Photo credit: Rasmus Kramer Schou
Describe your latest book.
It’s 1955, at a party in a lush Roman palazzo. A wealthy American art collector has invited all the expat socialites — plus one of the great painters of modern art, Bear Bavinsky, a brawny, beardy charmer known for his wildly colored (and wildly sexualized) canvases. As Bear regales everyone with tales of rivals like Picasso and Pollock, another guest is observing from afar: his wife, Natalie, a superb artist but entirely overlooked. For comfort, she clutches the hand of their son, Pinch, who is five. The novel that follows is the portrait of a life — not that of the great Bear, nor of Natalie, but of their son, Pinch, who grows up longing to equal his father’s greatness, and is sometimes elevated by his old man, sometimes crushed by him. Until one day, when Pinch commits an astonishing act that’ll change art history forever.
When did you know you were a writer?
When I turned 30, I quit my job as a journalist in Rome and moved to Paris, hoping to realize a long-held dream to write a novel. But I felt ashamed to tell anyone what I was attempting — to designate myself “a writer” seemed presumptuous. After all, what had I ever done? So I kept my true designs to myself, claiming that I was merely there to study French and discover the great city. Yet fiction remained my preoccupation, and I read stories and drafted them in a creaky little one-bedroom in the 10th arrondissement. A couple of problems arose: what I wrote was godawful, and I ran out of money. So I found work at the International Herald Tribune
(now defunct), persuaded myself to keep scribbling away, and finally produced my debut, The Imperfectionists
. In 2008, during one of the worst weeks of the financial crisis, with Lehman Brothers in tatters, I found myself in the weird position of selling a book. The larger world was collapsing, but my small one was secretly euphoric. I even dared to tell a few friends: “I’m a writer."
What does your writing workspace look like?
The author in Paris in 2008, thinking small thoughts with a big brioche.
If you were at my study door right now, I’d behave like a criminal with cops at the door: “Um, just a minute now! Be there in a second!” And I’d hurriedly sweep off all the rubble heaped on my desk. (Looking around now: an empty tea cup, a shoe-shine mitt, an electric toothbrush head, a white cotton handkerchief, a serving plate from Poland, water jug from Italy, small ebony spear from Sri Lanka, stationery holder from Afghanistan, pottery pen jar from southern France, receipts I’m keeping for reasons that escape me, a digital camera, a sparkly pen belonging to my 2-year-old son, a leather tray full of coins, a tube of Gorilla Glue, a microphone, four notebooks, an empty sunglasses case, two wooden coasters, Outline
by Rachel Cusk, Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, two books on Rwanda for a travel piece I’m writing, two more notebooks, a pottery cup that my grandfather made for me when I was little, yet another notebook, a Google Cardboard headset that turns your phone into a virtual reality viewer and that I never use, a stack of art postcards, a London Review of Books
bookmark, a case of colored Fineliner pens, boxes of greeting cards, and another notebook.) I’m always forging ahead with a new project, and tidying gets shunted aside. Also, almost nobody enters my study. Perhaps that’s the problem.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
The author's workspace.
I’ve been gripped by the subject of Rwanda since I returned from a trip there. I can’t stop thinking of the place, which is not the condition of anyone else I know. So I walk around London, longing to find someone with whom to discuss what I’m thinking. More generally, I care excessively about tea. I have a cupboard that’s overflowing with it. Even this has proved insufficient to me; new containers accumulate, against my will.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
This is hard to say. Okay, here goes. I once had blue dreadlocks. It was the early ’90s, and I was a teenager. Anyway, that’s my excuse. A hairdresser acquaintance of mine insisted he could transform my unmanageable thick black locks into something cooler. When I sat in the barber’s chair, he informed me that, actually, my hair wasn’t long enough for dreads. “Not to worry,” he said, “we’ll use extensions!” That didn’t sound good. “Wait, are you sure?” I kept asking. His reply: “Yes! Nobody’ll notice!” After he was done and I was blue-headed, I skulked away to join my friends at a (thankfully dark) Toronto dance club. If my awful gyrating wasn’t humiliating enough, a vigorous head toss sent a blue dreadlock hurtling into the air. Unaware, I kept dancing. Another dreadlock careened across the dance floor. And another. A friend raced around, gathering my little blue ropes, which he presented to me in fits of giggles. I shaved my head the next day, and I have maintained that practice ever since. Haven’t visited a hairdresser in 25 years. (Oh, and the answer is no: no photo exists of me with dreads. To my great good fortune, camera phones hadn’t yet been invented.)
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
During high school in Vancouver, I worked at a chocolate shop. It was heaven for me, but costly for the shop (and my waistline). Most shifts, I busied myself “testing” products. If I were a fictional character, youthful gluttony would’ve caused me to disavow chocolate forever. As it happens, I’m not a fictional character.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Digital-era entertainment is designed to instantly captivate and distract, which erodes one’s ability to sink slowly into printed words. I worry about how this is affecting literature (and human beings generally). People will always thrive on fictions — but not in written form, I fear, at least not in large numbers. My caveat is that publishing people are always predicting the end of books. So far, books have outlived every prognosticator.
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
From Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh: “Under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine — as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together — and we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian's eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger's breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.”
Do you have any phobias?
I’ve developed a bizarre phobia of ascending escalators — only very tall ones, where I can’t see over the top. Irrationally, I fear falling backward. This is ridiculous, so I try not to let anyone detect my panic. I clutch on, mouth dry, legs buckling. I refuse to avoid escalators, though — to give in would only deepen my aversion.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Countless things my parents said. I’m especially grateful that they inculcated in me a revulsion for cruelty and a refusal to tolerate it. Moreover, they always said you should pursue work that impassions you, not just enrichens you; and that majority tastes needn’t be yours.
My Top 5 Novels of All Time:
War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
by Charles Dickens
To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot
Enemies, A Love Story
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in London in 1974 and raised in Vancouver. He attended the University of Toronto and Columbia Journalism School, and worked as a journalist for the Associated Press in New York and Rome and for the International Herald Tribune
in Paris. His first novel, The Imperfectionists
, was an international bestseller, translated into 25 languages. He lives in London. The Italian Teacher
is his newest book.