Q&A: Joe Dunthorne - HK Literary Festival

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Anna Cummins meets the author of Submarine and Wild Abandon during his appearance at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival
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Welsh author Joe Dunthorne doesn't waste time. He wrote his debut novel, Submarine while studying creative writing in Norwich, swiftly claiming his university's fiction prize before the book was even finished. It was only two years before the book had been swept up and turned into a hit movie of the same name in 2010. Directed by British comic Richard Ayoade, produced by Ben Stiller and with an original soundtrack by the Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner, the offbeat and smart coming-of-age tale about Oliver Tate – a teenager who is trying to save his parents' ailing marriage and lose his virginity to Jordana, the girl of his dreams – was met with critical acclaim. Just like that, Dunthorne was a successful author.

Dunthorne, who has since authored a poetry collection and a 2012 novel Wild Abandon, about a group of people living in a commune in remote Wales, is in Hong Kong to attend the International Literary Festival. We catch up with him to find out why his cameo got cut, his opinion on biscuits, and why it's time to stop writing about Wales.

Hi Joe! What's got you out to Hong Kong?
The British Council organised this, I have them to thank for inviting me. I've wanted to come to this festival for a while because I wanted to see the city but also my cousins live here. I have been to Hong Kong once but that was a stopover on my gap year – I just remember sweating a lot and did that pointing-at-pictures-of-food thing. I was just so confused and naïve.

It's been four years since the movie (Submarine) came out. We're big fans. How many times have you seen it?
I once watched it at home, then maybe about five or six times in the cinema. I don't usually watch it at screenings – I'll probably just have a cup of tea [at the HK screening]. Some of the jokes in it were mine and some were [Ayoade's] – I enjoy his jokes a lot more than I enjoy mine!

So were you precious about your story at all during the scriptwriting?

No – I wanted it to be its own piece of art, separate and distinct, rather than slavishly replicating whatever is in the book. I was glad Richard went somewhere different with it. There was just one scene – it's my favourite in the book – where Oliver takes his dad to the funfair where there are fake electric chair rides. Oliver's read that electric shocks can cure depression and for a moment he thinks he's cured his dad. I can see why they took it out but if I could put anything back it it'd be that. Oh – and they cut my cameo! I was in the opening montage as a drama teacher wearing double denim.  

Submarine did so well as soon as it came out. Do you ever feel annoyed you couldn't be a 'struggling writer'? It's kind of cool.

Authors do rely on their memories of hardship I guess. It would have been good for my source material. I think even Don DeLillo had wilderness years, he did all sorts of labouring jobs. I did work in a morally corrupt call centre in Norwich while I was writing Submarine, calling up vulnerable people and convincing them to bring their debt to us. It was very bad!

You're a writer, but you travel a lot to events like this. Would you prefer to stay at home – does it interrupt your flow?
It does interrupt your flow… but you can't write all day anyway. In theory you could wake up every day in your hotel at 6am, work until 10am, go and enjoy the city and be in bed by 8pm. But in reality you're in an exciting place, so you don't want to. But I still get work done, I try to keep some routine... or at least enough so I don't forget what the novel is about.

You're here to do a screening and Q&A, as well as a talk at a school – all important parts of the job of being a writer nowadays. How difficult does this make it for introverted writers?
If you're an introvert you have to be really fucking good because you can justify yourself just on your prose. You can be a bit shit and a really good speaker and you'll probably do okay as well. There's room for a bit of balance there. There's certainly a pressure and expectation that you should get out there, meet your readers and a lot of authors love that – but of course some despise it.

Both your books Submarine and Wild Abandon are set in Wales where you grew up. But now you live in London – has that changed anything about how you'll approach new writing?
I always thought I'd do two Wales novels and then – maybe not leave it forever, but do something else. I don't feel a duty to it. It's a bit difficult writing about Hong Kong or somewhere you've only visited as – unless you're sufficiently brilliant – you're always going to come across like a tourist.

You studied a creative writing degree and Masters at university. But such courses have attracted criticism for being unnecessary. Can someone really be taught to write creatively?
I'm not going to say it's more useful to do creative writing than history or physics – it is an airy fairy subject! But my theory is it accelerates you through the mistakes you'd otherwise be making. There were obvious, simple things that I was doing terribly wrong. Every day in the undergrad course they'd say 'you don't do dialogue like that, you do it like this' – straightforward, technical things.

You've said in the past you enjoy the humour in damaged characters. Why is that?

On a basic level, an undamaged character is not that good for fiction. I don't know if there are any great novels about happy people. Most of the time, a conflicted character is the best. As for mental suffering I'm drawn to those kind of narratives – The Catcher in the Rye is one of my favourite books. There is some mental illness in my family and you've got no option really other than to process it into something not serious, otherwise it becomes too oppressive.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I'm working on a new novel set in London about a group of friends who are all extending their childhood way beyond the point which you would hope an adult would. It's that kind of babies versus drugs axis and some of them are pairing off, having babies and some of them are losing it. It's my response to eight years in London.

Let's get serious for a moment. What's the best biscuit for curing writers' block?

The Choco Leibnitz dark chocolate. Its tagline is 'more chocolate than a biscuit'. Good stuff.

HKILF Various locations, Oct 31-Nov 9. Tickets: $80-$800; eventbee.com.

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