The Booker winner on his new, 'funniest-ever' book, his scorn for genre fiction and why he'll never wear a T-shirt
It's not my experience that my publisher shot himself or my agent is always hiding from me but I wouldn't have written it if I didn't think there was something worrying about, not so much publishing, but the state of the book… some of the things that I play with, some of the jokes I make, attack things that need to be attacked.
You write acerbically about genre fiction…
I'm contemptuous of genre things... You go into a good bookshop like Foyles and see a kind of "vampire room". I was sitting in the American Embassy a while back, trying to get a visa, and every woman in the room was reading the vampire series – you know, the one with the black cover and the bit of blood. Now people are reading soft porn! What happened to the fun of reading a good book? There are people who, when they say they prefer Henry James to Fifty Shades of Grey, they do actually mean that.
Your protagonist, middle-aged novelist Guy Ableman, gets collared by a furious woman at a book group. Did that happen to you?
Reading groups should be the most wonderful things but every time you go to one you hear the most terrible things… That scene has actually happened to me. I have had someone say "The only character I identified with was the one who was dead." It makes me want to lecture them. You do not, when you read a novel, identify with a character. Lear was a horrible father. Othello was not a man you want to be married to.
This is your first novel since winning the 2010 Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question. Was it hard to follow up?
I don't know because this book was half-written when I won. As soon as I finished The Finkler Question, I was in despair. I'd changed my English publisher because they'd been lukewarm about it and not offered enough money. The American publisher didn't like it. The Canadian publisher didn't like it… I'd been bleeding readers since my first novel and I could see my own career going down. I thought: people don't get the joke, they don't get that something can be funny and sad. It's over, I thought. If I was going to do another book, it would have to be wildly funny. I'm good at comedy when I'm feeling down. So I started writing Zoo Time and had a marvellous time. I think it's the funniest novel I've ever written. And then I won the fucking Man Booker! It was the biggest joke of all. Because how can you write a novel about literary failure when you've won the Booker?
Did winning make you happier?
I could feel quieter and happier, winning that prize. It was like they were saying "OK, we get it now", because I felt I'd been working away at the edges for years. It was nothing to do with antisemitism but I felt I had a voice that was not quite suitable – like having too loud a voice for a quiet room. I feel that voice has been accepted. It is a Jewish voice. And because this isn't America, it took longer to accept. In America, post-Scott Fitzgerald, they're all Jewish or aspiring to be.
What do you make of the term "literary fiction"?
I hate the phrase "literary fiction". I write fiction. The others write crap.
Does your wife [television producer Jenny de Yong] read your manuscripts?
She's the first port of call. I give her the manuscript only when it's finished, then I stay out of her hair for three or four days. The house goes very still. I hear the pages turning and sometimes I listen at her study to hear if she's crying or laughing. There's only one novel where she's said, "This could be the end of our marriage but this book isn't working." I called the publisher and said they'd have to wait a bit longer for it.
What book was that?
The Act of Love. It's not a very English book. It's about sexual perversion.
Does she still have the Mulberry handbag you bought her with the Booker prize money?
Yes, she's still using it. The number of people who didn't get that joke, who said to me "Have you really spent the whole £50,000 on a handbag?"
You used to sell handbags for a living…
My dad had a market stall and whenever you're in trouble for money, as I was when I was teaching in Cambridge, you turned to markets. I sold them for about three years in the late 60s, early 70s. Sometimes my students would help me out and I'd give them supervisions on the stall.
Full interview at The Guardian