Joe Dunthorne is proof that you can be creative whilst being a charming, socially-adjusted human being.
Stereotypically writers are either social pariahs (think Nicholas Cage in Adaptation) or hell raisers who can justify spending three days in a heroin-induced coma because they’re, like, tortured artists. Yet Dunthorne shows no tendency towards either introversion or excess. He is a funny, chilled out 27-year-old who happens to get his kicks through writing.
The Swansea-export had his first novel Submarine – a story about the curious world of 15 year-old Oliver Tate – published by Penguin last year. The book won him rave reviews and – as a cherry upon his success cake – the £7,500 Curtis Brown prize for literature. Dunthorne also pens poetry, runs a literary night called Homework and plays up front for the English Writer’s Club – a football team that goes on ‘weirdly paid for international trips to play other international writing teams.’
Delightfully, Joe Dunthorne’s operational headquarters are a tube on top of a building just off Great Eastern Street. After poking around in three decoy carriages, I – like a Nancy Drew of the sky – found him in the uppermost tube, working on his second novel.
Do you think it affects the creative process to be writing from inside a tube?
(Laughs) ‘Yeah, every space affects the creative process. I find it good to be in a place where other people are doing work (there are others slaving in this tube). Apart from that, it’s not that much different from a normal place of work once the novelty has worn off. I suppose it’s a bit more fun to show people.’
When did you first start writing?
‘I began writing when I was 10 or 11 – not stories but computer games because I was a geek. Although I had no experience of it, the first thing I remember writing was a text game about being depressed and, basically, the only possible outcomes were different types of suicide. The game was about which way you wanted to do it.
‘Then I wrote stuff for the band I was in because my mate Dave wouldn’t do the lyrics. The first proper writing was probably when I was 16 and had just broken up with my girlfriend which made it time for some bad emo poetry. Then, from about 17, I wrote short stories and realised that I really liked it, but I didn’t think about it as something I wanted to become until I got to university.’
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
‘I do have some tips, yes, if I can patronise the aspiring writers a little bit. I think you should read widely, and read outside of your safe reading zone – which in my case is male American fiction – read essays, old stuff, new stuff, read lots of different genres. Writing wise, I think it’s just practice, which is a dull thing to say but if you leave something for a long time there’s a real pressure for it to be good, but if you write tons and then you throw away 90% then that’s fine. I don’t believe in writer’s block, I think that that’s an excuse.’
You’re kind of living the dream being a 27-year-old man and a published author. Are you taking it in your stride or are you fazed at all?
‘I’m more self-conscious now than I would have been previously and I’m more anxious about the second book’s reception. You think, “I had such good reviews but will they like this one as well?”, all these crappy, rather distracting things that you would rather not think about are suddenly there but, apart from that, I’m taking it in my stride! I’m enjoying it and feeling really lucky and chuffed.’
What’s your new book about?
‘It’s about a family who set up a big commune in the mid-Eighties with friends and it starts off with certain aims. Then it grows a bit and they have kids and it changes into something else and eventually disintegrates. It’s good to use a commune in fiction because it’s a hothouse of social interaction. There’s also utopianism in it and people striving for good things which is a good thing to play with in a novel.’
You’ve been compared to JD Salinger and Oliver Tate, the protagonist in Submarine, has been compared to Adrian Mole. Would you say you fit into the fine literary tradition of disaffected young men?
‘I don’t know about that. I’m complimented by that but apart from them all being about a weird kids I don’t really see the link although I love Salinger and would be very happy to be compared to him forever.’
Writers notoriously do antisocial things like smoke opium and marrying their cousins. Do you have any scandalous crutches?
‘I do like to get wasted sometimes but not in a laudanum crack den way more in a weekend hedonist way. I don’t like to have my weekdays meddled with too much. I need to have clear head when I write. If I get pissed all higher functions in my brain shut down. I don’t have any really scandalous crutches, I’m sorry!’