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Of dogs and men: Interview with Dan Rhodes

by anna battista

"...and I found this on the Internet..." Dan Rhodes happily smiles as he continues to read to the small crowd gathered in Waterstone's in Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, extracts from reviews that literally destroy his first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home. We're all laughing as Dan goes on and on, as if he were much more interested in reading a collection of the worst things ever said about him than the multiple praises received by newspapers and magazines. Then, after more horrible reviews and more laughs, Dan tells us a funny story about a member of the audience asking him after one of his readings to sign his book antedating it before its publication date. Dan concludes his tale and then asks us if we want to have our book antedated too, say to the 31st March, just to piss off the first person who asked him to do so. More laughs follow, while Dan brandishes a pen and gets ready to sign and possibly misdate all the books lying on a coffee table in front of him.

"I told Sapphire I'd always wanted to grow pumpkins; that my dream was to grow one so big that I could hollow it out and sit in it. Then, if it was watertight, I would climb in and float down the river on carnival day, waving to the children on the shore. She broke off from painting her long nails to tell me I'd be lucky to grow a pumpkin big enough for a dog, let alone a person, and that even if I could there would be no point. I decided she was right. I don't want to grow pumpkins." Dan Rhodes, Pumpkins

"I've always written bits and piece, but I started writing publishable stuff when I was 24," Dan Rhodes remembers a couple of months after his reading in Glasgow. "Inspiration comes from all over the place. I love telling up stories, so writing seemed like a natural thing to try. Like all writers I'm influenced by a lot of my favourite storytellers, and by things that happen to me. Writing was what I always wanted to do in my life for as long as I can remember. I used to want to write for TV - it wasn't until later that I found my natural medium was fiction. I had always seen it as something too difficult for me. It turned out that writing for TV was too difficult for me and I was a lot more comfortable with fiction. I did lots of jobs before becoming a writer, such as working in a petrol station, in my parents' pub, as a gardener. I tried to work in an office but was fired straight away for not taking the job seriously, I've also taught English as a foreign language. While I was writing my books I was mainly working on a fruit and veg farm and in a book shop. I've never written for papers or magazines. All my writing goes into either my books or the bin."

Apart from working and writing at the same time before starting to see his books published, Dan also followed a creative writing course from 1996 to 1998 at the University Of Glamorgan. "It was a great help because I had fantastic tutors. The course gave me a context for my writing and feedback from some very skilled readers. I was never told what to write - I just had to write what I wrote as well as I could. I'm sure there are some dodgy courses out there, but anything that encourages people to write better can only be a good thing. Certain skills can be taught, but you can't teach somebody to come up with ideas. I improved as a writer on my course, but if I hadn't had the ideas I had, I would never have been published. I was rejected consistently for about a year before finding a home for my work."

Born in 1972, Dan Rhodes is currently hailed as one of the newest British writers. Dan's first book was a collection of short stories, Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories (Fourth Estate), published three years ago. All the 101-words long stories in the book are about the very peculiar relationship of the narrator with his girlfriends by the fancy names of Xanthe, Foxglove or Hummingbird. "My favourite stories in Anthropology change all the time. At the moment it's 'Pumpkins'," Dan states, "I get the inspiration for the names of my characters all over the place. There are stories behind a lot of them. I named a character Skylark after some skylarks that I knew as eggs, then as baby birds, and then as corpses, dead from an unexpected cold snap. It was really sad."

"She slipped her right hand around his neck and gently levered him up. She took her left hand, and lifted him out of his case. Then she put him into her playing position, cradled between her legs. She was still too stunned to play him and sat there, feeling the curves of his body with her fingers. He was where he had wanted to be for so long, and the bursts of love kept exploding inside him." Dan Rhodes, The Violoncello

Anthropology was followed a year after by another collection, Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love (Fourth Estate), that includes seven novellas, all with love as main theme and all sometimes surreal like love is: if in "The Violoncello" a young man sacrifices his life and gets turned into a violoncello so that he will finally manage to live forever with the girl he loves (and who doesn't love him), in "Beautiful Consuela" a pretty girl gets constantly more and more ugly to test her husband's love. The first novella, "The Carolingian Period" also features scores with music written by Terry Edwards. "I met him when we were both support acts for the ventriloquist's act Keith Harris and Orville," Dan remembers, "it was a very strange night and I was reading stories from Anthropology. The music was composed specially for the story. I recently saw Terry playing. He seems to be obsessed with nursery rhymes at the moment."

In the acknowledgements to Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love, Dan mentions a luthier, but he wasn't the only expert he had to ask advice to while writing, "I have a friend who makes wooden instruments who told me the term 'luthier' which is hard to find in dictionaries for some reason and another who wrote a dissertation on waste management. I got facts from here and there - I once drunkenly found out about trombones from John Lawrence of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, but forgot to thank him in the acknowledgements." In all the novellas included in the book, there is an instrument or a musical theme at some point, "I don't listen to music as I write," Dan explains, "I find it too distracting. I quite often hear a song and the song will spark an idea and I'll rush off to write. A lot of the stories in Anthropology came about this way."

For Dan readability is the most important quality a story should have to be a good story. "Apart from that a writer shouldn't feel that there is some kind of magic formula. The story should just be good," Dan points out, "All writers are different - we just have to find our own way of writing. It makes me angry when a writer says that writers have a duty to work in a particular way. Philip Pullman is a prime example, he seems to have declared himself some kind of pontiff, which is a bit rich given the unbearable turgidity of his last novel. I write for myself to begin with - if I'm not entertained I wouldn't expect anyone else to be. And then I start to consider the readers - I suppose I just write for the kind of people who like the kind of stuff I write. It's interesting to see the different kinds of people who enjoy my writing. As an egomaniac I love seeing my work translated. It's in 13 languages at the moment. The occasional pay cheque help out too, and of course I'm always glad to hear that people have read and enjoyed the book. It's showbiz after all, so that's the ultimate reward."

"Timoleon Vieta was the finest breed of dog. He was a mongrel. The self-conscious preening, superior airs and inbred neuroses of the pedigree were not for him. His heritage was clearly such a mess that any attempt to untangle it could only be a futile exercise. Even so, its very mystery had served to revive a few flagging conversations as people scrutinised him and saw beauceron in his coat, a touch of Swedish Vallhund in his outsized ears, something Nordic in the slight curl of his tail, pinscher in his gait, or sloth in the way he so often lay on the ground or in the armchair he had made his own. But really there was nothing much to go on, and nothing pure to save." Dan Rhodes, Timoleon Vieta Come Home

Dan Rhodes was recently included in Granta's Best Young British Novelists list, while The Guardian dubbed him "the best new writer in Britain". Dan's first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home (Canongate), came out a few months ago and was either reviewed as a masterpiece or as a shambolic novel, a sort of pastiche of short stories. "A couple of reviews have called my new book a masterpiece, which is obviously good for the ego, but I've had some real stinking reviews, " Dan admits, "Curiously, I prefer real stinkers to lukewarm reviews. I perversely enjoy causing trouble. I used to play a particularly asinine radio review by Adam Mars-Jone, Maggie Gee and some bloke called Cahal Dallat at my readings, and people would be slack jawed with amazement at their relentless stupidity. People can say what they want about my latest book. I don't think of my writing in terms of novels or collections of stories, I just write books. I just like writing things to their natural length. A lot of novels should have been stories but have ended up longer. I've always played with form and don't see why I should stop doing that. Again, I don't understand people's fixation with the conventional novel form. You'd have thought people would have welcomed a change. Some do, most don't. For some reason the world is full of novel fetishists crying out for conventional fiction. I would rather die than write a book in a certain way to fit in with market demands. You might as well be a stockbroker. Me, I enjoy committing commercial suicide."

"Cockroft's distant neighbours' homes disappeared or became tiny spots of light as it grew dark. He knew a lot of people who lived in those places, though he rarely saw them any more. Most of them were English, and like him had come to Umbria to start a new life, to try to escape from whatever it was that had been wrong with their old lives. A lot of them were writing books about themselves and their little Italian houses On trips back to England he visited bookshops, and each time he saw more of these books on the shelves, recognising a fair few of the authors' names. Books with titles like Olive Oil And Sunset: An Umbrian Odyssey, or Uffizi Lover: A Year of Bruschetta and Botticelli, or Cracked Walls and Chianti: Five Seasons on a Tuscan Hillside, all of which carried the same subtext: Oh, we bought a charming little house in the Italian countryside." Dan Rhodes, Timoleon Vieta Come Home

Timoleon Vieta Come Home is the story of the dog of the title, a very special mongrel who lives in Umbria with his master, ex-composer Cockroft. The story gets a new twist when a character simply named the Bosnian arrives disrupting Cockroft and Timoleon's quiet and monotonous rhythms of life. "It took me five and a half years to write Timoleon Vieta Come Home, but that included months on end when I wouldn't even look at it and would write something else entirely, " Dan remembers, "Timoleon is a composite of many dogs I have known. I don't have a dog, but I hope to one day. I feel of course close to Timoleon in the story. While I was writing the book I went to Italy and spent just four days in Rome. I had been planning to spend some time in the country, but I ran out of money."

At a certain point of the novel, Cockroft's neighbours are described: they are British "expats" who, after moving to Italy, were suddenly hit by the inspiration to write books about their new lifestyle, the amazing Italian landscape, food and wine. Such books have actually become a constant plague in the last few years on bookshops shelves and inspired more and more foreigners to move to Tuscany (foreigners who were later inspired to write more books about the same themes, perpetuating the unfortunate circle). "I've never read one of those books all the way through, but they are inexplicably popular," Dan explains, "Whenever I have flicked through one I have invariably found it to be appallingly smug." Dan might have not read any of these pretentious novels, but he has a long list of favourite authors: "I'm going through a big Patrick Hamilton phase this year. I love Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Barry Yourgrau, the young Jane Austen, Raymond Carver, John Fante, Sylvia Smith...loads and loads. I dream of spending a year under a palm tree reading all the books I ever wanted to read. If I had to recommend a book to read, I'd say Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton. It's an overlooked masterpiece that he wrote in his twenties. It's some of the best writing about drinking and infatuation - two of my favourite topics - that I've come across. It's also hilariously funny and agonising. On the Granta's Best Young British Novelists list I think Ben Rice's Pobby and Dingan is a lovely book."

Though Dan seems to be really happy about his writing and especially about his latest book, in a recent interview he stated he wanted to stop writing. "I wasn't happy in the biz," Dan reveals, "I was at war with everyone I was doing business with, I wasn't enjoying writing, I wasn't making any money out of it, my books were hardly selling. I just needed to get out for the sake of my sanity. Now that I'm with a new publisher and my books are seeming to find readers, I'm more inclined to think about maybe writing something else. Or maybe not. It doesn't matter to anyone but me - there are plenty of good books people can read." Dan doesn't seem to have any plans about his book being turned into a movie: "I would sell movie rights, but I wouldn't write the screenplay. I don't watch films so it wouldn't be right. I once met someone who was writing a book but claimed he never read books. I wanted to throttle him. If the book does become a film I doubt I'll watch it. I'll just cash the cheques!"

For the time being, Dan has got plenty of things to do: his book has recently come out in Spain, translated as Timoleon Vieta vuelve a casa (Alfaguara), and he's been promoting it, "I'm just back from LA and Spain. I was going to take on some work here and there, but I've been kept a lot busier than I had anticipated with promotion."

After having been abandoned by his master and the Bosnian, Timoleon Vieta tries to come back home, walking, trotting and running all the way, from Rome to the Umbrian hills. Like his character, Dan Rhodes has come a long way. Watch out, he might be here to stay.

{www.canongate.net}

Issue 14, August 2003 | next article


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