Interview: Dan Rhodes
The Mind's Construction talks with the novelist
Dan Rhodes is a mystery to me. A mystery wrapped in an enigma, draped in riddles and embroidered with question marks. I don’t know where I stand with him. The voice in his books offers little help, just when you think you’ve pinned it down it shifts. It can be cruel, sentimental, precise, glib, learned, matter-of-fact, tender, all of these and more, but the author himself is invisible. There are no thirty-two year old writers from Purley in his books. Nor do you ever get that feeling that you’re reading semi-digested experience.
His first book, Anthropology and a hundred other stories, set the tone for Rhodes’ reception, being clever yet affecting, economical yet meticulous. And it really was economical, consisting of 101 101-word stories all concerning relationships. Here, as a taster, is one called ‘Honest’:
January said it was important for couples to be completely honest with each other, and I agreed. I told her very honestly how much time I spent thinking about her, that whenever I pictured the future she was always there by my side and how even after three years together I sometimes couldn’t help feeling a little nervous when she was around. She told me to stop. ‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ she said. ‘I meant I just don’t love you any more.’ She looked away. ‘And the more I think about it, the more I realise I never really did.’
Although Anthropology could be read within the course of a short train journey (say, Leicester to London), emotionally, it lurched like a rollercoaster. His next book, Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love, was more generous with the word count, allowing for more detail of the painfully sad and sadly painful relationships he depicts. In 2003, he broke through with Timoleon Vieta Come Home, another soppy-harsh tale about a dog finding its way home to its feckless owner. He made the Granta Best Young Novelists list and seemed set up for a comfortable writing career. The only trouble was that he had been saying (since 2000) that he was going to write those three books and then quit. Well, has he? No, not really.
His latest novel, The Little White Car, was published under the pseudo-pseudonym of Danuta de Rhodes (born 1980, studied literature in London, works in the fashion industry) and is being presented to the world as the latest thing in chick-lit (“featuring a pair of heroines as ripe and camera-ready as contemporary America could hope for”). The first question I had to ask him in this e-mail interview was why.
Dan Rhodes: For fun, mainly. And to give myself a licence to take a cavalier approach towards punctuation. I would never use so many exclamation marks in a book published under my own name. It turned out to be a very liberating experience – the layer of personal detachment left me almost entirely uninhibited.
In fact, it reads rather like Rhodes’ previous novel, the critically acclaimed Timoleon Vieta Come Home, but set in an alternate universe. Instead of a dog, the centre of intrigue is a Fiat Uno which has to be disposed of following a crash in a Parisian tunnel involving a speeding Mercedes.
The Mind’s Construction: Apparently you wrote it in two weeks with pound signs in your eyes, but there is little that differentiates it from your other works: is this an elaborate bluff or what?
DR: Yes. I’d just spent five years writing Timoleon Vieta Come Home, and the intention was to write The Little White Car in five months. It was an experiment to see if I could write fast and without getting emotionally attached to the writing. In fact it took two and a half years to write and I ended up caring about it every bit as much as my other books, which wasn’t the point of the exercise at all, so it’s a failed experiment in that respect. I don’t entirely agree that it’s the same as my other stuff – it’s much lighter. It doesn’t have the bottom end of my other books, which is something I’m very pleased about. It’s the book I always wanted to write – a lite comic romp. That was what Timoleon Vieta Come Home was supposed to be, but it turned out somewhat different in the end (which I’m also pleased about).
TMC: Was the pseudonym in place before you started writing the novel?
DR: At the very start of writing the book I was stuck in a contract with a publisher I didn’t get along with at all well (Fourth Estate – they were an independent when I signed, but were swiftly taken over by the repulsive Rupert Murdoch, and immediately took on all his values when it comes to author relations) and I had this idea that the only way to get away from their clutches would be to write pseudonymously in deep stealth so they wouldn’t find out. But I managed to part company with them, and decided to keep up the pseudonym, albeit in a very transparent way.
TMC: Did you do any research to earn pseudonymity?
DR: I did very little research. I would send drafts to my friend Ginge, who was my Gender Consultant. If anything was too obviously blokeish she would point it out and I would modify it.
TMC: You mention that you had less transparent pseudonyms, can you give an example?
DR: W. Axl Rhodes.
TMC: I suppose that pseudonyms are disinhibiting because they allow you to evade the enemy of all writing: self-consciousness. Have you any other techniques? What are your working methods?
DR: A) Being obsessive. B) Drinking too much.
P.S. Am hugely enjoying Like A Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s biography of BS Johnson. I highly recommend it.
TMC: You mention in the post-script to your last e-mail that you’re reading a biography of B.S. Johnson. Now Johnson – with his book in a box, holes in the page and the strange textual arrangements – is arguably the last experimental modernist in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett. Do you think that experiments in the form of the novel are valid or interesting?
DR: Only if they are any good. If it’s experimentation for the sake of experimentation then these experiments should be kept unpublished, unless they happen to be successful, and the kind of thing that people might want to read. There’s a temptation for writers to show off without regard for their audience.
TMC: I ask because Anthropology, which is almost as formally strict as a haiku, sometimes feels experimental: could you describe the origin/writing of that book?
DR: It was just something I tried, I suppose as an experiment, and after a while I realised it was the perfect form for the ideas I was having, so I kept working in it. Some people (tossers, mainly) said it was gimmicky, but it wasn’t. I was just working in an unusual form.
TMC: You’ve said that you’d rather die than turn into a writer like Salman Rushdie who writes embarrassingly sub-standard books, do you have a masterplan (or even a minor plan) for the next five years or so? Do you have an alternative career lined up?
DR: I only ever give evasive answers to that kind of question. But I certainly don’t want to end up writing unreadably turgid crap, or re-treading the same ground over and over again. I hope I’ll stop if I no longer have stories to tell.
TMC: Talking of which, has fiction lost its glamour? Non-fiction is selling more and it is, arguably, a more exciting field. Do you feel this to be true?
DR: There’s a lot of dismal fiction out there, and a lot of it gets a disproportionate amount of publicity. But there are lots of writers who are interesting and innovative and unusual. Simon Crump, Daren King, Magnus Mills and DBC Pierre are all doing unusual stuff. It’s just it’s rubbish Tony Parsons who gets the bookseller support and big sales, even though he’s a crap and spineless writer. I read Man and Boy, and I will never get those hours of my life back again. My very favourite new writer is Sylvia Smith, and she writes non-fiction.
TMC: What chances are there of a Dan Rhodes non-fiction book? And what would it be?
DR: I have ideas, but I’m not saying.
TMC: Perhaps the popularity of non-fiction derives from a culture of self-help where books are only deemed worthy if they can teach you a moral lesson. Proust can change your life etc. Are you interested in self-improvement (as a reader and a writer)?
DR: Well, it’s always interesting to find out new things. But I don’t like being told what to do, particularly not by Alain de bloody Botton.
TMC: One of the features of your recent books are your charismatic and loyal dogs, what do you think it is that distinguishes humans from animals?
DR: It’s too early in the morning to answer that question properly. I’m a massive dog fan. That said I’m currently staying in a house with a bastard little Dachshund in it, and as I cleared up its shit from the hallway this morning I would happily have strangled it. Fortunately it was hiding and I have since calmed down.
There followed a few slightly pretensious questions (about mind/body and morality/style), but his answers were confined to a simple “Er . . .” As he explained:
“I don’t approach either reading or writing intellectually, so my answer would just be me floundering in order not to appear bad mannered for not having answered the question. Some people think too much.”
Ah, yes. Oh dear.