Alan Hollinghurst TalkAsia Interview Transcript
Airdate: May 7th, 2005
LH: Lorraine Hahn
AH: Alan Hollinghurst
LH: Hello and welcome to TalkAsia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. My guest this week is British author Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prestigious Man Booker Prize with his latest novel, The Line of Beauty.
Born in 1954 in Gloustershire, England, Alan spent his youth honing an interest in music, literature and architecture. And despite early ambitions of being a poet, he's written four novels -- highly acclaimed volumes of prose describing life in the 1980s, homosexuality, AIDS and Thatcherism.
Alan joins me here today and we welcome him to the studio and of course to Hong Kong. Thank you very much for coming and congratulations by the way, winning the Man Booker.
LH: About your influences, I read that Henry James, obviously one of them. How do you feel about the comparisons?
AH: Well of course one's always happy to be compared to a writer that one admires very much. I kind of weave illusions to Henry James into the book. I think I often do that actually when I'm writing, I'm sort of in conversation with another writer from the past that I'm interested in. This novel, which is set in the 1980s and is about an innocent young man moving into a world of wealth and power, which he finds very glamorous but doesn't really understand about. It's sort of deliberately rather like the sort of situations that Henry James himself wrote about a hundred years earlier. So he seemed to me a good sort of presiding spirit to invoke. He was wonderfully intelligent thinker about the novel itself, and I think to writers who are interested in the novel as an art form, he is very important. He believed that everything in the novel should be relevant. He didn't like what he called, the "baggy monster" of the Victorian novel in which you could just bung in anything you liked with masses of subplots and irrelevant detail. He wanted everything in the novel to be sort of coordinated and justified. And this is quite a strict sort of discipline but it's on that I've tried to stick to in this book too.
LH: Do you feel that you are being pigeonholed into being a gay writer? I mean is this a fair thing, are people sort of missing something here?
AH: Well the day after the Booker, that was of course the thing that tabloid headlines picked on -- "Gay novel wins Booker". One of them even said, "Gay sex wins Booker," which I thought, if only it was that easy. But that obviously is a point of interest about this book and about the other books that I've written. It now rather surprises me because I'm so used to the fact that that's where I'm writing from as it were. And I think from the start I always wanted to write from a presupposition of the gay position of the narrator. And to take that for granted as most novels...it's taken for granted that they're from the heterosexual position, but having done that to go on to talk about all sorts of other things. So I only chafe at the "gay writer" tag if it's thought to describe everything that's interesting about my books. Because actually the lives of gay people aren't just about being gay, they're about all their other human interests.
LH: Right and I've also read that you don't make moral judgments. But it appears to me at least in your books you make some pretty strong statements, implicitly and explicitly as well. And I refer to Margaret Thatcher or you know...
AH: I've always preferred to work by irony and to...really to invite the reader in I suppose by not laying the law down myself. To invite the reader in to make up their own minds about what they feel about the characters and their behaviour. That seems to be a much more interesting thing to do.
LH: Mr. Hollinghurst you also write a lot about the 1980s. What fascinates you about, so much about this particular era, this particular time?
AH: It was a period of extraordinarily dynamic change of course and I think that is very interesting for a novelist - to have characters whose lives are affected by tremendous changes in the society around them. And this new book that I've written covers the years from 1983 to 1987, which was Mrs. Thatcher's second term as Prime Minister and one in which her revolution really sort of assumed tremendous power. And it led to huge changes in British society and changes which I think we are still living with now.
LH: Right also in your books you include a lot more female parts in The Line of Beauty. You also, it also seems as though you're not talking too much about the sex, about you know, about all that... the urgency and the pacing, etc. Are these conscious efforts on your behalf, or is it just something that we see inside of you that's growing, changing and evolving?
AH: I think it is an evolution yeah. When I wrote my first book, which I started writing over 20 years ago now, gay lives and gay sexuality really hadn't been written about at all in literary fiction in England. And there did seem as you say, an urgency and originality in doing that. It was a whole new subject, which was just waiting to be written about - and I sort of did that. As I say I continue to be very interested in writing about gay lives and gay experience, that sort of urgency has gone out of it for me now. I guess I wanted to broaden the canvas a bit and my previous short comic novel, The Spell, was really very much a gay novel, was just about the relations between four men. It was fun to do but I did feel that I wanted to write more about women and about a lot more heterosexual characters in this book.
LH: Having said all of that, how much of you is in Nick?
AH: Well, I think I've always tended to create protagonists who have quite a bit of me in them, but are deliberately not me altogether. And I've never written autobiographically, I've never told my own story in a novel. But because one of the pleasures of writing novels is writing about things that interest one and I've always tended to give my protagonists my own interests and enthusiasms. And I think certainly Nick's thing at the beginning of the book, of arriving as a young man in London and falling into the romance of London as this new scene of possibilities where he's going to lead his adult life, was very much the feeling that I had when I first came into London at the beginning of the 80s. All that side of it is very true to my experience.
LH: Wow, ok. We're going to take a very short break Mr. Hollinghurst. When we come back: "verse and chapter" with Alan Hollinghurst. Why he gave up poetry for prose.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia, with me today is Man Booker Prize winner author Alan Hollinghurst.
Mr. Hollinghurst, you started as a poet, that's quite a romantic thought. Were your parents supportive?
AH: Yes I think so. They didn't see a lot of it I don't think but it was certainly something I did a lot of as an adolescent at school. I wrote poems with appalling facility, and it was quite a sort of smart thing to do when you're a schoolboy I think. And there was a little group of us who wrote poetry and we were very pleased with ourselves. (LH: What was it about poetry?) I suppose when you're in that sort of hormonal turmoil of adolescence you know, the sort of outpouring of feelings in poetry just seemed kind of natural recourse to a reasonably literary sort of child. I carried on doing it through my student years and actually I had a few poems published in magazines and was even signed up by Faber and Faber to publish a full collection of my poems, of which I'd written about half I think. The moment I signed the contract my poetry-writing faculty just dried up and I've never written a poem since. So I never actually delivered that book. And I think the moment that the poetry dried up was the moment that I was really getting underway with writing my first book, The Swimming-Pool Library. So I think all sort of energies and observations, things that I was sort of storing up that I might have wanted to put into poems, all went into fiction instead. So I think there clearly was a sort of change at some deep level in myself.
LH: When did this transition happen, I mean why did you decide prose was better than poetry?
AH: Well I was always trying to write a novel but the trouble with writing novels when you're young is that writing a novel takes a long time and you tend to have grown out of it long before you get to the end. So I left sort of abandoned stumps of novels, which never got very far. And I suppose The Swimming-Pool Library was really the first one that I thought had it in it to get all the way to the end. And by then I was, what was I...I was in my mid-30s so I'd sort of (LH: Settled down a bit) levelled out a bit and I could kind of sick to a long project and get to the end of it. I think it's quite a common thing that people write poetry when they're young and then it sort of gives up on them. Either they don't write anything or they shift to the novel.
LH: Right. Now you shared a house with poet laureate (AH: That's right), Andrew Motion. What was that like? I mean were you sort of his sounding board and he was your sounding board?
AH: It was terribly nice I must say. He had a little house in Oxford, which as we were both graduate...I think I was still a graduate student and he was already teaching. He had a...he occupied the main room downstairs, I had a little bedroom upstairs and we would have breakfast together and then he would go off into his room and I would hear the slightly sort of discouraging noises - typewriter, coming out of his room as I was sitting upstairs trying to think what to write. And then we would sort of meet again for lunch and say, how are you getting on. He was always an extremely focused and determined writer, far more sort of disciplined. He's one of those people who are not happy unless he's working hard, whereas I am by nature extremely lazy. But no it was lovely. It was very nice to be writing alongside another writer with whom, with whom one didn't feel in competition as it were. It was a sort of mutually supportive thing. I mean we've remained great friends ever since, and we are...he is one of the few people to whom I show something when I've finished it and me for him. So I think we've retained that sort of role sort of sounding board and almost a sort of editorial role in each other's lives.
LH: Wow. What about influences that are non literary? Music, or whatever?
AH: Yes. Well music has always been very important to me from sort of my early teens really. I always tended to write quite a bit about music, and it's difficult to write about music obviously because (LH: It's a whole art in itself isn't it?) Yes, well it is an art in itself. But I think I've tried to suggest in my books that it was an important thing in the lives of some of my characters. And I've sort of sometimes tried to imitate, and this is a very difficult thing to do and actually an even harder thing to talk about, but try to imitate musical forms.
LH: Buildings, they also seem to factor quite significantly in your books. What is it about buildings and architecture?
AH: Well it was an enthusiasm that started even earlier than the musical one I think. My father was very interested in architecture, and I think like a lot of British middle-class families we would go round when we were on holiday...there were houses and castles which were open...the National Trust and things like this. We would go to look at churches and cathedrals. I knew a precocious amount about buildings and styles of architecture when I was a boy. And when I was small I wanted to become an architect, I was always designing enormous houses and that was one of my hobbies. I then found out later on that actually to be an architect you have to have quite a strong grasp of mathematics and you had to do wiring and plumbing, which was considerably less romantic to me. So I can abandon that, but I've always loved buildings and sort of responded to them and been very interested in them. I think one of my pleasures, there's a sort of proxy way of being an architect if you like, that I do invent, construct houses in my books. That's sort of the nearest I get to do the real thing (LH: You've got them all down there haven't you?).
LH: We're going to take another very very short break. When we come back more on The Line of Beauty and the art of writing with Alan Hollinghurst, so don't go away.
LH: Welcome back, Alan Hollinghurst is my guest today. Alan how do you describe your approach to writing?
AH: Cautious. I'm very slow (LH: Oh you admit you're slow then alright, because that's my next question). Yes it's undeniable I think. I mean there's a gap of six years between the appearance of this book and my previous one. I usually feel very kind of emptied out by a book at the end and it takes quite a long time to recharge. I might have a period of a year or two years before starting the next book. But in which I'm sort of filling up my notebooks with ideas. I don't like to start on a new book until I've got a pretty clear sense of the architecture of the whole thing, the shape, the proportions of it and where it's going. (LH: Why does it take so long? AH: I think I'm just...perhaps I'm rather stupid, I don't know. LH: Don't say that) It's partly because of the way that I sort of accumulate...I think I'm, I don't as it were start with the storyline and then sort of fill in the details. I think I tend to start by accumulating the details from which the storyline then emerges, which is obviously a more hard work way of doing it. I might start a book just with the few images and atmosphere, perhaps the sense of relationship between two people or something. And as I sort of dwell on this and build up, thicken up the picture, then a larger story emerges. But I rather dislike this trend which is quite prominent in writing at the moment, of sort of replacing the imagination by information. I think it's so much more than fiction, great chunks of barely transcribed research. If I do some research I like almost to forget it, to read something but then just let it become like part of the store (LH: Part of you really, right?) Yes, and then to write about it as naturally as possible.
LH: It's a long time, five six years, to work on one project.
AH: It is. When it's going well it's great. (LH: There are down times right?) Yes and when I wrote my first book I wrote it as I was working full time for the Times Literary Supplement then, as an editor. And I wrote it when I got home in the evening and at the weekend, and it was more like a hobby. Now I'm living entirely as a freelance writer and it's become my profession, and I don't have that sort of framework of office life to fall back on. When it's going well it's fantastic, when it's not going well you do rather miss that structure, which having a job would give you.
LH: You know obviously now that you've come...you gained fame and notoriety with your works. With fame and notoriety come critics. What bugs you the most about some of your critics?
AH: Well I must say I feel I've been very fortunate with this book, which has far better received across the board than any of my previous ones. I feel when I started out that there were people who were shocked or disgusted by my writing about gay sex and so forth, and that's no longer the case. But I think those reactions are now disguised as something subtly different, which is boredom. So where people used to say, "I'm shocked and repelled by this," they now say, "I'm very bored by all this". It sort of means the same thing. But...no I don't feel bugged (LH: At all?) at the moment by...I mean what is interesting I suppose is this other media of criticism which now exists, like online things like Amazon and so forth which of course are amazingly uncensored -- any reader can send in. I did incautiously after the book; I looked at the Amazon site. And of course the Booker brought my book to the attention of a whole lot of readers that it wouldn't of done otherwise which is one of the wonderful things about winning it. But a lot of these people of course didn't care for it at all. So I...although I think I'm a reasonably self-confident writer, probably like most writers I'm quite easily upset by adverse criticisms so I'm going to avoid reading the Amazon reviews from now on.
LH: Yes, right right. I would too that's good advice. The Line of Beauty is going to be made into a TV series?
AH: It's going to be made into a three part televisation by BBC 2 yes (LH: Wow), which is being done by Andrew Davis who has done a lot of classic adaptations for BBC of Trollop, Jane Austin, George Elliot and so forth. I'm very pleased about that, it was sort of his idea to do it. (LH: You trust him in his interpretation of The Line of Beauty?) I think well I do and I'm actually quite excited, I'm not possessive about it, and I recognise that it's going to become something different when it moves into a different medium. A character that just exists as a sentence in a paragraph in the book of course, on television actually has to be embodied by an actual actor with actual characteristics and so on, the sort of pulling out of the shadows of all sorts of things. There are a lot of things which go almost unsaid in the book that will somehow have to be made clearer on screen. I think it is going to be very very interesting for me.
LH: Right. Now you've written four books that revolve loosely around similar themes. The Line of Beauty - is this possibly the end of a quartet? Is it time to move on and maybe I don't know, look into different themes?
AH: It's interesting you should say that I mean I do rather feel that yes...that I feel I've sort of not come full circle, but this book sort of does go back to the period where my first book was set and I have a sense of, it's not a quartet in any sort of narrative sense, but it does...it sort of has a...in my mind at least it has a shape as a sort of, perhaps it's a musical shape, it's like a sort of four movement symphony or something. And I do feel that I want to do something different. I unusually don't have an idea for another novel at the moment, but I do have a lot of ideas for stories so I want to see if I can do that. (LH: Short stories) Short stories yeah, which is something I've never really done. Yes I do feel that I want to explore other...I do feel that I don't immediately want to commit myself again to the long lonely five years of the novel actually, I'd rather do something with rather quicker returns.
LH: I bet, I mean writing is a pretty lonely, lonely exercise I would assume. Well thank you very very much. (AH: Thank you very much). Really appreciate you coming by, thank you.
You've been watching TalkAsia and my guest is Alan Hollinghurst. I'm Lorraine Hahn, let's talk again next week.