Tom McCarthy is one of the hottest contemporary writers working in the English language. His work includes Men in Space, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, Remainder and, most recently, C, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Remainder, initially published in a small run by an art house press, became an unexpected bestseller and won the Believer Book Award in 2008. In an essay in The New York Review of Books entitled ”Two Paths for the Novel”, Zadie Smith called it “one of the great English novels of the last ten years.” He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The London Review of Books and Artforum.
McCarthy is also a conceptual artist and the co-founder of the “semi-fictitious” International Necronautical Society, whose work has been exhibited around the world, including at Tate Britain and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Drawing Center in New York.
The New Statesman called McCarthy “the most galling interviewee in Britain.” I found him to be one of the most amusing (read on to learn about his terrifyingly hilarious escapades with cat food).
After you graduated from Oxford you moved to Prague. Why Prague?
Prague was really cheap at the time. I got this very small grant that you could get in those days, called the Government Enterprise Allowance Grant. The Conservative British government at the time wanted to massage the unemployment figures, to bring them down. This is a real Thatcher thing. They decided that unemployed people would now be small businesses, and you could get a grant to be a small business. You had to come up with a business idea.
What did you come up with?
For about a three-year period, they were allowing artists and writers to be on that programme. Because that would bring another 0.5% of the unemployment figure down. To writers and artists who had been on the dole writing their poems or painting their paintings, they said: “You are now going to be small businesses, marketing your art and your literature, and therefore you are not unemployed,” thereby curing unemployment. [Chuckles.]
So anyhow, I got this grant and it wasn’t much to live on in London, but in Prague I could live like a king! I had an enormous apartment. It was a fantastic time. The revolution had happened the year before and the country was being run by artists and writers. The president [Václav Havel] was an absurdist playwright who filled parliament with his friends. You know, you’d go to a gig in a bar and the drummer smoking a joint with five earrings in his ear was, like, the minister of whatever. It was a very good time.
When the money from that [grant] ran out, I got a job in the art school in Prague.
What did you do at the art school?
I was a model. Actually, first my girlfriend got that job. She had to go and take her clothes off and stand and all the students would draw her. Then one day she had flu and so I went instead. And they said, “We need a male model as well for the other class, would you come back?” So, I would do that every morning.
And that paid enough to live?
Yeah. It didn’t pay very well, but it was enough to live on. And it was a very interesting job.
I’ve taken figure-drawing classes like that and it is such a strange thing, to have a whole group of people looking at someone standing naked in the center of a room. And they’re looking at the person in this weird objective way.
Yeah. It’s really, really interesting. It’s exactly as you say: You’re naked, they’re not. They’re all looking at you and they’re drawing you, but it’s not straight narcissism because it’s not really about you. You’re the object. It’s about formal qualities and things coalescing somewhere between you and their paper.
But, because it is such a charged atmosphere, your mind races. You can’t do anything, you can’t move around, or light a cigarette, or make a phone call. You’re there, standing absolutely still for forty minutes at a time. I’d run my writing through my head. Run the passages, edit them, think.
But even more than that, it wasn’t just about having time. This is going to sound really pretentious, but there was a really intense relationship to space. You’re in this space, and the first thing the drawing students do is grid up their paper. They draw a grid on the page— that’s just a classical kind of drawing thing— then they put your head in this square and your body in that square and your toe in that square. So you are being gridded, and then the walls of the room were a grid; there were tiles across it with wires of electricity running down it. And so, you’re looking at fixed points, your gaze is moving around this grid as you think of this whole experience, and so it’s like total Cartesian space: the grid and the grid, and between these two grids thought, creation, is taking place— they’re creating, you’re creating, you’re writing things you will write down later… I found it completely exhilarating to do.
Not to mention that it’s physically hard to stand still that way.
It is. You do forty minutes, then there’s a five-minute break and you do another forty minutes. Standing.
Totally trancelike. By the end, the blood is going from your head, you think you’re going to faint, you start semi-hallucinating…Also, you’re in some weird position with, like, one foot forward and one hand raised [does a vaguely Egyptian looking pose]. It’s like you’re in a marathon, you’re coming in the last stretch, the crowds are cheering, you’re moving in on the line…or, you know, you’re in a political procession down a city…that kind of thing. And all the ventilation through the building is humming and running and voices start moving in and out of it…Yeah, it’s like totally trance. It’s borderline hallucination.
And also, I was, like, twenty-two. I had been up every night, drinking and taking drugs and stuff, like everyone else in Prague. So I was always carrying a huge hangover and was in some weird kind of state.
That sounds like the worst thing ever.
I enjoyed it.
But with the hangover?!
No, when it was a really bad hangover I couldn’t do it, because you start getting paranoid. Like, “What am I doing here, naked…?”
A good question, really. So, you were writing in your head. Do you think the process of being in this trancelike space influenced the way you were thinking about and composing your writing?
Yes, totally. Because I started thinking about space. Also, the art school was quite close to the planetarium in Prague, and as I found out later, Prague is the place where Kepler lived. He figured out that stars move in ellipses, not in perfect circles. It has a big history with space, Prague.
The book I ended up writing about Prague was called Men in Space, and in the original draft it actually had an entire interior monologue from a model in an art school. It got cut, but definitely that experience made me think about space and writing about space. Very much.
Where were you living in Prague?
I kept moving around. The way apartments worked then was that something would come up, you’d live there for two months, then you’d need to move…it was all very unofficial. I spent three months with this artist who was borderline crazy, and he was kind of part of [Václav] Havel’s outer circle. The whole art world of Prague would drop by and you know, hang out. Then I was living in a French painter’s atelier, very high up, the rooftop, with slanting roofs and very large windows, paint all over the walls. Then, for a while, I was living in some Catholic bishop’s place where some strange Rosicrucian, kind of Yeats types, would meet and discuss some sort of Zoroastrian stuff.
In the apartment?
It was a very big apartment. I had two rooms and they would meet in the rest. There was so much furniture in it that a lot of it was to be burned. They gave me an axe and said, “Smash anything and put it in the furnace to heat the apartment. Apart from things that say nechat,” which means “don’t touch.” If it got cold at night, I’d just go out with my axe and chop some things up and burn them.
That is… just…
It’s a bit of central casting Bohemia. It’s a bit of a cliché. It’s like some bad novel.
Who owned the apartment?
I guess that priest owned it. Yeah, apartments in Prague were weird. They had been in families for generations, and then there was this whole restitution thing going on; people who’d been expelled, either who’d fled the communist regime or, indeed, Germans who’d been kicked out in the ‘40’s at the end of the war. They were putting in legal suits trying to get their places back. Everything seemed up in the air. Everything was on a different economy. For fifty bucks you could have one of these places.
How did you meet people?
It’s a small town. You gravitate towards all the players on the general cultural scene. We kind of hung out in the same places, and we became friends. And then of course, there were loads of young Americans, young French, Russians. Prague was a real magnet in the early nineties for people just like me— young artists of all media.
Like Berlin a heartbeat ago.
Well, actually, when I moved from Prague I moved to Berlin.
When was that?
It was ’93, or something. That was a really interesting time in Berlin. Again, there were really, really cheap apartments, big apartments, in the center of town. I mean, five times more [expensive] than in Prague, but still, that was like five times less than London. That was a very interesting scene as well. I was working in an Irish pub there. That was a really awful job.
I hated it! My favorite writer is James Joyce, and after that Yeats, and Beckett, so I thought, “Irish, Irishness, brilliant!” But any sentimental visions I had about Irishness representing the island was blown out the window. It was all kitsch! I know now that there is a series of pubs named The James Joyce. The island Disneyfied itself and exported its own Disney version of itself. But, again, [I worked] two shifts a week and that was rent for the week.
In Prague, you were working at a bar as well, right?
Yes, I was. In the final months when I was living in Prague I worked at this American bar. The city was full of Americans then, it was besieged. And that first wave of underground euphoria had kind of died away. All Havel’s friends had been replaced by suits.
You felt it was time to leave.
Yeah, the time was right to leave.
While you were working these jobs, where did your writing fit into things?
In the spare time. Again, two shifts a week in a bar was enough to pay rent. So, it was pretty low-level stuff. The rest of the time was either writing at home or…you know, these were very exciting places to be. A lot of the time I wasn’t writing, I was running around the city, going to whatever art show or concert or party was going on. Especially in Berlin, there would be parties in streets or under bridges. People would project films and there would be some performance, things would continually happen.
Did you move to Prague right when you graduated from Oxford, or was there time in between?
There was almost a year in London. I was in the British Library a lot, reading. Just reading. The stuff that wasn’t on the syllabus at Oxford. I read loads of the Marquis de Sade, all of Georges Bataille, all of Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs — I mean, absolutely everything he ever wrote, I loved it. All the stuff they don’t put, you know, alongside Chaucer.
You had studied English literature at Oxford. But you felt that something was missing?
Oh, totally. It was like: now for the real stuff! Well, not quite like that, because I love Shakespeare, and I love the eighteenth century. I spent ages reading Joyce, and Derrida, and Lacan. So I studied some good stuff, but I really wanted to look at the more kind of vanguard— I don’t want to use the word avant-garde— but the vanguard of what had been happening in the last fifty years.
And also the way that it interfaced with cinema and art via figures like Burroughs and Warhol. I got really interested in Warhol and the universe around him, all the films and the writers, and how it all goes together in this massive thing.
So your interest in the intersection of art and writing has always been there?
Well, it comes from that time after college. I was really into the Velvet Underground, so I got into Warhol, and then into the films, and I realized that the concerns are the same in visual art and writing, and that they’ve been coming together, especially through the twentieth century. Even as early as the surrealists, the futurists— they all overlap.
All my friends in Prague and Berlin were mainly visual artists, some were writers. And then when I got back to London in 1996, nearly all my friends were visual artists because I felt that they seemed to have inherited this kind of cultural tradition that I found interesting.
Did you have a clear sense, sitting in the British Library, going to Prague on this grant, that writing was what you wanted to do?
I was always going to be a writer. Since I was a kid. My mother was a classicist. When we were on car journeys, she’d tell us— me, my brother and my sister— the story of The Odyssey, or of Macbeth, or The Merchant of Venice, to stop us fighting in the back of the car. So I just grew up with this stuff.
But also, I always understood, even when I was a kid, that it’s not just a story; there’s a writer [behind it], there is a Shakespeare. And I thought: “That’s what I want to do. You get a typewriter, you write, that is a good thing to do.”
So after college, in Prague, there was always the project: To write the thing that is to be written.
There was a project.
There was a project. I couldn’t name it, I didn’t know what it was, but it was to write. So, all of this was somehow part of the project. Even partying was somehow part of the project.
There is a lot of confidence in the middle of what, from the outside, might have looked like confusion. In retrospect, it all makes sense: the odd jobs, the partying, all of it. But what about when you were in the middle of it? In the present tense, did you ever feel like, “What the hell am I doing?”
Not really. I always felt that this is part of the trajectory.
And there was a culture that embraced that way of thinking, too.
Totally. Especially in Prague and in Berlin, everyone was hanging out there saying, “I’m an artist, I’m a filmmaker, I’m a writer…” It was a very good place for being a painter, writer or filmmaker without painting, writing or making films, necessarily. It was conducive to taking the scenic route.
But, I mean, look at Baudelaire. He sits in his bed in Paris smoking hashish for weeks on end and then that becomes “the thing.”
That roaming of yore, if we call it that, has sort of given way to a professionalization of the artistic path that we see now in the MFA programs sprouting up like mushrooms everywhere. Gone is hashish smoking in bed in favor of a form of institutionalized apprenticeship.
And here we are, sitting in Columbia University. [Chuckles.] Before coming to Columbia, I had been invited to come lecture and teach at other programs and I had always refused precisely because I think that the Hemingways and Faulkners of tomorrow are not in one of these programs; they’re in Berlin getting stoned and reading Dostoevsky. Or maybe not Berlin, maybe some place we don’t even know about yet!
One of the first things I said [before coming to teach at Columbia] was, “I cannot teach people how to write.” Even if you were Zidane, you couldn’t just turn up at a football academy and say, “Here’s how you do it kids,” for an hour and then go; it doesn’t work like that. You have to spend years and years copying Zidane and copying Pelé, and then maybe that will amount to something else. But I think Columbia is a lot about reading. I teach a reading course. It’s a seminar. They’re very bright kids and it’s very productive, but I’ve hardly read their writing.
But it’s true what you say, that there are a million courses springing up everywhere, and many of them seem to be snakeoil-ish. I mean, you’re peddling the dream of becoming the famous writer and no one is going to, or only a tiny percentage is.
At the core of this is the question: Is writing with constant feedback, whether institutionalized or not, something that you think is important?
I was getting feedback all the time from my peers. I would show my work to people I was in dialogue with, my friends, who weren’t necessarily writers. They were artists who had similar concerns: repetition, trauma, mediation… This is what my work is about, it’s what most contemporary visual art is about. They’re totally on the same page. Those dialogues were hugely informative and productive for me.
That is what we are doing here at Columbia too, we are talking about these themes. I know there’s a whole strand that goes on here and elsewhere which is craft. That is just something I don’t really want to get involved in. That’s just something you sit down and work out. It’s like masturbating or something. I mean, teach people how to masturbate? It seems like: Sit down, read Hemingway, read Robbe-Grillet, read Joyce, then copy it, do it again, do it a hundred times, do it a million times, read everyone. There are no short cuts to that, really.
Let’s backtrack. Any more good stories from your jobs of yore?
After Berlin I moved to Amsterdam, in ‘94 or ’95. I was twenty-six. I was doing the books section for Time Out in Amsterdam, I was doing their book reviews. But that came out once a month and I was getting whatever, 100 bucks.
But I was also working a couple of shifts a week at this restaurant. That was a very odd experience because I was working with this chef who was totally psychotic. He was like something out of William Burroughs. You know, he’d hold the cleaver in his hand, scream, and throw it at the wall just after the waiters had walked out, missing them by inches. He’d read Nietzsche, but he’d read Nietzsche in the same way that Hitler had read Nietzsche, misread Nietzsche. He’d say, “Nietzsche says there are Übermenschen and there are scum. We must be the Übermenschen! The waiters, they are scum! They are nothing!”
How did you fit into this? You weren’t a waiter?
No, I was working with him. I was an Übermensch prospect. I was a sous- Übermensch. I hated the waiters as well because they were withholding tips from us. Also, this album by Prince had come out. You know that song, “Pussy Control”? It was the first track of the album that came out in ’95. [Sings: “Oh, pussy contro-o-l….”] Anyhow, he played it really loud, on a loop. The waiters were the pussies, and we had to control them… Then there was a cat, a restaurant cat, and when the waiters withheld the tips, we started feeding the waiters the cat food. They didn’t know we were feeding them the cat food…
How did you mask it?!
We just mixed it into the food. Hamburgers, stews…[Laughs.]
So you were complicit?
Oh, yeah. I think it was my idea actually. [Chuckles.] I was really pissed off. They were really odious… I guess I really had that Übermensch potential in me.
Oh man. And this is before any fancy organic cat food. This is the lowest of the low…
Oh yeah, this is when it was addictive! Basically, cats are getting heroin and they don’t even know it. Once you start feeding a cat brand cat food, that’s all they’ll eat because they’re addicts. The waiters liked it. They kept coming back for more. [Laughs.]
[Laughing] Because they were addicted!
And then, once a week, we’d make a bouillon— you know when you boil down everything, all of the bones and things from the huge pots of stew would just go into this huge sieve. It all drains down into a kind of gravy, really concentrated, really black, like tar, like ink.
That was funny, because it was so…there is a novella by Conrad called Nigger of the Narcissus, which, because of its title, doesn’t get put on many reading lists, but it’s about all these people thrown together on a ship, and the ship is a kind of metaphor for modern society and, you know, capitalism, and trade and stuff. All these people who hate each other or who don’t hate each other, are all jumbled together on this ship which is battered by storms as it crosses the ocean.
Anyhow, all the bones and stuff in that bouillon were kind of like that; just draining through all the hatreds of the different staff feeding gunk to each other and stealing each others’ tips… I would look at the pot each week and see this drip of blackness coming down and think, “This is what will come of this, it’s all being refined into pure…stock.”
Did you find yourself going slightly crazy with this chef?
No, I mean I knew that’s not what Nietzsche says.
Hard to top that. Any other interesting jobs?
I moved back to London and got a job in TV for a while. Working on a series about writers for the BBC. But that’s not very interesting, that’s just media.
Well, what is interesting is how you got that job.
Well, again, it was via, via. I had a friend who was working at that TV company. They had a series called Great Writers of the 20th Century, and they had all the team in place apart from that none of them had actually read any of the writers! [Laughs.] I was a consultant. But then I became the scriptwriter for the documentary, for the voice-over. Because, you know, very few people in professional life have that basic ability of putting a grammatically correct sentence together.
Then I worked for a new media and arts magazine. I became literary editor of that and then editor of it. And then I was fired. So I concentrated on finishing Remainder.
Tell me about how Remainder was published. It took a pretty unconventional path.
I got a contract in 2004, but it was with an art press, Metronome Press. By that time, I was almost completely in the art world. I had a career as an artist, almost by accident. I was doing exhibitions and things in places like the Institute of Contemporary Art, stuff at the Tate… I was doing projects that I saw as sort of literary projects, but the art world was the place where you could actually do them.
So, it was through my whole involvement with the art world that I met Clémentine Deliss and Thomas Boutoux, who ended up publishing Remainder as an art book. Not only as an art book, but as a part of their own art project, which was to re-enact the Olympia Press of the fifties and sixties.
Then, it almost immediately went mainstream. I mean, within weeks of the first edition of Remainder coming out— there were 750 copies, only distributed through art galleries and shops— within weeks of that, the head of Vintage, Marty Asher— who has since become a good friend and mentor— got in touch and said, “I want to do this as a lead title.” Then it was on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review and all that sort of stuff. But you know, it’s the same book. It’s a strange thing.
I was surprised. Because before the art world did it, before Metronome published it, it was submitted to all the mainstream British presses and either they just didn’t get it, because simply a lot of the people in publishing have not read the stuff it was coming out of. They haven’t read Beckett, they haven’t read Kafka or Faulkner, so they’re not going to get a book like that. Their radar is exclusively contemporary middlebrow. So, either they didn’t get it, or the editor might have got it but they could never push it through past the people who actually say yes or no and who are generally kind of illiterate.
Art and literature are very connected for you, but there is something very different about them now, which is that your books have become a part of the mainstream— Remainder became a bestseller— and the art that you do still only has a relatively small audience. Do you think more about audience now?
Yes, that’s a good question. I just don’t know. The last book that just came out, C, when I started it and conceived of it, it was before the whole Remainder thing took off. I was doing an art project about transmission, and I was reading a lot about transmission, its history and theories. And then I had this idea of connecting Freud’s wolf man and the idea of a crypt and cryptic space in the psyche, radio and dead siblings, it all came together. And then I suddenly saw a novel that looked conventional, I saw a kind of Trojan horse of a historical fiction carapace, that could camouflage or hide all of these much more modernist concerns.
But by the time that was actually written, Remainder had become a success, so there were four or five or six publishers kind of fighting for it [C]— exactly the opposite situation [from Remainder].
So, really, the book I am writing now is the first one that I’ve been in this position of having a big audience. The new novel is just taking shape and exactly this kind of question is there, whether I want it to be or not.
But always when you think of writing, there is an audience implied.
Yes, but now there really is this audience.
Now they’re actually there.
And there are critics.
The critics thing— maybe that’s more important in a way. So much has been written about Remainder and C, and I stopped reading everything about four-five months ago. It configures the whole architecture of what you’re doing as the writer differently from how you as the writer see it as being configured. You know, there are claims and counterclaims being made.
With great assertion, too.
With great assertion! Your book is being held up as, you know, avant-garde, or as an anti-novel, or as anti-realist… None of these seem quite right. My understanding of the avant-garde is as a historical thing, it had a moment and it has an implication for now, but it’s almost like saying, “Are you leading the French revolution?” “No!” [Laughs.] If you pay too much attention, then when you sit down to write you’ve been primed to think: “Okay, so I’m being avant-garde; how do I be avant-garde?”
I don’t know exactly where I’m going next, but I don’t think it’ll be anything that blatantly looks either avant-garde or not avant-garde or realist or not realist.
Your writing habits, have they changed a lot?
Now I don’t have to do the crap jobs. Which is a pity in a way. What’s the deal with the cat food now? [Laughs.]
But then, also, I seem to have less time now than ever. I haven’t learned to say no enough.
Well obviously, since we’re sitting here right now.
[Laughs.] You know, if The New York Times asks me to review the new David Foster Wallace book I can’t say no. I love Foster Wallace and it was an honor to be asked, but I should have said no. Two weeks gone. I seem to be doing loads of things and it becomes very hard to actually find the time to write.
I should start saying no more. Just say no! [Laughs.]
That’s some good advice. Any other advice for young writers?
I remember seeing an interview where William Burroughs was asked this question and he said, “Learn to type.” Anything I could say would be totally bland. Read a lot. See? That’s totally bland. But that would be the best.
Go smoke hashish on a bed?
[Laughs.] Go smoke hashish on a bed in Paris! No, I don’t know. Read. Read, read, read. That would be the thing. Because, ultimately, it’s not about having something to say. It’s what Kafka said, “I write in order to affirm and re-affirm that I have nothing to say.” Writing is not about having something to say. It’s about an intense relationship with the symbolic. Which means being completely immersed in literature, which means in other literature, but also in the world and all its mediations. So, maybe that would be the advice: Go and get immersed.
Everyone is grumbling about the end of the book. What do you have to say about that?
People who proclaim the end of the book just haven’t read their literary history. I mean, the first novel, Don Quixote, is about the end of the book. That is the premise of literature.
I think this is a unique thing about literature: It’s a medium that only works because it doesn’t work. Right? It’s always about the experience of failure. The people who have best theorized about what literature essentially is— like Blanchot, Derrida— they keep coming back to this: It’s a system failure, like a computer crash, like Macs used to be before Steve Jobbs came back. They would crash every few minutes— that is what literature is. And so it has always been living out its own death.
The problem would not be if literature was doomed, the problem would be if it wasn’t. Then we would have something to worry about. That is the state the middlebrow novel is in; it is genuinely doomed.
Yeah, it’ll sell loads of copies now, but no one is going to read that crap in fifty years. You know, we can’t name the middlebrow authors of 1922, when Ulysses sold its 700 copies, or of 1914, when Kafka sold eleven copies of The Metamorphosis. Who were the middlebrow authors then? We don’t know, we don’t care.
But I think any writing that confronts its own impossibility, its embedding within media, mediation, the interruptedness and so on that this involves, is, because of its very impossibility, actually destined to paradoxically survive the same way that fish grow lungs when the seas dry up, or something. It’ll find its biological form.
Living is storytelling, so we will always need stories.
It’s what Ballard said, we’re surrounded by fictions. There are fictions everywhere: advertising, TV, lifestyle choices, sexual fantasies… The world is full of fictions; they’re already there. He says the writer’s task is to invent the real.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Eugenie Dolberg