An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with David Szalay
Columnist Anna Roins
All That Man Is
by David Szalay
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David Szalay, (pronounced SOL-loy), Granta’s Best Young British Novelist in 2013, is neither sentimental about male desire nor male failure in his latest book about the crisis of the European man, All That Man Is: A Novel (Graywolf Press, 4 October 2016).
He was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize this year.
|“. . . I was probably experiencing such a transition myself when I wrote it.”|
AUTHORLINK: Mr Szalay, your book is amazing, your portrait of man in crisis a triumph, your writing judgment-free. What a genius observer of human nature you are. Congratulations on being nominated for the Man Booker this year; what an achievement. Men seem to have been in crisis’ at some time or another all throughout history, yet in your hands, the topic is revitalized. Were you going through a transitional phase when you were writing this book? Your own ‘crisis’?
SZALAY: I wouldn’t say I was going through a crisis at the time when I was writing the book. I was certainly going through what you might call a transitional phase. I had to some extent lost interest in writing a ‘conventional’ novel. I tried my hand, without notable success, at writing poetry. And during the four years or so that I was working on “All That Man Is”, both my children were born, and I turned forty – things which may or may not be connected with a sharpening preoccupation with time and mortality that I was experiencing, and that I think finds expression in the book. In a sense the book is a series of transitions, from each section and character to the next, and I think that, yes, I was probably experiencing such a transition myself when I wrote it.
|“My decision to make all the protagonists of the book male goes back to my desire to have them sort of aggregate into a single composite protagonist, living in a sense a single life . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: Understandable. All That Man Is consists of nine largely melancholy narrative segments, with the central character in each segment five to ten years older than the previous one. The notion of the Three Ages of [European] Man emerges throughout. As varied as they are, the nine characters create a type of single composite protagonist. This is one of the main reasons why you regard the book as a novel and not as a collection of short stories. Why do you think there’s been such rousing debate about whether it’s a novel or a collection of stories, and why does it matter exactly?
SZALAY: As you say, I am adamant that the book is not a collection of stories – the segments of the book were not conceived separately and independently, they were written specifically to fit into their places in a structure that was already laid down – it would not be possible to change the order in which they are presented, for instance – and they have a thematic and tonal unity which, I think, fuses them together into a single indivisible work. Whether that work can be called a ‘novel’ is of course a slightly different question. I am not going to deny that it lacks some of the defining characteristics of the form: such as some sort of narrative continuity and single group of characters who are developed throughout. My decision to make all the protagonists of the book male goes back to my desire to have them sort of aggregate into a single composite protagonist, living in a sense a single life, which is not something you could achieve, not in quite the same way anyway, with a mixture of male and female characters – though that could of course be the subject of another debate.
That the book’s form has provoked discussion is in the end something that pleases me, not because I set out to provoke such a discussion. I didn’t. What I did set out to do was to find a form that fitted what I wanted to express, and that that form seems to have become a source of interest in itself, and to have raised questions about the nature of fiction writing, can only be a good thing.
AUTHORLINK: That makes it very clear, thanks. You have a great way of creating tension in your prose. You start with a dramatic moment or key piece of information and then go back, only to lead up to it again. Then the question in the readers’ mind isn’t what’s going to happen next (which is rather two-dimensional), but how will it happen and how will the characters react? The tension built this way is more palpable. Who are your favourite writers? What makes you turn the page in a book? What is one of the best books you have read recently and why was it good?
SZALAY: The technique you’re talking about is quite cinematic I suppose – if I learned it from anybody, it would be from Hitchcock, whose films make great use of it. The book is more generally influenced by cinema too. Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” for example.
In terms of the techniques of creating narrative tension in prose, John Fowles’ book “The Magus” has a special place in my development. I remember that when my attempt to make a living by betting on horse racing failed and I decided to try to be a novelist, I read a number of books, more or less at random, just what happened to be around, very much with a view of trying to understand how they ‘worked’. “The Magus” was the one that taught me the most about how to hold a reader’s interest. I was fascinated by how, in that book, the methods he uses to do that are often so open, so unhidden – how they are in fact part of the novel’s actual theme. One of the other novels I read at that time was Irvine Welsh’s “Filth”, which has also, in very different ways, been a continuing presence in my imagination. My favourite contemporary British writer is probably Alan Hollinghurst: I certainly don’t look forward to a new book by anyone else with quite the same keenness. The most recent book I have finished is “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, which impressed me a lot. I am currently reading “Paradise” by Toni Morrison.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting, thanks. You once said about All That Man Is, that, ”It can be read either as a sort of slightly disparaging, sort of all that man is, and this is it. Or it can be read as a sort of almost celebratory – everything, all the kind of great variety of experience that life contains.” Would you please expand on this a little? Does this book aim to be a reckoning of all the men you know? Or is it an expression of your inner world? Do you believe that ‘man’ is more than how he is described in your book or not really?
|“It was certainly my aim to portray men as they are, rather than as we might like them to be.”|
SZALAY: This is a very big question. I used the word “celebratory” in a radio interview, so it was an off-the-cuff remark and probably in fact not quite the right choice of word. I do however think that the book’s title can be read in two ways, or from two perspectives – one somewhat disparaging and disappointed (is that all there is…?) and one that embraces the “great variety of experience that life contains”. And I did aim to embrace a great variety of experience – my desire to do that was one of the reasons that the book took the form that it did. It is certainly not in any literal sense a “reckoning of all the men that I know” – but there is something of that to it. It is not an expression of my inner world – that wasn’t my aim here at all, and again that informed my decision to make a book of stories about different characters: I didn’t want it to be a book about any one person’s inner world, least of all mine. I wanted to be dispassionate in the view I took, impersonal, I wanted to find a sort of objectivity.
It was certainly my aim to portray men as they are, rather than as we might like them to be. At one point, when the book was finished, I did wonder whether I had maybe gone a bit too far in terms of how unpleasant men can be: then I started following the U.S. presidential election, and now I wonder whether maybe I didn’t go far enough.
Is ‘man’ more than he is described in my book? I’m not exactly sure what ‘more’ means here, but I suppose the answer is probably: sometimes. But that wasn’t what this particular book was about.
AUTHORLINK: Too true. The book focuses on male characters, their masculinity and about the male experience of time and aging. In contrast to this, your female characters include, as referenced by The Guardian, a “seductress, a sex bout with a daughter then mother, an escort, an unwantedly pregnant lover, mistresses, a half-fancied flirtation, a sex object and her mother again, an estranged wife suing for millions”. They seem harshly judged and objectified. Why are (if they are, in your opinion) the women in your book relevant only for the potential gratification (emotional, sexual) that they may offer? How are you trying to show through these characters that men and women experience things differently, when the source-point of women seems, with respect, ‘a little’ skewered?
SZALAY: I don’t think I entirely accept your characterisation of the way women are presented in the book: harshly judged and objectified. (Of course, some of the male characters do see women like that, but that, I would hope, is a different matter.) The list in the Guardian review is a bit selective and skewed: other female characters, not mentioned there, are a newspaper editor, a judge and a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company. I would also suggest that many of the female characters in the book are more confident, self-directed and in control than their male counterparts – something that has been particularly observed by female readers. (In terms of readers’ responses to the book, I have noticed absolutely no gap between male and female readers – women reviewing the book, or judging prizes for which it was entered, or considering it for translation, or just reading it for pleasure, have been no less positive about it than men.)
As I said, if women are sometimes objectified or harshly judged, it is by the male characters within the book – and that is unfortunately something that quite a lot of men do, quite a lot of the time. That I do not explicitly pass judgement on my characters will not, I hope, lead the reader to believe that I condone, or consider acceptable, everything that they do. Again, it was my aim to portray men as they are, rather than as we might like them to be.
|“What I was trying to do was to depict male characters, in particular, as they actually are.”|
AUTHORLINK: Yes, I meant, judged and objectified, by the characters in the book. Is this how you’re trying to show, through these characters, that men and women experience things differently?
SZALAY: I wasn’t specifically trying to show that – although I think that is to some extent true. What I was trying to do was to depict male characters, in particular, as they actually are. I think there’s a definite tendency in all narrative forms – fiction, film, TV, and especially in popular culture – to depict people as being “nicer” than people really are in the privacy of their own heads. In life, of course, the only person whose thoughts we really have access to is ourselves, and we tend to be very forgiving of ourselves. In fiction, we encounter the thoughts of other people, and when they are realistically rendered that can be shocking. I remember when I first read Updike, for example, reacting almost with indignation to the unpleasantness of some of his characters’ interior lives – I was not able simply to dismiss his depiction, however, because I was unable to escape the feeling that there was probably a great deal of truth in it, and that to try and deny that would be an act of fundamental dishonesty.
|“I hope I have evolved since I started writing fiction about 12 years ago. I have, I think, become less self-indulgent . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you’re right. You have a real mindfulness for noticing the everyday world around you. You not only perceive the banal in a supersaturated way, but you translate it into highly detailed, polished prose. Have you always been such an observer of people? Do you carry notebooks around with you where-ever you go? You also write in the present tense to accentuate the past and poignantly identify, sometimes long after the event, the moment when a character realises when a mistake was made. The unfolding of the story is so much more sharply felt this way. How do you think you’ve evolved creatively since the first book you ever wrote in your 20’s? What advice would you give to your younger self?
SZALAY: I hope I have evolved since I started writing fiction about 12 years ago. I have, I think, become less self-indulgent because I have realised that self-indulgence – which could also be described as a lack of ruthlessness – ultimately, of course, weakens the work. There are things that I would now certainly cut from by earlier books, but which I left in at the time out of self-indulgence, arrogance or naivety. I would advise my younger self accordingly – and my younger self would no doubt ignore the advice: I think the only way of really learning anything is the hard way. And there is a sense that, in order to successfully push through a project on the scale of writing a book, you need to feel, deep down, that you know exactly what you’re doing; anything less than that and you’re likely to give up at some point, especially early on in your career. I am certainly more receptive to criticism than I was, precisely because I am more confident than I was, and at the same time more aware of my own failings.
The first novel I wrote (though it was the second to be published) was a historical novel: “The Innocent”. I don’t think I would even attempt to write a historical novel now because I have realised that the thing I most like in both my own and other people’s writing is the one thing that a historical novel can never have: a transmutation of the world I know, because I am living in it now, into words. Reading literature that was written centuries ago is different: as long as the writer is writing about his or her own time the feeling of life being truly present is there. Wherever they are ostensibly set, all of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, take place in the England of his own life-time – which is why they feel so intensely alive. (He and his contemporaries had no sense of history, as we would understand it, and I think it benefited them hugely as artists.)
|“I actively welcome objective criticism. (Which doesn’t mean that I will always agree with it.)”|
AAUTHORLINK: Yes, very astute. How do you handle objective criticism? Do you become crushed like most writers or do you take it on the chin and try to learn from the experience? Or, both? What are your thoughts on good/bad reviews in general?
SZALAY: I think I partly dealt with this in my answer to the previous question. I actively welcome objective criticism. (Which doesn’t mean that I will always agree with it.) Negative reviews can be painful – but only if you think the reviewer is onto something, if they have pinpointed what you also regard as a flaw in the work. The pain in that instance comes primarily from the fact that it is too late to do anything about it. Objective criticism from early readers of the book, while it is still being edited and still possible to change and improve it, is invaluable and wholly positive.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on right now? Can you tell us a bit about it? What would you like to have achieved in five years, professionally?
SZALAY: I am about to start something new – and the only thing I would like to achieve professionally in the next five years is to write to another book that I feel is as good as my last one.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any interesting stories to share about your marketing experiences? What are your views on social media? Which social networks work best for you, if any?
SZALAY: I’m afraid I have an almost non-existent social media profile, and in fact I have serious doubts about whether social media is, on net, a positive phenomenon or not. Anyway, I have not embraced it, for reasons of personality as much principle. The whole marketing aspect of the business is not something that particularly engages me, although I do often enjoy doing live events – readings, discussions, things like that, especially when the format is relatively informal. At their best they can be great fun and deeply thought-provoking.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, it’s understandable you have doubts whether social media is a positive phenomenon or not. The following question has been asked of other successful authors, and it would be interesting to know your opinion too. Do you believe there is a noticeable discrepancy in the publishing world about what is considered literature and what is regarded as commercial work that correlates with a disguised gender-bias?
SZALAY: Maybe – I really don’t have enough contact with the publishing world to say.
AUTHORLINK: And finally, for something a little light-hearted, how do you relax? If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it be and why? And, who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead) and why?
SZALAY: I like mountains – I spend as much time as I can in the Alps, which can be reached in a few hours’ drive from Budapest, where I live.
The second question is hard to answer, because writing is so personal – in the sense of the author’s “fingerprints” on it, rather than necessarily the subject matter – that I find it impossible to imagine being the author of any book that I have not in fact written myself.
And on the third question: there are just too many possible answers, but since we’re talking about literature here, I’ll say Shakespeare: it would be fascinating to see what kind of personality he was himself, and to discover his attitude to his own work.
AUTHORLINK: That’s so interesting, thank you. Mr Szalay, it’s been so great to talk to you. We appreciate your time. Best of luck with all that you do and the success of All That Man Is. We look forward to reading your works in the future.
SZALAY: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
|About the Author:|
David Szalay is an English writer. He studied at Oxford University and has written several radio dramas for the BBC. He won the Betty Trask Prize for his first novel, London and the South-East (2009), along with the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Since then he has written three further novels: The Innocent (2009), Spring (2011) and All That Man Is (2016). He was named one of The Telegraph’s Top 20 British Writers Under 40 and made it onto Granta magazine’s 2013 list of the Best of Young British Novelists. All That Man Is was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and won the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize.
About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.
This post was written by Anna Roins