A Q&A SESSION WITH RUSSELL HOBAN
by Colin Midson
Colin Midson is Russell Hoban's publicist at Bloomsbury Publishing. The following conversation took place on 23-24 December 2004.
CM: What is it about "chance meetings"?
RH: Not so much chance. Strange, yes. Sarah Varley and Roswell Clark have a strange meeting on the steps of the V&A where she sits crying about the estimated end of the world in 500 million years. She's come there for a fix on her favourite bat, the same one tattooed on her shoulder. It's on a bowl in the Chinese Ceramics room, which is where she and Roswell have their second meeting. He's come to the V&A looking for a bat to be copied in a tattoo for himself. I look for strange encounters because I never have a plot outline; a strange encounter offers good chances of character and action development and usually gets me moving along to whatever comes next.
CM: Whether it's tattoos or carving with an adse, or bats, or Klein bottles, there's often some specialised pursuit explored within the fabric of each of your stories. Why is this?
RH: Jachin Boaz, for example, is a mapmaker. This is a metaphysical occupation: Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get there? Look at the map. Maybe you have to make the map first. Riddley Walker is a connexion man. His calling is to interpret the travelling show and do a 'tel' in which he finds the 'reveal' that will tell his people what's what. Both of these specialities give the protagonist an interesting place to come from and many action options to explore. The Klein bottles in Amaryllis Night and Day are both metaphor and map for the involutions of the story. A careful observation of any specific widens out to take in everything. A classic example of this is George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop.
CM: People have said that Riddley Walker may overshadow your diverse achievements. How do you feel about this?
RH: The Frances books, The Mouse and His Child, and Riddley Walker are acknowledged as classics. My other books are not. I think death could be a good career move for me - after that my oeuvre can be viewed in its completeness and it may be that it will be collectively recognised as a fabric of ideas, imagery, and word action that is of permanent interest.
CM: As you grow older you seem to be writing with more pace. Is there some kind of imperative to write brought on by the onset of age and the suggestion of death, do you think?
RH: Writing by now is an addiction, I can't stop. I'm writing faster because I keep seeing new things to do, better ways of using words. I get a lot of writing done because everything else is put aside and I am in arrears with all grown-up paperwork and business. I no longer have any orderly filing system, and the room where I work is such a shambles that from time to time I have to buy a book or video that I already own because that's more economical than losing a day looking for it. I hope to die in the middle of a new novel but on the other hand I'd like to finish the new one first. So I write as if it's a matter of life and death, which it is.
CM: What is your opinion of the contemporary writing scene?
RH: I have no opinion of this because I read scarcely any current writing; I don't want to get into a novel and find that someone else is developing an idea that I'm also working on.
CM: London has shaped your novels for some time. How do feel about the place and its geography? Would you say it has a hold over you?
RH: London is where I wrote my first novel in which I dealt with men and women instead of anthropomorphic animals and toys. For the last 35 years this is where it's been happening for me. As I've said before, specifics widen out to include everything, and when I make use of topography and locations I go out with a mini-cassette recorder, a camera with 400 film and one with 1600. Because God is in the details and I want to get them right. Certainly London has a hold on me. This town has been very good to me in providing settings for my stories. Because London has become the place of my heart I am encouraged to believe that it puts heart into the comings and goings of the people in my books. And of course I see it through a foreigner's eyes, taking nothing for granted and constantly responding with what might be called an innocent eye. I felt myself a stranger and an outsider in my own country, but being a stranger where I actually am a stranger feels good.
CM: Your first adult novel, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, was published when you were 48. Why the late arrival of novel writing in your life? And do you miss your previous artistic pursuits?
RH: I didn't begin to use my personal experience until I was living in London in my second marriage. That was when I began to feel free to put everything down on paper. As for illustration and painting - the level that I had reached before giving it up depended on drawing and painting every day. When that stopped the whole thing stopped. I drew well from an early age, and my parents had laid it upon me that I was going to be a great painter. Once I gained a certain reputation as an illustrator I was able to get that burden off my back and give myself entirely to writing. I can't carry on two major lines of development and I have no time for minor ones.
CM: There was a gap of nearly nine years between The Medusa Frequency and Fremder. What happened?
RH: Between The Medusa Frequency and Fremder I wrote the libretto for The Second Mrs Kong. Also The Trokeville Way plus two or three picture books for children, several short stories for Granta and Fiction Magazine, some stories for BBC Radio 4 and a piece for Radio 3 on the music of William Lawes (Perfect and Endless Circles). Also Bury My Heart at Auschwitz for Dimensions magazine. The rest of the time I must have frittered away.
CM: You watch a lot of films. Good and bad, it seems. Do you feel you learn a great deal from them?
They keep me mindful of some basic principles of storytelling: the characters
should engage the reader's emotions and the story should make the reader want to
turn the pages. Some films are benchmarks for me:
The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin), with
its overlapping cross-referenced motifs and images, encouraged me to push the
envelope more than I had before - I don't remember which book I was working on
when I saw this picture. Tom Tykwer directed it. Franka Potente and Benno
Furmann starred in it.
Read My Lips (Sur mes levres), directed by Jacques Audiard, with
Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos was a masterclass in character development
and exploration. My novels are mostly character-driven, and this masterpiece of
a movie shows what wonderful things happen when you let characters come fully
alive and live their own lives. The best thing is when a character set in motion
by you surprises you. That's what makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning
and sit down at the word machine.
RH: Yes. I've had two lives, really: one in the U.S. and one here in England. Two marriages; two families; seven children, eleven grandchildren; fourteen novels (so far). I've been very lucky in many ways and I'm satisfied that I've done what I could with what I had.
Special thanks to Russell Hoban and Colin Midson for their kind permission to reproduce this piece, which is also published on Bloomsbury's What's New website.
Click here to return to the Russell Hoban Celebratory Book page for more exclusive contributions.
Russell Hoban: "Writing by now is an addiction. I can't stop."
"God is in the details and I want to get them right"
"A strange encounter offers good chances of character and action development"
"A careful observation of any specific widens out to take in everything"
"I think death could be a good career move for me"
"London has a hold on me. This town has been very good to me in providing settings for my stories"
"The best thing is when a character set in motion by you surprises you"
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