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An Interview with Geoff Dyer

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Over the past two decades, Geoff Dyer has set up camp in so many sections of the bookstore as to merit special recognition, something that could serve as a reward for such valiant commercial self-sabotage. His books vary in genre from music, war, photography, and travel, to fiction and literary biography. No single zone of interest towers above the othershe’s not the poet who also wrote a curious little volume on marine biology, or the critic who took a stab at memoir. Dyer’s singular sensibility unites this body of work; one that incorporates his frustration with the writing process into the narrative, and does so with humour, irreverence, and insight.

Geoff Dyer’s most recent book is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel in two parts. He was part of the Authors at Harbourfront Centre series in Toronto in April 2009.

Teodoro: The protagonist in Jeff in Venice claims that interviews work better if the interviewer pretends to be a complete numbskull. I don’t know that I’ve ever tried that technique. I wonder if I should try saying something really stupid about now.

Dyer: [Laughs] I’ve not done many interviews, so I didn’t actually know what I was talking about when I wrote that. I did do some very short ones in my twenties. It was a great way of meeting writers I really liked—I interviewed Peter Carey, for example—but I wasn’t much good at it. I could never think of the right questions to ask. I did a few long, serious interviews that ended up as straight transcriptions, and I found that difficult as well because then you’re really on the spot, having to engage in a proper intellectual dialogue, something I’ve never been able to do.

Teodoro: You’ve got to have things really well planned and then make it all seem spontaneous.

Dyer: That’s just it. But having tried both methods, I didn’t think I was very good at either of them.

Teodoro: Had you interviewed John Berger when you were preparing Ways of Telling?

Dyer: We first met when I interviewed him for Marxism Today—ah, those were the days! That was one of those long, multi-page transcript things. It was great because afterwards he said, “Do you want to go to the pub and have a drink?” At that time many of my friends were making quite a lot of progress with their lives, with their jobs, and I wasn’t. But at that moment, when I was in the pub with John BergerI’d sprinted ahead of them. I went from being this kind of loser to leaving them in the dust because I was in a pub with this man whose work I loved so much.

Teodoro: I’ve never been able to find Ways of Telling. I presume it’s out of print.

Dyer: Yes. Deservedly. It’s such a timid, sub-academic book. I’ve always thought of it as a surrogate Ph.D. or something. It fulfilled its purpose in that once it was finished I realized I’d spent all that energy writing a boring little book that completely failed to take advantage of any of the freedoms that Berger made available. Believe me, you’re not missing anything by not being able to read it.

Teodoro: Berger’s a writer with whom you share a certain sensuality of prose and, of course, a famous difficulty to categorize. Has his work continued to inform what you do?

Dyer: I guess the first thing to say is that there’s a long tradition of the young, would-be writer meeting their hero, and then this person they so greatly revere turns out to be a total toss-pot. With Berger the stakes were especially high because of the moral vision of his books. So then to meet him and realize that he’s every bit as wonderful in real life as he is in his books—by now I’ve met a ton of famous writers and I still don’t hesitate to say he’s the greatest person I’ve ever met. In terms of his writing, there was a phase where I was deeply influenced by him, but as the books have gone on I think the Berger influence has receded. I was speaking at this festival of travel writing in Paris a few years ago and I said how much Berger meant to me, etc. During questions, a member of the audience said something like, “Berger addresses these huge issues of the day and you seem to write this self-indulgent, druggy comedy stuff and, frankly, I don’t see any connection at all.” He sort of had a point, but actually I think there’s a lot more Berger in my writing than this cat realized. Berger was asked once what the relationship was between his critical writing and his fiction writing, and he said that in a way they’re the same thing, a sort of interrogation of the visible. I’d go along with that. That’s something we share.

More generally, when I left university, there seemed to be this straightforward division. You were either a writer, which meant you were a novelist, or you were a critic, meaning you wrote about other people’s novels. Berger showed this way of being an in-between kind of writer, where you could produce work that was both creative and a form of commentary. For someone like me who didn’t feel like I had stories I wanted to tell, it made a space available to become a writer. He as much as anybody else has pioneered these kinds of writing that really aren’t one thing or another. In a different way I think I’ve pushed it further as well.

Teodoro: It’s a question that also makes me think about Werner Herzog, who dislikes distinguishing between his fiction films and documentaries.

Dyer: Interesting you say that. There’s a great little Herzog quote I can’t remember. I know I wrote it down, thinking, That’s exactly what I feel about what I’m doing. Anyway, this new book is categorized as a novel. I never start out thinking, Now I’m going to write a novel. There’s just something I want to write about. It might be a subject or a place or a situation. Then out of that a form will emerge. I always hope that it’s a form that will be unique to the subject. In terms of the difference between fiction and non-fiction, there’s the very basic distinction of did it happen or didn’t it. Is it real or made up? Well that doesn’t last for long because we know that you can write a novel where you don’t really make anything up. So then the question becomes one of form. You realize that if you’re just doing what I’m doing, letting the book generate its own form, the distinction is about the expectations that the reader brings to the book, how they expect a given form to behave. Take a really good writer like Ian McEwan. One of the reasons we enjoy him so much is because we know how to read those books, we know the kind of ride we’re in for. But then we take someone like W. G. Sebald, let’s say, or that Tobias Wolff book Old School. You start reading that and you think, Ah, it’s just a memoir, just a bit of biography. Then there’s this great moment where you realize, Wow, it really is a novel, and he’s known that all the time and was just setting up this series of expectations that he brilliantly subverts. I like to think that readers are slightly troubled by my books, that my books don’t behave as they might be expected to.

Teodoro: With Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, you set us up from the title onward to read the book as a diptych. It’s interesting because, the switch from third to first person aside, with Jeff in Venice you plant the seed of Laura’s interest in going to Varanasi, and then of course in Death in Varanasi there’s no mention of her at all. So, among other things, we wonder if we’re actually switching from Jeff Atman to Geoff Dyer.

Dyer: People are not sure what sort of book it is. Someone has said it’s two novellas and they have nothing in common. The reason I’m happy for it to be called a novel is because it’s intended to be a totally unified experience. The two halves are leaning on each other, so if you take one away they just collapse. I’ve been surprised more people haven’t talked about the ways in which the two halves are bound together. People have noted that the first half seems to be about desire and the second the evaporation of desire. The thing that I thought was crucial was that instead of a big, thick narrative rope tying the two parts together, what you’ve got are these tiny filaments whereby little phrases or observations or incidents from one part are echoed in the other. It’s not a plot device, not like the old Chekhov line about seeing a gun hanging on the wall in Act I and knowing someone’s going to get shot in Act III. Nor are these connections symbolic. They’re just inconsequentially there.

Let me give an example. In part one, Jeff and Laura are at a party, high on coke, she’s dancing and Jeff notices her feet moving lightly over the colourful oriental rug that demarcates the dance floor. Okay, no big deal. In part two there’s a concert of classical Indian singing and the musicians are seated, as is always the case at these things, on a lovely rug. As the singer begins, her voice makes the narrator think of bare feet moving lightly over the ground. Okay, again, no big deal. But an association is made between these two scenes. And when you multiply that many times over, a kind of cat’s cradle results. As far as I can remember, I think there are about fifty little links like this, and there’s one very important line that’s repeated word for word.

Teodoro: Maybe it has to do with the number of parts. I think about Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, for example. Perhaps having five quite extensive distinct parts with five very different voices, timelines, and locations spanning nearly a thousand pages lends itself to prompting more rigorous queries into what binds it all together. Critics know they have to roll up their sleeves. With your book, we just have two parts, so we hopefully reflect on the first part as we read the second, but we might not do so in the same way we would if we knew there were even more parts coming. All good books deserve rereading, but, as a way of meditating on the whole, it might be more essential than usual in the case of your book.

Dyer: I would be thrilled if people just read it one and a half times. The way I thought of the reading experience is that it would be almost the opposite of suspense. Suspense is all about what’s going to happen next, and I would have to concede that there’s not much of that here. What I would hope is that when people read the second half instead of thinking, What’s going to happen next? they think, Hmm, didn’t something like that happen before, in the first half? Like déjà vu.

Teodoro: Jeff Atman has your build. He’s the same age as you. He has something of your sense of humour. Like you, he’s English and likes to travel. What’s different about you?

Dyer: Loads. But one of the really big things is that I’ve written all these books and he hasn’t. That failure to apply himself to something demanding but fulfilling—a failure I can readily identify with—is one of the main sources of his disgruntlement with the world. He feels he hasn’t really got anything going in his life, whereas for me writing books has been a defining experience, giving me an identity and a purpose. But the other big thing is Jeff’s bachelorhood. A friend who’d read Jeff in Venice joked that it’s such a cozy fucking married book. And indeed I am in this nice, toasty, cozy marriage. So it leaves me free to speculate on the alternative.

Teodoro: In Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, you describe writing as a way of making up for things that didn’t quite happen. Yet in this new book you’re writing about someone with whom you share numerous qualities but who hasn’t enjoyed some of the most important experiences you’ve had.

Dyer: I initially had this idea of doing a version of Death in Venice, but way down on the cultural register, not with a world-famous composer but with this hack journalist. Given that Atman, as you know, means “self” in Sanskrit, initially I imagined him being more like Martin Amis’s John Self, this completely debased brute. But I found that unlike say, John Updike, who does the same thing with Rabbit Angstrom, it wouldn’t work for me. The great thing about what Amis and Updike do is load onto these essentially ignorant people all these incredible responses to the world. I found I couldn’t do that. Jeff had to be a little more like me so he’d have the sensitivities to respond to art and discourse on stuff a bit.

Teodoro: Did you set out with a specific interest in writing about the art world?

Dyer: From the start I wanted it to be Death in Venice set during the opening of the Biennale. I’m as interested in contemporary art as any other average person, but it was more the social intensity of the Biennale, the social fever combined with the heat wave that particular year. I’m not so much interested in the art as I am in the ways the characters and their romance begin to interact with the art and the city. So most of the art that gets discussed at length reflects in some way on what’s happening between them, or on something that’s going to happen in part two. The James Turell piece, Red Shift, is a kind of premonition.

Teodoro: Have you read Siri Hustvedt’s essay on Giorgione’s The Tempest?

Dyer: I haven’t.

Teodoro: It’s in a terrific collection of hers entitled Mysteries of the Rectangle. She emphasizes the triangular gaze between the person looking at the painting, the man gazing across the water at the woman, and the woman looking back at the observer. All of which is of course also reflected upon in Jeff in Venice.

Dyer: I wish I’d known that. As far as I was able to I looked up most of the stuff written about The Tempest and that just escaped me. Mind you, just as a lot of people have written about Venice, a lot of people have written about that painting.

Teodoro: Here’s a question: You’re at a party. A friend introduces you to a friend of theirs. This person asks you what you do. What do you tell them?

Dyer: I say I’m a most distinguished writer.

Teodoro: Then they ask you what it is you write?

Dyer: No, then they say, “Well, how come I’ve never heard of you?” Actually, it all gets difficult quite quickly because it’s difficult to sum up this body of work or even to know where to start. If people ask you about Jack Kerouac, you’d be mad not to say On the Road, wouldn’t you? With my work, though, it would be impossible for me to say which particular book they should try. It’s tempting to say that I haven’t built up a readership because the carry-over audience from one book to the next has tended to be minimal. It’s been defined and somewhat cocooned by the subject matter of that one book.

Teodoro: That’s the tricky thing. Your books are all in different parts of the bookstore. It must be difficult trying to market Geoff Dyer as a brand.

Dyer: Yes, when people have tried to put this new book in the context of some kind of career arc it is inconvenient to explain that the last book was a very scholarly history of photography. It’s taken ages for people to realize that maybe these books have more in common than their disparate subjects suggest. Anyway, to get back to your question, it would involve me boring the pants off somebody for me to explain to them exactly what I do, unfortunately.

Teodoro: Brian Eno once said that he just tells everyone he’s an accountant.

Dyer: An excellent answer.

Teodoro: You’ve written a book about jazz. You’ve written a book about photography. You’ve written a book about World War I. You’ve said that you wrote these books because you wanted to know more about these subjects. But have these subjects then come to change how you write?

Dyer: Within each book, a lot. The jazz book [But Beautiful] is the most obvious one in that it’s a sort of jazzy book, if you like. But I don’t think there’s been any lasting residue. I don’t think there’s anything that’s been in the jazz book that’s lived on to the next book unless you want to say that quite a few of the subsequent books have been in the form of improvisations.

Teodoro: The thing about your photography book, The Ongoing Moment, is that I think it’s quite rigorously associational. There’s a sense of commitment to selecting a very specific image or theme that leads to a path and following that path as it flows along until it finds its natural end point. So I would argue that there seems to be something in that book as well, in this technique, which we think of as fundamentally jazz.

Dyer: I’m so glad you said that because I remember when the reviews for The Missing of the Somme came out, there were comments about its lack of structure. But the fact is it’s easy to write a book about the Great War where the structure is Chapter 1: Recruitment, Chapter 2: Training, Chapter 3: The Trenches, and so on. Anybody can do that. What’s really difficult is to do away with that scaffolding. I like doing without the support of scaffolding: the D. H. Lawrence book [Out of Sheer Rage], the First World War book, and the photography book—none of them have chapters. When The Ongoing Moment came out, people described it as unstructured, yet a big portion of the effort of writing that book went into the structuring of it. It really did my head in, trying to link up as many of the things as I could in the way that I did. At the risk of seeming immodest I would say that structure is one of my great strengths, one of the things that helps me compensate for the lack of storytelling propulsion.

Teodoro: When you take an interest in art, you might follow a particular artist or a movement, but then there’s a point where you start to follow other, smaller things. Objects. Weather.

Dyer: I’ve always been suspicious of the traditional way in which I’m told you go about a Ph.D., when this awful moment comes where you’ve done all that reading and you think, “Now I’ve got to write this shit up!” For me the reading has always been only marginally ahead of the writing—a kind of tandem process. So it’s nice if in the finished books that sense of discovery remains.

Teodoro: One model for some of your work is the travelogue, and with travelogues presumably you’re not going to be writing everything in hindsight but rather on the go.

Dyer: Exactly. Where Yoga was literally a going-out book, The Ongoing Moment was a staying-in book. But each day I’d go to this place that we can essentially call American photography. It was a great place to hang out, and yes, it’s exactly the same thing as visiting a new city or country and using guide books, learning to find your way around, recognizing certain people and places and so on. Maybe that’s something else that I’ve got from Berger—the lack of a clear distinction between the discursive and the narrative.

Teodoro: Do you like Milan Kundera’s work? I ask because of his particular way of combining the essay with the novel.

Dyer: Sure. But as time went by I got increasingly tired of the novelistic bits. There was always a Benny Hill quality to these doctors-and-nurses scenarios. You know, the nurse in her bra and panties getting chased around by these horny doctors. I really liked it when we got the one where it was just all argument and no novel.

Teodoro: There’s a few of those. You mean Testaments Betrayed?

Dyer: That’s the one. Certain people really connect with him of course, like Alain de Botton and Adam Thirlwell. But he isn’t there as a deep influence for me because it seemed that you couldn’t get very near to Kundera without basically just doing Kundera.

Teodoro: He works at that, I think. There can be only one.

Dyer: Once when I was living in Paris I was out walking and I saw this guy and I realized instantly it was Milan Kundera. What I really wanted to say to him was, “Ah, vous êtes Steve Martin!” Because he looks so much like him, you know, with that white hair. But of course I said, “Vous êtes Milan Kundera, and I really like your books.” He was very nice to me, not affronted at all. And then he went on with whatever he was doing, which was, I don’t know, chasing some young girl down the street or something.

TeodoroOut of Sheer Rage was in some sense a confrontation with the very act of writing itself. When you finished that book, did you feel as though you’d reached an end point, or if you’d prefer, a turning point regarding certain questions about how to continue doing what it is that you do?

Dyer: If there was any kind of breakthrough in that book, it was in terms of tone. I’d managed to arrive at a tone that enabled me to move between comic, almost slapstick scenes and quite serious discursive or analytical passages without any crunching of gears. It also took something that underpinned the First World War book a stage further; namely that you could convey certain general truths, things that would ring true for many people, by remaining absolutely faithful to the minutiae of your experience and the vagaries of your own nature.

Teodoro: You mentioned that you might like to write a book about Stalker, the Andrei Tarkovsky film. I wonder what form that would take. Several of your books have incorporated illustrations into the thread of their narratives or arguments. When approaching Tarkovsky, would you need to, I don’t know, make a flipbook or something? Find some way to crack those Tarkovskian questions about the nature of time and how we grapple with its passing before our eyes?

Dyer: The headaches involved in getting permissions to use pictures in the photography book have pretty well cured me of any desire to use illustrations in future books. I’m not sure about the Stalker thing, but there’s this bit in Diary of a Bad Year where J. M. Coetzee says of a passage in Dostoevsky that he’s never become inured to it, that it moves him more deeply every time he reads it. I feel the same way about Stalker.

Teodoro: Do you fancy making a book that expands the notion of what physical form a book should take? I suppose with the industry being the way it is just now and electronic media invading so many aspects of life, this is a question that a few different makers of books are asking themselves, for better or for worse.

Dyer: The photography book would have lent itself quite well to the way that one can read things on the Net, you know, jumping around, off to the side and backward rather than in a linear way. But I am pretty keen on the physical consolation of the book. There’s that moment when you get the first copy of your new book and you think, “Wow, this proves I really am a writer!” It doesn’t last long, but it’s a lovely feeling and I’m not sure I could do without it.

Teodoro: This totally contradicts something you were saying earlier, but I’d still like to ask it. Can you imagine one day writing a definitive Geoff Dyer book, a single volume that would be your On the Road, that would somehow work as a summary of whatever it is that you’ve always been moving toward or circling around?

Dyer: No, I honestly can’t imagine that. Quite the opposite in that I think ultimately I’ll end up just writing essays or maybe a logbook of daily irritations. Looking in the other direction—i.e. backwards—in some ways, the novel Paris Trance was a pretty complete statement of the way I felt about certain things, certain ideas of happiness and romance. Unfortunately a lot of people did not share my high opinion of this flawless masterpiece.

Teodoro: Are there topics that have always interested you that you’re still trying to figure out how to write about? Are there things that fascinate you that you’ve had to resign yourself to just leaving be, things that simply resist dialogue?

Dyer: I was too in awe of Coltrane to write about him in But Beautiful but I think I could have gotten ’round that by writing about Albert Ayler—then the book could have ended not with Art Pepper but with Ayler’s body floating in the East River. That way it would have included the whole free jazz thing and would have been historically more complete—from Lester Young to Ayler, from Y to A. There are a few other things that I maybe could have done, but the moment has passed. I fear I’m in the process of missing the boat, the moment, when I could have written a book about tennis. This is something one grapples with. Is this the time to start writing a book on this subject? And it’s a very difficult question to answer because it is inevitably distorted and bent out of shape by laziness. I think as you get older and more familiar with the effort involved you come to dread the prospect of setting out on another book. Put it this way: when I was in my twenties and early thirties I used to go to the gym and lift weights. I only kept going to put off the day when I would give up and stop going—as I knew I would. I feel the same about writing. I’m just postponing the inevitable, the day when I won’t do it anymore, when I sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

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José Teodoro is the author of the plays MoteStepsThe Tourist, and Slowly, an exchange is taking place. He regularly contributes to publications such as CinemaScope, the National PostFilm Comment, and the Globe and Mail. He is currently developing a book of conversations with filmmaker Peter Mettler.