While you’re working on the finer points of self-forgiveness, narrator Tadhg Hynes and I had a few questions for author James Greer. Tadhg, of course, has excellent, thoughtful questions about structure and characterisation and message, while I hummed David Bowie songs. Take a look:
Tadhg Hynes: You open the book more-or-less at the end of the story, but then take us back and forth through a shifting non-linear timeline. How did this come about? Did you write it in narrative chronological order? How did you decide to splice it where you did?
James Greer: I wrote the first chapter and the last chapter first. Then I wrote the rest of the book, in pretty much any order I felt like, because I had the plot in my head. When I was finished, I printed the whole thing out (it was a little longer then, maybe 50 chapters), stapled each chapter separately, and laid them out in a giant 5×10 grid on the floor. Then I walked around the grid and physically re-ordered the chapters according to rhythm, length, and so on. I think I was influenced most by watching movies in the construction of The Failure. When you edit film these days, you generally use a set-up (combination of hardware and software) called an NLE, or non-linear editing system. As its name indicates, this tends to produce, or at least makes it easier to produce, non-linear narratives. Of course, filmmakers were editing asynchronously long before the wide-spread use of NLEs. Jean-Luc Godard is a master of non-linear construction, and I was watching a lot of Godard movies around the time I was writing The Failure.
TH: I really enjoyed recording this book– how do you feel about having your work read to you? Have you listened to the audiobook?
JG: I enjoyed listening to it a lot more than I would have if I’d chosen an American narrator. Your Irish lilt allowed just enough linguistic distance to eliminate the cringe factor of hearing your own words read to you. I prefer listening to you read my book than listening to me read my book. You make my words sound better.
TH: While working on this book my proof-listener and I found it really humorous. But it defies genre – there are elements of noir and crime fiction, of parody, of satire, of romance, and underlying all of these is the humour. I know many writers hate to categorise themselves, but if you had to for this book, how would you?
JG: I would, if pressed, call The Failure picaresque, a once-common Spanish sub-genre that has fallen into disuse. Or Icaresque, which is not a word but should be. Neither are strictly accurate but better than the alternatives, I think.
TH: Several of the characters are spookily like people I know (especially Guy’s mother). Have any of your friends recognised themselves in the book? What’s been the reaction?
JG: Every character in the book was entirely a product of my imagination. I don’t know how people go about basing characters on real people. I’m sure it’s commonly done but I can’t do it. That said, I recognize parts of myself in every one of the characters in The Failure. I’d like to think that because I’m an entirely ordinary person the resonance that you and others might encounter is derived from our common humanity. But I may be over-thinking that bit. The stricture to “write what you know” has always confounded me. It seems to me the worst possible advice to give a writer.
TH: On my first reading, The Failure came across as a pretty light-hearted book. However as I reread it I became more aware of the serious social commentary. Was this by design? Did you intend for the humour to sit atop the more serious matters? Do you think the audiobook achieves the same layering?
JG: I’d hate to think there was any serious social commentary in The Failure, but I do think there are serious themes underlying the humor. And while I’m not sure that was something I set out to do, my tendency is to try to balance the ridiculous and the sublime. My congenital inability to take anything seriously inevitably undercuts any serious point I ever try to make. At the same time I have a tendency towards melodrama and sentimentality that I can’t always resist. Or that I’ve stopped trying to resist.
TH: Writing novels is just one of your talents; you’re also involved in films and music. Do you have a favourite? If you could only make art in one medium, which would you choose?
JG: Writing has always and will always come first. I love music, I love films, but I am compelled to write.
TH: Finally, what’s next? What do you have coming up, or what are you working on now?
JG: My next novel is half-way done. It’s as different from The Failure as The Failure is from my previous novel, Artificial Light. I tend to work in opposition to myself, for whatever reason.
Miette Elm: You don’t seem to shy away from social media– you blog, you keep Twitter and Facebook accounts, and you’re on Goodreads. And, for those readers who don’t know, the Internet is central to the plot of The Failure (note to those readers: this is not an internet book, honest! Unless you want it to be, of course…) Do these tools impact your writing? How?
JG: Oh, I shy away, believe me. Last year I deleted my Facebook account when I was approaching 5,000 friends and realized I didn’t know more than a few hundred, and even those few hundred not very well. I also stopped blogging for almost a year. Twitter I started up a few months ago at the same time I decided to revamp and relaunch my site, and re-join Facebook. I’m not sure if any of this is useful, but I do it to promote my books and am otherwise appalled and creeped out by online self. I think that same fascination/horror underlies the internet aspect of The Failure’s plot (leaning hard on the metaphorical sense of “plot”). The two main characters, Guy and Billy, don’t own cellphones or computers and don’t seem to understand the internet very well, despite their plans (or Guy’s plans) to exploit it. Guy reminds me of an 1849 California gold-seeker. He’s heard about the untold riches awaiting even inexperienced prospectors, but has no real clue how to mine for gold, nor, I think, any real desire. He’s self-defeating in the best sense. If not for the evil manipulations of the author he would probably have run off with Violet and lived happily ever after.
ME: The Failure contains offset ads, physics equations, and other typographic elements that, coupled with its non-linear narrative, might make it difficult to turn into a linear audiobook form. I think Tadhg did a fantastic job, of course, but did you have any reservations about allowing the book to be interpreted this way?
JG: None whatsoever, though in retrospect I should have. Early on, Tadgh emailed me in consternation when he got to the chapter that consists of several hundred nonsense words that purport to contain a subliminal ad. The solution he arrived at was both elegant and funny, in keeping with the spirit of the book. I like to think the non-linear construction makes it in some ways easier for the audibook listener, because if you forget where you are and jump in randomly, you won’t really have missed anything. There’s nothing to miss. That’s probably just wishful thinking on my part, though. But I am hugely indebted to Tadgh for finding clever ways around the problems you describe.
ME: The Failure opens with an awfully melodic first line: Guy Forget – careening across Larkin Heights in a stolen Mini Cooper – suffused with bloodlust and baring a grin full of teeth, failed to hear the polyphonic belling of his cell phone. To me, it looks as if it’s meant to be voiced, and very much looks like it could be set to music and sung. Really, try it. It works well to David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, and I’m not saying that for narrative verisimilitude. So what effect does your work as a musician and music journalist have on your fiction writing?
JG: To me the musicality of writing is entirely different from music. Music is choreographed math, and acts on our emotions directly, wordlessly, where writing organizes phonemes into strings of sense, even when clearly designed to prioritize sound over meaning, as in the first line of The Failure. I suppose that in both instances one tries to manipulate the listener/reader, but there’s no way (at least none that I have discovered) to reproduce the polyphony of music in writing, and similarly no way to reproduce the specificity/precision of language in music. But you’re absolutely correct that the sentences over which I take the most care are meant to be voiced, whether out loud or in the head. Writing and reading done properly produce a physical reaction not dissimilar to the reaction you might have listening to [favorite song or piece of msuic]: a pleasurable shiver that’s the only way I know how to judge great writing or great music.
James Greer’s The Failure, published in print by Akashic Books, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99. You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 2 of 12 titles for $49.99. Plus, throughout June 2011, you can get 50% off any order by entering #jiam2011 at checkout.