Turning more specifically to Slam, where and how did the seedlings of this story and this narrator first germinate?
It grew out of seeing a teen couple who were parents near where I live. The fact that it wasn’t just the teenage mum of urban legend—that there was a boy there as well—kind of took me by surprise. I thought, He’s not supposed to be here; it’s supposed to be the single teenage mum. So I started thinking about him.
Is this how you typically start on a larger narrative? Does it start with a situation that takes hold of your imagination?
Yeah, pretty much. I think that all my books have started with a situation, some kind of fragment of narrative. Sometimes I can sense that there’s something to it that might develop into something more, and other times it’s just what it is and there’s nothing you can do with it.
Sam, your narrator, is 16. Did you treat him differently as a narrator because he was an adolescent? Were there particular challenges to writing from his point of view?
I don’t think there are particular challenges. I think the moment that you’re writing fiction that’s not about yourself or someone extremely like you then the challenges are the same. In my last novel, there were narrators who were not like me. There were four narrators, and some of their predicaments I sympathized with very strongly, but they weren’t me. The moment you’re using a frame of reference that’s not your own, then it’s hard work, whatever it is.
Did you find it difficult not to want to make your teenage character “do the right thing” under harsh circumstances because you knew that adolescents were going to be reading it?
Like I’m sucking up to them—
Or that there should be a lesson or a moral.
Oh, no. Absolutely not. If a kid read Slam and decided that he didn’t particularly want a baby at age 16, I wouldn’t think that was a bad thing, but that wasn’t the intention of writing the book. In all the books, I’m looking for situations where ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives get bent out of shape by something quite momentous. And having a baby seemed like a pretty momentous thing to me. Obviously, it’s not the same when you’re 35, but when you’re 16, it’s really a big deal. And it’s happening to a lot of kids. I was kind of surprised as I was reading up on the subject by just how many it’s happening to.
A character’s doing the right thing is more about my investment in him—about my willingness to spend time with him over the course of 18 months, or however long it takes me to write a novel. I really don’t want to write about somebody who’s irredeemable. That may well be a weakness in me as a person, but it’s the only way I can get by with a book.
Your novels certainly do have an element of redemption.
For me, it’s really important. I think there are plenty of people writing books where there is no redemption at all. That seems to be another job that contemporary fiction has taken upon itself—to deny people all hope. I find that tough, actually. People work hard, and their lives are difficult enough as it is without being told by some guy who sits around doing nothing all day that there is no hope for any of us.
Something that seems unique and that is very inviting in this novel is its narrator’s voice. Here’s an example: “[Y]ou don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes or whatever to work out that Alicia was a girl who meant something me. I’m glad there are things you don’t know and can’t guess, weird things, things that have only ever happened to me in the whole history of the world, as far as I know. If you were able to guess it all from that first little paragraph, I’d start to worry that I wasn’t an incredibly complicated and interesting person, ha ha.” How do you go about establishing a narrator’s voice? And do you need to establish that voice before you can write anything?
That’s the biggest thing for me. I suppose I’ve come to think that I don’t really write fiction. I write extended monologues that are probably meant to be spoken aloud. I do think of myself as addressing my readers directly through my characters in a spoken voice. But that absolutely depends on being able to hear that voice. All the work that goes into the books before I begin them is kind of waiting for that voice to emerge and speak properly and clearly.
You say that it’s a voice that addresses the reader. Even from this statement, one gets the sense that there’s a certain kinship between the narrator and the reader—that there’s someone that Sam is speaking to.
High Fidelity in some ways had that, I think.
Who is this audience?
I think I do construct an ideal reader or listener. I always seem to think that I’m addressing some quite smart woman in her 30s. I don’t know why.
Even for this young-adult book?
Although you don’t write strictly from the male point of view in all of your books, you’ve garnered a reputation as a writer who can write about the intimate details of the male heart, and its occasional dysfunctions. Do you see Slam as an extension of this subject matter?
It was a little bit like when I wrote High Fidelity. I wanted to write the domestic novel from a male perspective, because I enjoy reading those—especially Anne Tyler. I wanted to write the male Anne Tyler book, and the music stuff came right at the last minute for me. When I was looking around for a job for him, I thought, Well, I care and know about music; he can work in a record store. It was really the last decision. The point of the book, or why I wanted to write it, was to write about the relationship. I didn’t know about the young-adult thing, but when I’d been in a bookstore and had seen all the books, there seemed to be lots of books aimed at girls by women authors. And not so many books for boys by male authors.
In the 2001 interview, “About a Man,” London Times writer Robert Crampton wrote about how your writing followed the trajectory of your own life, beginning with yourself as a young man obsessed with football, then on to someone in a relationship nearing marriage, then about childrearing in About a Boy. I’m not so interested in whether or not the trajectory is true—
Whether I’m going backwards…
Ha. Right. But I am interested in why you think people always ask that question. Why is everyone so interested in speculating about where a novelist’s life and a novelist’s fiction intersect?
I suppose in my dark moments I think it’s an attempt to reduce it somehow, to make it seem less mysterious, and that we could all do it if we could just be bothered. I think there isn’t as much to say about fiction as it’s written.
About the thing itself—
I mean one of the reasons I really love writing my Believer column is that sometimes I only want to say that something was really good and I really enjoyed it. But, of course, you can’t do that if you’re writing about books, because you need to find the other 900 or 1,448 words as well. I do a lot of interviews, and they’re not all like this, where the interviewer is thoughtful and has read the books carefully. The easiest thing to ask is, Why did you write this? Is it because blah, blah, blah?
Maybe the question is supposed to make the story more interesting?
But I think the end result is really reductive. And I never know on what level the person is asking the question. If they’re asking about the autobiography behind the story, I might start to answer thoughtfully, but then they say something like, But which record store did you work in? And I say, Well, I didn’t work in a record store. And I start to get irritated with the literal-mindedness of the questions.