This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 30 July 2009
Gavin James Bower interviewed by Andrew Gallix.
[Pic: Carl Wilkinson]
3:AM: In a way, you became a novelist as a result of the failure of all your other career options. You started off as an intern at Dazed & Confused, but instead of encouraging you to become a journalist, they introduced you to modelling. You were a model for the best part of 2 years and then packed it in because you hadn’t gone mega as you’d hoped (the “skinny-jeans-and-winklepickers ‘look’,” as you describe it, was no longer all the rage anyway). Then you worked for a production company — a job you enjoyed — but were made redundant. And that’s when you started writing Dazed & Aroused, right?
GJB: I like the idea of finding success through failure. There’s something bittersweet about it, as if I’d worked all my life in a factory and then, on the day I retired, won the lottery.
But, in truth, it feels more like I’ve come full circle — and all a bit by accident too. I first wanted to be a writer at uni and had some success as a journalist, but then didn’t really manage to get off the ground when I graduated. I kind of just fell into modelling as a way to get to London, which, being from a small town in the North, had this tremendous pull for me. I suppose I was going to figure it out as I went along. That was ‘the plan’ anyway.
When modelling didn’t work out, though, and after working a few media jobs for a while — and getting sucked into the whole 22 grand job thing — I ended up writing the novel I’d wanted to write since first arriving in London. I’d been working for a ‘green’ production company, but they’d spunked about eight million quid against a wall and made everyone redundant — so I had plenty of time on my hands over Christmas 2007. I’d been making notes on a novel for the two years I’d been in London, and was very clear on its premise. My writing’s very ideas-driven and not so reliant on plot, which probably makes it ‘literary fiction’ I suppose.
Anyway, that was all worked out — but I hadn’t dared to commit to the narrator’s own story. It was always going to be about alienation in the way Marx explained it in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, with the narrator being the personification of the capitalist social relation — an estranged individual who exploits others for personal gain, but refuses to connect to anyone or anything — but I’d been too cowardly to commit to creating his personality, and the world he inhabited day to day. I was stuck somewhere between a cynical office worker and a trustafarian — neither of which appealed to me as a writer.
I’d been very reluctant to write what for me was a ‘serious’ novel and set in the fashion world. With me losing my job, though, I just made a decision to sit down and write it. I had so much ammunition, and it just made sense.
3:AM: I understand that writing was always your main ambition, though. Apart from Ellis (whom we’ll return to), which authors inspired you to become a writer yourself?
GJB: I’d say early Marx was a big influence, as was Jean-Paul Sartre, especially Nausea. I’d always read a lot of philosophy too, being a history graduate, and probably enjoyed that more than fiction.
When it comes to fiction, William S. Burroughs, Albert Camus, F. Scott Fitzgerald: these are all writers I admire.
One of the first people who really got me excited about being a writer myself, though, was Lee Taylor (editor of Flux magazine). My first published article was in FLUX. I emailed him to ask for some work experience with the mag, while I was still at uni. He didn’t want anyone but we ended up having a month-long email conversation, which then led to me just writing something. He published it and that was that.
3:AM: You’ve said that you like Richard Milward, Chris Killen, Joe Stretch, and Niven Govinden. Do you feel an affinity with them? I see strong parallels between your work and that of Christiana Spens and Joe Stretch in particular: do you agree?
GJB: I’m reading and loving The Wrecking Ball right now actually, and it’s incredible to see the parallels now my book’s been published. I’m not sure I’d have written it that way, though, had I read Spens beforehand — because I wouldn’t want to have felt like I was copying her. She’s a terrific writer, very talented.
Richard Milward, Joe Stretch and Chris Killen are all in their twenties, like me, and also Northern, like me. Beyond that, I don’t see that many parallels between us, as they each strike me as uniquely talented, idiosyncratic and a bit mad to be honest. It’s no bad thing, though, and is also quite flattering because I really do like their writing a lot.
3:AM: In your book, there’s a scene in which a copy of We Are the New Romantics, Niven Govinden’s debut novel, appears. Now, a blurb by Govinden adorns the jacket of your own first novel (“Sharper than an Alexander McQueen cut”). This, I think, is a good example of the almost disquieting relationship between reality and fiction surrounding your work. I almost get the impression that you turned yourself into a character out of a Bret Easton Ellis book before writing one yourself. Take the internship at Dazed & Confused, for instance: you could have done an internship at a daily newspaper or a literary journal. You also used to write (and model for) Flux magazine, which appeals to a similar hipster constituency as Dazed, so the choice doesn’t seem totally innocent. Then there’s the fact that you can talk authentically about inauthenticity since you’ve experienced the model lifestyle from the inside. Do you reckon there’s an element of truth in all this?
GJB: I Iove the idea of being able to talk authentically about inauthenticity — I might nick that for when I next need a blurb.
If I could’ve landed an internship at a national newspaper, I’d have snapped it up. I didn’t get past a first interview for the graduate scheme at the Daily Express. True story. Looking back, I think I took the only internship going, but it’s no coincidence that I looked to magazines reflecting my interests and ended up at an arts-cum-style mag.
When I left university, I didn’t consider myself particularly ‘literary’, whatever that means. I wanted to be a journalist and was writing 500 words about installation art and hipster musicians, or bigger pieces on Surrealism. I seemed to call everyone and everything ‘bourgeois’ for a while. I think I needed to grow up as a person, as well as a writer, before being able to write a novel. Incidentally, my first and only attempt at novel writing prior to Dazed & Aroused was during uni. I was really only flirting with the idea of writing more than a page of anything, and it ended up being just a lot of sex — and not even good sex at that.
Years later, when I sat down to write what became Dazed & Aroused, I felt ready. It was as if I was purging myself of Alex — a disconnected, almost two-dimensional individual incapable of empathising with people around him, only taking from them and never giving anything in return. I wasn’t ever really caught up in the modelling world the way Alex is in the novel, and my friends were all doing very different things. Even so, his viewpoint and estrangement is an expression of mine, and so it felt very cathartic ridding myself of that aspect of my own personality, which I think all fictional creations are in a sense, as well as turning something a bit negative — the modelling — into a positive. The funny thing is, though, now the book’s out and I’m single myself — and no longer a model — I feel more and more like him every day.
As for Niven, I read and enjoyed We Are The New Romantics before writing Dazed & Aroused. I name-dropped him because of the scene in which his book appears. The characters are trying to create a sense of romance by doing drugs and listening to Depeche Mode. I think this sense of futility when it comes to romance, to idealism, is kind of my generation’s ‘thing’ — and I certainly got that from reading Niven’s book.
After I finished mine, when I was looking for an agent, I approached him for advice on getting published. I’d found him on Facebook, as it happened, and he was really nice about it. I sent the manuscript to him when it was going to be published, to see if he could come up with anything and, being Niven, he gave me a killer line.
I like the ‘almost disquieting relationship between reality and fiction’ surrounding my work, so don’t want to say more. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
3:AM: Ok, back to Ellis. The first paragraph of Dazed, with the advertising slogan, is a nod to the opening of American Psycho. We could also mention the name-dropping, the lists of brands, Natalie’s “cool trends”, the juxtaposition of glamour and squalor (the toilets covered in diarrhoea due to the laxatives models take) and the DJ who plays Bloc Party’s “Song for Clay (Disappear Here)”. Ellis really is a major influence, isn’t he?
GJB: I have no idea what you’re talking about…
Ok seriously, yes, he’s a major influence. He’s my favourite writer and Less Than Zero my favourite novel. The Bloc Party song is the only explicit nod to him and his work in my book, but the similarities stylistically are there, certainly. I really hadn’t considered that about the first paragraph, though, and thought I was being original. Oh well.
I would say, however, that the premise and point of Dazed & Aroused is, for me, very different to anything by Ellis. It puts the ‘social’ in anti-social. (Note to self: use that when asked to blurb for Stewart Home’s next book.) In all seriousness, though, I wrote it as an indictment of individualism, and think it’s very much a materialist work at heart. Also, it’s fundamentally anti-capitalist, which I don’t think Ellis is or ever has been. He’s far more of a satirist too — pointing out problems rather than proposing solutions — whereas I’ve always fancied myself as more than just a troublemaker.
3:AM: You were three years old when Less Than Zero came out. Has it achieved classic status for you? Is it part of literary history?
GJB: I’ve never been more affected by a book and so, for me, it’s a classic. In my opinion, Less Than Zero is the best book of its kind: a book about jaded youth, about the end of innocence, about embracing the abyss. What’s funny is, Less Than Zero defined a generation and yet, today, no book is more relevant to young people.
Apart from mine, of course…
3:AM: “Gen X was brought up with a sense of values that it saw collapsing, so we have a kind of nostalgia, I guess, for something a bit more solid, although we’re very suspicious of it”: what do you make of Ewan Morrison‘s take on Generation X? That tension between suspicion and nostalgia is present in Douglas Coupland‘s work but also, I think, in Ellis’s: can you identify with that although you belong to another generation?
GJB: I’m in Generation ZZZ…right?
On a bad day, I feel like we all just don’t give a shit about anything. And even the few who do — don’t really. We’re apolitical in the worst sense, because we don’t actively look for alternatives — say, to parliamentary democracy, to oil or, crucially, to capitalism. And what makes this all the more shoddy is, we all say the same things and then do nothing about it — including me.
I suppose we’re all on some level looking for something more solid, but what’s on offer is so beguiling — and the alternatives so unpalatable — that we’re stuck between one thing, the here and now, and what’s next. It’s probably Marx’s influence on me, but I’d say we’re all just waiting for the house of cards to collapse.
On a good day, though, I think there are loads of people who do care, and who are doing something about it in a million and one ways. When I feel like that I want to knock the house of cards over myself, and I don’t want to wait around for someone else to do it for me. On a good day…
3:AM: I don’t know if you remember that early Toby Litt story in which the narrator says that “All of this intellect stuff is fine as a consolation” for not being a beautiful young hipster which, he argues, “is how it developed in the first place: Socrates not being Alcibiades”? Since you don’t have to compensate for “not being Alcibiades”, what motivates you to write?
GJB: I don’t agree with Toby Litt, but I will say this: I’m not pretty enough to be a top model, and am too pretty to be a serious writer. I have no consolation.
3:AM: Could you tell us about the (non-)relationship between Alex and his father?
GJB: Alex is part of a generation of men who’ve been let down by their fathers, and he refuses to let it go. Like a lot of men my age I suppose, Alex blames everyone else for his unhappiness, refusing to see that it’s his unwillingness to connect with people, to make any real decisions about his life and future, which leaves him isolated, alone and unable to feel anything by the end of the novel. His father, like Alex, is essentially selfish and, having left his family and revealed himself as fallible — as all fathers do when they leave home, I’d say — he suffers the consequences.
3:AM: Your book also seems to follow a kind of Alfie/Billy Liar, tumescent/detumescent pattern: cocky young hero comes a cropper…
GJB: I don’t think Alex is a dark character, but he’s certainly not a hero. His is a cautionary tale and, as a narrator, Alex is a vehicle for me to say that I don’t like capitalism and think we need something better — or else we’ll all end up alienated, miserable and ultimately alone.
You’re right, though. The final line could easily be: ‘What’s it all about, Alex?’
3:AM: To what extent is Dazed autobiographical?
GJB: I reckon that all writing is autobiographical because, as a writer, you’re interpreting life and then projecting your prejudices on to the page. The key is, not to pretend otherwise.
I’ve just written a second book — about growing up in the North and wanting to escape — which I think is far more autobiographical and even personal than Dazed & Aroused. London, and modelling, is such a small part of my life.
Even so, a lot of what happens peripherally in Dazed & Aroused — aside from the central relationships, which is pure fiction — is based on something I experienced first-hand and then changed beyond recognition. I never related to anything in the book the way Alex does. I was either not there or, if I was, thinking something completely different.
So, to answer your question, to no extent is Dazed & Aroused autobiographical, in the sense that I am not Alex and none of it happened anyway. Apart from a lot of it.
3:AM: Apparently, you approached some 40 publishers before your manuscript was finally accepted, by Quartet Books. Did any of them give you any explanations or advice?
GJB: I think I approached 40 agents before getting one (Annabel at PFD). I don’t know how many publishers read my manuscript, but it was probably a lot. My agent only showed me the first few rejections — none of which were nasty — and then decided that this wasn’t a very good idea. I do seem to recall one of them saying that Alex reminded them of Holden Caulfield, but wasn’t as much of an ‘everyman’ character. Which was nice. In a way. I suppose.
3:AM: Things seem to have gone really fast since then: according to your blog, you signed your contract in March (2009) and the book came out in July. How long did you spend writing it? Were you writing full time, or did you have a day job? I think your novel went though 3 different drafts: was the first one very different from the finished product?
GJB: The book took around eight weeks to write, broken up by Christmas in the middle. I was writing full-time during this first draft, and then temped during the re-drafting and submission stage.
The three drafts were very similar: I really just refined it with the help of close friends and my brother. And weirdly, since being accepted by my agent last summer, it’s barely been edited. I don’t know whether that’s a ‘good thing’.
3:AM: Who is this Kim van der Pols and how did she end up being the cover girl?
GJB: My friend Carl Davis designed the cover, based on an image taken by a photographer called Rebecca Parkes. Kim Van Der Pols was the model in the original, and is a very beautiful and sweet girl. I couldn’t be happier with it. I think it looks brilliant, very seductive and alluring, and perfectly captures Alex’s infatuation with all things ephemeral.
3:AM: How did the Stewart Home blurb come about? Are you a fan?
GJB: I’m a fan, yes. I interviewed him when I was writing for Flux, back in 2003, and we kept in touch.
He didn’t read it, though, unlike the others who gave blurbs (cross my heart). He told me not to take the industry too seriously, and asked me to come up with something for him instead. All my ideas were a bit shit, to be honest, so he suggested: ‘Fashion will never be the same…’. Appropriately, given that he didn’t read it, it’s as ambiguous as you can get — but I think it’s pretty cool all the same.
3:AM: You are currently adapting Dazed into a screenplay, aren’t you?
GJB: I think Dazed & Aroused would work well as a film. I might even play Alex myself. (Um, I’m joking. I think.)
I’ll be working with a friend on it, once book two is promoted and I can forget about it, and I’ve finished book two, which is one draft away from completion. I’ve never written a screenplay but, then again, I’d never written a novel…
3:AM: Your next novel, Made in Britain, focuses on three 16-year-olds growing up in the North. From what I’ve seen, the structure seems a little reminiscent of The Informers but I get the feeling this one’s going to be more gritty and less glamorous than your debut.
GJB: Each chapter is going to comprise three viewpoints, and the book will move chronologically from there. I’d not even thought about The Informers as an influence to be honest, and I don’t think it’ll feel like that to people because that’s so loosely connected without any clear narrative, while this has a strong narrative and clear plotline, and is written in the vernacular.
The book’s about growing up in provincial Britain and what it feels like when hope turns to despair. It’s the result of my love-hate relationship with where I was born and grew up [Burnley]. I’m very ambitious as a writer so, once I’d got the modelling out of my system, I wanted to write something far more personal. I was up North last winter and thought, why haven’t I written about being working class and from the North? So that’s what I did.