Eight Questions is an occasional series of interviews that I’m including on the site. Being a naturally gifted (read: lazy) interviewer, I will be using the same eight questions in every interview.
This time, the questions are being answered by journalist and celebrated essayist Michael Bywater whose work can be found in publications as diverse as the Daily Mail, the Independent, the Observer, Punch, the Telegraph, and of course all three Novel in a Day events. His website (www.michaelbywater.com) declares him to be a pilot, harpsichordist, cook, photographer, red-hot lover and self-deluding old goat. I am unable to personally verify any of these claims.
1 – What did you do before you did this and what do you miss about it?
Organist, baby medic, English degree, postgraduate stuff in drama, worked as music director of a dance company, flirted with the priesthood(a), got married, all the usual stuff kicks in, wolf from the and roof over our and bob’s your uncle.
I went into journalism. You could go into journalism then, even without a rich daddy to buy the flat and pay the bills while you worked for nothing (“internship”). It was an actual job. Now it’s not. But it was, and I did, and had a very fine time. I was dep.ed. of Punch (R.I.P.) where I spent about ten very happy years, and who wouldn’t be happy, learning the trade from Alan Coren, meeting everyone you’d ever dreamed of meeting round the Punch table at our weekly Friday lunches including a Havana cigar… I mean, it sounds like a different era. And I suppose it was.
Meanwhile I was writing everywhere. BBC stuff, Observer, token man at Cosmopolitan, dodgy berk on The Mirror(b), writing about what was then called “High Technology” but is now called “Not another fucking iPad, they’ve completely lost the plot, Apple,” which meant I got to go to California and even hang out with Steve Jobs, who was, in those days, alive.
I wasn’t ambitious. Not at all. Just drifting gently down what turned out to be an entirely beguiling, enchanting stream.
Then there was the University teaching bit. I liked that. I still do like that, which is why I still do it.
But writing… actually, I’m not sure I “do” it, even three or four million published words (and probably more unpublished) later.
It seems to me that writing is like speaking. It’s something you do as part of living, not in order to live. My sort of occupation (it’s not really a career; no plan; no goals; just happens) is a bit like getting paid for eating. So I find it terribly hard to get impressed by the idea of writing, or, even harder, by the idea of this thing called “a writer”.
Maybe it’s because the technicalities of it are so accessible (even though there are an awful lot of people who like the idea of being a writer but can’t be bothered to access them). A pen. A laptop. A bit of language. You don’t need much. It’s not like being a virtuoso musician or a great actor or scientist or architect. You can’t learn to play the violin as you go along. You have to spend years before you can send in even a speculative invoice.
With writing, you sort of can. I was pretty bad when I started, though I did take pains. But for whatever reason, I got paid. Not rich — not even the tiny approach foothills of rich — but paid.
On the other hand… I can’t take writing seriously as a matter of “product”. When I see that the guy who’s what used to be called the “Editor-in-Chief” of a paper where I was columnist for twelve years or more is now called “Group Content Director” something in me shrivels and dies, and something else in me throws up. And then there’s a third something in me that wants to find out the jabbering, bought-and-paid-for, Audi-driving swine who did this, and rip their heads off. It symbolises the triumph of managerialism, a sort of meagre witless opportunism that befouls everything it touches.
The thing du jour is “bucket lists”: the things you want to do before you kick it. Much more fun to make a “fuckit” list: when the tests have come back and you’ve had the Breaking Bad News chat with the doctor in the Little Room, and you think “Fuck it; I’m going to die”, and you compile your fuckit list of people you’re going to whack before you croak. That’s endless hours of fun. And given what’s happening — “content”, for God’s sake; like “filling” or “kapok” — one comes to think that death is no bad thing. Imagine if we were immortal and we just had to sit on our bony arses till Doomsday watching everything getting worse. It would be awful. And even if the police did get you before you’d finished, jail would hold few fears. Your sense of taste would have gone, so the food wouldn’t matter, and you’d be too old or withered or dicey to get buggered in the showers, and you’d probably spend your time being called “The Prof” and helping old lags write to their lawyers and the missus.
But the idea that writing is something everyone can do, and if they want to, then more power to their elbow: yes. Hooray for that. We’re slipping back to the much older model of writing, as something people did (usually those with some money, or at least a pittance; anyone who glamourises the authorial world should read New Grub Street or Paul Delaney’s wonderful and soul-shrinking biography of Gissing by way of a corrective) in their spare time, and hoped their friends would enjoy.(c)
So in some ways, the rise of “creative writing” degrees and all that etiolated soft-voiced knee-patting hopmadoodle is splendid. People who want to tell a story should be encouraged and helped to do it to the highest standard they can reach.
But the hidden con is the implicit promise of readers. Readers are harder to come by. And I suspect that what a lot of would-be writers really want to be is read. Or, more likely, having been read, admired.
It’s human. Any creative writer — in the very broadest sense — exposes more of themselves than they realize; and what we all want is to reveal the truth about ourselves and be admired, or at least liked, because of (or despite) it.
That’s a big punt. But I defy any writer to deny it (apart from the most debased journalist; I don’t imagine Paul Dacre gives a damn. He’s on my fuckit list.)
What was the question again?
2 – How many projects are you working on at the moment and what can you tell us about them?
A musical about Oscar Wilde. I started doing it with the great & legendary songwriters Leiber & Stoller but unfortunately Jerry Leiber died so I’m doing the remaining lyrics as well as the “book” (the libretto). It’s unnerving, the sense of Jerry looking over my shoulder. I haven’t done a theatre piece for a long time so though it’s the best fun, I’m daunted and nervous as a kitten. I’m trying my hardest to man up and just get it finished — who said “perfection is the enemy of the good”? Dead right, whoever he was — but it’s intimidating. Everyone knows about Oscar (and there are millions of Wildeans waiting to pounce) and Jerry and Mike are… well, “legendary” is no exaggeration. So I feel simultaneously very small, a kind of shmendrick or weak pipsqueak, and at the same time responsible for not letting the others down.
Then there’s a novel: a sort of urban fantasy/philosophical thriller set in a sort of alternative German city-state which is entirely devoted to organs and organ-music; it’s slightly pornographic, being set in the finest brothel in history, and all about the disjunction of beauty and goodness. Nothing to do with each other. Word. Yo. Innit.
I’m also doing a book of essays. We’re off to a bad start because I didn’t win the Hazlitt Prize but the thing I submitted wasn’t good enough; I wouldn’t have given me the prize either. But essays are coming back into style, as is a sort of free-range autodidacticism, and it’s something I’ve done most of my life so I’m pretty comfortable with the form.
And, of course, teaching. I loved teaching tragedy to Cambridge third year undergraduates, and I’m currently teaching writing — academic rather than creative — at Warwick University. It’s wonderful. They’re all so young and already so utterly themselves; diligent and hopeful in a way my generation weren’t. Helping them along is a great joy. The men are great; they’re young bucks full of life and energy and expectation. The young women are more tentative, often, and seem to feel less entitled to their own voice; but once you help them free that up a bit, they’re electrifying. To think that for all those centuries men kept women out of life. We must have been mad. What a loss.
3 – If you had to quit either reading or writing which would you pick?
I’d quit writing. What do you mean, “had to”? Do I have a pension? An allowance? Even a bicycle and two meals a day? Good. Heaven on earth would be spending the rest of my life in the Cambridge University Library. I may do so if I ever retire. Any idea of writing as some sort of necessity vanishes in there. You look around the stacks and you realise it’s all been done and you’re nothing but a little floater in the eye of history. Bliss.
4 – If you could magic another hour into the day, where would you put it and what would you use it for?
In the morning. Sleeping. Sleeping is best. If it’s really a magic hour, I’d use it for killing Iain Duncan Smith, over and over again, a different way each time.
5 – What is your pet hate in writing / language?
Certainty (the necessary precondition of pomposity). And Office English. The sort of certainty you get from religious fundamentalists, atheist fundamentalists, and those angry finger-jabbing men in the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section who think in chunks rather than in actual thoughts. And the sort of office English you get from tightly-wadded PR people. Currently the one that clenches me up most is “reach out to”, meaning ring up or email. Do they think like that when they’re in bed with their lovers? “I need to reach out to you with regard to a realignment of performance-based objective metrics, going forward”?(d) Bet they do.
6 – Are there any genres that you love to read but which you never write?
I can’t do genres but I love lots of them: Golden Age mystery (I’m just re-reading Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels, which are a joy), good urban fantasy, morality-tale horror of the Stephen King sort, SF, historical fiction… loads of them. There’s an American… well, I don’t know if you’d call it a genre, but it’s a kind of closely-observed but almost liturgically stylised fiction that hides behind genre and which occupies a literary space that, for whatever reason, we don’t have or can’t do here. Writers like James Lee Burke (who manages to work an almost unspeakable level of violence into his books while somehow giving the impression of a kindly but profound moral rectitude), Carl Hiaasen, Lawrence Block… I don’t know what you’d call their ‘genre’ but it’s non-existent here. Maybe it’s — literally — the light. Maybe it’s the physical confines of this wet little island. We can’t do exuberance, and we certainly can’t do wicked exuberance, criminal or sexual. They do vast corruption under blue skies, with mistresses with candyfloss hair and breasts like whales; we flog dodgy mince and wanking. But perhaps it’s because we’re fairly normative and sane, while America is quite mad. I can cheerfully hate the USA — the evil empire and all that — until the immigration guy at LAX says “Enjoy your stay, Sir” and the second I’m through the gate I start thinking “Greatest country on Earth” and “You don’t like it, get the fuck back to your own miserable country”. I think it’s guns, maybe. I went to a gun fair once and someone gave me a Walther P99 and you know something? Holding that handgun, I liked the way I felt. Maybe that’s the answer.
7 – Do you have any writing rituals, habits or idiosyncrasies that you can share
Procrastination. Really dire procrastination.
8 – What are you selling and where can I buy it?
Hopefully on Broadway in a year or two.
(a) Not individual priests, you understand; the priesthood which, italicised like that, sounds even more dodgy but isn’t. But it didn’t work out with God. I said to Him, it’s not you, it’s me, I need to find out who I am, I’m not ready to settle down, I need space, You deserve better, I’ll always think of you fondly… but nothing. Not a word. I’d have liked at least a pretence of, I don’t know, sadness or something but it was just like I no longer existed. Not that I’m bitter or anything. I wouldn’t want you to think I’m bitter. I’m not. I don’t care. I’m over it, thank you very much.
(b) Yes, I met Maxwell. Yes, he was a cunt.
(c) Delany, Paul. George Gissing: A Life London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008
(d) i.e., “A blow job would be nice once in a while.”
You can read more interviews in the 8Qs series here.