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A Word Factory Interview with Toby Litt

Word Factory’s Rupert Dastur interviews Toby Litt, one of the most innovative novelists and short story writers in the UK, winning numerous awards and working across a variety of forms and genres. He teaches creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

RD: Back in 1993, you were working in a bookshop in Wimbledon when the Best British Novelists (Granta) came out. And, as you mention in an interview elsewhere, you wanted to be in the next one. How important is ambition to you, as a writer, and how do you gauge the fulfilment of your ambition? Has it changed over the last decade-and-a-half and how important do you think this emotion is in writers more generally?
TL: I remember saying that, and I remember standing behind that till, jotting the odd sentence down in between selling half a dozen copies of A Suitable Boy or The Secret History. Rather than wanting to be in the Best of Young British Novelists, I wanted to be at least in the running for it – to be a published writer. I’d started work in the bookshop as a way of getting close to publishing. Not a sensible approach, really. (Reading Megan Dunn’s lovely Tinderbox, I saw that other aspiring writers still do the same.) I knew that if I’d been writing hard for ten years and nothing had happened, the next Granta anthology would come along as a reproach. ‘Look, you haven’t got anywhere near me,’ it would say. ‘You’re never going to make it.’

Having said that, I’ve realised that I am very competitive, but only in areas where I think I stand a chance. Before focussing on writing, I gave up lots of things I loved which I didn’t think I’d be very good at. For example, playing guitar in a band and writing songs. I wanted to do my best to be very good at something, and – of course – that involved being better than most people are at it.

The memoir of mine that’s just about to come out, Wrestliana, is about sport, masculinity, ridiculous over-competitiveness, being a loser. These are all things that have been preoccupying me. I’ve been trying to work them through. I think I’m a lot less competitive with other writers than I used to be, but it’s taken a conscious effort.

RD: After your time at Oxford, you went to Scotland and then Prague. ‘I just wanted to be incredibly introverted and also work my way through that’ (3AM Magazine). It’s a common trope – the writer abroad/in (self-)exile. Could you expand on your own comment on the need to ‘work through’ the introspection and also provide some insight into these two aspects – introversion and exile – that seem integral to many writers?
TL: I could translate that into other words, less literary ones – I was very shy, and wanted to go somewhere that was less of an issue. But at the time being literary was the thing I wanted most of all. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote a hundred poems a year, whilst working on a novel. I read, too – about a hundred books a year. This was the life wanted.

I wanted to be away from England, too. Politically, this was towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s time – but there was no guarantee it would end. At the Tory Party conference, just before they ditched her, they chanted ‘Ten more years!’ That was the nightmare. I remember travelling with a friend on the Prague Metro, early on in my time in the city, and feeling extremely liberated by knowing that if I spoke quickly and in a slangy way, no-one around me would understand what I was saying. It was partly about my approach to language. I would spend a day of self-hatred if I used a cliché. I didn’t even want to make the same statement or observation twice. If I’d said it, I’d said it. I was oppressed by the example of other writers. They seemed so perfect. But you can’t become a writer by being writerly.

RD: From reading several of your interviews, it appears you have a strong preoccupation with tackling or addressing language and story-telling in a fundamental manner so as to bring about new ways of perceiving the world. Some of the writers you admire seems attest to this – Virginia Woolf, JG Ballard, Kafka, Beckett – all trying to do something different with form and text. Could you explain why this is important to you, beyond an intellectual pursuit, and whether you think there are any writers doing this at the moment, on a level of the boundary-pushing writers above?
TL: I could answer very staightforwardly by saying, ‘That’s the job, isn’t it? Make it new.’ But for lots of writers, that’s not the job. That’s the Modernist job. That’s the Romantic job. For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me. Not just novels, but poetry and philosophy. I was changed by reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. You could say, I spent the first half of my life desperately trying to gain an identity and now, in the second half, I’m just as desperately trying to get rid of it.

I don’t know if there are any contemporary writers on that level. And you didn’t mention James Joyce, who is the most daunting innovator. But writers that I think are doing something similar – László Krasznahorkai, Keston Sutherland, Anne Carson, Kim Hyesoon. I think there are lots of really fascinating short story writers, at the moment. A good collection seems to be published every other week.

RD: You started working on poetry from a young age, before eventually turning to short stories and then the novel. Do you ever go back to poetry as a form of inspiration and would you say it’s a form that is better suited to play than prose which feels, in some ways, constrained by narrative?
TL: I do write poetry. I’m about to have some published in New Poetries VII, the Carcanet anthology of new poets. This is the first time I’ve gone public with it – apart from a very few poems I gave to editors who asked me for book contributions when I had no spare stories.

I wouldn’t generalise like that about prose and poetry. I’d say that verse is very well suited to play. A sense of play or playfulness is one of the things that tends to separate verse from poetry. Poetry, for me, is Paul Celan or Rilke. It may occasionally be mischievous, but it’s not playful.

That said, lots of prose restricts its ambitions – on a sentence by sentence level – in order to tell a gripping story and avoid breaking the reader out of the trance. Lee Child isn’t going to confront you with a word you don’t know, or obstruct you with convoluted syntax. He’ll obsess about word choice and rhythm, instead. He wants to be sure what effect each beat will have. That’s great. He’s great at it. But there’s more that can be done, on the extremes, when the writer is doing something whose effects they can’t be sure of.

RD: There was a curious comment in an interview with the journal Online Writing Tips, in which you said that ‘the anxiety of influence’ was one of the hardest things about writing. Was this picking up on T.S. Eliot’s idea about the almost suffocating weight of all those giants who have gone before, or do you refer to your own growing influence within the literary world and how that shapes expectation of your agent, publishers, readers?
TL: Certainly not my own influence, which I honestly can’t see – except, hopefully, on the students I teach creative writing to.

I specifically meant Harold Bloom’s theory of an agon, a struggle, between earlier and later writers. The ones he instances are all male. Shakespeare wrestled with Chaucer, Milton with Shakespeare, Keats with Milton, Wallace Stevens with Keats. I read his book The Anxiety of Influence at university, and it represented how I felt. Most writers feel this most of the time. And if they don’t feel it, Twitter reminds them of it. How can I say anything when everything’s been said? Bloom gives a map of previous influences, and shows how you might make your own escape, or swerve, away from your literary forefathers. I realise just how wrongheaded and sexist Bloom can seem. But he doesn’t underplay the element of constant bloody struggle for the right to exist that goes on at the desk.

RD: Lastly, I’d like to turn to your short story ‘The Hare’ published in Granta, and one of the works you frequently cite as a piece you’re especially proud of. If I was putting my literary analysis hat on, I’d be throwing all kinds of words around: autobiographical, metafictional, inter-textual… the list could go on. There are all sorts of things that could be read into this story on a close reading and it would be fascinating to hear about its genesis and what you were seeking to achieve with the piece.
TL: It is what it does – which is set a hare running. In the simplest sense, this means to get people going after a fast and unpredictable creature. I wasn’t sure what that creature was. ‘The Hare’ appeared in Ghost Story, along with some other autobiographical writing. I wrote a lot more pages that I didn’t publish. They came after my partner had the third of three miscarriages. I was grieving for a child that had existed potentially. I wasn’t sure, at the point of putting the words down, what most of it was. Prose poem? Crap? ‘The Hare’ became more formed than the rest of the writings. I thought, if nothing else, it was just about the most interesting thing I’d done – to me, at least. It was also a metamorphosis story, like ‘The Sunflower’ from Adventures in Capitalism. I now realise, I was telling myself something. That I’m hare-like as a writer. That I’m seasonally mad, that I leap away from myself and sprint in directions that don’t seem to have any logic, that I have a lot to learn from tortoises.

Toby will be leading the workshop ‘On Plot’, the fourth of our key workshops on refining your work and refreshing the fundamentals of short story writing on Saturday 12 May 2018. Find out more here.

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