Brief Interviews is a new series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.
Glen Duncan is the author of ten novels. His most recent, By Blood We Live [Knopf], was published this month.
Where do you like to read?
I'm not fussy. But I did read an entire C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength, whilst lying on the pavement one very hot day in Salisbury. A surprisingly comfortable and peaceful experience. Lying down on pavements - for reading, meditation or because you simply aren't sure you can take standing up anymore - is underrated. Drunks and children know the virtues of it - but who listens to them? The pinnacle of my reading life, as far as location goes, was a long July afternoon spent in a luxury hammock (that was what the manufacturers called it, and they weren't lying) strung between two apple trees in my sister's orchard. I was reading Bowles's The Sheltering Sky and working my way through a pitcher of frozen margaritas. It was one of those rare times when even the realization that one is happy doesn't ruin the happiness.
What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
Until the age of thirteen I tortured the waiting worlds of book illustration and professional football by shilly-shallying over which of them was going to get the benefit of my inestimable talents. Then I discovered smoking, which put the nail in the football coffin, and drinking, which forever palsied my formerly Leonardo-steady hands. But all was not lost - and indeed much was gained: I also discovered rock music, and the astonishing fact that I could carry a tune. I saw immediately that the dalliance with book illustration and the Beautiful Game had been a risibly juvenile false start. How could I have been so blind? Rock stardom was my manifest destiny. Much preening in front of the bedroom mirror followed. I was a natural at standing with my hands on my hips and tossing my hair over my shoulders with testosteronal petulance. I was going to be the Anglo-Indian Robert Plant. I'm not quite sure when I began to be troubled by the creeping sense of my own ludicrousness, but it persisted - and eventually grew into a fascination. I started writing about it. Thus, in His characteristically mysterious way, the Lord made clear His plans for me.
What's the best thing about being a writer?
Without any doubt, not absolutely having to get up when the alarm clock goes off.
What are the most important elements of a good story?
I'm not very good at story. In fact, compared to character and language, I barely care about story at all. Writers beguile me with style and ideas more than narrative events. It's not very fashionable, but for me, if the voice is seductive, I'll let myself be led contentedly through hundreds of pages in which nothing very much (in the strict sense) "happens".
What bothers you most about the English language today?
I've got a few pet hates - the conversion of verbs to nouns and vice versa, for example (as in "they don't see the disconnect," and now thanks to the Olympics "can he medal?") - but English is a mercurial, promiscuous and robust creature, which in the hands of writers willing to put in the work can still be cajoled into sprouting beauty in spite of its wounds.
What's your favorite word?
I've always had a soft spot for trounce and its cognates. I so rarely get to trounce anyone at anything that being able to utter it with any legitimacy - as in "Did you see me in that game of dominoes? I trounced that fucker" - never fails to cup the balls of my ego.
What is your least favorite word?
Basically. I'm a complex guy. I can handle the non-basic version.
If you could have any 5 dinner guests, dead or alive, fictional or non-, who would they be?
Sheherazade (for when the conversation flagged), Jesus (lots to discuss, obviously, but also in case the wine ran out), Emily Brontë (to try to find out how in God's name she came up with Wuthering Heights), Lucifer (a thank-you for the royalties) and Aphrodite, for reasons which I assume are obvious.
What is your most prized possession?
My father's wristwatch. He bought it in Bombay some sixty years ago and recently gave it to me. It has an extraordinarily simple and elegant design, and as a child I was mesmerized by it. Aesthetics aside, it's an uncomplicated filial pleasure: this object kept him company through some of the richest and riskiest years of his life. It was on his wrist, now it's on mine. Humble continuity. It cheers me up when I'm feeling suicidal.
Who are your literary heroes?
How far back do you want me to go? Milton. Robert Browning. Thomas Hardy. W. H. Auden. D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene. Of more modern (or slightly less dead) writers, Anthony Burgess, Paul Bowles, Mervyn Peake, John Updike, J G Ballard. Among the actually living, Martin Amis, Susanna Moore, Mary Gaitskill.
What is the first book you truly loved?
The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton.
Which classic have you not yet read? Do you intend to read it?
There are, I'm depressed to say, many classics I have not yet read and will probably never get around to, though I will not stop short of hospitalizing myself in the attempt. (I have a deep aversion to even trying to read anything by Victor Hugo. What has he done to offend me? No idea. But I get a migraine at the mere sight of his books.) Most recently I got interrupted (by the warning klaxon of an approaching deadline) halfway through Don Quixote and had to put it aside for a few weeks. But I was enjoying it immensely. I'll certainly return to and finish it - though not without starting from the beginning again.
If you could only recommend one book, which would it be?
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. It's big, bawdy, pungent, poignant and true, a novel that takes on the twentieth century’s excesses, neuroses, triumphs and crimes with intelligence, compassion, irreverence and, in the end, love. My paperback edition runs to seven hundred pages. I would happily have staggered, dazed and delighted, through seven hundred more. Readers of my earlier answer worried it might be the sort of book in which not very much happens need not fear. A great deal happens. Hilariously and movingly.
Do you prefer print or e-books?
Print. But then I prefer steam trains, too.
What, if anything, do you read while you're working on a project?
Nothing contemporary. In fact nothing from after 1900, and ideally much longer ago than that. Which is where all those unread classics come in handy.
Do you have a favorite sentence from a book?
"A horse is at least human, for God's sake." From The Catcher in the Rye.