Toby Litt grew up in Bedfordshire. He has worked as a teacher, bookseller and subtitler. A graduate of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing M.A. at the University of East Anglia, Toby is a Granta Best of Young British Novelist and a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb. He edited the 13th edition of New Writing (the British Council’s annual anthology of the finest contemporary writing in fiction, non-fiction and poetry). His story ‘John and John’ won the Manchester Fiction Prize. He teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College. The author of over fifteen books, Toby Litt’s latest book, Wrestliana, is a memoir which interweaves reminiscences and an exploration of manhood.
How has Ampthill changed from when you were growing up there in the 1970s?
When I was five or six, there was a dairy a few doors along from our house. It had a Mynah bird, in a side room, in a cage, which would occasionally say a word: a word that shocked my mother, if I was lucky. The diary sold milk, butter and chestnut yogurts from a refrigerated glass display cabinet. When I remember details like this, I start to believe I grew up on the peripheries of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
What sorts of books were in your family home? What did you read as a child?
We had my mother and father’s books from university. She read biology at Reading, so there was The Life of Invertebrates, third edition. My father went to Trinity, Dublin. He had bought Brendan Behan a pint, and we had a copy of Borstal Boy. My mother read me and my sisters the Hans Christian Anderson, Lear’s Nonsense Verse, Kipling’s Just So Stories, Winnie the Pooh. Later, I read science fiction and fantasy – Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. I looked for Chris Foss’s paintings on the covers, and took that as a guarantee of quality.
In Wrestliana you quote your father saying, “Writing can be a very lonely business . . . But if that’s what you want to do, that’s what you should do.” Why a burning desire to write?
It wasn’t writing, to start with. I had a burning desire not to be boring. Or not to live a life that wasn’t interesting, even to me. I had a very strong sense of vocation, at primary school, without having any sense what that vocation might be. Most children have this, I think. “I must secretly be a very important person, somehow, it’s just that no-one has noticed yet.” Everyone starts off thinking they’re Harry Potter, waiting for the invitation to Hogwarts. Over the years, I gave up anything I thought I wasn’t good at – maths, cricket, drawing, writing songs. Around the time I finished university, what was left was poetry and stories. Then, for quite a long time, I gave up poetry. But, all along, I was awed by what could be done with words. I wanted a more interesting planet than Earth, and fiction took me there. Then I realised Earth was interesting, after all.
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
My friend Luke. He wrote a huge amount. He had a couple of cardboard boxes full of narrow-lined A4 paper covered with his gothic handwriting. Luke was always starting fantasy epics. This was when he was twelve and thirteen years old. I wanted to be him, so I started my own epic. I got to over thirty pages, I think. After Luke, it was a bit of a random grabbing of this here and that there. The books I read at school had a big effect – Wuthering Heights, 1984. But I think Shakespeare was a large influence, in that he seemed to write all the different sorts of plays. We read out A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English, and I remember being given decent speeches to read. I acted in Troilus and Cressida, as one of Helen’s servant boys. I acted in Henry IV, Part 1, as Northumberland. I could tell that Shakespeare wrote in a more confident, careless way than other writers. He seemed infinite. And when grown-ups tell you he’s the best English writer ever, you wonder why.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses since you were taught by Malcolm Bradbury at the UEA? How helpful are they in reality?
The worst you could say for them is that they have slightly raised the average level of fiction writing in the UK. The best you could say is that, right now, we have a more accomplished, open, experimental, generally weird literary culture than we have had before – and creative writing courses have fostered that. Yes, there are lots of students rewriting The Hunger Games in the second person present tense, but you also have many students who are writing something they’d never have come up with by themselves, until their tutors got them to read Lorrie Moore or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Gary Lutz or Claire Louise-Bennett, and some of them will become really important writers.
Do you write every day? Do you do many drafts?
Yes, I try to. I usually do six drafts – no idea why.
How important were, and are, editors? Did you have much encouragement in the early days?
Editors have become increasingly important, but mainly because I was writing in forms I hadn’t tried before. Shelly Bond, at Vertigo, was amazing. I did a comic for them, Dead Boy Detectives, and she essentially taught me the form by commissioning this and that. I went from nothing to writing a monthly comic in a couple of years. A vertiginous learning curve. Then, on the new book, Wrestliana, which is a memoir, I needed a lot of basic cutting and ticking off from Sam Jordison and Elly Millar at Galley Beggar. For the fiction, I tend to be very certain of what it is. I’ll defend a semi-colon, or spelling grey and gray in different ways, when they’re different colours.
I had editors who encouraged me, before I got published, but it was like being tantalized. In but not there. Sally Abbey at Penguin picked my first novel out of the slush pile, and got it all the way to an acquisition meeting, where it stalled. If I hadn’t had that response to the first thing I sent out, I might have stuck to poetry. Maggie McKernan at Orion (who had acquired Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy) would read every manuscript I completed. Then we’d have a meeting in her office, where she’d explain that, no, she wasn’t going to publish this one either. She was trying to encourage me, and I’m grateful for that, but I made several very hopeful tube journeys into town, and an exactly equal number of disappointed tube journeys out again. I felt I could spend my whole life getting very close but not getting a break. It was Malcolm Bradbury, when editing his Class Work, anthology who did that, followed by Neil Taylor at Secker & Warburg whose girlfriend recommended Neil look at my work.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I’m proud of Notes for a Young Gentleman, and the novel I’ve just finished, Patience. I’m proud of writing chunks of other books – the opening of Journey into Space, The Hare in Ghost Story – but Patience seems to me to go from start to finish at the same level. I loved my narrator, and he helped me. Embarrassed? I was thinking about this the other day. Some book reviews that were up against deadlines. And features articles – those Why I hate the 1980s sort of things. Also some of the forced poetry, written when I just wanted to write a poem.
Your views on success and failure, and how important it is for an author to experience the vagaries of the writing life?
It’s more important for a writer to experience the vagaries of life. If they stay alive long enough, that will happen. They will see their friends get hurt and their parents fail. I have been reading D.H.Lawrence’s essays. He has a greater sense of the importance of writing fiction than almost anyone else. For him, the success of the author is only related to one question: How alive are your words? If they’re dead, any social or material success is failure. And most words, by D.H.Lawrence’s measure, are dead. The writer must make the reader vivid.
You have great versatility as a writer moving effortlessly between genres, is there one genre in particular which you favour over the others?
Which is more important, style or voice?
Style – style as the inability to make a false gesture. Some writers have it; not me.
How well are your books received in Europe?
They used to be translated. They’ve gone to quite a few countries. That’s fallen off. At the moment, I’d say they’re not much received at all. Editors at European publishers are some of the nicest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. I kind of miss them.
In your memoir, Wrestliana, you write that “the world is dominated by men frantically, and often violently, demonstrating just how manly their manliness is.” Was it your intention to write about masculinity from the outset, or did it evolve from the excitement of discovery as you researched your family and great-great-great grandfather William, wrestler-and-writer extraordinaire?
My intention, at the very start, was just to write about William – perhaps to write his life fictionally, or to do a short but book-length biography. When I realised neither of these made a book, or not one I was able to write, I started to expand it into something odder, more mixed. William’s connection to me comes directly through the male line of the family, which is why we share a surname. It wasn’t firstborn sons all the way, however. And so, I found myself researching and then writing about the men in the family. This was partly because there was so little information about the women. About William’s wife, Betty, there is a postcard’s worth of information; about William, probably two hundred thousand words, counting the newspaper articles by and about him, and his two books (Wrestliana and Henry and Mary, his novel). Because I was writing about men, and men fighting, I ended up writing about masculinity. This is a hard subject to say anything interesting about, because one of the tricks of masculinity is to present itself as something obvious and simple. Femininity is thought of as occluded; masculinity as in plain view. How do you say something interesting about playing dumb?
How has writing Wrestliana changed you and your views on life?
Writing it, and handing it over to Sam Jordison and Elly Millar at Galley Beggar for editing, did give me a clear view of myself. I realised my worst failing was wanting to be liked by everyone, and my second worst was intellectual vanity. Wanting to be liked by everyone was, I think, William Litt’s tragic flaw. It almost certainly bankrupted him, because he couldn’t say no to requests for credit. As for intellectual vanity, I spent years hoping someone would call me a genius. When it did happen, once or twice, I purred disgustingly, whilst saying, “No, not really.” That’s shameful, and shallow. Much of the writing cut from Wrestliana was vain.
My “views on life” change with each book. They’re the views I need to write that book as well as I can. Some of those views are revived more often than others, to they’re more likely to be my views. I’m mistrustful of people who claim to have a simple, monolithic identity. But writing Wrestliana involved me in a struggle with those elements of my identity that I couldn’t deny, because they turned out to be family traits. However, I’m just as much my mother’s son as my father’s. I’m just as much Grindley as Litt. A Grindley’s a mysterious thing to be, though. My mother was a very mysterious person.
What are you working on now?
Stories. A novel.
Your views on book publishing?
It’s easier to get a first book published now (though it may not seem that way, to writers sending out hopeful manuscripts), but it’s harder to get a third book published. And it’s almost impossible to get enough money from a first book to go full time in order to write the second. From the writer’s point of view, this is the crucial thing. You trash your life to complete the first novel, ruin relationships, ignore friendships, and then you realize you have to do that again and again. Because you can’t buy the time to do the work without doing the damage.
More generally, the small presses are now publishing most of the writers I want to read. My publishers, Galley Beggar and Seagull. Then Fitzcarraldo, Comma, Salt, Influx, Morbid Books, many others. The larger publishers are engaged in a fight for survival, and their weapon of choice is cookery books.
What are your favorite literary journals?
Stinging Fly, the London Review of Books, The Lonely Crowd, The White Review.
Your views about the internet, social media and technology and how they have (or have not) changed your writing life?
Too many things at once. I’ll answer in another way. It’s a question that came up in a TV documentary I once saw: “Who was the first poet to write a poem in which a car journey was a truly integrated part of the poem?” The answer given was, Seamus Heaney. This was in the 1990s. The poem was in his collection Seeing Things. That’s a long time between invention and deep integration. On the surface, it’s too many things at once.
Teaching literature and writing are very different. To what extent is being a senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck University of London an extension of writing?
I think it often works the other way. In my writing I do things with what I’ve learned from teaching. Sometimes, I’ll tell students that it’s impossible or not worth trying to do something in prose, and then I’ll find myself trying to do it.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would like to stand to Shakespeare’s side, close enough to see the wet ink on the page, and watch him writing King Lear.
Your favourite prose authors?
Osip Mandelstam. Henry James. Virginia Woolf. Emily Brontë. Jane Austen. Marcel Proust. Samuel Beckett. Muriel Spark. Lorrie Moore.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
I don’t think I have fictional heroes. The narrator of Patience became my hero, while I was writing the book. In real life, Vaclav Havel, the writer who became president of The Czech Republic. Also, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, as a couple.
Your five favourite feature films?
Your five favourite bands?
Miles Davis’ groups when John Coltrane was in the band.
Your bedside reading?
I just finished the Game of Thrones books.
I don’t have one. But Osip Mandelstam said, “I divide all the works of world literature into those written with and without permission. The first are trash, the second – stolen air.” That’s about the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read about writing. I try to remember it.
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