Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Jonathan Coe

Fans of Jonathan Coe may be a diminutive group, but I count myself among them. I started my infatuation with The Rotter's Club and continued with The Closed Circle (both available as Google ebooks by the way) and have now picked up his latest, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which will be released in March. He will be making his first trip to the US in March and plans a stop at Porter Square Books to sign copies of the book. To get you started on the path to "knowing" Jonathan Coe, I am pasting a copy of an interview with him below. Enjoy and pick up a copy of a Coe novel next time you are in.

A conversation with Jonathan Coe, author of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

Q: Like your well-known novels The Rotter’s Club and The House of Sleep, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a dark comedy but it also tackles new territory, examining the very modern position of being technologically connected and yet socially bereft. How did this book begin for you? Did it feel like a new direction or a return?

A: In many ways it felt like a return. I had built up a reputation for writing 'social satire' - a label I have never felt comfortable with - and The Rain Before it Falls was in some ways an attempt to break free from that: a more interior, more melancholy, more psychologically-focused book. With Terrible Privacy I went back to writing about the contemporary world, and back to the seriocomic vein of my most well known books. Only the subject matter (loneliness in the age of advanced communications technology) is new. My regular readers will, I'm sure, recognize the tone and intentions of the book as distinctively mine.

Q: Our hero, Maxwell Sim, has some trouble navigating the tech world: he e-mails his estranged wife under a false identity, can’t seem to distract his daughter from her Blackberry and tech-alienation reaches a point of absurd hilarity when Max develops feelings for Emma, the voice of his car’s GPS system. It’s very funny but ominous. How do you feel about the role of technology in society?

A: The book really evolved out of some everyday observations: just things I saw happening around me in cafes and restaurants and other public spaces every day. One of the most common sights you see in restaurants these days is a couple who have gone out for a meal together but are sitting sending text messages to other people on their mobile phones, rather than talking to each other. I suppose I became slightly obsessed with this situation and started to wonder what it told us about
our relationships at the current time. The obvious conclusion was that our most important or consuming relationships are no longer necessarily with the people with whom we're sharing the same physical space. But this is interesting, because the one thing you can say about someone sitting opposite you at a table (or lying in bed) is that they are real. Whereas a relationship with someone by text - or email, or Facebook, or whatever - will on some level be a virtual relationship, however
well you think you know that person. They're not there while you talking to them, so you have to imagine them. The question the book tries to raise is whether our closest relationships these days should be with 'real' people or with virtual or imaginary ones. So it also becomes a book about reading, about literature, and about how we all construct our identities through storytelling.

Q: Do you consider yourself tech-savvy? How involved are you in the worlds of Facebook,Twitter and all the rest?

A: I joined Facebook in order to research the novel, and I'm still on it, but I don't use it much. Twitter is a step too far for me, though. I don't need reasons to sit at my computer or gaze at my iPhone any more than I do already.

Q: In TERRIBLE PRIVACY, Maxwell Sim is on a kind of odyssey, physically driving a Prius full of toothbrushes to the remote Shetland Islands as part of a new job, but also facing private demons along the way: his father’s secret past, his own childhood and his broken family. Through all the twists and turns of the journey, did you know exactly what was going to happen next or were there any surprises for you, as there certainly are for the reader?

A: I tend to be pretty controlling as a novelist. In real life I'm rather a passive person, not very good at getting my own way, so I probably try to compensate for that in my writing. The novel is my kingdom and I'm the absolute monarch. Occasionally, I know, this can be a problem for some of my readers - people who don't like my books find them over determined and too full of coincidence. But I do increasingly leave room to surprise myself too. A lot of important events in TERRIBLE PRIVACY were improvisations: the whole business of Max inventing a virtual female
identity for himself, for instance, so that he could go online and get closer to his ex-wife. And also the 'controversial' final chapter of the book (which of course I won't give away here) was something that only occurred to me as a possibility about halfway through. And it wasn't until the very end that I actually plucked up the courage to write it, and realized how closely it tied in with the book's central themes.

Q: Privacy and its sadder cousin, loneliness, are obviously a big part of this book. Can you talk a bit about the “terrible privacy” of the title?

A: The phrase comes from a review written by James Wood in the early 1990s. James and I were colleagues on the books pages of the Guardian newspaper in London at the time. Since then, of course, he's gone stateside and become very well known over here. Anyway, in those days I used to read his pieces pretty closely, and was struck by how his prose could often seem more resonant and lyrical than that of the author he was reviewing. He was a great phrasemaker, even then, and it was in the context of writing about Toni Morrison that he used the words 'terrible privacy',
which have haunted me ever since. (I myself first used the phrase in my novel The Closed Circle, as part of a poem purportedly written by the hero, Benjamin Trotter.) Over the last few months, as my novel has been published in most of the major European countries, I've come to realize that 'privacy' is a peculiarly British concept: my translators have found it impossible to render it in Italian, Dutch, German or French. We British certainly value our privacy, but what James's phrase always reminds me is that being self-contained, keeping the rest of the world at a
safe distance for purposes of self-preservation, can mean that you are only a coin flip away from a dreadful, paralyzing isolation. And this is the hinterland that Maxwell Sim is traveling through in the novel.

Q: One of the stories within the book is the real-life adventure of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur drawn into a boat race-around-the-world. It’s an unbelievable story - how did you first become interested in Crowhurst? Did you know then that it would be a past of Maxwell Sim’s tale?

A: The story of Donald Crowhurst is becoming more and more well-known in the UK. Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall's book about him has, of course, become a classic, and that was my first introduction to this fascinating and tragic figure. I was given the book shortly after I'd started writing my novel, and immediately I knew that it would become a key component. (Another instance, I suppose, where I allowed something to surprise me, and an important new element entered the book even after it was up and running.) Taking advantage of the primitive/nonexistent technology of his day, Crowhurst famously entered a race in 1969 to become the first yachtsman to sail around the world non-stop and single-handed, and - realizing that he was not
up to the task - decided to fake his voyage instead, by tacking out into the mid-Atlantic, hiding there for several months, and devising a 'phantom' journey by writing fictional logbooks. Ultimately he could not handle the loneliness of his situation or the scale of his own deception,and committed suicide. I found several aspects of this story to be resonant: it seemed to illustrate very graphically how much communications technology had changed in the last forty years,
making such a deception impossible today, and also I realized that Crowhurst and Max's father have a good deal in common - both have decided to present untruthful versions of themselves to the world, with tragic consequences. Most of all, though, I think that so many writers, visual artists and filmmakers have been drawn to Crowhurst's story over the years because in this figure - condemned to months and months of isolation and 'terrible privacy', which he filled by devising
fictions about himself and his voyage - they recognize something of themselves. He has become a powerful archetype of the artist.

Q: A very diverse cast of characters pops in and out of Max’s life throughout Terrible Privacy, many of them poignant and also very funny. Poppy, for example, is a junior adultery facilitator. She helps her clients with technological evidence to prove to their partners that they have been working, instead of philandering. Do you have a favorite character? Was there one particularly fun to write?

A: Poppy was a good deal of fun to write. She arose out of watching a man one night at Singapore airport (on my way home from Australia) wandering around with a recording device. I started to ask myself why anyone would want to make ambient recordings of airports and came up with the idea of a cheating husband playing these recordings in the background while talking to his wife on the phone, to make her think he was in a different part of the world altogether. But actually my favorite character is Miss Erith, the old woman who lives by herself in a high-rise
apartment in Lichfield, and whom Max encounters about halfway through his journey. She is someone who grew up in a world completely alien to Max - spending her childhood on the network of working canals which still linked British towns in the 1930s - and she represents the last living memory of this vanished era. Through her I allowed myself to voice nostalgia for a preindustrial England based on a notion of local community which is all but irretrievable in the era of globalization. Such nostalgia is usually the preserve of the patriotic right, so I wanted to lay
hold of it and reclaim it for a different (perhaps more progressive) way of political thinking.

Q: Are there any writing habits that you rely on as you sit down to your first draft?
A: Eating biscuits. The results are there for all to see in my waistline.

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