Q: Just how much Graham Greene do you intend to read, anyway?
A: Every word he wrote.
Q: And how far along are you, then?
A: Um. I've read 17 (or is it 18?) of the 25 novels; 1 of the volumes of autobiography; and the essays. That leaves 8 (or is it 7?) novels, the plays, the stories, 4 travel books, 3 more volumes of autobiography, and the children's books. (Okay, I might give the children's books a miss. And the 2 biographies.)
Q: What does your daily routine look like these days?
A: First half of day: work out obsessively. Second half of day: read obsessively.
Q: Surely you do more than work out and read?
A: Not really.
Q: How do you work out for half the day?
A: It's mainly a matter of interval training. You can only do a chest-and-upper-back free weight routine, or run around Hyde Park, or pant on the cross gerbil trainer, or bang on a boxing bag, for so long at one time. However, if you switch off amongst them, you can do a lot more.
Q: Can you give a specific example?
A: For example, I can only run about 10 or 12 km in the park. But then I can get right on the gerbil trainer and hill climb for 32 minutes.
Q: I think I see . . . But why 32 minutes?
A: I have a thing about powers of 2. My sets tend to be of 4, 8, or 16 reps.
Q: So you think these are lucky numbers?
A: No, of course not; I gave up superstition for good in 2003. I just find them pleasing.
Q: But surely you're interested in other things than reading and working out?
A: Yeah, okay, I'm very fond of sleeping. And, in the mornings, over my tea and my morning mail, I obsessively collect ass-kicking workout music. The MP3 player must constantly be fed.
Q: Do you eat, yourself?
A: Not really. I mainly drink these huge fruit and soya-protein frappés.
Q: No solid food?
A: A vegetable goulash in the evenings; but that doesn't really have any calories.
Q: What is it with you and Graham Greene, anyway?
A: I've realised he stands alone as THE existentialist novelist of the twentieth century.
Q: Didn't Sartre and Camus write the seminal and emblematic existential novels? La Nausée? The Fall?
A: They invented the form (if you discount Dostoyevski, which you probably do at your own peril) but they simply never had Greene's chops. He took it out the stratosphere.
A: Take A Burnt-Out Case. I mean please. Here's a guy, Querry (another Greenelandian tragic hero), who has come to the end of life. He's come to the end of work (despite being talented, famous, and celebrated); he's come to the end of love (despite being successful with women); he's come to the end of everything. So he goes down a river in the interior of darkest Africa, in the Belgian Congo; he goes to the very last riverboat stop on the whole river; the END of the river. To a freakin' leper colony. And, ultimately, he doesn't even find peace there. The absurdities of modern existence come and find him, even there.
Q: Okay, I see what you mean.
A: Yeah. Props to Albert and Jean-Paul for giving names to things ("absurdity" and "contingency", respectively). But, really, all Jean-Baptiste Clamence does (in The Fall) is walk around Amsterdam and confess; and Antoine Roquentin (in Nausea) just went back and forth from the library to the cafe. These are not particularly stark existential situations they're just bare stages for the characters to pace upon while they tell us about the meaninglessness of existence.
Whereas, on the other hand, Greene knew how to set a scene, develop a fraught circumstance, and a doomed character within it and show us. His characters have typically gone to the arse-ends of the Earth; they generally love no one (with the exception of daughter figures), and are really known or understood by no one at all; they find themselves in dire circumstances, with no obvious way out; they are a million miles from being in control of their destinies. And these situations play out, things fall apart, as we look on open-mouthed.
Roquentin nattered on about the horror of existence. But Major Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) knew it, and felt it in his bones. Doctor Plarr (The Honorary Consul) faced it head on he lived it (and died from it). And Querry completely embodied it.
Q: Did you get any pleasure out of finally being published, after ten years of writing and hustling?
A: Not really.
Q: C'mon! None?
A: When the first one was picked up, I was pretty happy for about a day or two.
Q: And the second one? (Which was, really, a much bigger hurdle to clear?)
A: Fifteen minutes. Really chuffed for fifteen minutes. Ask Barney; he was with me.
Q: That must have been a surprise.
A: It's true that I went through life for many, many years believing that A) there were two categories of people in the world those who had published novels and those who had not; and B) it was vitally important to any success or happiness I was going to have that I get into the first group. David Foster Wallace has a really fantastic trope about this illusion in Infinite Jest, but I don't really have the energy to relate it right now. (Okay, here it is.)
Q: No offence, but doesn't that seem maybe a bit churlish? A little ungrateful maybe?
A: Don't get me wrong I know how extraordinarily fortunate I am. Approximately 8 billion fiction writers would sodomize their uncles for a deal with a major publishing house. And I am, or at least hope I am, very thankful for it. But it just seems like getting published isn't really the kind of thing that makes you happy. I guess it did take away the special pain of NOT being published. Sophie Tucker said, "I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better." Published is better.
Q: But they optioned the film rights to the first one! So at least you're rich now, right?
Q: So if you haven't really made any money to speak of out of this whole thing, then how have you managed to stay out of work for, what is it, almost eight months now?
A: I'm running through my entire cash reserve.
Q: Oh. So you're using the time to write a new book, then?
A: I'm actually avoiding writing, by the time-honoured practice of "research". In fact, I'm not writing two books at the moment.
Q: What does it mean to not be writing two books?
A: Well, there's the one I really should be writing the very commercial and grabby techno-actioner. I'm trying to push on it, but it's the other one that really wants to get written the one that prods me with tons of unbidden great ideas at odd hours.
Q: What's that one?
A: A collection of loosely linked stories body-tackling themes of modern manhood, libertinism, Darwinian imperatives for reproduction, social pressures for dating and marriage, the fundamental conflict of the prototypical man who loves women, sexual neurosis, sexual jealousy, the slippery slope from existentialism to nihilism, tribe behaviour, contemporary big city life, damaged women, male vanity, and sexual power politics.
Q: In other words, completely unsalable?
A: That seems to be my editor's position on the matter. And, in any case, I'm not even motivated enough to be doing the research at the moment. I'm not even NOT writing the books. I'm just working out and reading, and hiding out.
Q: So is it safe to say you're a little down?
A: Yeah. But, on the other hand, of course life could be a whole hell of a lot worse.
Q: How so?
A: I have an enormously anguished and plausibly suicidal dear friend who has completely fallen through the enormous cracks in the NHS mental health care system.
Q: Wow. What's going to happen?
A: I've made it my personal holy mission to personally see that she gets the care she needs, immediately and in full.
Q: That's pretty selfless of you. How are you going about it?
A: Not important. What is important is that, ironically, it's not really selfless at all. Ironically, it's the best thing that's happened to me in months.
A: Yeah. Trying to help her has gotten me out of my own head; it's shown me someone with bigger problems than I've got; it's illustrated for me what a waste depression is, especially in someone with a lot going for him/her; and, mainly, mainly, it's given me something to do for awhile that actually has MEANING.
Q: What else?
A: Well, my best friend's dog, and his marriage, are dying.
Q: That sucks. What are you doing for him?
A: Not that much. Same as the last 20+ years being there.
Q: What's the best piece of advice you've gotten lately?
A: Bertrand Russell wrote: If contemplating the nature of existence proves too painful . . . then contemplate something else.
Q: That's pretty priceless. So it appears you're not only reading Graham Greene?
A: Not completely. A little Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham. I also intend to get to the end of Waugh and Maugham. And a little Sartre and Camus, which unfortunately goes against Russell's advice.
Q: How does this period of being depressed and working out and sleeping and reading Graham Greene differ from the one 2.5 years ago (after you and Ali broke up)?
A: I'm not drinking this time.
Q: Why not?
A: Because I'm still getting off the last of the fucking weight I gained two and half years ago. It's just too bloody hard to stay buff while drinking.
Q: Surely you can drink in moderation?
A: Surely not. It starts with a pint or two with my mates out on Friday night; and it turns into three or four pints Monday through Thursday nights, home alone.
Q: Why exactly does that happen?
A: Depressives are great self-medicators; and alcohol is a great analgesic it goes straight to the brain.
Q: So don't you miss the pain relief?
A: You bet. But I'd rather be thin right now.
Q: Because chiseling your body to perfection in a pointless and Sisyphean obsession gives you something to do? A goal?
Q: With that body, you must be out dating scores of hot chicks. Right?
A: No. I've pretty much given up on dating.
Q: What?! Why?
A: I don't really want to get into it. But let's just suffice it to say for the moment, and this is just a tiny part of it, but I really don't want to give women any more sexual power than they already have, which, last time I checked, is all of it.
Q: But aren't you a longstanding, hard-core feminist? Don't you love women? And aren't your sisters your favourite people in the world?
A: What's that got to do with it?
Q: Well, that sexual power business sounds kind of misogynist or at least resentful.
A: I recognise that it's confusing. I'm confused myself.
Q: Most people, really, are big balls of contradictions, aren't they?
Q: Don't you think people are going to see through this flimsily, pathetically transparent charade of asking yourself questions? Surely it's embarrassingly obvious that it's you both asking and answering all the questions?
A: Yes, that's true.
Q: So perhaps we should wind down?
Q: Any last words of wisdom?
A: Joy always comes again.
Q: Does that include love?
A: Especially love. Love definitely always comes again.