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Duncan Fallowell interviewed

The novelist, travel writer and Prospect contributor on his writing strategies, how he met Warhol, and why he is the first travel writer who is not a wanker

Duncan Fallowell is a novelist, travel writer and cultural journalist (see a list of his Prospect articles here). During the 1970s he travelled extensively in Europe and Asia, collaborated on the punk glossies Deluxe and Boulevard and began working with the avant-garde German rock group Can. Later he lived in St Petersburg, the south of France and Sicily. His first novel was published in 1986 and first travel book in 1987. He wrote the libretto for the opera Gormenghast, first staged in 1998, and co-authored a 1982 biography of the transsexual and model April Ashley.

His novels are: Satyrday, The Underbelly and A History of Facelifting. His travel books include: To Noto, One Hot Summer in St Petersburg and Going As Far As I Can. Duncan is currently working on another novel and a second collection of interviews, Platinum Peepshow.

When you are writing a book, do you read other authors?

DF I don’t read my contemporaries, particularly in my own society or culture, because they’re standing in the same place as I am, looking at the same thing, and what they make of it is not relevant to what I might make of it. But I like reading contemporary writers in other cultures, and I like watching contemporary films, especially non-Hollywood films. And I read classic authors—there are still a couple of Dickens I haven’t read.

GdeC Do you ever show your work to other writers?

DF I have once or twice, and it’s been a deeply disappointing experience. Usually they’re just looking to see if there is anything there they can use. One friend asked to read a manuscript of mine, so I showed it to him. I thought I might get some useful feedback, but all he said was, “I enjoyed it.” End of conversation. In other words, he just wanted to check out the competition.

GdeC Can creative writing be taught?

DF Not if it’s worth reading! [laughter]

GdeC But can a writer learn style?

DF Certainly a writer can improve himself, especially by reading the great writers. It depends what a writer wants to be—some want to be rough and primitivist, others want to be mandarin and highfalutin’. Me, I want all those different textures in my work. Sometimes a mandarin reviewer will give me a black mark for a passage which is deliberately rough, the way when Michelangelo was sculpting The Slaves, they’re unfinished, like they’re escaping from the raw marble. There are certain passages in my books which are like that, they are deliberately anarchic. I’m very, very controlling of the text. In a recent book of mine, the publishers sprinkled around a few commas without telling me, and I was outraged; it altered and undermined the meaning.

I don’t use editors, not early on. When the agent or publisher gets the book that’s it, bar the shouting, I love the copy editing—I have to justify every comma—but if somebody says the basic architecture of the book is wrong, I’ll say, “You shouldn’t be publishing the book because I know what I’ve given you.” I know an amazing number of writers who present what I’d call the Sketch or the Cartoon to the publisher, and the in-house editors then do all the polishing up. To me this isn’t writing at all, it’s book production, based on branding and getting out one book a year. It’s terribly important that authorship should be coming from a person.

GdeC How do you deal with bitchy reviews?

DF With the unreasonable ones, I just say “silly bitch” and move on. The reasonable ones I try to counter. I tend not to get the kind of bitchy reviews, say, Jeffrey Archer would get because I don’t write the sort of books it’s easy to be bitchy about—they are easy to dislike, but I think most reviewers, most readers, can smell that they are high-performance products, even if they are not for them.

I accept that I’ve written bitchy reviews myself. But I don’t think I’ve ever written a worthless or a cheap review.

GdeC Which writers do you admire?

DF Almost all quality writers have something to offer. But I can’t read pulp. I love the avant-garde; literature that adds something—you know, all the obvious names of the 20th century: Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs, Joyce, Ezra Pound, the beats in the US. They all enlarged the territory of operation enormously, often against terrific legal challenges and terrible social censure. But the literary adventure is exciting for that reason. If you are not adding anything, why are you bothering?

Do I read Milton on a daily basis? No, but I recently reviewed a Milton biography and therefore started reading him again, and what he does with language is absolutely awe-inspiring. But do I regard him as one of my favourite authors? Not particularly. If you were to ask me what book has influenced me most, I would say Alice in Wonderland. I was blown away by it as a child and I’m still blown away by it.

GdeC How did you end up at Warhol’s Factory?

DF I was in New York to interview Johnny Rotten. I had the Factory number and I thought, “Let’s see if I can speak to Warhol.” I rang up, and the receptionist said, “I’m afraid Mr Warhol’s in Milan, and he won’t get back until 2 o’clock, so he’ll be very tired. Why don’t you come round about 2.30?” I couldn’t believe it, that he would turn up at the office at 2 and need just half an hour to get his brushes out!

He was the most open, natural, pure person I met in New York; he didn’t have an agenda, or speak with an ulterior motive. He wasn’t expecting an interview, so I said, “I’ve got a tape recorder here. Why don’t I give you a one-word question and you give me a one-word answer, like one of those psychiatrist tests?” He said, “Great, I can carry on painting while I’m doing that.” So I would say “breakfast” and he would say “vitamin pill”; I would say “California” and he would say “weather”; I would say “Europe” and he’d say “We have the best of Europe’s visitors here in the Factory.”

When I wrote the interview up, it was printed out like a ribbon on the page, just going down. It looked like a work of art, which was appropriate. But nobody wanted to print it, because in the 1980s Warhol was deeply unfashionable—people forget that it was only after he died that he came back. After he died, Marie Claire published the interview, and it’s now in a collection called Twentieth Century Characters. I always thought Warhol was the first truly great American artist—the first who didn’t defer to European culture.

GdeC How were you influenced by your encounters with Warhol, Burroughs et al?

DF If you were to ask me who I’d been influenced by, I’ll give you four personalities: William Burroughs, Sacheverell Sitwell, John Betjeman, who I met when I was at school, and Andy Warhol. Three of them became friends and the fourth, Warhol, I met. These four explain my combination of way-out drugged kind of kaleidoscopic madness à la Burroughs, that rather high European style of Sitwell, from Betjeman an interest in conservation and nostalgia—a very important part of my work—and from Warhol a love of brave art.

GdeC Have you ever written under the influence of cocaine?

DF No. I wrote a lot under the influence of speed, though. It gave me a wonderful sense—as do all drugs, really—of the sculptural nature of language. What it doesn’t do is allow you to put language forward in rational structures that other people can enjoy. So nothing I wrote while on drugs was publishable. I took a lot of drugs when I was a student: LSD, dope, speed, downers, recreational stuff. I was never addicted to anything. Then I stopped when I was 30. I didn’t start producing books until I was clean, because you can’t get your head around a book when you’re half-stoned. A book is a brick, it’s not a puddle.

GdeC Your books To Noto and One Hot Summer in St Petersburg marked a departure into a new kind of quirky travel writing, spiced with intimate self-exposure.

DF I would say that I am the first kind of travel writer who isn’t a wanker. I mean that seriously. It’s quite extraordinary how Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris never go to the loo! Their work can be deeply unreal. I’ve tried in my travel books to capture the reality of being where I am. That’s why a lot of them are written in the present tense. They include a lot about my own emotional reading, which is very important to what you are seeing. It’s like how when you fall in love the world looks different from how it does when you are deeply unhappy. I remember going round the Taj Mahal with an American woman and she said, “God, this is ghastly—it’s like Mae West’s bathroom!” And there is something in that. The building is beautiful on the outside at night, but if you want to talk about Mae West while going round the Taj Mahal, it’s valid, this is where our heads were, and I want to have a real person with a real body and a real mind encountering these places.

GdeC There is almost something continental in the way in which you scatter random musings and philosophical asides throughout your latest book, Going as Far as I Can.

DF Not many people have noticed that. But I would take issue with your use of “random,” as everything is there for a purpose. When Drug Tales was published in 1979, I ended the author’s blurb with the phrase, “He is the inventor of the electric novel.” In my published books since then—novels, travel books and the April Ashley biography—I’ve been developing a distinctive technique, which, for want of a better phrase, I call “cyber-longhand.” This is where you move a narrative forward by opening a series of different windows; strands, facets of the story. If you open one of my books you will see it is written in short sections, sometimes just a sentence. It’s like opening windows on a computer—a person glancing over your shoulder doesn’t see that these opened windows are systematic. But a person following the sequence—someone reading the text—does.

Developing this system explains why I am a modern writer—both Graham Greene and Harold Acton said that I belong to the 21st century. At the time I was rather distressed by this as it seemed a form of rejection, but now I understand it a little better. This technique evolved inside me spontaneously and came to me long before computers, but I do think it’s very relevant to a generation accustomed to, for example, rapid channel-hopping. I do not believe young people have short attention spans; they just organise information in a different way. My novel A History of Facelifting had to be planned meticulously, there are so many sub-plots and characters. That was the fun of it.

GdeC Which of your books would you say stands up best to the test of time?

DF They do or don’t according to your mood. For example, my travel books are very time-specific, being a slice of life at a certain moment, and therefore never date. Overviews in non-fiction become dated. It’s a bit like, say, a photo of Piccadilly Circus in 1900, which can never date in the sense of being outmoded because the whole point is that it is a record of that moment in time. With fiction it’s the opposite—if it’s too loaded up with time-specific details, then it will date.

GdeC What next?

DF Platinum Peepshow: Scenes From Art, Fashion and Entertainment 1979-2009. A collection of interviews, profiles and meetings. It’s huge fun. You’ll find Johnny Rotten, Sophia Loren, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Gilbert & George, Lord Rothschild, Peter O’Toole, Vivienne Westwood, Lord Snowdon, Norman Foster and many others. There’s also a very nice interview with three rent boys. One is gay, one straight and one bisexual, and I ask them what they do… [laughter] There is another one I like, Among Shaved Women, which is in the world of female boxing. One is a black bus conductress, and another a psychiatric nurse who is an expert in restraint [laughter] whose boyfriend works at Broadmoor; they’re a darling couple. I’ve just finished all the revisions and we must now find a publisher for it. I’ve also just finished a novel, a sort of ghost story and a serious attempt to frighten people by polite means—it certainly frightens me!

Duncan Fallowell’s most recent book, Going as Far as I Can, is published by Profile

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