does immediately conjure up Umberto Eco in people's minds. It can be limiting, I think.
S.H.: When I was reading /Ulverton/ I was really intrigued by the relationship between public history and local, private history, by the way the "great events" taking place in the outside world sort of come to bear quite strongly on the inhabitants of Ulverton. Is this the sort of history you think ought to be written?
A.T.: Yes, the secret history, the hidden history. And I think part of the political programme of /Ulverton/ was bound up with allowing voices that have been suppressed or are suppressed even now, when you look at history, to have their say. One of the ironies in the book is that the long dialect chapter, the one uttered by a peasant, is a copy of the great modernist text, Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Joyce's Ulysses.
S.H.: I loved that chapter, by the way.
A.T.: Oh, good, because a lot of people say oh, I skipped it or couldn't get anywhere...
S.H.: [...] after the third reading (laughs). It took me a long time, because I can't picture the dialect; I can't imagine it because I've never heard it spoken.
A.T.: No, quite, but I'm very glad you got there in the end, for to me it's my favourite chapter.
S.H.: Oh, it's my favourite chapter, definitely.
A.T.: It's interesting because a lot of people say that when they finally crack the code, it often becomes their favourite, because it's very intense and he's a very vivid, real person - for me, anyway. But as you said, you had to work hard with that, and if people aren't willing to listen, aren't willing to work, then they can't understand anything, and normally it's the other way round: normally the peasant figure in English literature has a walk-on part, and he's laughed at, he's simple, and it is he who cannot understand the speech or the language of the other, the higher classes. So that's why giving him the most elusive and difficult chapter was very important; as I say, he's laughed at because he's simple, because his language is simple, so I was trying to show that the peasant figure in the novel can have a language as rich and complex as a great modernist text.
S.H.: I find that a really great concept. It hadn't occured to me, I'd just I'd been working so hard on that chapter, just understanding it.
A.T.: Yes, quite, but that's the irony in that effort, really...
S.H.: It's wonderful. All this writing in different voices was something I found most enjoyable about /Ulverton/. Did you find the pastiche-writing difficult?
A.T.: Well, it just required a lot of drafts to get it right, and I did want it to be exactly right. I mean, maybe there are mistakes in it, but I wanted it to exactly reproduce the language of the period. Now the problem with pastiche is it's pointing up and it's slightly exaggerating, often in order to make fun, you know, it's sort of decorative. Whereas 'imitation' is a term I prefer, because imitation was once highly praised, in the medieval period particularly, or even as
late as the Elizabethan period. The endless lessons they had in Latin and Greek were all about imitating the great poets of the past and it wasn't looked down upon. So I prefer to think of these texts as imitation, really. But well, all writing is hard, whether you are trying to imitate a text or a language or not.
S.H.: Yes, but with imitation or pastiche you've got this continuous balancing act, haven't you, between sentimental writing and parody.
A.T.: There are elements, there are moments when it becomes parodic, as in the fifties chapter or in the 1914 chapter. That last was slightly parodying, but I do like that language, I am very fond of that period, particularly rural writing, writers like W.H. Hudson or, a bit later, H.J. Massingham. But inevitably at certain moments I was slightly pointing up and making the reader notice that this is actually an imitation, so that there are moments when it becomes parodic, but that's
normally used for comic effect, and also to point up contrasts with our period: ironic contrast, ironic uses of language, those moments when the user of the language doesn't know - obviously, because he or she is in that period - that there is something odd about the language, odd at least for us. So that was important, I think.
S.H.: So when did the idea of writing imitation chapters occur to you, after that first story?
A.T.: Well, after the first story I tried writing the second, the vicar's story, with roughly the same sort of historical texture as the first one, not particularly authentic; and then I wrote the 1914 story, which is in New Writing 1. That is, the first draft is in New Writing 1, which I then made more authentic when I had written most of the rest
of the book, and, I think, improved that story vastly. But it was really when I was doing my research that I became fascinated by the language used, and realized that in order to get into the mindset of each period you can't really do it without using the language of the period; you know, it's the relationship between language and thought and language
and consciousness. To get into a seventeenth-century mind or an eighteenth-century mind, like the aristocrat's, for instance, Lady Chalmers writing her letters: the way she uses language is to do with the way she thinks and the way she lives, as well. And the farmer, I think it was with the farmer, Plumm, that I realized I had to use the language of the period, because that was the story I wrote next, in France. That beautiful language, you know, the "chockiness of the land"
and "spalting" and 'the number of earths', all the various terms he uses, which I picked up in farmers' diaries, seemed to me part and parcel of the whole period and his whole way of thinking; sentence structure, as well, was very important.
S.H.: I find you've got this very internal, and, in a way, very poetic style which calls for a lot re-reading and re-working as a reader; it especially stands out in "Stitches" or in your new novel, in Still. So how did you work that out? Do you have any people you particularly admired, whom you started to imitate, or was it through your poetry?
A.T.: I think it was through starting out as a poet, yes, I mean I do have people I admire, obviously, and I've got very conventional taste in terms of novelists I like - I just love all the great modernists. But it's very difficult to say how you develop your style, it's pretty unconscious. I initially wrote Still in a fairly Edwardian style because it's about the First World War and after about 350 pages I realized I was actually bored with it and went into a sort of crisis,
really, because the deadline was approaching, and then suddenly this particular voice popped into my head and I followed it for the next 500-odd pages and realized that this was really what the novel was about: the clash of 'now' with 'then', and the clash of America and England, of American English and British English. It was all about contradictions and clashes and disjunction and that's expressed linguistically and in the way the reader is taken through by the language and dragged on by the scruff of the neck, and things keep appearing and disappearing...
S.H.: It's very confusing....
A.T.: Yes, but, what's interesting is that people who've re-read it say that it becomes clear. I think in many ways in Still I am trying to make it new, and I think reviewers were not ready to accept the newness or the radical nature of the novel. They are reading it in a certain way, which is a conventional way, and they're not willing to really start from scratch, which you've got to with that novel: I think, you've got to learn - as I did when writing it - to start, in a way, completely fresh, without any conventional models in your head.
S.H.: I think teaching people to re-learn reading is actually a thing you do very well. I had, to begin with, a very hard time with Still and then remembered reading "Stitches", and I thought, I am going to re-read this and then it'll work out.
A.T.: Oh good, because that is exactly the history of people who read Still, who bothered to stick with it. The problem with the reviewers is, famously, that when they judge a book for the first thirty pages, and they are having problems and they've got a deadline and they haven't got much time, what they'll then do is spend a couple of days just
skipping it. It's evident from the reviews that is what happened because they got the plot wrong; I did actually do that awful thing that novelists can do, which is sort of semi-deliberate: planting key moments of the plot and clues in the text so that you can actually tell whether a reviewer has read the book...
S.H.: (laughs) That's what I suspected, yes.
A.T.: Some of the reviews were really vicious, really virulent, the worst reviews almost ever written about any book; according to some people, they've never ever read reviews like them. It is because it angered the reviewers; but there were other reviews - including one by John Fowles - that were very positive. But yes, I don't see much point in writing a novel unless the reader works because there's so much in life and culture at the moment that's just for easy consumption. Writing
difficult books is not particularly popular, perhaps, with publishers, because they don't sell as well - although Ulverton is selling well, apparently.
S.H.: It should be. Actually, I first read about Ulverton when my translation class teacher made us translate John Fowles' review of it, and it was hellishly difficult to translate, but it worked because it made me really curious about the book. So were you quite happy with the reviews you got for Ulverton?
A.T.: Very, I could not have been happier. Also, particularly in America they seemed to understand what I was trying to do beyond just recreating an English rural village idyll, that I was trying to subvert the whole pastoral tradition. It's interesting that it didn't get any prizes - well, it got a little prize right at the end - and I didn't get onto any
of the "New Generation of British Novelists" things, and it wasn't rewarded except by enthusiasm from readers and by reviewers, by critics, but it wasn't actually rewarded in a more conventional establishment way. In fact one well-known writer - who shall remain anonymous - when asked, why on earth didn't you choose Adam Thorpe for the last Granta
'Twenty Best' list of young novelists, she said, well, I'm afraid we don't like pastoral, you see; which is such a bizarre a thing to say about Ulverton because in so many ways it is anti-pastoral, or at least I was trying to do new, subversive things with the pastoral. But to come back to your question, that sort of comment, and there were several like that, annoyed me, as they do with Still. It's basically people not having read the book, actually. It's awful to say that, but panels of judges often don't read the books or any books at all, they select by elimination rather than enthusiasm.
S.H.: So do you think that the really positive and insightful reviews from America point to the fact that you need distance?
A.T.: Well, it's interesting because you see the German reviews of the translation are very good...
S.H.: The translation's very good.
A.T.: Is it? Also the French reviews; there weren't many, but they weren't bad. The German reviews are very serious, very very good, and there was a huge number of them, as well. But yes, I do think that the English reviews showed that there wasn't that necessary distance. John Fowles's was fine because he also understood that it was about rural history, which it is, it is about rural life and certain bad things that are happening now. But he also picked up on the style, the more
formalistic side of it, because of course his novels are also early postmodernist, of course.
S.H.: You've been talking about the political aim of Ulverton a lot. Do you believe that writing can actually make an impact on public life?
A.T.: Well, it's interesting because I never thought that it could, particularly in relation to my own novels, and then somebody sent me some publicity for an English organization, The Council for the Protection of Rural England. They used an extract from Ulverton in their publicity in order to express and promote the idea of conservation and I suddenly thought, well, that's interesting, because there's obviously someone on the Council who's read Ulverton and who's picked on these particular passages as expressing something about the English countryside that we need to react politically to - to save it or to preserve it, and preserve it in the right way. That made me realize that novels are of course read by people in positions of power or influence, and even if Ulverton made a politician wake up the next morning
thinking five percent more about rural England, about the need for environmental conservation, then that's very, very important. How that translates into political action one can't even begin to analyse because it's so subtle, but I think novels can influence people, they can turn people socialist, or they can turn them the other way. The ecology movement , for instance, was started by books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, there are key texts that fired people, and brought people together, and energized people, but it's a very subtle thing. So I feel - I have only thought this recently - that Ulverton is probably making a difference, even if it's tiny. It's not just entertainment, or it's not just for lovers of cultural theory.
S.H.: Well, it's made me look at the countryside with different eyes, definitely.
A.T.: Really, that's great to hear.
S.H.: One more thing: both your novels show a really great concern with film, in Ulverton there is Clive's Seasons, and Still, of course, is just teeming with films, films being talked about, being made, being imagined. Where do you see the creative links between films and writing, and what fascinates you so much about films?
A.T.: I think film - as someone else has said, I can't remember who it was now - is the great art form of the twentieth century. It's only a hundred years old and the fact that it's a brand-new art form makes it very special. The novel in its 'modern' form is around two hundred and fifty years old, so it's not new anymore, although new things were done with it and new things will go on being done with it, but film really is new. The golden age of cinema was before sound appeared, so they say - those were the great days of cinema. It's possibly been in decline ever since, but you have some great artists who are filmmakers, and amongst whom are the filmmakers that my character Ricky likes most of all: Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson; Tarkovsky really is, for me, one of the great artists of the twentieth century. One doesn't have to apologize
for cinema, it stands right there, the great artists, the great auteurs stand up there with Lawrence and Joyce. I think it's becoming more and more difficult now, cinema is absolutely in a state of decline on its hundredth anniversary. Also, speaking personally, I think very visually, I think I am kind of a film-maker manqué - I'd love to make films, but I
know that the conditions of film-making would make that impossible; the films I would like to produce could not be produced, so I produce them in my head. Ricky produces them for me, really.
S.H.: I find that quite strange, because the narrative techniques in your books are so uncinematic: other contemporary novels tend to scream out "buy my film rights!", which yours definitely don't, your narrative technique is just completely different.
A.T.: Well, I said to a film director who's trying to turn Ulverton into a film - I think it's fallen through, much to my relief, actually - but I said to her by accident, really, that I think Still is filmproof. I don't think anyone can make a film of Still, and that's absolutely one of the ironies, as you're saying. What I do want to say -
and this is what one of the reviewers said and it's very important: the book attempts to challenge cinema. The novel has to challenge the most successful art form of the century, which is cinema. It's never been so popular; and the novel is, in terms of popularity, in decline. I think that we have to take on the cinema, as well, we really have to challenge
it and find ways of doing so because the novel is very in, at the moment, as a vehicle for film adaptation: original screenplays are out and novels are in for film, and it's terrible the way one sees a novel almost instantly turned into a film - even great novels, particularly great novels, Forster and Lawrence and so on. And I think one of the aims of Still was to write a novel that no one could make a film of, not that anyone would want to particularly make a film of my novels, but it's unadaptable, really, so it's doing something cinema cannot do. So that's really what you were saying, isn't it, about narrative techniques.
S.H.: You are working on a new novel at the moment, aren't you?
A.T.: Well, trying to ... I'm writing poetry, predominantly, at the moment.
S.H.: So what are you trying to do in your new novel?
A.T.: I don't know, really [laughs] that's one of the problems. It's taken me a long time to get over /Still/, and really I shouldn't have tried to start writing a novel until a year had passed, I should have put down the pen. It exhausted me, as well, it was very exhausting, so I don't know, really... I think the beginning of next year I will try again, but so far I've had very little success, but I am not particularly worried. One can't be, one just has to wait. I have a sense of what the novel will be, but I can't verbalize it - it's a scent, you know...
S.H.: Well, thank you very much for this interview.
Books by Adam Thorpe
- Mornings in the Baltic 1988 (Secker & Warburg)
- Meeting Montaigne 1990 (Secker & Warburg)
- Ulverton 1992 (Secker & Warburg)
- Still 1995 (Secker & Warburg)
- From the Neanderthal 1996 (Jonathan Cape)
- Pieces of Light 1998 (Vintage)
- Nineteen Twenty-One 2001 (Vintage)
- Shifts 2001 (Vintage)
- No Telling 2003 (Vintage)
- Nine Lessons from the Dark 2003 (Cape)
- The Rules of Perspective 2005 (Cape)
- Is This the Way You Said? 2006 (Vintage)
- Between Each Breath 2007 (Cape, announced)
- Birds with a Broken Wing 2007 (Cape, announced)
I am very grateful to the staff of The British Council in Cologne who arranged this interview, especially to Frau Annette Landgräber. I would also like to thank Thomas Wise for providing the recording equipment. The copyright and all associated rights for this interview remain with Adam Thorpe. Anyone wishing to reproduce it in any form should notify
The British Council.