Joe Dunthorne was born and brought up in Swansea, South Wales. His first novel, Submarine, was translated into sixteen languages and adapted for film by Richard Ayoade. His second, Wild Abandon, won the 2012 Encore Award. His debut poetry pamphlet was published by Faber and Faber. His short stories and poems have been published in The Paris Review, the London Review of Books and McSweeney’s. He teaches on the MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Joe Dunthorne
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person or perhaps an intuitive impulse, that guided you to forge your own literary path?
I think it began with computer games. When I was twelve, I remember playing—or watching my sisters play—the text-based game of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. (You can still play it online here. Be warned, it’s horrendously difficult.) After that I started making my own text games. They were short stories, kind of. The first one I made was called “Depression” and you played a man who wanted to kill himself. I think it was supposed to be funny. Then from games I went to lyrics, from lyrics to poetry, then to stories and novels.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? How have you changed as a writer over the years?
I go for the obvious themes. The big ones! Love, death, family. As for how I’ve changed, it’s hard to say. If you’ll excuse the use of such a horrible word, I’ve professionalized. I treat writing as a job. I have a regular writing routine. My spinny chair, my Thermos of tea. But I hope I haven’t changed too much in my approach to the actual writing. I still try to be free and playful, to believe that each story could go in any direction.
You write both poetry and prose—how does the one form inform the other and does the creative process for each differ?
For me, I find they have a productive relationship. Often, I strip out the best images from poems and recycle them in stories or novels. Or vice versa. I also like the idea that poetry gives me another way of solving problems in a story or novel. I think of it like in a musical when the protagonist has decided against, say, climbing fire mountain—because it does sound really dangerous—and then everyone sings a song together and, by the end of the song, the protagonist is packing their bags for the big trip. Poetry, in a novel, allows you to bypass conventional logic.
You’ve published two novels—did you approach writing your second novel any differently in comparison to the process of your first? Did the way you related to your writing shift?
My first novel, Submarine, like many first novels, was semi-autobiographical. My second novel, Wild Abandon, was very different because it required a fair bit of research. It’s set in a self-sufficient commune in South Wales so I had to spend time in various different communities around the UK, learning about that way of life. I cooked, meditated, dug trenches, did spirit dancing and I interviewed people. It was great to get away from myself and be more outward looking. There’s something suffocating about writing a novel that purely feeds on your own experience.
As well as two novels you’ve also had a poetry pamphlet published. What can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? And how has that shifted over time?
I’ve always collected my rejection notes, as though I were collecting Pokemon. Gotta catch ‘em all. I keep them in a special folder. Nowadays, I don’t send things out as often as I should. I’m getting precious, which is a bad habit.
You have had numerous pieces published in many different literary journals—how do you choose which journal to submit to and how important is this type of publication for you as a writer?
When I’m struggling away in the middle of a novel, it can lift the spirits to have a story or poem published in a magazine. I usually submit to magazines that I think will say no. I always try and reach just beyond my abilities.
In terms of publication, was there something in particular that you looked for when approaching a publishing house? Both of your novels have been published by Hamish Hamilton—what factors played into choosing and developing a relationship with this publishing house?
Hamish Hamilton, to my mind, have the most exciting list in UK publishing. So I was first drawn to sharing a publisher with Camus, Salinger, Eggers and the Smiths: Ali and Zadie.
On top of that, I loved my editor and I loved the visual style of their books.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
The film of my first novel, Submarine, undoubtedly helped my writing reach audiences it never would have otherwise. It’s incredible to me how far the film has travelled, and the book sitting on its shoulders.
How involved were you in the process of Submarine becoming a movie? And what was it like to see your writing transformed into something for the screen?
I was quite involved. I helped in the development stage and I was a script editor. I visited the set a few times and that was amazing. To see scenes that I’d written in my bedroom in Norwich suddenly being performed by fifty actors in a schoolyard in South Wales! It was like being a ghost in my own head.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Just the clichés: read lots, write lots, find friends who you can share your writing with.
Looking to the future, what direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
I’ve just handed in my third novel, The Adulterants. It will be published in February 2018. This coming year, I’m doing lots of different things. I’m finishing my poetry collection. I’m writing an original film script and adapting The Adulterants for TV. I’m also working on a script for a virtual reality experience.
In terms of craft, I am only just starting to feel that I understand how to tell a story. It’s taken three novels to get to that point. I hope I can keep getting better and keep surprising myself.
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