An Interview with Daniel Davies, author of Isle of Dogs.
But first, in time-honoured fashion, a review of the book and then a short biography.
Dr Grump liked this book. She found it educational. What she liked most, she told me, was the way Daniel Davies doesn't mince his words. Sex scenes, and there are many of them, are described in anatomical detail. These provide some comic moments - the enviable prowess of the iguana comes to mind (you have to read it to find out more), and the last two words are an excellent comic twist.
Jeremy Shepherd has returned to live with his parents after giving up a high-powered job as an editor for a glossy magazine following an existential crisis. He tries to make sense of his life using Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs'. His physiological and safety needs are met by his parents, a humdrum job in the local civil service fulfills his need for companionship, and the fact that he is 'post ambitious' sees to his need for esteem. Only the pinnacle need, that of 'self-actualisation' or fulfillment is left, and for that Jeremy turns to anonymous sexual encounters of the plural kind at venues arranged via the internet (the term, apparently is 'dogging', and there is, apparently, a website, but Dr Grump says she is definitely not going there, because like Jeremy's computer at work, the University of Uurm's network is monitored. This idea that we are always being watched is another theme of the book).
Although the sexual encounters are described in startling and impressive detail, it is the evocation of the shabby provincial town that Grump and I admired the most. It is something we both know well. Although Uurm is a fine medieval town, it is, quite unfathomably, twinned with a small town in the East Midlands, called Heapsville. 'That was so Heapsville on a Friday night,' she said to me after reading out a particularly fine passage, 'Nothing to do there at all except make babies.'
We also admired the section describing the narrator's angst, because we've both felt this by the bread in Tescos. 'That's exactly it!' said Grump. 'It was all those different sorts of bread - what is it all for?' She's now going round claiming to be 'post-ambitious' whenever I ask her to do something that involves firing more than one neuron at once.
'Ladlit, I'd say, wouldn't you?' I said to her when I'd finished the book.
'Yes,' she said, 'But intelligent and ravishingly different ladlit. I rather like it. In fact I like it so much I'm going to order a few copies for the Insitute of Sexual Dynamics waiting room.'
Daniel Davies was born in Sutton-Coldfield, near Birmingham, in 1973, to a Welsh father and a Polish-German mother. He studied English at Cambridge. His previous jobs include curator at the British Museum, sub-editor of medical journal The Lancet and the Evening Standard. He lived abroad for three years teaching English in Barcelona, Prague and San Sebastian.
Questions about The Isle of Dogs.
DG: How autobiographical is this book?
DD: Well, to paraphrase Jeanette Winterson when asked the same question about Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, it’s both completely autobiographical and not autobiographical at all. I know it’s a spoilsport answer, but the sexual passages are the least autobiographical. The passages about work, ambition, spiritual crises and so on are far more so.
DG: How did you go about researching this book? Did you go to an actual meet?
DD: Most of my research was done online. There are a vast number of chatrooms and websites devoted to dogging, so it’s not hard to get a good (or bad) glimpse into the dogging universe. But I tried not to over-research the book – I think any writer has to trust in his or her imagination too. If you cram a book with too much research, because you’re anxious to make it seem authentic, you end up killing it. As for going to actual meets, I couldn’t possibly say. It could put me in grave danger – like Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut.
DG: My colleague, Dr Dudman, was hugely impressed with the passage on angst and post-ambition and has frankly become somewhat irritating with her constant referral to it. Are you post-ambitional or do you have some ambition left?
DD: I’ve never had much in the way of conventional ambition. I’ve never wanted to be a millionaire or prime minister or a footballer (although I could be the hard-tackling holding midfielder that Arsenal so desperately need – I await the call from Arsène). At the risk of sounding lofty, all my ambition has always been artistic, or writerly. As a writer, I’m hugely ambitious. Some ambitions are inexhaustible. Literary ambition is one of them. However good or bad you are, you always want to be better – because you always can be, whether you’re Leo Tolstoy or, at the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Davies.
DG: What helped you most to become a novelist? The degree in English from Cambridge, your work as editor at The Lancet and the Evening Standard or teaching English abroad? Or none of the above.
DD: They all helped. It was living abroad that led me to write The Isle of Dogs. I first read about dogging on the BBC website while living in Spain and it struck me as so English – eccentric, secretive and basically quite funny. It seemed a good starting point for a state-of-the-nation novel. Living abroad enables you to see your own country with great clarity. An English degree didn’t do me any harm, I’m sure, but plenty of writers studied other subjects. I sometimes wonder if anthropology might be the ideal subject – in a way, all literature is anthropology. And it certainly worked for Saul Bellow. Having a professional background as an editor and copywriter has been helpful too – it’s great training in learning to be focused and cutting extraneous material. It also helps you accept criticism with good grace.
DG: Surveillance is an important theme in this novel. What do you think of the recent proposed legislation on increasing the police's power to monitor our internet activity?
DD: To be honest, I’m sure it’s happening already. It probably just depends on your demographic profile – if you have a certain kind of name, or worship a certain religion, or go to certain kinds of demonstration, the police probably have an eye on you. I think the police state has truly arrived. What’s so depressing is that we’ve greeted it with such fatalism and passivity.
DG: Do you write for a particular audience?
DD: No, definitely not. I don’t think many writers do, to be honest. As Philip Larkin once said, you just write the poetry or fiction that you have to write. Who actually reads it is out of your hands. I’m just grateful that anyone reads it at all.
DG: Do you have anything else in the pipeline?
DD: Yes. There’s a queue of books, all waiting to land. I’ve just started work on the second draft of my new book, provisionally entitled No Man’s Land. It’s a different kind of novel from The Isle of Dogs and contains no sex whatsoever. But it does explore other kinds of subculture – those of gangs, extremism and vigilantism.
DG: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
DD: Uncannily, I do. I once trod on a snail while I was in Hamburg. Being of German ancestry on my mother’s side, this event – naturally – led me to contemplate the merciless firebombing of the city by the RAF in 1943. I even wrote a poem about it:
Note to a Snail who Narrowly Escaped Death
Hamburg, 27th July 2003
Walking at dusk in the Alsterpark,
I saw you at the final moment
and swerved my foot
onto the sunburnt pavement.
You were oblivious to your escape.
Or were you?
Perhaps your cool skin shivered,
as my skin shivers,
when a juggernaut booms too close.
Such is the lottery of death:
the Bible-blocked bullet,
the wrongly folded parachute,
the incendiary that fails to go off.
In a parallel universe,
my skull is cracked
against the juggernaut’s grate –
after I crush you underfoot,
stopping you in your tracks,
with the tell-tale crunch
of a shelled grape.
DG: What is your proudest moment?
DD: The moment I got an email from my agent, Tim Bates, with the subject header ‘Good news’. That’s when I knew that The Isle of Dogs had been accepted for publication. The pride, I have to say, was mixed with profound relief. Before you get published, there’s always a voice at the back of your mind, heckling you with things like, ‘Give up!’, ‘You’re talentless!’, ‘It’ll never happen!’, ‘You’re self-deluded!’ Of course, all those things may still be true, but being published at least quietens the heckling for a while.
DG: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
DD: Probably getting into Cambridge. Having been to provincial comprehensives, it was like a passport to a different world. Not that everyone there was a monocle-wearing Etonian – or not anymore – but it was still a vast culture shock. I was suddenly surrounded by posh Londoners and people who’d gone to school in Switzerland.
DG: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
DD: Tough question. Recently, it must be an early scene in Crime and Punishment where Dostoyevsky describes an exhausted horse being brutally beaten by its drunken masters. It’s truly heartbreaking. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that Nietzsche saw a horse being whipped by its owner and threw his arms around its neck to protect it. Ironically, this moment is sometimes cited as marking the beginning of his descent into madness. Personally, I can’t think of anything saner or more human.
DG: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
DD: I’d have a fully functioning thyroid gland.
DG: What is happiness?
DD: I’m tempted to say, ‘A cigar called Hamlet’. Terrifying how adverts just lodge in your brain and stay there for decades. To give a proper answer, and possibly a pretentious one, I think happiness arrives at unpredictable moments when several things coincide in just the right way. They can be quite simple things – like having a good cup of coffee, and a totally spot-on croissant, in a café you love, while the sky is a certain shade. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that when you feel like that, it’s important to celebrate the moment by saying, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ So whenever I experience such a moment, that’s what I say, even if only in my head.
DG: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
DD: Glamorously, I take 125mg of thyroxine. I have hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid gland – and have to take drugs to compensate for it. If I forget, I’m usually catatonic by mid-afternoon. So my girlfriend really does say to me, ‘Dan, have you taken your pills today?’
For another form of 'dogging' see Debra Hamel's post here.