An Interview with Julian Gough
I knew I wanted to interview Julian Gough—“rhymes with cough,” he says—when I was about halfway through his essay “Divine Comedy.”
There, in the May 2007 issue of Prospect magazine, he railed against the modern literary novel in all its desperation and seriousness, and urged a return to funnier roots. “You may think that to praise The Simpsons at the expense of Henry James makes me a barbarian,” he wrote there. “Well, it does, but I’m a very cultured barbarian.” In that essay, he examined the death of the Greek comedy, the surge of tragedy in the Middle Ages, the few-and-far-between funny writers of the modern era, and the culpability of universities in our collective tragic literary leanings—all with a terrific combination of admiration for and irreverence about literary tradition.
At the end of the essay, I read that Gough had recently won the National Short Story Prize (now known as the BBC National Short Story Award), the biggest award in the world for a single short story. Then, soon after reading “Divine Comedy,” I heard that he had moved from his home in Ireland to Berlin. Based on the content of his essay and the scant biographical information I had, I assumed he was some sort of rebellious mad genius privileged enough to have the kind of expensive European education most of us could never sit through, let alone afford. No doubt he spoke five languages and was flush with family money, the foundation on which so many writers have built their grand literary musings, which would also explain his ability to move from place to place at his leisure—internationally, even!
It wasn’t until well after reading his novels, Juno and Juliet and Jude: Level 1, that I became acquainted with the real Julian Gough: an incredibly intelligent, often-broke writer (educated at the National University of Ireland, Galway) who moved to Berlin after being evicted from his place in Ireland, a onetime singer for a “literary rock band” called Toasted Heretic, and a very funny man loaded with some very serious literary ambitions.
Gough participated in this interview—over his own objections, at times—in fits and starts over what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the busier months of his life, as he completed rewrites on his overdue third novel (Jude in London, now available in the UK) and a play for the BBC that was already behind schedule. Though he wished to delay our conversation for several months, he was kindly receptive to my pleas that we carry on for just one more question. And another. And another.
THE BELIEVER: It’s interesting that you live in Berlin. You once described the city as the perfect place to start one’s life over from scratch. I wonder if you’re still so taken with it.
JULIAN GOUGH: Berlin is about the only major city on earth that didn’t have a property boom in the past decade, so it hasn’t had a property bust, either. Berlin has something like a hundred thousand empty flats, which is why it’s such a great city for artists. Really cheap studios, and the city center’s affordable. So, yeah, it’s still a great place to restart your life. And it’s a very amusing place from which to watch the global economy collapse.
BLVR: Does your fiction alone make it possible for you to survive there, or do you have a regular job?
JG: No, I’m neither unemployed nor employed. I try to stay outside that whole game. It’s a swindle. They take your life, and all they give you is money. When I was seventeen, I worked in a fast-food place for two days— Supermac’s of Eyre Square in Galway. I went back the second day only because I couldn’t quite believe how astoundingly awful it was. I thought maybe I’d been hallucinating. But no, it was that bad. So I quit. It wasn’t the work itself, which was fine. It was the having to be there, having to do something you hadn’t chosen, the being owned. The being bought for money. I worked out how much an hour of my life was worth to me. It turns out nobody can afford to pay me what it’s worth, so I haven’t worked since. That decision simplified life greatly. The downside is you’re occasionally homeless. But it’s hard to starve to death in the West, so it works out.
BLVR: How have you gotten by?
JG: I spent the 1990s on the dole in Ireland, learning how to write. After ten years on the dole, I thought, That’s enough, you’re good enough, sign off. So I signed off, and nearly starved. But then I sold my first novel just in time. I’ve survived on my writing for the past ten years, with brief periods of wealth and brief periods of homelessness. But I don’t want to lead young writers off a cliff here. Sometimes putting the writing first leads to moral and financial catastrophe. There were two years, late into obsessively writing Jude, when I earned absolutely nothing at all, and I survived on money that I acquired by means so shameful and humiliating that I’m not going to discuss them with you. But it wasn’t by writing. And it wasn’t by working. In the good years, prizes help, readings help. I used to be in a band, so I love doing readings. I probably earned more from them than from the books last year. Berlin is very cheap, and everybody’s broke, so I fit in.
BLVR: Do you think that money, or the lack thereof, will stop being an issue at some point?
JG: See, I honestly don’t give a shit about money. I’ve never done anything to chase it. The odd moment of weakness, maybe, but even when I was on the dole I turned down offers to front television programs, pop music stuff, because they would have been shit. I realize that we can’t agree on what makes a novel good. So we fall back on the culture’s default setting, which is “It’s good if it makes money.” I admire the democratic fizz of that—we’re voting with our money for the art we want—but I don’t think it’s true. I think we buy what is stacked up in front of us. And I think what is stacked up in front of us is often the least interesting stuff, the stuff that will offend no one. And of course such a system—you are only good if you sell— leaves me in the shit. Most of my favorite books sold about four hundred copies in their first few years. Hell, I wildly outsell them!
BLVR: It’s funny trying to make a life as an artist, because no matter how little you care about money, you’re constantly put in the position of having to worry about it a lot.
JG: This makes me sound like I’m aiming to be some saint who is above money. That’s not it at all. I am profoundly selfish. I want to find out who I am and what I am capable of, at the highest level, on my own terms, whether or not anyone notices. Money just doesn’t do it for me. Writing books does. Nobody asked me to do this, and I have no complaints. I haven’t seen the sun for a month; I have no idea what day of the week it is; I just wrote a scene which worked better than I expected it to; I’m happy. It’s a great life. I’d like money, sure. I mean, there are people I love, and I don’t want them to starve to death. But the way it usually works out is, toward the end of every book, I’m made homeless. I get so caught up in getting the book right that I neglect everything else, and the money dries up, and I get evicted, or I end up living in a friend’s spare room. Right now, I’m about three weeks away from finishing my third novel, and I’m only a month behind on the rent, so that’s pretty good for me. First time I haven’t been homeless in the home stretch.
BLVR: You’re finishing the second novel in your Jude trilogy? I read that it was supposed to come out in 2009. What was the delay?
JG: The story of Jude’s evolution is tortuously long and complex; I hesitate to tell it. You’ll get bored, fall asleep, slip off your chair, put a disk out, sue me—it’ll be horrible. But, if you insist… I spent seven years writing Jude, this immense book, and when I’d finished, nobody wanted it. My own agent didn’t want it. She was horrified by it. She wanted me to come up with something else, anything else, fast. But I believed in it, so we had to part. I walked away with my book. It was gut-wrenching, because I really liked her. She was Pat Kavanagh, Julian Barnes’s wife, and a magnificent agent. She said to me at the time, “Maybe it’s a generational thing, Julian.” I think it was. Of course, it didn’t help that I killed a couple of her clients in the book. I was very depressed by her reaction. I’d really hoped and believed she’d get what I was trying to do. It took me about a year to get a new agent, the splendid Charlie Campbell. He loved it, thought it was prizewinning stuff, totally got it. But then every major publisher in the U.K. turned it down. They compared it to Beckett, they compared it to Flann O’Brien, they compared it to Christ knows who else, and they turned it down. Said they couldn’t market it, didn’t know what it was—comic novel? Literary? Philosophical? And Nan Talese turned it down in the States. Eventually, Ben Yarde-Buller bought it for his new imprint, Old Street. I was homeless by then, so that was a relief.
BLVR: Did all that rejection hurt you, or did you just take it in stride?
JG: It hurt me a lot. At one point, I was so depressed by my situation, with no agent, no publisher, no money, about to be evicted, and with related sorrows in my private life that you aren’t going to hear about, that I put my head through a wall. I was lucky; it turned out to be a plasterboard wall. Boy, was the landlord mad. Still, she’d already kicked us out, so what could she do?
BLVR: Did the rejection make you question the work?
JG: I never lost faith in Jude, no. Which is odd, looking back. I mean, to believe in the book when the entire publishing industry told me again and again that there was no way of publishing it or marketing it or finding an audience for it, I must have been slightly nuts. But I think you have to be almost demented with self-belief to set out to be a great writer. The odds are against success. The majority of people who set out to be lawyers end up as lawyers. A tiny minority of those who set out to be great novelists become great novelists. Now, I’m not saying I’ve succeeded yet. But I’m happy with my progress.
BLVR: Did that early input prove helpful in any way?
JG: I thought they were on to something. The book was too long, and too much happened, and it changed too much from beginning to end. Now, all those things were deliberate, but I didn’t want to have five readers for what I thought was probably the best thing I was ever likely to write. Jude was in three sections anyway, so I thought, Well, what would happen if we broke off the first part, the Irish part, and published it as a book, Jude: Level 1? And follow up with the whole thing the next year? So Jude’s evolved, it’s still evolving. But I think it’s a lot better as three books, because it was too much for the reader to deal with in one volume. It was always structured like a computer game, with increasing levels of difficulty. Now that’s much more explicit. You can read as far as you feel like, and then stop. Maybe you’ll only like Level 1. Maybe two levels, maybe all three. But you won’t have to read any more than you’re comfortable with.
BLVR: What do you mean by the book “changed too much from beginning to end”?
JG: Well, what I’m trying to do is mirror the history of the novel, the evolution of the novel, inside Jude. So Level 1 is the traditional novel. It’s back to the novel’s roots. So it’s a picaresque, with a strong, linear adventure, a quest for true love, lots of action, a little cartoony, not reflective. It’s Candide, it’s Gulliver’s Travels, it’s volume one of Don Quixote.
Level 2 is the crisis in the novel. It’s more quirky, doubting, anxious. More meta, self-reflecting, fucked-up by theory. It doesn’t know how to go forward. It’s stuck trying to go through a door, like Kafka’s characters, or it’s in complete denial of the sexual and of the subconscious, but they keep breaking through, like in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And it compulsively quotes from other novels, and from itself, in a demented and doomed search for an authentic moment. Level 3 is my idea of where the novel can go next. The post-crisis novel. The novel after theory. After the death of myth.
BLVR: Wow. You’re getting all of that in there?
JG: Of course, all three levels are also the demented comic adventures of an orphan with two penises, and his search for true love. I wrote it with a lot of layers of joke and reference, so that a teenage death-metal fan and a retired professor of semiotics would both find something to enjoy on every page, ideally in every line. If you’re missing a reference, you’re getting a joke, and vice versa. It’s a novel that’s a history of the novel and a diagnosis and prescription for the novel’s ills. But I also wrote it so my mum could read it and have a dirty laugh.
BLVR: There’s a lot of silliness in Level 1. I wonder if the focus on humor is so explicit in subsequent Jude novels.
JG: I think comedy is misunderstood and undervalued in the modern West. And I think that, as a result, its potential has not been fully explored. There’s a lot of “comedy” in Jude: Level 2, but it’s not as straightforward as in Level 1. I think you can get some interesting results if you use some of the techniques of comedy to do something that isn’t meant to be particularly funny. This is hard to describe—talking about comedy is fatal; nothing makes you look like an asshole faster or more surely. But I’m with the Greeks on this: comedy is the gods’eye view of life, tragedy is the merely human. I think tragedy is more limited. I think that comedy is in fact more accurate, more objective, closer to the unknowable truth about life and our relationship to the universe.
BLVR: You covered some of this territory in your essay “Divine Comedy.” It’s really well reasoned and smartly done. I wonder how it is that you came to have such clear ideas on the subject. Is it just a matter of having read and retained the right material?
JG: Compliments make for tough questions. If I answer this, I’m agreeing with it, which means I’m saying, “Yes, I’m a hell of a smart guy.” Which isn’t really the case. My books are much smarter than I am, and my essays are much smarter than I am. I worry away about these things for years. I read a lot, I think a lot. By the time I write the essay, I’ve got about a year’s worth of thoughts for each page. So I sound much smarter than I am in real life. Novels, likewise. And with the novels, I go back over each chapter maybe twenty times, I add layer after layer, then I go back a few more times and reduce it all to an essence, till the thing is incredibly dense. So any given paragraph of my books is way smarter than me. Same goes for a lot of writers, I feel. Which is why interviews with writers, or meetings with writers, or brief romantic affairs with writers, are often so disappointing.
BLVR: Now that Jude: Level 2 is almost finished, I assume you’re starting to think about Level 3. Do you think it will be as difficult as Level 2?
JG: Oh, I think rewriting Level 3 will be easy. But of course it will be hard and it’ll nearly break me. That’s novels for you. I always think they’re going to be short, I always think they’re going to be easy. A few years later I’m gingerly extracting my head from a hole I’ve just smashed in a wall and thinking, Well, I never want to do that again. But it’s like childbirth: after a year or two you forget how awful it was, and you do it again.
BLVR: I was surprised to learn that you have a family—a wife and a young daughter. How does family life dovetail with what you’re trying to do artistically?
JG: I don’t like to talk about my family life, partly to keep them out of the shit-storm, and partly because I approach being a novelist the same way I approached being a minor underground pop star. I think the job is Dionysian, and if you do it right, you are Dionysus. And, as a pagan god, you have to be sexually available to everybody, or at least available for everybody’s sexual fantasies. You have to be polymorphously perverse. You have to come across as someone who would do it with a man, a woman, a dog, a rock, another god, a tree, the clouds… You are incarnating Bacchus. Your real private life may well be intensely conventional and almost surreally normal, but you should have a literary persona that is capable of anything, including murder, rape, heroism, spiritual enlightenment. Never admit there’s a drug you haven’t taken. Never admit there’s a sexual position you haven’t tried.
BLVR: What kind of effect do the hard times you’ve described have on relationships in your life?
JG: Being broke, getting evicted, wandering Europe homeless—sure, they put my relationships under a lot of strain. But my beloved is an exceptional person, and an exceptional artist, and fully understands, and accepts, the risks and rewards of a traditional, oldfashioned bohemian life. No, it’s the actual writing that puts relationships under the most strain. Because when the writing is at peak intensity, you just aren’t there. You’re a ghost, drifting through your own house. For weeks, maybe months, you are living totally inside your head, and you occasionally push food in through the hole at the bottom of your head, but that’s about it for contact with the outside world. I love being in that intense state, but I sort of dread the damage it does to everyone around me. It’s a bit like knowing you’re about to turn into a werewolf, when you feel it coming on: you desperately want to get away from your loved ones, to save them. So when the pressure builds up, I prefer to go to a city where nobody knows me—Cádiz is great—and do the most intense writing there. I’m still brutally ignoring everyone around me, but they’re all total strangers, so they don’t notice and don’t care. I’m just the quiet guy in the corner of the café, going nuts.
BLVR: Do you think your work relies upon some sort of emotional strain, or your being on the brink of financial ruin or some other difficulty?
JG: I don’t think financial ruin helps me much, it’s just an unfortunate side effect of writing to please myself instead of the market. I wish I could give up financial ruin like other writers wish they could give up cigarettes.