I wasn't planning to go to the John Lanchester session at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, but who could pass up a free ticket to such a wonderful session? Both John Lanchester and the wonderful Jason Steger from The Age. Fabulous.
John Lanchester hasn't been on my reading radar for all that long. I'd seen rather glowing reviews for his most recent book Capital earlier this year, and am very keen to read that. I was even more keen after this session.
John Lanchester was a journalist and restaurant reviewer before turning his attention to writing books fulltime in the 1990s. He has published 4 novels, one memoir and one work of nonfiction. He was in Melbourne primarily to promote Capital, and much of the talk was about this book. John feels that story is a fundamental appetite, and that as a reader you can fully occupy another persons being with a novel.
Capital is a big novel about London. There is quite a history of London novels of course. John made an interesting point about this- London was the largest city in the world when printing became widely available. John Lanchester reread Middlemarch and quite a few other 19th century works to prepare for Capital.
John Lanchester lives in London, and he was inspired to write this book by looking out his own window. He felt that he was the last non-financial worker in his street. He quipped that he never saw a man during the day, that his street appeared to be like a work of feminist science-fiction, he saw only women, but they continued to breed. Wives piled children into increasingly large 4 wheel drives, and the houses had become like grandees- summoning servants to them- pilates instructors and feng shui experts alike.
He didn't try to write an inclusive novel, some groups such as white working class aren't there as they don't live in his part of London anymore, having been pushed out by property prices. Still he has a large cast of characters living in Pepys Road. He wanted to keep the tension equal between them all, like snooker balls on a table, they all have the same weight, but aren't all at play at the same time. Yet they all matter equally.
John Lanchester spoke quite a bit about his writing process. Apparently his style is quite different in each book that he has written. He feels that the bits of him that write a particular book get used up, and aren't available for the next book. He writes by always going forward. He takes notes on things to fix later, he doesn't reread, and doesn't rewrite as he goes. When he has finished a draft he puts it away for a few months to be able to see it clearly when he looks at it again.
As he has written both fiction and nonfiction he spoke a bit of the difference between them for the writer. When writing fiction you can do anything, but you can't explain it. Explanation tends to break fiction. If you waste time writing fiction, it is wasted. Whereas with nonfiction, you still know the facts you've researched and can recover some use from them in another way.
John Lanchester has another recent book called Woops: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and Noone Can Pay. A nonfiction book explaining the recent Global Financial Crisis. John described it somewhat delightfully as a "benign tumour that grew out of Capital." Even though Capital is only set in 2007/8, it is already an "historical novel". Somewhat unbelievably no laws have been passed anywhere in the world to stop the types of recent financial collapses from happening again!
Both John Lanchester and Jason Steger are erudite men who speak wonderfully, often with great humour. It was a delightful session, one that I will remember for a long time.