The Three Rs: Sam Thompson

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sam Thompson’s first book, Communion Town, has been longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. He has written book reviews and other journalism for the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the Guardian and Scotland on Sunday. He was born in London in 1978, studied in Dublin and lives with his family in Oxford, where he teaches English at St Anne’s College.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I think I was pretty cagey about admitting that to myself. I always wanted to learn to write, but it wasn’t a case of saying ‘I’m going to write books’, just of trying out bits and pieces of writing in an attempt to work out how to do it. Writing this first book has been a long, slow, disorganized process, and it still takes me by surprise that it’s come together into a finished form. But I’m looking forward to being much more focused about the next one.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

It varies a lot: I work as a university tutor, and my partner and I have a 19-month-old son, so I fit writing in around marking essays, planning classes and having bananas rubbed into my hair. This is a good thing, because if I had limitless writing time I’d achieve even more awesome feats of procrastination than I do already.

Do you type or write?

I type almost everything, but I do carry around a little notebook to write down stuff I’d otherwise forget – the usual kinds of raw material, fragments of ideas, dreams, isolated sentences, bits of overheard conversation, attempts to describe the weather and people at bus stops. It’s a good way of paying attention to what’s going on around you, and it gets addictive. Sadly I can’t read my own handwriting.

What do you read while you’re writing?

Whatever I happen to be reading anyway. I know some people avoid reading fiction while they’re writing it, so as not to pick up someone else’s style, but I find this problem is outweighed by the benefits of inspiration and seeing how it’s done. It’s remarkable how often you can get stuck on some technical problem with what you’re trying to write, then you open a familiar novel at random and it shows you the solution.

Also, this is possibly a shameful confession, but I do find myself reading books about writers and writing – whether it’s the Paris Review Interviews or John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. When you feel ridiculous for spending your spare time bent over a laptop, it’s encouraging to read something which takes this foolish activity seriously – and/or romanticizes it hugely.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’ve just read Alan Garner’s new novel Boneland, which is the conclusion to a trilogy that he began over fifty years ago with his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Those were children’s fantasy adventures based in the landscape and local mythology of Cheshire, but Boneland finishes their story in the manner of Garner’s more recent work, which means it’s a shamanic, frightening novel for grownups. It reminded me how scary his early books were, too.

Other recent likes include Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and Louis MacNeice’s memoir The Strings are False. And at the moment I’m part-way through The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, which is fascinating. It’s a ’21st Century Bestiary’, an A-Z of creatures that are extremely strange, but real – the point of the title being that humans have hardly begun to imagine how weird life on Earth actually is.

What are your all-time favourites?

I’m really bad at deciding and I keep changing my mind. But there’s Shakespeare for a start: my touchstones are Hamlet and The Tempest, probably because I got to know them inside-out at school. What else? Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. R. L. Stevenson. Chekhov for his humanity, and Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark for their inhumanity. Beckett for his honesty but also his tenderness. James Baldwin for his fusion of style and passion. Some more recent writers I go back to are John Banville, Angela Carter, M. John Harrison and David Foster Wallace. And there’s Bob Dylan, who’s a fiction-writer in everything he does.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose, and why?

I have to choose reading, because if I didn’t read I wouldn’t be able to write either. It can’t be done in a vacuum.

What’s your third R, and why?

Regaining perspective by hanging around with a two-foot-tall maniac who demands a continual supply of raisins.

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