Joe Dunthorne was born and brought up in Swansea, and is a graduate of the University of East Anglia's Creative Writing MA, where he was awarded the Curtis Brown prize. His poetry has been published in magazines and anthologies and has featured on Channel 4, and BBC Radio 3 and 4. A pamphlet collection, Joe Dunthorne: Faber New Poets 5 was published in 2010.
His first novel, Submarine, the story of a dysfunctional family in Swansea narrated by Oliver Tate, aged 15, was published in 2008, and was made into a film. His new novel, Wild Abandon, was published August 2011.
Joe! Welcome. Grab some snacks, plonk yourself on a beanbag. Make yourself at home. Sum up your new novel for those who haven't got their mitts on it yet. Sell it, sell it, sell it.
I’ve been trying hard to find a one line summation and, after much struggle, I have this: the end of a marriage, the end of a commune, the end of the world.
Put in more expressive terms, it’s about a commune in Wales that splits in to two warring factions as the married couple who started the commune break up. It’s also about the apocalypse. And blood soup.
How long did it take you to write? Did you find it easier, or harder, than writing your first book?
It took three years and, yes, it was way harder than writing my first book. Not just because of the extra pressure, but also because of the technical difficulties in writing a third-person, multi-narrative story with lots of characters. I thought it would be a good idea to challenge myself but I had not through the consequences of that challenge. It was tough, but I feel like a better writer for having got through it. Next time, to make things easier, I’m going to write a first-person novel with no characters, no plot, no words. There, that’s done.
What's your publication story [from writing your first book, through to the book deal]?
I started at twelve, writing text adventure computer games. My first hit was called Depression where the only outcomes were different kinds of suicide. Then, at fifteen, I wrote lyrics for my band, Peanuts Are Bad (named after my allergy.) Then, at seventeen, I wrote soppy poems. Then at twenty-two, I started Submarine. I was lucky enough to win prize at UEA with it and that helped me find an agent who, in turn, helped me find a publisher.
Where do you find yourself writing the most? [In a summer house, chained to a desk, upside down, hanging from the ceiling etc etc?]
I’m either in my kitchen, or in my office, which is a converted Jubilee line train carriage on a roof in east London. You can see it here: http://www.villageunderground.co.uk/workspace It’s a space I share with architects, theatre companies, designers and lots of others. It’s great, but cold in winter. I have to break the ice on the kettle water, some mornings.
I know you were involved quite a lot in the filming of 'Submarine.' Seeing how your book morphed into script, what was left out/what changed for screen – has this process changed how you write now? Has it made you look at aspects of writing in a different way? Did it make you want to do some script writing? [Ok, that was a lot of questions in one go, sorry].
I try not to think about film when I’m writing prose. I concentrate on what work’s best for the reader, and banish all other thoughts. As for scriptwriting, I’m intrigued by the idea but I’m also nervous of giving up so many of my writerly tricks and tools. I’m not sure I could survive without a trusty simile.
You write poetry, too [Joe has a pamphlet out with Faber]. Do you find you have to be in a different frame of mind to write poetry? Does an idea for a poem come to you in a different form than an idea for a piece of prose?
It’s all writing, as I see it. Usually, I write poetry as a form of procrastination from short stories, and short stories as a way to escape a novel I should be writing, and a novel as a way to avoid poetry. So the cycle of life is complete.
There are plenty of skills specific to poetry -- line breaks, rhyme, meter -- but they all feed back in to my prose in some way. Usually, if I have an idea, it’s pretty clear whether it’s destined to be a poem, a story or -- rarely -- a novel.
Where are you at the moment?
I’m in Toronto now at the International Festival of Authors. It’s beautiful. I’m looking out over a huge lake. Yesterday, I went in search of the city’s biggest burger.
Where would most like to do a reading of your work?
Um... in Fiji?
Tell us about the England Writers' Team.
We are, as you might guess, a football team of writers. When I used to play for us regularly, we were notoriously rubbish. Since I’ve left we have gone a winning streak. The Writers’ Team is one of the best reasons to become a writer. [Jen: Perhaps the England Writers' Team should play The Authors Cricket Club. Obviously you should either play football or cricket; you shouldn't have a game where half the players play football, and the other half play cricket. That's just unnecessarily confusing.]
On our book forum, we have The Book Tree, where members post their favourite books to everyone, and everyone writes their own comments inside. If you were to send a book round The Book Tree, which would you pick and why?
White Noise -- by Don De Lillo. It has the best set-piece in all literature: a sixty-page scene that follows a family’s evacuation from their town following a chemical spill. The chapter’s called Toxic Airborne Event. There’s a band named after it, I noticed. As the different possible side-effects of exposure to the chemical are announced on the radio, the children in the back seat of the car pretend to have each new symptom in turn. It’s funny, clever, surprising and serious.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
Poems! I’m having a break from prose to get back to my poetry. It feels good.