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Losing the Plot


April 1, 2013

The Booker Prize-nominated novelist talks about his obsession with Pynchon, history as interference, and why literary fiction needn’t forsake the pleasures of suspense.

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Image by Lea Golda Holterman

When The Teleportation Accident was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, much of the press coverage in Britain highlighted the fact that its author, Ned Beauman, was only twenty-seven years old. A number like twenty-seven didn’t seem big enough for the achievement a Booker nomination involved. Even the prize itself had the decency to be in its forties.

It’s surprising to some readers that a twenty-seven-year-old writer has published two successful novels, and surprising to many others that he keeps mining the 1930s for material. But Beauman’s books are not period pieces. They explore comic personal crises and youthful self-obsessions. In his debut, Boxer, Beetle, which won the National Jewish Book Award, a character’s principal focus in life is the management of a rare condition that causes him to smell of rotting fish. In The Teleportation Accident, the aptly named Egon Loeser is ravaged less by the politics of 1930s Germany than by his own overwhelming need to get laid. At one point Loeser describes history as “an alarm clock I want to throw through the window,” and many of the ironies and tensions in both books emerge from this idea that the characters within it want nothing more than to be left alone, insulated from outside events and probably from the reader as well. They’re myopic. They may even be unlikable. But they never fail to be interesting.

One of the pleasures of Beauman’s prose is its caffeinated quality. His credo seems to be that a writer must never be dull. Similes proliferate. Unexpected adverbs and adjectives milk the moments of high comedy. Plot strands wildly intertwine into a somehow satisfying whole. You’re not sure, afterwards, if what you’ve just read is over-schematic or just plain crazy. What you do know is that you enjoyed the trip, and that the language was buzzy and often brilliant. In the first pages of the novel we’re introduced to Loeser’s seemingly doomed plans for a teleportation device, and there’s something recognizably Beauman-like and exhilarating in that desire to skip through time and space.

The interview which follows took place at 61 Local, a bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Answers to my questions tended to come in long stretches of continuous, eloquent speech—often directed at a dark patch on the wall. We tried to blot out the sound of the screaming coffee machine behind us, and eventually made a silent protest against noise pollution by switching to beer.

Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: You seem interested in writing about characters who are easily distracted. Do you suffer the same fate?

Ned Beauman: I tend to work two, three, or four days a week, for a few hours a day. During those hours I’m quite focused. But, having said that, I have a pretty complex internet blocking system set up to ensure I don’t distract myself.

Guernica: What kind of system?

Ned Beauman: Embarrassingly, there are three layers of blocking. With sites I want to block permanently, I edit my host file to prevent me from accessing them. For sites I want to block only when I’m writing, I use a program which is called, believe it or not, SelfControl. And for particular keywords I want to block myself from using in Google searches or URLs, I use a web protection program called K9, which is aimed at parents trying to shield their kids from bad stuff. I guess being a novelist is a lot like being a child; it’s fitting that I need this stuff. At one time I also used a program called Nanny, for Google Chrome, but I found it far too easy to circumvent. It was useless to me.

A lot of work goes into creating the opportunity for me to do some work.

Guernica: I’m now imagining the sorts of keywords you block yourself from searching for.

Ned Beauman: I’ve set up K9 so I can’t look at my own Amazon pages. Without this precaution, I’d be checking out my Amazon page all the time. It’s also set up so I can’t Google my ex-girlfriends’ names, and I have it programmed so that I can’t look at anything with “tweet” in the url either. Mostly that kind of thing. Also, when you edit the host file, you can still sometimes get to stuff in the Google cache, so I often have to prevent myself from accessing things on multiple levels, which is why I edit my host file and use K9 web protection. A lot of work goes into creating the opportunity for me to do some work.

Guernica: And what’s to stop you from just turning it all off and Googling ex-girlfriends to your heart’s content?

Ned Beauman: I make it so fiddly and painful to turn all this stuff off at a given moment that I normally regain my self-control one or two minutes into the deactivation process.

Guernica: The Teleportation Accident seems to demonstrate a real love of plot, of spinning together funny and serious stories and taking the reader, through a series of twists and turns, into unusual places. It’s restless, but behind that restlessness there must be an awful lot of work.

Ned Beauman: I used to be militantly pro-plot. I used to think that good writing always had a lot going on at the level of pure story. And I still work hard at plot, but I guess in recent years I’ve started to discover more books that I love which are quieter, and evolve more through sentiment or subtle shifts. I’ve softened a bit and started to appreciate different novels for doing different things. But ultimately, I don’t know any other way to write. I have to write densely plotted books.

Guernica: Can you explain that a little?

Ned Beauman: The reason I start a novel is because there’s something that excites me and I want to explore it. And that thing has always been, for me, something plot-focused. It’s never been a sentiment, theme, or philosophy, or even a character. In a sense this may be a limitation I have as a writer. It won’t necessarily always be the case. But so far in my writing life it’s always been about having a story and wanting to explore it. And as a result, I never really have blank page syndrome. I don’t get blocked. I have a plan for my novel before I start which, although incomplete, probably contains enough material for several novels by a quieter kind of writer. And I try to get my arms around that material and see where it takes me.

Mystery, investigation, false leads, solution—we associate that structure with genre fiction, but it exists in our real lives, too. There’s no reason why literary fiction shouldn’t be able to acknowledge that and make it fresh.

Guernica: Do you like the problem-solving aspect a complex plot involves, both for you as designer and for the reader as decoder?

Ned Beauman: Absolutely. Working out plot problems keeps me going day to day through the two or three years it takes to write a novel. I love sentences. I love characters. But most of all, perhaps, I love to work on plot, and that may be where my natural gifts lie, if I have any. I like to think hard about plots in TV shows and films. And plotting opens up certain territory for me which some other writers—those who write books in which nothing much happens—maybe deny themselves. The pleasure of landing a good twist or making a connection you didn’t see coming. The moment when something suspenseful comes out of the blue. It’s so much fun. It’s fun for readers and it’s fun for writers.

Guernica: Reviewers often talk about how you combine literary writing with elements of genre fiction. I wonder whether that’s how you think of your own work.

Ned Beauman: Sometimes they’re talking about my specific pastiches of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. And I know some people find those annoying, but I don’t really care, because I’m having fun with those, even if it’s glib fun. But sometimes all they mean is: there’s a plot here, stuff happens. And I think that’s just a sign of literary fiction’s current limitations as a form. Mystery, investigation, false leads, solution—we associate that structure with genre fiction, but it exists in our real lives, too. There’s no reason why literary fiction shouldn’t be able to acknowledge that and make it fresh.

Guernica: Towards the end of The Teleportation Accident, it feels like you’re having a lot of fun with the prose.

Ned Beauman: With the action-packed confrontation in the physics laboratory, part of me was thinking, “Oh my God, what am I doing? This is just ridiculous.” But I incorporate ridiculous elements into my novels and see what they take me. I think a lot of that has to do with the first books I loved. The Crying of Lot 49, for example, was the first novel I ever read where I saw that it’s possible to write deadly serious fiction—I think it’s a landmark of twentieth century literature—but at the same time be thrilling and suspenseful. There’s one moment in it where the bottom falls out of your stomach because it’s just so incredibly suspenseful. And I’d never read a book that combined everything in that way before, such deep intelligence with touches of absurdity and dashes of page-turning suspense. There aren’t enough of those books.

Guernica: Do you feel like Pynchon is underrated, when it comes to weighing up the American greats?

Ned Beauman: Definitely in Britain. Maybe here in America too, though I’m less qualified to speak on that. This risks sounding pretentious, but I think the discourse around my work in Britain and to some extent here would be very different if more people read Pynchon. A lot of the things people think I’m the first person to do, or that I’ve been really daring in trying to pull off, are all in Pynchon. And that was fifty years ago. Pynchon’s had no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy. For me he’s the king.

Guernica: Are there other Pynchon disciples whose writing is important to you? David Foster Wallace, for example?

Ned Beauman: Definitely. I think about him all the time. I’ve said before that I think the task of trying to process Wallace’s innovations is so great that it’s almost too frightening to take on. He’s not as much of an influence on me as he could be, perhaps, because I just can’t get my mind around his advances. It’s a lifetime’s work getting to grips with the scale of what he’s achieved. His treatment of morals, his sentences, his scene-setting—so much of it was new.

I hate going back over what I’ve written. It makes me feel physically sick.

Guernica: Can you read books by authors like Wallace—authors whose style is distinctive and potentially infectious—while you’re working on your own novels? Can it be as distracting as Googling those ex-girlfriends’ names?

Ned Beauman: I’ve never really understood that whole thing of writers avoiding other writers’ novels while they’re working on their own. There’s never a time when I’m not writing a book, so a rule like that would simply mean I was never ever allowed to read another book. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that I feel, with the kind of books I write, that it’s fine for them to have a kind of patchwork quality. I quite like the fact that there’s one paragraph in Boxer, Beetle which I can look at and say “I was reading a lot of Ballard when I wrote that,” or one simile in The Teleportation Accident which marks the first time I read any Proust. Those things might stick out a bit in one sense, but everything in my books sticks out a bit. That’s my style. If I ever wrote something a bit more conventionally serious, more level-headed and pure in its approach to story, perhaps I’d have to strive a bit more for consistency, and there it might be that other writers’ words would intrude too much. But at the moment I find it a helpful thing to delve into other writers. Writing Boxer, Beetle, there were weeks when I’d start each day by reading a section of Underworld. You read prose like that in the morning and it forces you to look at your own writing and to try and get more from the language.

Guernica: And presumably if you fall too heavily into DeLillo or Foster Wallace homage, you can always smooth things out in a later draft of the novel?

Ned Beauman: Well, no. The problem I have with that is that I hate doing later drafts. I hate going back over what I’ve written. It makes me feel physically sick. Not necessarily because I don’t see worth in what I find, but just because I know I have to change it, to do the work. We’re back to me being lazy. Sometimes my editor or agent will say “This section probably needs such-and-such an element,” or “You should think about this.” And I know they’re right, but by that stage the fun is over for me. I’ve gotten to the end of the book and fully imagined its world, and now I have to tinker with it and make it a tiny bit better, and I can barely force myself to do that. When I’m writing new material, I never have any trouble coming up with ideas. Never. But when I’m going over the text and trying to improve it, it’s like I’ve left my imagination behind. It’s a very painful process and my agent has to chivvy me a dozen times to make me do anything. All this means I try really hard to get things right the first time, because I know that if it needs work at a later stage, that work may simply not happen.

Guernica: Was Boxer, Beetle the first novel you wrote?

Ned Beauman: I wrote what I think of as a practice novel, which remains unpublished. I sent it to some agents, including Lutyens & Rubinstein, who now represent me in the UK, and it was turned down. But Lutyens & Rubinstein told me to send them the next thing I wrote, which transpired to be Boxer, Beetle. That first unpublished book was a sort of urban fantasy. I used to read that kind of work at the time. I don’t think the book would have turned out well. It was pretty bad.

Guernica: I’ve heard that you’re quite fond of using Wikipedia as a way of finding ideas for novels.

Ned Beauman: Yes. There are some methods which reliably return great stuff. The list pages on Wikipedia are brilliant. The list of unusual deaths article, for instance. Or the list of sieges. The list of inventors killed by their own inventions.

History can sometimes be in the background, the thing which instead of rupturing your life merely irritates you by pressing itself now and then into the foreground.

Guernica: I’ve sensed from both of your books that you’re interested in writing stories about characters who in their own way end up living outside of events. They live through huge historical moments but are rarely touched by them in the expected ways.

Ned Beauman: I guess I’m interested in the way people’s private lives affect their public personas. Politicians often like to suggest that their policies come about through objective thinking, but if you look at British fascists, for example, what you see—what I see—is a group of people coming to the decisions they came to because something happened to them when they were nine-years-old, or because of some deep prejudice that formed in them subsequent to that. In Teleportation, I guess my interest was specifically in exploring how self-obsessed people can be. I wanted a character so self-obsessed that he was missing bigger things. He misses the dangers of Hitler because he’s too busy worrying about getting some sex. In that sense, politics serves its purpose in The Teleportation Accident as a counterpoint to the personal, but it’s more about the myopia you mention. I’d be just as interested in exploring a character who’s so wrapped up in himself that he doesn’t spot his parents getting dementia.

Guernica: Did you set out to subvert some of the things we expect to find in historical novels?

Ned Beauman: It seems to me that the basic plot of all historical novels is a romance swept aside by history. Two people would be together and happy forever were it not for the fact that an army invades or one of them has to go to war. And when I started to think about that, it seemed to me pretty inauthentic. Most romances aren’t swept aside by big historical events. Most romances in the history of the world fall apart because of other, smaller happenings. History can sometimes be in the background, the thing which instead of rupturing your life merely irritates you by pressing itself now and then into the foreground. Hence the line in the book about history being an alarm clock. I seem to come back in my fiction to this idea that people are confronted with major events and are too self-absorbed with their own bullshit to notice. I like to tell and retell that joke and see where it takes me with the character. And if you did that with Pol Pot people would understand he was evil, but you’d still have to do a bit of explaining. So perhaps that’s partly why I keep coming back to the Nazis.

Guernica: The fact everyone has a basic preset knowledge of the Nazis is useful to you? It’s a question of reader expectations, as well as narrative economy?

Ned Beauman: It’s partly that. But also, I have German-Jewish ancestors who had their world torn apart by the Nazis. Maybe one of the reasons I keep coming back to the joke of an individual who remains self-obsessed in the face of all this history is that I myself am historically connected to the Holocaust but remain blasé about it, in some senses. These things went on, and yet I’m writing my novels and worrying over my sentences and plot twists. In that way, I guess I’m as myopic as my characters, and I’m exploring my own myopia in my fiction.

Guernica: Is it difficult having family members read your work? Have they expressed views on the ways in which you deal with the source material relating to Nazi Germany?

Ned Beauman: In terms of what family members or friends think about what I write, I seem to be able to put that out of my mind while I’m writing, which is the essential thing.

Guernica: You don’t feel you hold back at all? Any subject is fair game for your fiction?

Ned Beauman: There are probably a couple of things I’d never write about until everyone I know is dead. And then there’s other stuff which nobody would want to read a book about anyway.

Guernica: You have a line in The Teleportation Accident about how if you write something set in the past, people don’t notice that you’ve used them as source material.

Ned Beauman: Yes. That’s meant to be a bit of an obnoxious metafictional moment, because I wrote that in order that my friends would read that and think, “Shit, he’s right, and I haven’t even been thinking about whether these characters are based on me!” And I wanted them to then take that thought a stage further and think “Maybe he only wrote that line so I’d have this reaction?” And then, again, “How much of this novel is about Ned’s own life?” That paragraph is basically me fucking with people I know.

Guernica: Are there things you don’t like about being a writer?

Ned Beauman: I enjoy writing novels and I enjoy journalism too. I just wrote 600 words for Glamour about what men in their twenties think about sex. I got the commission offer and wrote back to them. I pointed out that all my published writing about sex to date has been a bit dark and cynical, and said that I assumed that wasn’t what they wanted. And they said something along the lines of, “Yeah, not really quite so dark and cynical here, we tend to be a bit more lighthearted at Glamour.” So I had to leave the original, incredibly harrowing version behind, but it was still fun to write.

I guess the main thing I definitely don’t enjoy is having a job which involves selling things. You become an author because you think you’re good at writing. Not because you love to promote yourself. I enjoy some of it and I’ve had a really fun few years so basically I have nothing to complain about. But what I don’t like is the thought that it’s going to go on for the rest of my life. The way I’ve started to think about it recently is that it’s like meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, but you don’t just have to do it for one dinner, or two dinners, you have to do it forever. If someone said to me, “OK, Ned, for the next year of your life you have to be on your best behavior and come across really really well to everyone,” I could have managed that. But for a lifetime?

Guernica: You really feel that? You feel it’s a performance and that the performance will never end?

Ned Beauman: My ambition has to be to become so successful that I don’t have to put up with all this anymore.

Guernica: This interview…?

Ned Beauman: This I’d still do! But there’s a lot I wouldn’t do if I didn’t think I had to in order to try and get my book into people’s hands. The thing is, though, I’ve met authors who have sold tens of millions of books who are still doing the whole circuit like a traveling salesman. There seems to be no level of success at which you can say to yourself, “OK, I don’t have to do that any more, I’m just going to write now, just write and write and nothing but write.” Maybe it’ll be easier as we get older. If you’re DeLillo, you obviously don’t have to do anything. But DeLillo came of age as a novelist a while ago, and the expectation on authors today, with social media and all this emphasis on events and opportunities to meet the author, is very different. I fear that even in fifty years’ time we’ll just be these ancient, limping, pathetic figures, pleading with people: “Will you please come along to my book launch?” “Can I please guest post on your blog?” How depressing is that?

Guernica: Is the Google Books project, and various of the other digital developments in publishing, tied up with your vision of that depressing future?

Ned Beauman: Some of it is exciting, but the big fear as an author is that digital media leaves books open to lots of piracy, and also may give rise to an expectation on the part of the reader that content will always be free, like everything else on the internet. If paying for books becomes optional, I see authors increasingly having to beg people to pay for their work, because then there’s a choice—pay for my book if you find me likable based on my media image and you want to do me a favor, or download it for free if you don’t. In which case, what becomes of the writers who can’t maintain a warm personal relationship, or the illusion of a warm personal relationship, with their public? It reminds me of the presidential elections in the US. Statistically, you don’t have much chance of becoming president if you’re not tall and fairly handsome or at least conventional-looking. They’ve probably missed out on a few good presidents just because those senators happened to be hunchbacks or whatever. And in the future we’re going to miss out on a lot of good writers because they don’t happen to be people who can play this game very well, and so they can’t make enough money to devote any proper time to their work. Of course, the same thing may happen to me. Hopefully a university will hire me as a creative writing teacher. We’ll all become creative writing teachers, and that’ll be that.

G

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