It was the somewhat dreary morning of Friday 22nd August when Ned Beauman visited the Spiegeltent of the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss Glow, the followup to the Guardian First Book Award shortlisted Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Between his talk and his appointment with Radio 4, Ned was kind enough to spend a few minutes with Geek Chocolate to talk about his third novel, set in the London underworld of pirate radio stations and designer drug culture.
Geek Chocolate – Your first novel, Boxer, Beetle was set in modern and historic London and the home counties just before the second world war. Your second, The Teleportation Accident was set in the same periods but in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles. Glow is a departure in that it is entirely contemporary and while set principally in London, the history of the characters tracks them across the globe. You moved around a lot yourself while writing the novel, ten houses in two years; did that feed into the restless feeling of the novel, the characters always wanting to be moving, or was it the story that kept you on the go?
Ned Beauman – I actually found that the places I’m living while I’m writing have surprisingly little impact on the texture of the novel. When I’m reading my own books I can pinpoint what I was reading at the time, normally, because that affects it, but I can’t pinpoint where I was living, because I don’t actually think that has much to do with it.
I guess that it is restless in that there are flashbacks to other countries but none of the other countries were places that I’ve ever been except Newark, but I’ve never been in a hotel in Newark, but maybe they derive from the same impulse in that the reason I wanted to have those flashbacks was because I thought that the novel would feel a bit monochromatic if it was all set in London, as much as I love London, so that’s why it has those excursions. And then in the same way I can feel that life is a bit monochromatic if you stay in the same place, so that’s the reason why I move around so much.
GC – Your leading man this time around, Raf, is one of the nicer protagonists you’ve written, yet he isn’t polite society, not even a hanger on of polite society nor does he have any desire to be, he’s a man of the streets and any connections he has are ones he’s earned rather than inherited. To me, he seems closer to you as a person than Kevin Broom or Egon Loeser. Did you feel having written with a voice very consciously not your own your first two novels you could relax a bit on the third?
NB – I would actually dispute that he is closer to me than the first two. Those first two protagonists, they’re quite neurotic, they define themselves by their cultural interests to an extent, whereas Raf is much more easygoing, he’s not such an aesthete. I think he has a less rarefied and strangled set of values. He’s much more an everyman, which actually, for me, that was actually writing at a greater distance from myself.
No one thinks of themselves as an everyman, everyone is aware of their own particularities, so a lot of those particularities went into those first two characters but actually far fewer of them went into Raf, though obviously he does share a lot of my loves and interests.
GC – You like blending science and mysteries and ridiculous contrivance bordering on farce, but while The Teleportation Accident you could make up whatever you needed to, for Glow you had to research brain chemistry and drug pathways and production; was it easy to get your discoveries to accommodate the needs of the plot?
NB – Well, I had the advantage in Glow that none of the characters themselves are neuroscientists, well, Win is to an extent, so where I have Raf or Isaac saying something about neuroscience it doesn’t really matter if I’ve got it wrong, because if I get it wrong then they are just as likely to have got it wrong because they’ve read about it on the internet just like I have.
So in those respects I didn’t feel I had to be that rigorously accurate, and all that stuff about drug chemistry, to a chemist, they think that will read like garbage, but for anyone other than chemists it shouldn’t affect how the book reads, whether or not I get that right as long as it sounds right. And also I kind of feel, not to hype up my own book too much, even if I’ve made some mistakes, I think this book offers a more detailed accurate reflection of at least some aspects of contemporary post-Internet drug culture than anything else I’ve ever read, at least in English language literary fiction. If it had that foundation, I wasn’t too worried about getting some of the details wrong.
GC – You like the thirties and forties, even going so far as to have a rant about The Winter Soldier on your blog; was it a culture shock to move out of that temporal comfort zone which gave the backdrop to your first two novels?
NB – Well, it might have been if I had been moving to another historical period, but because I was moving to 2010, it’s a different method when you’re writing about years you’ve lived through yourself, but it’s not like I was suddenly writing about Victorian times, that would have meant a whole new set of familiarising myself with the way they spoke, the way they dress, the way they ate, whereas this I could basically draw from life. In a sense it was opposite of culture shock, it was kind of settling into something, a corpus of observations and memories that I had been building up for a long time but had never had the opportunity to put down.
GC – I noticed reading Glow that the elements of farce were considerably toned down from the first two novels; did you feel they didn’t work so well in what is a very contemporary novel?
NB – I guess to an extent it’s about levels of realism, maybe. Sometimes to make farce work you have to bend the rules of the universe of your book so that certain things can happen which would not be plausible in the real world. I think that’s fine in a comic novel, but the problem with doing that in a thriller is that you have to have a sense of jeopardy.
You have to feel people might get hurt and stuff might go wrong and that evil might accomplish something, and if you’ve already undermined the seriousness of your fictional world by nudging it into farce then I think that those thriller aspects can become less effective so I didn’t want to have any elements that were too knockabout, otherwise it makes the more serious stuff, the violence and the peril feel lower stakes.
GC – Your first two novels are set against a background of the Nazi party; you certainly got your money’s worth out of that research. In Glow it is the ruthless multinational Lacebark; has big business become the modern horror of our age to be feared and despised?
NB – Well, today we have Putin and we have ISIS so political or state or ideological megalomania obviously still exists, but for me it wasn’t particularly inventive for me to make these Blackwater type security companies the villains in this because they’ve almost been the default villains for Hollywood basically since the Iraq war.
In a way it’s like Nazis as default villains in the thirties and forties, Blackwater a default villain in the 2000s, but I only ever approached the Nazis as Indiana Jones/Hellboy/comic book villains whereas the Blackwater stuff, at least in a very faint way, is meant to resonate with some kind of present day political consciousness about injustice. So it’s slightly different, but in both cases I think I’ve just reached for the universal villain for that era.
GC – Boxer, Beetle is described on your website as “a novel of bold ideas and deplorable characters,” and certainly Kevin Broom and Philip Erskine both display a myriad of undesirable qualities both physically and in their personalities. Were you at any point tempted to make them less grotesque, to entice your readers to just a shade of sympathy?
NB – I should start by saying I didn’t write that line about “deplorable characters.” I don’t think of characters in books as being sympathetic or unsympathetic, I think that’s kind of a pernicious and infantile way of looking at things that basically only exists on the Internet, and no, it wouldn’t have occurred to me for a second to tone them down.
First of all, I find all the characters in my book sympathetic, at least on some level, they’re all human beings trying to make the most of the situations they’re in. Some of them have very unpleasant values, but people do, it doesn’t make them irredeemable. Also, so many of my favourite books have no characters that the the Internet would describe as sympathetic.
If authors felt an obligation to tone down their characters then we wouldn’t have got novels like Lolita or Heart of Darkness or The Trial or The Talented Mister Ripley or Rabbit Run or an enormous number of other books whose characters aren’t what people call sympathetic, but they’re clearly not lesser books for that, they’re actually much better books because they don’t tend towards this incredibly complacent, unquestioning, bland moral average.
GC – When I reviewed The Teleportation Accident, I said of Egon Loeser that “his only true talent was making a bad situation indescribably and excruciatingly worse.” Was he a character drawn from any part of your own life or someone you have experienced, or did he just drop in your lap, a tarnished gift from the muses?
NB – I think people would be surprised with the extent to which The Teleportation Accident is almost like a diary for me of 2009 to 2011, but as I actually say in the text of the book, if you write something which is drawn pretty directly from life but you dress it up in historical costume then it never occurs to anyone that it could be in some respects a roman à clef.
What I always bring up at this point is that when Larry David was writing Seinfeld, apparently people always used to say to him “how can you write a character like George, how can your mind plumb those depths of depravity, how can you even come up with someone like that?” and Larry David said “90% of the things that George has done or said are things that I have done or said,” and I feel the same way about Loeser, basically.
GC – It’s difficult to categorise your work, your style being as fixed as your address, but you recently moved quite specifically into science fiction with Specious Present for Arc, which I’ve not read as I’m a luddite and I don’t have an e-reader. Despite science fiction often being looked down upon by the establishment, it’s not as easy to write well as many think. Do you have any problems either writing the piece or in how others might view you for doing so?
NB – Anyone who has a lesser opinion of me now for having published a science fiction story I’m not really interested in having as a reader, so not in that respect, but of course it was challenging to write in that you feel a bit presumptuous walking into this genre out of nowhere and you don’t want to feel as if you can automatically do it just because you’ve had success in another mode of writing.
I used to read a lot of science fiction, I don’t read so much any more, and that poses a challenge because I think science fiction, kind of uniquely in a way, has a slightly “research and development” way of doing things, it’s like mathematics, people are trying to make advances in science fiction, every science fiction book is trying to push something on.
If you step in and you write something and you think you’ve come up with a concept and it turns out it’s already been in some Hugo Award winning short story from five years ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean your story is a failure, but I think in a way that’s a bit of a flop, and so when you haven’t read anything then science fiction is a bit intimidating to write because you don’t know if someone else has already come up with what you think is so imaginative.
GC – Ned Beauman, thank you for your books, good luck in your future endeavours and we hope to see you again soon.
NB – Thanks! Thanks for coming.
Thanks to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nikki Barrow of Hodder and of course Ned for his time.