— Before you had written The Beach, what other writing experiences had you had? Any prior manuscripts you tried to get published?
I wrote a whole novel before The Beach. Unpublishable. Junk. But, for some reason I stuck at novels and wrote a second. Still not sure why I didn’t give up. Stubborn, maybe. Prior to that, I had written & drawn many comic strips. Mainly a lot of Freak Brothers/Crumb rip offs. Stuff that gave the impression that I had taken more LSD than I actually had. Later, I started trying to write & draw extended strips that had proper narratives. In fact, the first version of The Beach was a 62 page comic strip (62 pages because Tintin books were always 62 pages).
— I’m interested in the way that your hero’s interest in video and computer games feeds «The Beach’s» subtext. That felt new to me, the way you used the games to color the way this intelligent man looks at the world.
That (video) culture is my culture. Given that there is an element of autobiography here, or at least some documentation of a kind of sensibility of my peer group, those things are bound to find their way in there.
— «The Beach» is one of the few novels I’ve read in which a character admits an addiction to video games without at the same time mocking them or treating them ironically.
Well, there may be plenty to mock. But if a completely unironic passion for video games comes through in the book, it’s because I play video games. I’ve played them since I was 8 years old. I enjoy them — I still do. In fact, I was playing one when I got on the telephone (laughs). To tell you the truth, I’m reminded of one of the things that always used to piss me off about pop art. Roy Liechtenstein used to always really annoy me because he’d be using popular culture, he’d be doing this thing about a comic strip, but there’d be something ironic about it. It bothered me that it wasn’t really an appreciation of a comic strip — it was much more that, because he was this fine artist, it was he who was doing something that was elevating it to the level of art, by his ironic appreciation of it. Well, he can go fuck himself (laughs). He could have just taken the comic strip as an art form in its own right, and put those things up on a wall, instead of congratulating himself by recognizing some kind of special worth in popular culture. So personally, if I were writing about video games, I wouldn’t want to fall into that pop art trap. Because I genuinely like these things for exactly what they are. And there’s nothing ironic about it at all — I think they’re great.
— I read somewhere that you started writing because you were panicked — your friends all had careers and you didn’t.
I went to university, and I did a degree, but it was one that wouldn’t lead on to anything. And I’m not really very academic, so I didn’t do very well at university anyway. When I came to the end of my university career, my younger brother, who hadn’t gone to university, he’d already got himself a job. Friends of mine had studied law and they were going to be lawyers. They were going to have some kind of career, and I didn’t have anything. And I thought, Jesus, what am I going to do when I leave university? And in fact I didn’t do anything, for a few months, after I left. I started writing toward the end of university, but it didn’t become serious and dedicated until sometime after.
— Does writing come easily for you? You seem like something of a natural.
No, I find it really hard. I mean, I sweat over things. I get obsessive about how many times I’ve used «but» in a paragraph, all that sort of stuff. The thing about it is, although I’d love to be a natural, I really do work like a dog over it. I do have a background that’s worth mentioning: My dad’s a cartoonist, and I always thought I was going to end up doing cartoons. I used to draw comic strips constantly, so I picked up a lot about how to construct a narrative by that. And actually I think that this comes through in the book, in as much that it’s quite cinematic, and comic strips are quite cinematic — the length of chapters, and the speed with which the plot moves, and that kind of thing. So it is my background in one kind of way.
— Do you smoke as much as the book’s hero, Richard?
I actually smoke more than Richard.
— What’s it like to read, in British Vogue, the following quote: «The Beach is the book to have; it’s author, Alex Garland, is the man to have«?
Oh, it’s completely fucking ridiculous. Of course it is. I mean, it’s sort of nice for no other reason than to show your friends and you have a laugh over it. But I am acutely aware that it’s daft. So Vogue calls me the man to have for the next 30 seconds and that’s it. So what’s the point?
— At the reading, you spoke about your love for comic books and graphic novels. Being a big comic nut myself, I’d love to hear how they inspire you. List some of your favorite writers, artists and titles too.
Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, George Herriman, Herge. They inspire me totally and endlessly. They give me the confidence to do what I want, and I get more of that confidence from them than from any novelists or film-makers.
— While we’re on the topic of favorites, tell me some of your favorite movies.
Badlands, Alien, Third Man, Apocaplypse Now, Godfather 1&2, Taxi Driver, 2001, Clockwork Orange, Jaws, Starship Troopers, Donnie Darko, Dawn of the Dead, Blade Runner, Empire Strikes Back… With films, I could go on and on. I’ve just thought of several that I like more than some I’ve mentioned… but then I’ll get obsessive about compiling the list, and that will be the rest of my day GONE, so I’ll leave it at this.
— How about some favorite books/writers too?
JG Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro, JD Salinger, James Fenton, Graham Greene, Varlam Shalamov, John le Carre.
— What’s your view on authors becoming celebrities, touring like crazy, and doing all the basic PR stuff that goes with it?
Mmm… I don’t much like author tours and PR. I’ve made a balance, which is I do enough PR to keep the publishers happy and not get a reputation for being a recluse (which can be counter productive), but I don’t do so much that I get famous. And it has more or less worked. I’m not famous. When I walk down the road, or into a book shop, nobody recognises me. And that’s great.
But being publicity shy has also kind of backfired. For the last few years there was this rumour in the UK that I had writer’s block. But because I wasn’t doing any publicity, I couldn’t contradict it, so the rumour grew, and became accepted as fact. It got so crazy that there were actually headlines in British newspapers about it. One paper even ran an ‘interview’ about my block, with totally invented quotes and a photo of me that was four or five years old.
This shit meant that when The Coma came out in the UK, the book was almost always reviewed within the context of this non-existent writer’s block. Like it was RESPONSE to writer’s block Some reviewers even said the book was ABOUT writer’s block. Drove me crazy! The book was about a coma! It said so on the cover! And it was a hybrid between a comic book and a novel! How can you tell? Because what the fuck else could it be? Look at the pictures, you mother fuckers! And now I’m ranting. Stupid, because no one gives a shit except me. Anyway. Yeah. Public life is bullshit.
— Okay, time to get studious now. Talk about your method. Do you outline your novels first? Write them longhand and then type them after? Do you workshop them with other writers like Chuck does? Are you a chronic, obsessed re-drafter and editor? Gimme the goods!
For the last few years, I have taken to writing down a first story outline on a single sheet of A4 paper. I don’t usually do use more notes than that. The next step is just to start the story. Write the first line, then the second, etc. I write on a word processor — Word for prose, Final Draft for scripts. I’m an obsessed editor. I like to pare stuff down. I delete most of what I write. I rewrite a great deal. I don’t read prose fiction while I write prose fiction. So, I can easily go a year without reading any fiction. But I do watch films while writing scripts.
— Learning what you have learned, what sort of advice would you give to first time writers?
Show people your stuff, listen carefully to their responses, but ultimately don’t value anyone’s opinion above your own. Be influenced by writers you dislike as well as writers you like. Read their stuff to figure out what’s wrong. Find a balance between the confidence that allows you continue, and the self-critical facility that enables you to improve. Get the balance wrong on either side, and you’re screwed.
«Though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for I am the evilest motherfucker in the valley.»
«If I’d learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a vida, pack a bag, and it just happens.»
«Normally, small talk is enough for me to form an opinion of someone. I make quick judgments, often completely wrong, and then stick by them rigidly.»
«There’s this saying: in an all-blue world, colour doesn’t exist… If something seems strange, you question it; but if the outside world is too distant to use as a comparison then nothing seems strange.»
«Of course witnessing poverty was the first to be ticked off the list. Then I had to graduate to the more obscure stuff. Being in a riot was something I pursued with a truly obsessive zeal, along with being tear-gassed and hearing gunshots fired in anger.»
«You fish, swim, eat, laze around, and everyone’s so friendly. It’s such simple stuff, but… If i could stop the world and restart life, put the clock back, i think I’d restart it like this. For everyone.»
the beach on wiki