Good afternoon to my Belgian readers. I'm ready to take some questions now, and I hope I can master the technology required to answer them ...
Normally the story comes first but in this case it was the title. The first time I started making notes towards the book I had no title - I just wrote 'Number 11' at the top of the page, because I knew it would be my eleventh novel - but once it was written down I saw no reason to change it. The first idea was to have five stories all taking place in different houses which were number 11 in their streets, but later I thought I would introduce some more variety: hence the number 11 bus, the storage cupboard, the restaurant table etc
Inspiration comes from character first of all. With this book I decided early on that I wanted to tell it from a female perspective, and from the point of view of young people. So once I had the characters of Rachel and Alison fixed in my head, I started to imagine how they would talk to each other - the characters' voices are always what I hear first, before I know what they look like. After that I take inspiration from things that have happened to me, or that friends tell me about - anecdotes, strange or dramatic or funny events - and I ask myself how my own newly-created characters would respond to those situations.
It certainly lay dormant for many years, although now of course it is being revived by Jeremy Corbyn, with mixed results. It was really stamped out not by Mrs Thatcher but by Mr Blair who purged his party of its socialist elements and would not even allow the word socialism to be used in party literature. Personally I admire My Corbyn's idealism and tenacity but I find it hard to see how his 1970s-style socialism can be made to work in a society which is now permeated so thoroughly by free-market ideology.
David Nobbs was a British novelist and television writer who died last year. He is most famous for a novel called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, published in the mid-70s, which was made into a TV sitcom that became so successful it sadly eclipsed the reputation of the original novel. In this book he created a kind of mixture of melancholy and satire which was very influential on my own work. He also found a kind of poetry, as well as wild comedy, in the mundane details of British suburban life. He wrote 17 novels in all, and we became good friends in the last few years of his life.
I find music to be a good way of expressing my characters' deepest feelings - the ones that are hard to verbalise. Whether it is Rosamond in The Rain Before It Falls, or Benjamin in The Rotters' Club, my characters often have a piece of music which symbolises and reminds them of the most important experiences in their lives. Music has always been important to me and I would rather have been a composer than a writer but I didn't have the talent. Nevertheless you can now hear some of my own music if you do a search for my name on bandcamp.com
There are so many! It all began for me when I discovered Henry Fielding's Tom Jones as a teenager, so that would probably still be my favourite. But I also love Joseph Heller, Rosamond Lehmann, BS Johnson, Muriel Spark, Alice Thomas Ellis, Umberto Eco, Calvino, Hrabal ... Recently I've been re-reading The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien and although it's only a small novel it's definitely a masterpiece, one which takes the biggest existential questions and comes to terms with them through absurd humour.
Mainly because I love detective stories, of course - who doesn't? That chapter of the book has its origins in an essay I wrote for the London Review of Books a few years ago, in which I developed the idea that political comedy (which is not the same thing as satire, necessarily) instead of provoking us into action, merely allows us a pleasurable release which takes away the desire to change anything. I thought it would be interesting to take this thesis and build a story around it - one logical conclusion, I thought, might be that someone would take it into their heads to start murdering political comedians one by one. Once I had the idea of a comedian-murdering serial killer, naturally I needed a detective to start solving the crime. I decided to have one who approached the case from a political point of view, rather than a more conventional one.
Because I'm scared of them, like so many people. And massive, mutant spiders are one of the cliches of horror and sci-fi, and I wanted to build Number 11 around some of those familiar ideas.
People often ask this question - I think it's easy to confuse it with the question 'Can a single book change the world?' To which the answer of course, is no - or at least, incredibly rarely. But collectively, books can make a difference. So many of the world's worst problems come from people's lack of imagination, their failure to empathise with other people. I think anything we can do to train our imaginations, to develop them, to keep them well-exercised and in good trim, has got to be useful. That's the real purpose of literature, for me.
No, there wasn't a particular reason - it was an irrational feeling, an intuition. I find it easier and more enjoyable to write from the female point of view, I don't know why: perhaps because it frees me from the burden of my own (male) personality and perceptions, and therefore allows my imagination more freedom.
I finished Number 11 about a year ago and I haven't started anything since. That's quite a long break for me - long enough to make me feel slightly nervous. The problem is not a shortage of ideas but having too many ideas, and finding it hard to choose between them. When I was writing Number 11 I enjoyed the feeling of writing something that was engaged with current events, with the contemporary, and I'd like to continue with that for a while, if I can. I have a few ideas for historical novels but I think for now I'd rather write something set in the present. So it's a question of pushing some ideas to the back of my mind and allowing others to step forward and try to develop.
In the past it was planned. With The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, for instance, I was always certain that the two novels would share the same characters and the stories would be closely related. Recently, however, I've started to realise that all my novels are connected, on quite a deep level, irrespective of how different they seem in tone or setting. So I see no reason from now on why a sort of cross-fertilisation shouldn't take place, with characters from The House of Sleep popping up to rub shoulders with characters from Maxwell Sim, for example ... The possibilities intrigue me, as long as it doesn't become a sort of in-joke which puts off readers (the vast majority, of course) who only know one or two of my books.
Social media are a fact of life, and of course they change the nature of our friendships and relationships, even the way our minds are starting to work. In my daughters' generation I see a definite fracturing of the attention span, but there is a huge compensation in their amazing (to me) ability to multi-task. As I've said many times before, technology is morally neutral, everything depends on how we decide to use it. There are great benefits to social media even though, as a satirist, I have tended to focus on some of their more negative aspects. On the whole I would say the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
Of course! Though I see no immediate likelihood of it happening ...
I like the image of a humorous writer sitting at his desk, bent double with laughter at the hilarity of his own jokes, but sadly it's not true. When I think of a joke I might smile for a few moments, but then you get down to the task of taking the idea and making it work on paper, and that - as you suggest - is as serious a process as any other kind of writing. However I must take this opportunity to recommend the audio version of Number 11. It's read by two fine British actors, Jessica Hynes and Rory Kinnear, and a few weeks ago I put it on my car stereo when I was making a long journey. I was only going to listen to it for a few minutes but they made it come to life so brilliantly that I ended up listening to the whole thing. And laughing at my own jokes! For the first time in my life, I think.
Maybe. I don't know yet. Of course I appreciate that this subject is very much on people's minds in Belgium at the moment, and I offer all my sympathy to the many people whose lives were touched by the terrible events of March 22.
And that's all we have time for, I believe. Goodbye and thanks to all the people who asked questions. (And those who watched but didn't ask anything ...)