You started writing The Lazy Boys
while living on "the dole" in New Zealand. Did this experience enrich the novel or influence the arc of the narrative in any way?
A: I was living on about US$70 a week, half of that going on rent, for six months writing The Lazy Boys, and it was the happiest time of my life. But that being said, poverty doesn't enrich much of anything. The Method Actors is about the dangers of riches material wealth, riches of experience and potential and possibility and stimulus, superabundance of information whereas The Lazy Boys is about the dangers of poverty: material poverty, sure, but mostly poverty of options and potential, poverty of experience, of imagination, and of guidance, and it's also about the consequences of that poverty for a teenage boy when he faces some major moral questions on exactly how he should behave in a crisis.
That great Nietzsche quote applied in the writing:
"Above all you had to see clearly wherever injustice is greatest, where life is developed least, most narrowly, meagerly, rudimentarily, and yet cannot help taking itself as the purpose and measure of things, and for the sake of its preservation picking at and questioning secretly and pettily and incessantly what is higher, greater and richer."
Youth always takes itself as the purpose and measure of things. Youth always says, "I am nothing and should be everything."
Q: Richard Sauer, the protagonist in The Lazy Boys, is an angry and brutal character prone to self-destructive out-of-control behavior. Having attended an all boys high school, did you know a Richard Sauer? Or do you think there is a Richard Sauer in every modern young man?
A: Richey Sauers are everywhere. They are impressionable kids with intense internal lives and high emotions. They are excellent raw material for fascists, and cultures can be fascistic. What scares me is the way people, older people, often deal with kids like this though they see something special in the kid, right on the cusp of turning very good or very bad, they lack the mandate, resources or confidence to guide them, and instead watch them die or burn out or mess up or go straight, fascinated, as if looking for clues to their own lives.
Richey to me is a typical young man he simply absorbs the situation as he finds it and tries to maneuver. If I've succeeded, by the end of the novel he is simply acting out the dreams of the society as he has dreamed them. He becomes a lens; his behavior is a refraction of particular values, whether you believe them warped or not, and expectations and language and attitudes and latent violence that preexist. He is not independent and from him, despite his battles, real evil may come. I like Dostoyevsky's fatalism in Notes From the Underground in this time and place, such a man had to come into being.
Q: What was your impetus to move from New Zealand to Tokyo in 2001? What was your favorite thing about living in Tokyo?
A: I needed an adventure. I was young and hungry and temporarily written out, and I had friends in Tokyo who promised me a wealth of fun, money and inspiration. They were right, but there was more.
Q: The Method Actors reads like a love letter to Tokyo, and could be characterized as "post-modern" in structure and characterization. As an author, did you write yourself into the novel? Or more specifically, where did your life in Tokyo end and The Method Actors begin?
A: The Method Actors began as my mourning the loss of Tokyo. It was the intensest of love-hate affairs, and I had to leave, but once I'd left I couldn't get it off my mind. The book began as a way to express the hugeness and plurality of this world I had entered. I also wanted to find a way to deal with this problem of actively competing histories in the area that I found so incredibly troubling. And I wanted to bring in these obsessions that seem to make up Tokyo mushrooms, music, food, drink, history, TV, movies and create a huge gorgeous satire of people living in bubbles of material wealth and having, to them, very intense and for-real emotions (and I didn't want to diminish those) about the circumstances of their lives, while around them history swirls like a poison gas only a brave or suicidal few penetrate. Or something like that.
Postmodern as a descriptor of the design or execution of novels is being bandied about fast and loose more and more these days. People call Jonathan Safran Foer a postmodernist just because he put pictures in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It gets a bit silly and unhelpful and is usually used to describe the structure of a novel when the reviewer has no word count to elaborate.
Q: You describe "method acting" as "to know you've gotta feel" and "to feel you gotta know." Are you a method actor?
A: Well my character Michael does, and I think he's being a little flip there. I always wanted to give myself the freedom to invent and never intended to write minimal realist novels of my suffering. If I am anything akin to what I understand as a method actor then I could say it's because I like to experience adjusting to new places and new milieus and to do that in as chameleonic a way as possible. I like to know the problems from the inside and it always starts as my own personal response how could it not? to something external.
Q: Both of your novels have a very visceral and cinematic feel. Do you find that your work is more influenced by film than literature? And do you see your books being adapted to film?
A: I think like anyone my age film is just another influence. Primary sources are always textual because that is the medium I work in, but film is important to me. I'm talking to a director about a film at the moment, but getting movies made is as hard as arranging a solar eclipse and essentially I want nothing to do with the business end. The Method Actors is very much concerned with texts and several internal worlds and tableaus and of course is set in Tokyo a lot, which is a difficult place to get permission to film, but with the right sensibility it could be made into a good film. The Lazy Boys deals with a milieu that inevitably ends up being a cartoon in film. It would take someone very uncommercial to make something worthwhile of this book. I love Harmony Korine.
Q: What is the strangest job you've ever had?
A: Night laundryman at St. George's Hospital laundry. Washing up the OR scrubs and the maternity hospital nappies alone in the laundry from half past three in the afternoon till two in the morning so that the chutes would be clear and no backlog for the next day. I lost about ten k.g., read Infinite Jest and Catch-22, planned a novel, took as a souvenir my first umbilical cord (a little piece, anyway) and encountered an internally sourced reddish material of unspecific origin I nickname "people jelly."
Q: You are a musician and had to sell your beloved drum kit to help finance your writing while living in New Zealand. You recently won the Prize in Modern Letters and were awarded $65,000. Have you bought yourself a new drum kit?
A: Not in London, zone two. That drum kit is just one of the symbols of what you give up to do the thing you love. I'm a better drummer than a guitarist, so in the spirit of change and expansion I'm going to get a guitar this time. I'd like a Fender Jaguar or Jazzmaster, brightest green or Kurt Cobain blue. I'm not really a musician. I have participated in bands where I touched some musical instruments and they made sounds. That is about it. Someone once said they'd never seen anyone bang the drums as hard as I did, and that was far too flattering a compliment.
Q: What has the response in New Zealand been to you winning the Prize in Modern Letters?
A: For a book no one would publish there? The reviews that came out before the Prize were violently polarized. A lot of critics have strong bland ideas about what "New Zealand fiction" should do and The Method Actors didn't fit into that. Some of the Baudrillard-reading eccentrics living in the hillsides loved it. After the Prize, there were a lot of interviews, a bestseller slot for an imported book, a lot of press and then I left. More people will read the book now, and that's what I want.
Q: The Lazy Boys and The Method Actors are very different books. The Lazy Boys is very "interior," a young man's harsh look at the world around him seen though the lens of drugs and alcohol, and fueled by violent sexuality. The Method Actors is more expansive, the world view is bigger; the narrative streams from multiple characters, and the novel jumps from Tokyo to New York and beyond, with glances into history and other fictions. Which book was harder to write and why?
A: It's a cliché but each novel you write is harder than the last. You endeavor to do things you don't yet know how to do and without the tricks you learned the last time around. The Method Actors was written completely differently from The Lazy Boys it was all the things you say, and deliberately organic and dynamic in the writing. So I drank constantly to cope with the anxiety. With The Lazy Boys there was a huge sense of discovery and, ironically given the tone and subject matter, play, but it was tightly planned and I knew at all times where I was going. For six months I barely even allowed myself a drink for fear of the slightest hangover affecting the work. Plus obviously I couldn't afford it. Writing The Lazy Boys, at night I'd dream of flying. It was the best. I'll never have it that good again.
Q: Are you currently working on another novel?
A: Yes. I refuse to say more or as Nabokov says in a different context, like a deep sea fish brought out of its depth the whole thing may explode.