Interview: Joe Dunthorne - author of Submarine and Wild Abandon
Edinburgh 2011 shows at Book Festival, with Aisle16, Luke Wright and Tim Clare
This article is from 2011.
The day before our phone interview, Joe Dunthorne was on Radio 4, bantering with Tim Key about the perfect opening line. Chatting to him the next day, it appears the Welsh-born poet, short story writer and novelist has worked out a potential strategy. ‘I’m slowly expanding my word count so in Submarine it was a four-word first line, and in the new one it’s five with a bit of punctuation,’ he notes. ‘I’m getting braver one book at a time. I think it’s better not to go for a big-shot first line because you have plenty of time to convince them you’re good in other ways.’
It hasn’t taken Dunthorne especially long to convince us of his impressive literary qualities. His 2008 debut novel Submarine earned a following with its tale of Oliver Tate, a dryly precocious 14-year-old navigating the muddy waters of adolescence while trying to fully understand the lost souls who come under his radar. Amid the welter of positive reviews, Submarine was instantly compared to The Rachel Papers and Catcher in the Rye. Among the book’s admirers was The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade who, when looking for some source material to turn into his first feature film, moulded the novel (with Dunthorne’s help) into that rarest of beasts: a delightful British film comedy.
And now Dunthorne has crafted an equally fine and very funny second novel, Wild Abandon, again set in Wales but this time featuring a bigger cast while still zooming in on the heightened experiences of a young lad, Albert Riley. He and his sister, Kate, have been raised on a commune but both are finding their own ways of breaking free, whether it’s with Kate’s departure for suburbia or with Albert’s trip into fantasy.
Among Dunthorne’s tasks for the book was presenting commune life in a non-clichéd way. ‘I wanted to avoid the feeling that this community was a bunch of outcasts in an alternative culture with just sex and drugs. Contemporary communal living is not about 60s drop-out culture, it’s a lot more pragmatic than that. The surface meaning of the title is a total letting-go, but that’s the least important interpretation. While on some level the children have been abandoned by the other families who have left the community, they’ve been somewhat abandoned by their dysfunctional parents and they’re planning to abandon in their own ways.’
To mark the publication of Wild Abandon, Dunthorne will be appearing in his own event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (19 August) as well as taking part in Unbound the evening before, while on the Fringe he’ll be donning his poetry hat for a few days. Offered honorary status in the Aisle 16 poetry collective, he’ll be joining Luke Wright and co for their show, Aisle 16 R Kool, while he’ll also be slapping on an apron to play mine host for Tim Clare’s Poetry Takeaway. ‘People come up and say, “I’d like a poem” and we say “What kind of poem would you like?” And you’d say what topic it should be or what emotion it should capture and whether it should be funny or an ode to someone you love or a hate poem for someone you despise. And then later you come back and collect your poem and have it read out. It’s great fun, but pretty gruelling.’
Looking into the more distant future, Dunthorne is unlikely to suddenly set his next fiction in Brooklyn or the Bahamas. ‘There’s something about the long form that it pays to be familiar with the landscape. I don’t see Submarine or Wild Abandon to be fundamentally Welsh books. The places they are set do play a role as it does in all books, but really it’s more about being in control of your material. It makes it so much easier to be set in the place where I’ve spent much of my life. London is too difficult, it’s too much of a maze for me to be authoritative about. So, unless I do a lot of extensive research in a totally different landscape, I’ll keep coming back to Wales.’
Wild Abandon is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thu 4 Aug.