Is it true to say that South of the River is a longer book than any of your previous ones, and different in scope? If so, can you explain how you reached the decision to write it?
I didn’t set out with the intention of writing a long book, but yes, it’s twice as long as any of my previous ones. I feel a little guilty about that. But I also know some readers enjoy novels that they can linger over, rather than bolting them down like Big Macs. It’s a less personal book than most of my others but has many of the same concerns: families, love, work, sex, death.
Most reviewers call it a ‘state of the nation’ novel. Do you agree, and if so, which others in that tradition do you admire?
It’s more spirit-of-the-age than state-ofthe- nation – rather than attempting a panoramic view of the whole of British society, it catches the mood of a certain period, as experienced by five different characters. I used to enjoy the Zeitgeist novels of the late Malcolm Bradbury; mine’s more a book in that tradition than it is an epic of the Blair years. The characters all have views about the world they live in but none of them is especially political.
How did you do the research, and then control how you dispersed it throughout the book?
Just living through the period I was writing about – watching, thinking, taking notes, and keeping news cuttings – formed the bulk of the research. But you do forget stuff, so I also visited the National Newspaper Library at Colindale, to remind myself what exactly was happening in the world during the five days on which the novel is set. With a social-realist novel, it’s important to get the detail right. I’ve already had readers alerting me to mistakes (about London bus routes, for example, or the date David Beckham married Posh Spice), which I’ve corrected for the paperback. But you don’t want to swamp people with research material about public events, so you omit most of the stuff you’ve gathered. The private lives of the characters matter most.
Politics, sex, class – would you say these are the quintessential obsessions for the contemporary British novelist?
Sex and class, certainly: who’s on top of whom. Not politics so much, because it’s ephemeral. You never forget the first person you sleep with or your first experience of mixing with people from a different social group. But who remembers who the defence secretary was in 2001?
What about the foxes – do you have them in your garden?
I see foxes in my garden every day: I do my writing in the basement, at the rear of the house, and they often brush past my window or stare in at me tip-tapping on the keyboard. I sometimes fantasise about them taking over my desk and doing my work for me. In a sense that’s what they did with South of the River – took over the plot and threaded themselves through the whole narrative.
What would you most like reading groups to discuss and take away from your novel?
I’d like them to discuss the characters. Does the narcissistic Nat have any redeeming qualities? Why is Anthea such a chameleon? What’s Harry so touchy about? Is Libby wrong to get involved with a younger man? How likeable is Jack and what exactly happens to him at the end? My hope is that readers will feel ‘I recognise these people!’ and that the themes I explore (for example, the difference that the Internet and email made to everyday life in the period 1997-2002) will be ones they’ve ideas about too. If people are provoked by the book, as well as enjoying it, then I’ll feel it was a book worth writing.
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