The Three Rs: Sam Byers

November 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sam Byers was born in 1979. His first novel, Idiopathy, will be published in the UK by Fourth Estate in April and in the US by Faber and Faber Inc in June.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I remember writing stories pretty much right through my childhood, but it took me a while to realize it was something I wanted to do seriously. I think I was 17 when I started saying I actually wanted to be a writer, and maybe 19 or 20 when I started to think about writing a novel. After that I was hooked.

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

For some reason, if I leave the house at all, I won’t write, so I keep the whole day completely ring-fenced. It really has to start as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. From there, a quite spectacular amount of pottering goes on. I play some music, make some coffee, play some more music, maybe read a bit. At some point there will be an altercation with the cat. I will inevitably over-caffeinate. It’s quite important I don’t talk to anybody, as even one vaguely decent conversation gives me another hundred things to think about. If I hit my quota quickly I give myself the rest of the day off. If not, I’m not allowed out. I make time for a late afternoon run most days to slough off the writing and reconnect with the world.

Do you type or write?

Type. Always. I’m quite geeky, so I like my software. I’m lost without Evernote, and I’ve recently switched from Word to Scrivener. Some of my best writing happens when I tell myself I’m not writing, so I tend to move notes around a lot, adding to them here and there, until I’ve created some pretty clear chunks to work with. That said, I do all my editing on paper, with a red fountain pen. Frankly, though, I’ve got no time for all this romanticizing of writing materials; people who insist they can only use a quill or whatever. It’s still just words on a page at the end of the day.

What do you read while you’re writing?

It’s complicated. When I first start a book there is a chaotic shopping phase where I buy anything I think might be vaguely related. At some point I will realize that none of the hundred books I’ve bought are actually what I’m looking for. Then I will convince myself that this is because the book I’m writing is the book I’m looking for. A painfully brief period of manic excitement ensues, only to end when I read what I’ve written and realize it is in no imaginable way the book I am looking for, at which point the cycle begins again. The further through a book I am, the more of a tightrope it becomes. I don’t want to read anything too close to what I’m doing but I don’t want to read anything too different either. People get very annoyed when they lend me books, as unless they’re the right kind of book I will not read them. Music is also very important. I find as many ideas and solutions in music as I do in books.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

A lot, actually. It’s been a great year. I was absolutely stunned by Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. It’s the funniest, sharpest, most intelligent thing I’ve read in a good while. Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child was beautifully fractured and deeply haunting and, I think, a rare example of a novel that genuinely pushed outwards towards new places and ideas. Katherine Angel’s Unmastered stayed in my head for weeks after I read it. It’s brave, moving, and perfectly structured. I also loved Sam Rivière’s poetry collection 81 Austerities. He’s a completely fresh voice in contemporary poetry.

What are your all-time favourites?

I remember very vividly the summer I finished university being completely transformative. I hated my English degree. I’d vowed never to read anything I didn’t want to read again. I felt my time of being in service to other people’s ideas was over. I read Delillo’s Underworld; Pynchon’s V; Ulysses. I would say those books, and that summer, changed my life. I go back to Delillo constantly. For me, his sentences are without equal. Their rhythm, their precision, their little linguistic surprises. Some time later I discovered David Foster Wallace, and he is another writer I re-read a lot. If I want to laugh, I pick up George Saunders or Evelyn Waugh.

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

Writing. No question. It’s how I exist in the world. It’s how I think about things, how I process them, and I am just never happier than when I’m doing it.

What’s your third R, and why?

To be honest, this is a surprise even to me, but I’m going to say running. I’ve only been doing it a year, and I must stress that I am laughably bad at it, but it’s become something I look forward to as much as writing. I’ve been a non-smoker for two years now, and I feel like I’m slowly working my way back to being alive. I love the peacefulness of a long, slow run, and the sense of steady, undramatic progress reminds me of novel-writing. It’s the only thing for which I might leave off writing a little earlier.

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