When you’ve written a Man Booker longlisted novel which combines Nazis, sexual frustration, teleportation machines and H P Lovecraft’s science fiction stories, and composed an opening sentence as mind-bogglingly long yet undeniably engaging as this one itself, and all by the age of twenty seven, then you can be sure that somewhere along the way you picked up the literary equivalent of the golden ticket. I caught up with Ned Beauman last Friday, just as he was entering the figurative chocolate factory of global recognition, bumper sales and literary awards, to talk to him about his time at Cambridge, his early writing and how he likes the limelight.
Not too many years ago, you were studying Philosophy at Cambridge and, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, philosophy courses aren’t known for producing authors of your wit or comic capacity. How did you enjoy Cambridge and how did you get into writing?
Well I had a pretty good time there. Cambridge doesn’t offer any creative writing courses so it doesn’t have a bloc of people writing fiction, although there was playwriting – which everyone was doing. But there was this anthology which Oxford shared called the Mays and the occasional magazine which published fiction, so there was a little bit going on. And I wrote a novel while I was at Cambridge which I tried to get an agent for but I couldn’t find anyone who was interested. But that was good practice.
What was your first, unpublished novel about?
It was about an evil theatre company.
And what happened to it?
I finished it and was talking to an agent about it but they didn’t take it on. As the months passed I began to realize that it wasn’t actually a very successful novel anyway so I just put it away and now I would never want anyone to read it.
Could you tell us a little about your first published novel, Boxer, Beetle?
I started that after I graduated and it took me about two and a half years while I was working. It started while I was doing an MA at Sussex and then I was writing while I was working, on Wednesdays and Sundays. The first one is always going to be pretty special to me because it was the first time that I’d written a novel that worked in some sort of way on the level on which I ‘d hoped for. And I think I developed my style, whilst my style didn’t really exist in the one I wrote while I was at Cambridge. I haven’t been back to look at it [Boxer, Beetle] for a while. When I read from it I usually read the opening two pages so I must have read those dozens and dozens and dozens of times, but I don’t know how the rest of it would hold up. But people are still buying it and enjoying it I think.
Your second and most recent novel, The Teleportation Accident, also involves the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Is there something that you find particularly engaging about that period of history?
Well, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in Germany in the 1930s. I don’t have any particular preoccupation with the Nazis except in terms of their over-the-top status as the most evil thing in the world as there’s quite a lot of ways to create character by counter poising them to that. So you have a character who doesn’t care about the Nazis and then you ask: can you still like this character; can this character still be funny? And so on. It was also a good job that I wrote another novel on that period because while I was researching the first one I happened to come across City of Quartz by Mike Davis which was a really wonderful picture of LA at about the time of Weimar and I wanted to write about that. But also, in a way, being a bit bored of the 1930s is probably why the novel is so fragmentary.
You are not new to literary awards, your first novel won the Goldberg Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction and the UK Writer’s Guild Award, but how does it feel to have been long listed for the Man Booker, a prize which has been won by authors as well regarded as John Banville and Ian McEwan?
Well obviously it’s terrific. I didn’t expect it to happen so early in my career. Those other prizes are great but the Man Booker is on another level. The impact on sales has been really extraordinary just in the few weeks since the longlist was announced. The novel is already onto it’s third printing which I’m told is quite impressive a month after publication. There has also been so much more attention world-wide. I’m doing a festival in Toronto in October, so I’m going to go up and see Niagara Falls, and that came directly out of the Booker longlist. It’s great, but you’ve got to remember that it is five people that decide, it’s not like the god’s of literature have made any objective declaration about it me: it’s the taste of these five people. Although I’m sure they choose the panel very well and they read the books very carefully so it means a lot to get their commendation nonetheless.
You’ve written for magazines such as Dazed & Conflused, The Guardian and The Literary Review. Do you have further ambitions for your career in journalism?
Well I enjoy journalism although I really don’t do very much of it. I probably only do a few pieces a year. But the type of journalism that I’m interested in now tends to be the type that I’m not very well qualified for. I’d really like to do some more writing about art, but the problem is that I don’t really know anything about art. I’d like to do some more long-form writing, perhaps for some American magazine like Harper’s, but I don’t really have any of the journalistic skills that you need to pitch, let alone write for a magazine like that. In journalism my ambitions tend to outstrip my prospects a little bit. But I do enjoy it.
Can I ask about your future writing? Is there a third novel in the works?
I’m well under way with my third book which I’ve already sold so it will definitely be published, perhaps in 2012. I’ve not told anyone about the plot, but it will be very different in setting to my first two books. It is set in South London in May 2012 over a few weeks. It’s definitely less ambitious and less wide ranging than my first two books but it’s been incredibly enjoyable to write.
And finally, the inevitable question: do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I’ve actually never been asked that question before. I suppose, read a lot. For instance, when I was at Cambridge I made it a project to read through the Modern Libraries collection of the hundred greatest books of the twentieth century. I haven’t nearly read the whole thing but that was brilliant and if you set yourself tasks like that then you end up doing at least almost as much reading as you need to be doing. I would also say that you can be quite optimistic about it because getting an agent and getting publishers is not just about having connections. They are businesses and they are looking for books that they think will sell. It’s not like they are grudgingly taking on books; they love to find books that they think will do well. People at Oxford and Cambridge in many ways have the right connections already, but if you don’t then you really don’t need to worry. You only need to worry about writing a good book.