‘The Discipline of the Short Story is Terrifying’
Best known for his Booker Prize winning The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst recently published his fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child. Known for the precision and wit of his prose, Hollinghurst speaks with lucidity and humour to match. Here, he talks about experimenting with short stories, avoiding other people’s agendas, and the advantages of unplugging telephones and drinking Ginkgo tea while writing.
Q What, originally, made you want to write? Do you remember a moment, a point in time, when you decided that you wanted to be a writer?
A As WH Auden says, ‘To ask the hard question is easy’ (laughs). I think I was so tied up with being a reader. Then, all through my adolescence, I wrote poetry, a great deal, probably starting from the age of about 13 or so, and I think I thought that I would be a poet if I were to be any sort of writer. I read poetry obsessively in my teens. I didn’t really come to fiction till later on, which I think is quite a common thing: you can write a poem in an hour if you’re lucky, but a novel is probably going to take you years, and when you’re young, you grow out of a novel before you’ve had time to get very far with it. So I think it was part of my sense of myself, writing, from quite an early age.
Q Talking of poetry: you’ve said you stopped writing any as soon as you signed a contract for a book of poems. You’ve composed many fragments of Cecil Valance’s poetry in The Stranger’s Child. Has this tempted you to compose poetry again?
A I would love to compose poetry again, but it’s just something that’s deserted me, I’m afraid. I think the reason it dried up was not actually that I signed the contract (laughs), but that I was really getting on with my first novel, The Swimming Pool Library. The images and observations that I might once have put into poems were now redirected to fiction. There’s a particular sort of… I can hardly remember it, but there’s a particular sensation that’s to do with the arrival of a poem, and I haven’t had that sensation for a very long time. The poetry in The Stranger’s Child is, of course, all a pastiche of English tortured poetry and is certainly not to be taken by the reader as something which I imagine is very good.
Q But the writing of it, even if you’re doing it a bit tongue-in-cheek, is a discipline of its own, isn’t it?
A There is a discipline to composing poetry, but pastiche is a different discipline. There are other sections in the book, a section that’s written as part of Dudley Valance’s memoirs, which is also writing in someone else’s voice, and that I wrote with enormous ease. I think there’s something about writing pastiche—that, in a way, the other voice does the writing for you. You don’t have to worry about being true to your own voice because you’re happily inhabiting a voice with its own rules and momentum.
Q After The Line of Beauty won the Booker in 2004, you spoke of the possibility of experimenting with short stories. Did you?
A When I was finishing The Line of Beauty, I felt very exhausted by the scale of the task and length of time it had taken me to do it, and certainly there seemed something attractive about the idea of writing a story that one could dispatch quickly, and have a quicker return on it, as it were. And I did find myself, which I had never done before, making quite a lot of notes for short stories, and I wrote one [Highlights], which appeared in the 100th issue of Granta. Others, well, there were one or two ideas that I was nursing for short stories, but they mutated into this novel, so before too long I found that I did have another novel on my hands.
Q What did you feel was the difference between writing a short story and a novel?
A Well, I’ve only written two short stories in my life, and they were 25 years apart, so I suppose, at that rate, if I’m lucky I’ll do one more (laughs). What I love about the novel, I suppose, is the complex interconnectedness which you can build up. The discipline of the short story is rather a terrifying one, for me. The selection, obviously, the decision about what goes in and what you leave out is one of the primary things in writing a novel, but in a short story every word of it has to earn its place. But I think it’s the larger-scale interconnectedness in the world of a novel that really appeals to me.
Q You’ve sometimes described yourself as a ‘slow’ writer. What is it that takes time? Do you take long breaks between writing? Do you write in bursts?
A I spend quite a lot of time thinking—though, of course, it’s very hard for anyone else to know whether one’s thinking or not (laughs) when I say I’m thinking. I feel very emptied out by the end of a book, and it takes me a long time to fill up again with new ideas. And I think the early part of a book is a rather passive experience; I have lovely periods when I feel very open and suggestible to new ideas and I feel things connecting up in my mind and I start making a lot of notes.
It’s a mysterious process but it’s not something which is done by actively looking for a subject. I find things coming to me and sort of revealing their connectedness and their suggestiveness, and slowly the world of the book fills up. I’m not the sort of writer who starts with a brilliant plot idea and then fills it in. I tend to start with the details and atmospheres, and slowly, I build up the world of the book. In a way, the plot is the thing that comes last. It’s a slow way of doing it; I write, I’ve always written very slowly. I wish I could write faster, but as a rule, I wouldn’t write more than three or four hundred words in a day, and often less than that.
Q You speak also about isolating yourself to write—how do you manage that? Do you have writing ‘superstitions’ about time, place, a particular pen or desk?
A Not ‘superstitions’ exactly. I generally write in my study in my flat, and I think I’m naturally a lazy and delaying kind of person. So it’s quite important for me to establish an inescapable routine, and when I get going—which may be after a year or two of actually thinking and building up the novel—and start to write chapter one, then I’m very disciplined about it. In the days when people used this [landline] telephone more than mobiles, I would actually unplug the telephone. I would put a line through my diary to remind me not to make any social engagements.
It’s probably for a period of several weeks that I try to be immersed in the novel as completely as I can, and I’m very fortunate in being able to do that. If I had a full-time job, I’d have to take off a period from work in order to do it. It’s certainly a wonderful thing to be able to think continuously about what you’re doing and to live in the world of the novel, confident that no one is expecting you to do anything else.
Q You’ve thanked the Belgian organisation Het Beschrijf for time to finish The Stranger’s Child. How useful have such writers’ residencies been to your career?
A I spent a month in this wonderful writers’ apartment, which is run by this very enlightened organisation in Brussels. That was terrific, actually. Again, it was a further way of ritualising the whole business of writing: going somewhere with a specific task. I’ve done that occasionally: I’ve twice been to this very famous writers’ retreat called Yaddo in upstate New York, which is a house hidden amongst enormous pine forests, and very isolated. Again, I find that very productive. It’s not good to go there when one’s starting on something. But once you’ve got a book up and running, and all you need is uninterrupted time to get on with it, then I find these places very valuable.
Q The Stranger’s Child is densely populated with writers, many of whom are also great drinkers. While writing demands, as you say, mental discipline and isolation, is there also some worth to Hemingway’s famous advice, ‘write drunk, edit sober’?
A That’s not my practice, actually! (laughs) I love drink, I’m not pretending I don’t, but I’m pretty sober when I’m actually working on a book. When I had a full-time job, when I was writing my first two books, I had to write when I got home in the evening. And in those days I was a sort of night-time alcohol writer. I’d get home and pour a glass of wine and there was something nicely dis-inhibiting about having a glass of wine.
But now that I’m a full-time writer, I’ve had to turn myself into a morning and caffeine writer. To me, caffeine is important still, not alcohol. And Ginkgo tea: that’s wonderful and quite different from the rush of caffeine, which can make one quite jittery. Ginkgo gives one very strong, focused concentration.
Q Again, because The Stranger’s Child is so full of writers, there’s some mention of reviews and reviewing. How much importance do you attach to reviews yourself?
A Well, I tend to read them. I bring out a book so rarely that I’m very interested in how it fares once it goes out into the world. Of course, one can be upset and wounded by a review, though not actually by criticism, which can be useful, but by the attitude of the reviewer to your work. Sometimes, you can see that a reviewer is determined not to be impressed by what you’ve written; there’s a lack of generosity, which I do find upsetting. Occasionally, a friend will warn me off reading a review because it’ll just upset me unnecessarily. But generally, I do read them with interest. A number of writers claim never to read them, and I think most people treat such claims with a little bit of suspicion.
Q Your early books were explicitly gay and you’ve said that it was only after The Line of Beauty achieved ‘mainstream’ acclaim that you no longer felt obliged to answer questions about what it feels like to be described as a ‘gay writer’. I’m not going to ask you that question, but to turn it around: do you ever feel pressure from your gay audience to ‘stick to the brief’ as it were?
A I think I have at times felt it, and resisted it, yes. It’s absolutely essential for an author, or to me anyway, to be quite independent, not to feel that I’m writing to meet anybody else’s agenda or expectations. What I’m trying to do is solve a particular problem I’ve set myself, to the best of my ability. I felt [the pressure] somewhat in reviews during the 1990s, the period of Aids, really. My second book, The Folding Star, came out in 1994, about 10 years after the Aids crisis started in England, and yes, I think some reviewers felt that it was my duty to tackle this scene in a way which I’d deliberately not done in the book. But I don’t think I feel that now, no, and I would resist it if I did feel there was a particular agenda that people were hoping I would adhere to.
Q There is some suggestion, in The Stranger’s Child, that Cecil Valance is not altogether a great poet. One could claim that, partly, his lack of greatness stems from his inability to acknowledge his sexuality—his more confessional (perhaps better?) poems are hinted at but never seen. How important was it for your writing to not have to hide your sexuality?
A Well, I think it was the essence of what I was doing when I started out. I found myself at an extraordinary moment, really, with a wonderful subject that hadn’t really been written about in British literary fiction before—gay lives talked about openly and unembarrassedly, and gay history too.
I started writing in 1984, which was 17 years after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which was a key thing that began to change the possibility of what could be said. And I think it was very much part of the point, to me; the interest of my first book was that I could say all these things that had not been said before.
Q You write wonderfully precisely, describing the most minute details of your characters’ expressions and movements and language. Given how clearly you seem to have imagined your characters, how did it feel to watch the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty?
A Well, it was the first time I’d had such an experience, and it was a fascinating one. You know, the wonderful thing about a novel is its highly imaginary nature. A novel is created in a subtly different way by every single person who reads it. And you’re kind to say what you say about the precision of things, but there’s also an element of things that a writer doesn’t describe. I think when I create a character I see one or two essential things about them, which I communicate to the reader; but the reader, quite unconsciously, does quite a bit of the work him or herself.
And I find that though I can say certain things about what a character looks like, and I can see them moving around quite naturally from the corner of my eye, if I look at them full in the face, I can’t quite see them. (laughs) So it was quite disconcerting, in a way, finding my characters being impersonated by actual people with actual clothes on. I mean, the whole element of what people are wearing in a novel is, generally speaking, extremely vague. In a novel, you only see what’s being shown you in the sentence you’re reading, but in a scene in a film, the whole background is full of people doing things, moving around.
So there’s something extremely specific about the world of film, and that was, I don’t want to sound pretentious about it, but on a philosophical level, that was the thing I found very interesting.
Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and other Stories of Love