In Straight White Male, John Niven has given us an instant classic and a drunken literary monster for the ages. Over wine, Danny Wallace finds out if truth is stranger than fiction
Several years ago, a man rushed up to me outside a bar in London and said, “Hey! My friend’s written a book! You’d love it!”
I did my best to seem enthusiastic, but this book could have been anything.
It could have been one of those ones written by meerkats.
But months later, that book was published. I saw it in a bookshop.
I bought it. I started it. I pretty much inhaled it.
John Niven, its author – and the author of others, such as The Amateurs, The Second Coming and most recently, the excellent Straight White Male – is one of the most exciting writers in Britain today. His work is, on the one hand, brutal, bullish, horrifying, bleak and nasty.
And his work is, on the other hand, elegant, biting, hilarious, addictive and true.
When we meet for lunch, we talk like old friends about writing (“That idea of ‘everybody has a novel in them’,” he says. “Well, if you’ve only got a novel in you, I’m not interested”). We talk about starting out (“If you’re writing a novel and you don’t have a bit of apprehension – because you’re treading in some fairly huge footsteps – then you’re an idiot. I ran from writing.”). We talk about characters, including Straight White Male’s drunken, womanising Kennedy Marr and Kill Your Friends’ murderous A&R man Steven Stelfox (“They don’t have to be likeable. They just have to be interesting”) and, as we do, Niven throws out quotes from Springsteen. The Godfather 2. Nabakov. Noel Gallagher. Billy Wilder. David Mamet. Debbie Harry. More.
He chooses the wine. Then we begin.
What do people think you’re going to be like, based on your work?
Some kind of crazed animal. Some angry, acerbic monster. You also meet a certain type of person who, when they meet a writer, think a good opening line to you is, “Of course, I’ve never read any of your books…”
It’s almost a pre-emptive strike. It’s like, “Before we even start here: go f*ck yourself.” If you’re any good, you know you’re second-rate. Was it Nabakov who said, “My English is patball to Joyce’s champion game”? If you’re any good, that’s how you feel – you can only hold yourself up to the books that you enjoy, and realise that they’re a level above what you can punch at.
Do people find it hard to separate you from your creations?
I think a lot of people don’t know what a novel is. They think it’s some kind of higher autobiography. I was doing a radio interview in Germany once, and this interviewer was sitting there fizzing with anger before we’d even started. I clocked that. “What’s this girl’s problem?” She pointed at her T-shirt and said, “You see my T-shirt, John Niven?” It was a Radiohead T-shirt. She said, “I like Radiohead, what do you think of that?” I said “I’ve no problem with Radiohead! I like Radiohead!” She said, “But the book…!” And in Kill Your Friends, there’s a running gag that Stelfox hates Radiohead. He thinks Be Here Now is a masterpiece, but that OK Computer is unlistenable dreck. She couldn’t believe I didn’t. Some people think a novel’s a manifesto for political election.
I do sometimes worry people assume you hide your own opinions behind a character.
The best piece of writing advice is: write as if your parents were dead. You have to. God bless my mum, she’s read everything I’ve written – well, not Kill Your Friends, I told her specifically not to read that – but she’s read everything else. And some of Straight White Male flies pretty close to the wind.
I think I’d find it very hard to write about the things you write about.
F Scott Fitzgerald might say, “You haven’t grasped the price of admission”. The price of admission is the darkest stuff, the funniest stuff… the weirdest stuff, the furthest corners of the mind. The bits in novels that really powerfully work are the bits where somebody goes, “I thought I was the only person on the planet who ever thought that…” Or sometimes you get people who say, “Oh yeah, I thought that.” They hadn’t. They’d only really joined the dots when they’d read what you’d written. It’d been lurking there, but that’s when books – it’s John Updike’s quote – “Giving the mundane its beautiful due.” Something as simple as a description of the noise a fridge door makes as it seals… that’s the stuff in novels that makes you connect.
That takes real talent.
I have quite a high revere for talent, because it seems to me it’s the last unstormable bastille. We live in an age where you can become famous for debasing yourself on some TV wrongathon. You can become rich thanks to some scratchcard or rollover jackpot. But you can’t as yet become talented by having no talent. So the people on the scene right now – Amy Childs or Katie Price or whoever – you can’t suddenly have talent by sticking your name on a nail varnish bottle.
Isn’t having talent a bit like winning a lottery, though?
A genetic lottery, you’re arguing? You have a lot of people who have some prose talent, but getting the work done is another thing. It’s hard. Not hard like Bolivian tin mining is hard, but you have to be there, at the desk, in good shape, five hours a day, five days a week, for months at a time. You still have to work.
Kennedy Marr, the protagonist in Straight White Male, is a successful writer who puts the work off…
A lot of Kennedy’s stuff comes from William Goldman, the screenwriter, who was in a meeting once, and everybody was just talking nonsense about some script they wanted him to write. And Goldman just got up and said, “You’ll have to excuse me – I’m too old and too rich for this sh*t.” And he left. That’s the kind of guy Kennedy is. He’s someone who can say anything in any situation.
You like him.
I just think there aren’t any characters in literature like that any more. Back when The Godfather would be the No1 movie, and John Updike would be the No1 author, if you were an American writer of some success, you’d be Norman Mailer going on TV in your boxer shorts offering to batter Gore Vidal. Your British writer with the same success might warily give up his teaching job, or buy a new filing cabinet. In Kennedy, I wanted to – if you will – throw back to that kind of guy.
Is that how you’d like to be?
I think I straddle the fence between filing cabinet man and someone who’d batter his oppo…
And as we finish up, John’s phone rings. It’s his agent. She’s just sold Straight White Male to the US. “Looks like drinks are on me,” he says, a touch of the Kennedy Marr about him, and so we head off in search of them.
Straight White Male is out now, published by Heinemann
(Image: Rex Features)