“Mystery Comes Through Clarity”: An Interview With Rupert Thomson

Rupert Thomson © Alan Pryke

I’ve been an admirer of Rupert Thomson‘s work for many years now, ever since reading his 2007 novel Death of a Murderer. Thomson’s work encompasses psychological realism and surreal dystopias; there’s fiction rooted in history and fiction exploring the emotional consequences of technology. His latest novel, Katherine Carlyle, is about a young woman coming to terms with the death of her mother and her own family history. It’s a sprawling, emotionally rich work, and we spoke at length about it during Thomson’s recent visit to New York.

In 2013, around the time of Secrecy, there was an interview in the National Post where you mentioned you were doing research in Norway for a book, and you described it as “a very loose sequel to Frankenstein“. Is that how Katherine Carlyle began?

No, no. Not at all. I didn’t even begin with IVF. It began with the idea of a young woman who sort of felt unreal to herself, felt as if she didn’t exist. And then that notion became much more concrete when I had the idea that she was an IVF baby who had been frozen, and this kind of conceit that she’d been abandoned for eight years. Like a kind of metaphor that she could apply to her life as it was being lived in the present.

I began with that. It was only during the writing that I began to think of parallels with Frankenstein which was a book I hadn’t read. So then I went and read it and I realized as I read it that it’s really a book about children and parents. The creature wants to be acknowledged by his creator, acknowledged and then possibly even loved. And everything that goes wrong in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is because that love is withheld. And that kind of applies to Katherine Carlyle as well. Everything she does is a result of withholding as she sees it, the withholding of her father’s love.

So I saw parallels. You know, there was the same sense of abandonment in both books. There was the same sense of longing. There was the same sense of being driven to extremes as a result of both those things. And of course there’s the whole scientific aspect of it as well. When I went into the world of IVF, which is something I did myself with my then-girlfriend, I felt fairly confident and care-free at the beginning. But the longer the process went on the more I began to feel apprehensive and the more I began to feel that I was doing something quite unnatural and extreme. She was diagnosed in the early stages of the fertility treatment with something called ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome. I had to weigh her. There was this night where I had to weigh her every single hour because her ovaries had overreacted to the drugs she’d been given and there were too many egg sacks being created. The danger was that too much fluid would build up inside her body and she would die. She survived the night, but it was at that point where I really began to feel as if, as I say, we were doing something unnatural and extreme. And I know it’s a common process; lots of people do it. But my own feeling was a kind of suspicion of the science. And then when you take that further, because it didn’t work the first time around and we had six embryos that were frozen so the two that were implanted the first time didn’t work – there were six left – they thawed three and planted those.

And this was at the point at which my disbelief could hardly be suspended any longer because I thought of . . . you know, you have something as delicate as a five-day-old embryo which is frozen at, well in American -321 Fahrenheit in liquid nitrogen. And then you keep it there and you thaw it and you implant it. And it seemed like the process was so traumatic. How could something that delicate survive?

The science, even though this has been going on a couple of decades, the science is still, in a way, as I say in the book, actually in its infancy. There really isn’t any definitive research, so I began to think then about the physical first of all and then the psychological consequences of being put through that. You know, would they manifest themselves later in the life of that child?

Katherine applies that sense of herself extending back to that period, but there’s also a moment with her mother’s ashes where she’s ascribing personality traits to them as well. I feel like that’s something that also runs through it the book.

When the book began, in the first draft, the prologue was actually at the end, and it was longer. And I kind of anthropomorphized the embryo. I mean I’d given it a voice so it was Katherine Carlyle kind of speaking from inside the womb. Which was kind of an interesting fictional idea, but one I eventually turned my back on because I felt as if – it’s almost like I was worried about the right-wing right-to-life people. I thought this probably wouldn’t happen in the UK, but in the US I suddenly imagined all the right-to-life people jumping on my book as a kind of justification of their agenda, and really they were the last people I wanted on my side.

And my publisher, my editor, also felt that it was unnecessary to give the embryo a voice. So now what you have is Katherine simply giving you facts she either could have been told by her parents, or she could’ve researched herself online.

She is 19 when the book opens, and the embryo had been frozen for eight years. Did you have to do research into whether the technology was different at that time, or is it something where it has stayed the same?

It hasn’t changed that much. The kind of rules and regulations that surround it have changed. The legislation has changed. So for instance I say in the book in the UK a frozen embryo is given a ten-year shelf life and then it’s disposed of. That has changed. Obviously, the book is rooted in my personal experience, even though I didn’t realize that when I was beginning. Perhaps it was too under my nose to even see.

The other thing that I remember very early on was reading something in the newspaper about the birth of someone in Barcelona, a young – I don’t know whether it was a girl or boy, but a baby had been born after having been frozen for 13 years and this baby was born in the early 2000s.

And the article kind of explored that slippage of time between the embryos that had been implanted at the time they were created and the embryo that had waited 13 years to be implanted and then born. So the notion that the child that was born later had siblings who should’ve been the same age but were now 13 years older. The idea that she or he had missed 13 years of their lives. And that really struck me, that seemed like a fascinating idea to play with.


To return to the Frankenstein thing, both of these are books that end in the cold, near the Arctic. Did you have that aspect of the book planned from the outset?

From the outset. Again, I didn’t realize this at the beginning. I was working intuitively as I always do at the outset. But it was clear that her agenda was to move from the hot to the cold, from safety into danger, both those things running parallel. And I had it in mind that she was probably subconsciously trying to return to the place where she began. And it was only later that I discovered there are conditions. Well, for instance, there’s something called repetition compulsion. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of that.

I haven’t.

Where you feel you have to recreate the conditions of your trauma. So the example that I came across ten years ago or whatever it was was a kind of Midnight Express-type story where a British man had been arrested on a drugs charge in Turkey, trying to leave Turkey. He’d been imprisoned there for twelve years and then released. And he got back to the UK but he couldn’t acclimatize. He couldn’t fit back in.

So what he ended up doing was flying back to Turkey and renting an apartment within sight of the prison where he’d been held for 12 years. The idea being that that proximity . . . I don’t think even he would’ve rationalized it to himself. It was just something he felt compelled to do. But the logic behind that would be the proximity would somehow allow yourself to work through the trauma and it wouldn’t be something he could do from a distance.

So this is also one of the things I think that Katherine is doing in the book. Getting as close as she can to the conditions of that original trauma as she perceives it would allow her to break the spell and develop.

Have you been to that same general area?

I did. I wrote the book probably seven or eight times from beginning-to-end before I did that. I have this theory about imagined facts as opposed to real facts and imagined facts are obviously the ones I come up with. And they must take precedence over the other ones. You know, I’ve never understood people – writers – who do all the research up front because then you’re deluged in the real facts and the imagined facts don’t have enough room to breathe. They’re kind of suffocated right at the beginning.

So I do as much work as I possibly can with very little knowledge. And the curious thing about this is that when I do visit those places I nearly always find that the places are pretty much as I imagined them. But what I still get are the one or two extraordinary details that I couldn’t have imagined. And it always proves the point to me about the battle between the two different kinds of facts, because for instance I spent a week with my brother who speaks Russian taking trains going from Moscow due north, ending up on the White Sea. But we stopped halfway at a place called Cherepovets, which had featured in the book in early drafts. A nice place no one ever goes.

It’s a steel town. It’s home to the biggest steel plant. It’s mentioned in the book that she never goes there. So it’s home to the biggest steel plant in Russia. It’s one of the most polluted cities in the world. I mean, I’m drawn to places like that. There was this wonderful moment where we took an overnight train from Moscow. We arrived in Cherepovets just after dawn. It was pouring rain and we got into a bus outside the railway station, a bus that would take us into the center. And the bus conductor was an old woman with this long cardigan and long fingernails and she’d converted part of the bus into her own private living room. She had a bit of carpet; she had her cigarettes; she had a cup of tea or coffee. That’s sort of where she lived.

And my brother leaned across and said to her “You get many tourists here?” She just started laughing which then turned into a terrible smoker’s cough. But it was that kind of place. So extraordinarily atmospheric and wonderful to write about, and I wrote about 25 pages of Katherine in that town. But subsequently looking at the book I realized that the whole thing sank at that point. The book may be a kind of road movie, but I never wanted it to feel like a travelogue. The psychological details, if you like, the psychological narrative had to take precedence over the physical one. So once again these real facts were flooding in and they were all exotic and extraordinary and they had to be resisted. But yeah, I went to both places.

I found myself Googling the name of the town that in your novel, and the second or third result was Google Books from your novel. And I thought, oh, maybe this is somewhat fictionalized.

The reason I changed the name was also because I used some of the things that happened there in the book. Because I’m sort of like a method writer when I do research. So I travel not as myself but as the character. So the things that happened to me, even though I’m a 59-year-old man and she’s a 19-year-old woman, somehow I am her rather than me. And what happens to me is happening to her, so I feel like I can use it.

For instance, the two young women who take her up to see the old abandoned mine, that kind of happened. A version of that happened. As did the meeting with the doctor in the Russian mining community. You know, the doctor who talks about the bad water. That’s all true. So the doctor is no longer there but I kind of thought I should just create a little bit of distance by changing the name.

Where did the idea to have Katherine’s father be a war correspondent come from?

He was, right at the beginning, curiously enough. Again, in the first draft it’s 100% intuitive. I guess what I needed to do was choose someone that had a profession that would take them away for long periods. And I think that was simply the first thing I thought of. And then it was – what happened was curious, because there’s that moment where Katherine goes to see the screening of a movie and this is the important moment for her which changes her life.

I chose The Passenger, Antonioni’s movie, kind of out of the blue without really thinking simply because it seemed like a movie that would… I mean David Carlyle, Katherine’s father, is probably about my age. Maybe a little bit younger. But The Passenger would’ve been the kind of art movie he would’ve seen when he was at college or if he was interested in films.

So I needed a movie. I needed a movie screening, so I just chose that randomly. Then the movie became more and more pertinent. I just hadn’t realized, for instance, that the movie is all about a foreign correspondent. Jack Nicholson is a foreign correspondent, so like David Carlyle but even better for being tne of his favorite movies. But not only that, you start getting these . . . it became a bit like Frankenstein where I started seeing all these extraordinary parallels between the two. Where, for instance, Jack Nicholson . . . have you seen the movie?


So you know there’s that bit where he takes on the identity of the dead man. He escapes his own life and into another one, not realizing that the guy’s an arms dealer and that he has actually put himself in jeopardy by taking that identity. I mean Katherine’s sort of doing the same thing.

Her father looms so large, but so much of what we’re getting are scenes where she’s imagining how he will react. He remains remote even though he’s in a lot of it because we’re getting this slightly imagined version of him.

This is why it had to be told in the first person. The voice came so naturally to me from the beginning that I was suspicious of it. I’m always suspicious of things that come too easily. And so in the third draft I pushed the whole book into the third person just to push Katherine away a little bit and see if that felt more authentic. Or, well, see what it felt like. It was a fiasco almost from page one. It didn’t work. But I forced myself to continue and I sort of discovered some things through that process.

But the main thing that didn’t work was the father, the father narrative, because in the first person you can slip almost seamlessly between the two narratives, between what Katherine is doing and what she thinks her father’s doing. And the first person, especially first person present tense allows you to do that. Third person it became an awkward – it became like a device.

And I wanted the father narrative to feel as real as hers, if not more real, so that the reader would believe it, and then catch themselves on as they say in Northern Ireland. They would catch themselves on and realize suddenly wait a minute, this is just what Katherine is saying. What’s he really doing? And of course her imaginary version of her father cracked open right towards the end where you have this vision of him devastated and in tears.

And if you do stop for a moment as the reader you realize wait a minute, this is a man who’s already mourning the premature death of his wife. So he’s already lost a wife, and now he’s lost a daughter as well. He’s lost everyone. The man will be in pieces if he’s a human being at all.

But you see that was one of the things that fascinated me, because looking at the whole situation from inside a rather self-absorbed 19-year-old, which is how young people often are, I think it’s a really interesting book for young people to read. But someone said to me the other day this is a book for young people. And I said “Well yes, but it’s actually also a book for parents.” I mean anyone who has children as well, because it’s the child looking at the parent rather unforgivingly.

You had a memoir come out a few years ago in the U.K. Has that had any effect on your fiction that followed?

I could certainly reverse that and say that Death of a Murderer, which is the novel that preceded the memoir, felt like an apprenticeship for the memoir. Because if you read Death of a Murderer that book is a sort of mosaic of memories. It’s someone in the course of one night looking back over their life with a certain agenda which dictates the kind of memories that are coming to him.

So when it came to write the memoir I felt like I’d learned a lot about structure, how I might structure a memoir. Because originally when I started the memoir I thought it would be simply about one crazy summer where three brothers move back into the house with their dead father and it’s chaotic. It’s anarchic. Everything goes wrong where people don’t know what we’re doing.

And that simple narrative that I thought I was going to be able to tell just wasn’t a book. It almost began to turn into something else as it was being worked on. I think I sort of learned a kind of seamlessness, because the kinds of books that I find really difficult, and I’ve written one myself, find difficult to read I mean, are those books that cut back-and-forth between two separate stories, so alternate chapters. Because I find it almost impossible to be equally interested in both narratives. I mean Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa’s book, that novel is like that. My second novel, The Five Gates of Hell is like that. I think it’s a really unsatisfactory form, or rather perhaps it’s the ultimate test of a fiction writer to make those two work.

But in a sense Katherine Carlyle’s sort of an advanced version of that kind of narrative because you are reading between the two. The two had to be so wrapped up with each other that the reader wouldn’t really start distinguishing between the two narratives. So maybe I learned that. Maybe that’s a lesson I took forward.

From Secrecy to Katherine Carlyle, you’ve gone from a book set several centuries ago to a book that is set very much in the present day, that very much deals with the sort of emotional familial repercussions of technology. Was there a conscious movement from one project to a very different one?

Critics always accuse me of doing this deliberately. You know, if I have a reputation – well one of the things I’m known for is for writing a different book every time. I remember once someone saying . . . it was my third novel. They said “Following the Five Gates of Hell with Air and Fire is like Scorsese following Goodfellas with The Age of Innocence.” You know, it’s like Scorsese in the sense that you never know what to expect next. I mean there’s a bit more consistency with Scorsese I’d say.

But I do have this reputation and I’ve been compared to an extraordinary range of writers. You know, everything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Kafka to Elmore Leonard. And all that says in the end really to me is I’m not really like anybody else at all.

But if you look at the books, and I try not to look back to much, you know I love what Werner Herzog says: “I’m not interested in themes. I’m interested in stories.” And it’s kind of dangerous to look back and start to identify what your themes might be. I sort of think that’s for other people to do. But I have sometimes been asked about that and I’ve sometimes volunteered a couple of responses. I think the books have much more in common than they appear to have, or than critics deem them to have.

And you know one of the things I’ve identified is trauma. And a kind of convalescence, the idea that . . . because Zummo in Secrecy is both fleeing and coming to terms with the trauma that happened at the age of 19. That only just occurred to me. But that’s real. That’s a historical event that actually happened. He’s a real character.

So you know I don’t make conscious choices. I simply go to the next thing and hope that it’s going to provide a sufficient challenge. I mean I want to be challenged and I want to feel at a certain point in the writing of a book that what I’ve taken on is impossible because if I don’t feel that I’m sort of working within my limits as it were. I’m not pushing the boundaries. For instance, the book I’m doing now I’ve just finished the third draft of it and oddly enough it relates to Secrecy in the sense that it’s a kind of…  I’m not going to say too much about it, but it relates to Katherine Carlyle insofar as I’m writing as a woman again in the first person although this time it’s a 79-year-old lesbian who is a real person.


The other similarity with Secrecy though is the fact that she’s an artist, an obscure artist, and kind of I suppose an artist with a secret as well to some extent. But it’s a real challenge because even more than in Secrecy I’m dealing with these lives that have been documented. So where is the fiction? Where does the fiction fit in? The fiction is in the gaps.

There’s something Hilary Mantel said about that that was really good. She said sort of in relation to Wolf Hall and that trilogy, she said something like fiction is dealing with everything that is not on the historical record. It’s dealing with the dreams, the nightmares, the thoughts, the fears, all those things. And that’s what I’ve discovered in writing this new one is all the really interesting stuff is taking place behind closed doors with just two people and it’s the stuff that’s off-the-record.

A couple of years ago I went to an event that James Elroy was throwing for one of his books, and he mentioned he has this incredibly dense record of everything historical that happened in a certain place, in a certain time.

He’s exhaustive isn’t he? Yeah.

He was arguing that he needed that, because then once he had that very set pattern he could do whatever else he wanted as long as it fit within that.

Because he does take liberties, doesn’t he, with historical facts. Well, perhaps not despite knowing everything; because he knows everything. I feel the same in the sense that with a book like Secrecy I felt I had to know as much as I possibly could. And some irritating things happened. You know, because I’ve already suggested I leave the research to quite late. And so there was a moment with Secrecy where I think about the seventh or eighth draft I suddenly discovered that there was some evidence that Zummo’s mother was with him the entire time in Florence. Well, not the entire time, but certainly for part of the time.

I had written . . . this affected all kinds of things. For instance how could Zummo’s lover come to his house where he lives if he lives with his mother? That’s automatically going to make it much more difficult. What do I do with his mother? And yet I didn’t feel I could cheat the reader by pretending I hadn’t found that out. Once I knew it I had to accommodate it. And actually, it forced me to do something that made the book so much deeper and richer than it was before. So I always think those irritations can turn into something extraordinary. You know, you almost need them.

When you were working on Secrecy, did you have a sense that you wanted to address the questions that would be in Katherine Carlyle next?

No. I never know where I’m going. Wim Wenders said… I don’t know why I’m quoting German film directors today, but I seem to be. But he says writing a screenplay is like flying blind without instruments, and that is exactly what it feels like. And there’s something exhilarating about writing into your own ignorance. To quote another person, there’s that wonderful W.H. Auden thing that someone asked him is it true that you can only write what you know? And his answer was “Yes, but you don’t know what you know until you write it.”

So both those two things apply to me directly, to my process, because no I never know where I’m going and I don’t know where I’m going to end and the journey is always into the dark it feels like. And I have umpteen analogies for that. So it’s always a journey of discovery and it’s almost as if I’m discovering what it is that I’m interested in each time. And I don’t even really find out what that is until afterwards when I look back. You know, at times like this when the book is a year old. You begin to look back and you begin to think yeah, that’s what it was and that’s how it fits into the life’s work as well.

To come back to this, from the first moment in which the reader encounters her, Katherine Carlyle is both very determined but is also, for much the novel, withholding certain pieces of information in terms of what she’s doing, in terms of living this life of just complete randomness when we first meet her.

Withholding from herself in a way as well as necessarily the reader.

How do you write a narrator who is not necessarily – not even unreliable, but just . . .

This is what’s paradoxical about that, because she’s both reliable and unreliable at the same time. I mean she’s reliable in the sense that she’s giving you her agenda as accurately as she can and she’s only telling you what happens. But I mean the rest of what she’s doing is completely unreliable. How do I write that?

During the writing, it had absolute logic all the way along. Some people have used words about her, like someone said the other day she was unsympathetic. I found that quite hard to get my head around because I had written that from the inside-out. I think perhaps if you were looking at her from the outside as a character doing the things she does she might seem unsympathetic. But given that you’re inside looking out and you’re understanding why she’s doing what she’s doing, I don’t see where that comes in. Because yes, she’s tough on people but you know why she’s being tough on them. So that doesn’t apply.

So in a sense it was a very homogeneous vision, you know? It was very clear. I’ve got this theory that mystery comes through clarity and not the other way around, so the more direct and the more simple and the more concise your prose is the more mystery you can actually create. And her voice is like that, you know? There’s no obfuscation. There’s no obscurity about what she’s telling you. She’s telling you fairly straight.

One of the other things I picked up when I was doing research was that you had lived in Berlin for a while. Did any of that find itself in to the sections set in Germany?

Well, the Berlin I lived in was a very different one because I lived there in ’83, ’84, so before the wall came down. It was a very different Berlin. The Berlin that I used in this book is the Berlin I visited in 2007 or 2008 because I wrote the first draft of Katherine Carlyle in 2006 and then put it on one side but was still thinking I should start doing a little bit of research for it. And I thought I hadn’t been to Berlin for 20 years. And I have a friend who lives there.

This friend is a kind of international man of mystery. I don’t really know what he does. He was in finance but he doesn’t seem to be anymore. He sometimes writes history books. He builds houses on the edge of Morocco – on the edge of Marrakech. I have no idea really what he does, but he has this penthouse apartment just off of Kudamm in Berlin. So actually, once I saw it for the first time, I thought this is the perfect place for Klaus Frings to live. So I asked my friend, I said “I think I’m going to have to use your apartment.” He said “That’s fine.” So the apartment in the book is his.

And that week I spent in Berlin I did all the things I needed to do which is still in the book now. I went to the Kempinski Hotel. I found a restaurant that the Croatian gangster would take Katherine to. I found the kind of area where the American, Cheadle, would be living. So I researched locations mainly.

There’s the scene where Oswald is going on about his theory of who Jesus actually was. That was just such an amazingly eccentric moment…

I’m aware it’s an eccentric moment; I was wondering if I should take that out. But funny enough, no one ever said that when they looked at it. No one picked up on it. You’re the first person really to do that, which makes me happy, because I’ve always thought – that was there at the beginning, and I thought to put that in because I wanted him to say something kind of extraordinary. I wanted him to be interesting, Oswald, not just the kind of young man who’s a bit besotted.

So that idea, that was going to be a whole novel once upon a time. I’ve had that idea for quite a long time. And I put it into his mouth because I’m not sure I’m ever going to write that novel. But yeah, it was going to be my Jesus novel.

I worked backwards as well with that because I gave him the tattoo afterwards. The tattoo that religion is a lie.

There’s one point in the book where Katherine says “I’m not a tourist.” Almost every character in the novel is someone who is sort of traveling in a different country from where they’re originally from. How did you organize all of these different characters’ different reasons for traveling?

She does come across some kind of peripatetic people. I mean Cheadle is like that. But, you know, for every Cheadle there’s a Klaus. And you have Yevgeny, the old guy, who’s traveling within his own country, but you’ve got Axelsen, the sea captain who’s Norwegian and doing a job in Norway. And obviously you’ve got all the people in the Russian mining settlement who belong. Well, I guess none of them belong there you might say.

Was there an underlying logic to that, for you?

This is probably something deeply autobiographical, you know, because I’ve always felt more comfortable outside my own country. I’m one of those people who starts to breathe sort of more deeply as soon as I leave the white cliffs of Dover behind me. That’s a good moment.

If you turn that around, we lived in Barcelona for six years and for various reasons in 2010 we had to come back to London. I’d sort of done London. I’d done my time. And coming back in 2010 with my daughter, age ten, it felt as if I was being given a prison sentence of eight years because we would have to be there until she was 18 and went to college.

So I’ve served five of my eight years, but there’s three to go, and I don’t get out for good behavior. But yeah, that sort of slightly abstract way of answering the question . . . I don’t know. I’ve been that person in my life a lot. I’ve lived in a lot of different places.

You had mentioned a while back there was this scene you had sort of cut when you felt the book was beginning to feel too travelogue-y. Are there ever elements or scenes or places that might be edited out of one book, that end up sort of in an altered form working their way into a different project? Or are they all sort of very sealed-off?

No. Because you feel like you should somehow use everything that you have. No, for instance, the memoir is a good example of that because in a similar way to Katherine Carlyle, I felt at a certain point with the memoir that it was… It starts as one thing and changes into something else in a way that I hadn’t expected that it would. It changes from an account of something into a quest of something, and into a reunion, this reunion with my brother after 23 years. But there were other reunions in the book as well because the book jumps about over a period of 40 years and also all over the world despite the fact it’s quite a slim book. There’s sort of a lot going on.

And I felt there was this other reunion with my half-brother who I also hadn’t seen for quite a while and he was in Switzerland. His story, he had quite an extraordinary story. But I felt the book was getting reunion heavy. You can’t have too many reunions, otherwise you’re taking away from the one that really matters. I removed that whole chapter in its entirety, like 6,000 words or something. 5,000 or 6,000 words.

And there was really nothing I could do with that except put it in The Guardian as a piece on its own. And I’m trying to think if I’ve ever used off-cuts from one novel into another, and I’m not sure I have, because perhaps the books are different enough that nothing really fits. It would only fit in an abstract way, not a particular way.

Is there a place or a setting or time that you know you’ve wanted to use in a novel but haven’t?

Yes. 1970s New York actually is one of them,because I was here in ’76 for the first time and then I was here again in ’78 and ’79. And I remember the city was feral back then and electric. It was the most exciting place I’d ever been and one of the most exciting places I’ve ever been. It’s not like that now. It feels much more like a theme park. It’s safe. It’s quite tame, quite benign.

In fact I remember the moment when it shifted between London and New York, because London used to be the safe place, and then suddenly New York became safe and London became more dangerous than New York. London took over. And I think I was here in New York at the moment of change. It was Giuliani and it was 1984 or ’85 and that was when I lived here for about a year and it was happening. 42nd Street had sort of been closed down. I was working in Brynt Park. I was working for the Strand Bookstore, so I kind of actually saw it happening. I was on the street all day long. I could see it happening.

It was sad, but it made me glad I knew the previous version and I had seen that. There’s something about ‘70s America as well. You could go wider than New York. All that dirty realism that happened. You know, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, or Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets, those kinds of books are books I love, and movies like Drugstore Cowboy. You know, all those things being set in that time period. So I’ve got a franchise idea at the moment. I mean a series of novellas. I’ve written the first version of the first one already. The first one is set in Shanghai now. But I’m thinking of setting the second one in the ‘70s, somewhere in the ‘70s in America. I’m not sure where yet. Not necessarily New York. So I think I might finally have found a way of using that particular time period.

Photo: Alan Pryke

This conversation has been edited for length.

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