An Interview With Submarine Author Joe Dunthorne

Joe Dunthorne on writing a novel, being the next Salinger, Adrian Mole and the merits of Bruce Willis' bald head...
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Joe Dunthorne on writing a novel, being the next Salinger, Adrian Mole and the merits of Bruce Willis' bald head...

Joe Dunthorne is up against it. His new book comes out in August and so “really should have been handed in by now.” The worst bit about this, he says, is the nice but vaguely disappointed emails he keeps getting from his publisher; “they’re all ready, waiting to do a really good job for you and you’re pissing around fiddling with a couple of sentences.” Consequently, when I meet him in a pizza bar on Brick Lane, he’s hard at work surrounded by hundreds of furiously annotated sheets of A4. It’s pleasing to know you can be a successful novelist and still have largely the same experience I had with my A-level History coursework..

That Brick Lane pizza bar, incidentally, is incredible. We were drinking herbal teas that come served in massive glass tankards that make you feel like a sort of hippy Viking! For those looking for something stronger, the wine list consists of just three options: “nice”, “nicer” and “nicest”. If nothing else that would get me out of my normal approach of nervously stammering “er, house white please” and hoping the waiter doesn’t judge me.  Joe’s technique is to go for the wine from the least economically developed country on the list; “that way you know they’ve got something to prove..”

His debut novel, Submarine, has been adapted into a film by Richard Ayoade and opened last week to rave reviews. It was produced by Ben Stiller, featured music by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and the US distribution rights were reportedly bought for $1m by cigar-chomping Hollywood Oscar-monster, Harvey Weinstein. Soooooooo, no pressure for book two then?

“Yeah, thank Christ I’m just editing my book now. If I had to write another one from scratch in the middle of all this excitement, it would undoubtedly have had a massive influence on me – probably a negative one.”

Submarine tells the story of Oliver Tate, a precociously intelligent 15-year-old growing up in Swansea. It's a tale of osculation, canicide, nonage, lampoonery, compunction, triskaidaphobia and various other long words Oliver has looked up in his dictionary. The book is written entirely in the first person, although Oliver is not the most reliable of narrators and much of the humour comes from the cavernous gap between life as he sees it and reality. When it came out, the novel was endlessly compared to other first-person coming-of-age narratives like Adrian Mole and Catcher in the Rye. Was that, like, annoying?

“Well, I didn’t relate to Adrian Mole at all. I read it when I was young and, as an actual thirteen-and-three-quarters-year-old, I wasn’t that convinced by it. It’s very funny and everything, but it just kind of reads like it was written by a 40-year-old woman. Which, of course, it was."

I’m a huge fan of Salinger and any comparison to Catcher in the Rye is obviously astonishingly flattering and I will happily listen to that forever! It wasn’t really my template for Submarine though. Much more of an influence was Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions). I love his playful, conversational prose style - that willingness to go on diversions. That whole American gang who have this chatty ‘wouldn’t you like to have dinner with this character’ tone in their writing were a big influence for me. Not that you’d necessarily want to have dinner with Oliver Tate…"

That meta, self-referential style is also carried over into the movie. Oliver is constantly imagining his life as the subject of a film with a camera crew, documenting the life of “a prominent thinker”, following his every move. This sets up various fun cinematic in-jokes about camera angles and crane shots. My favourite bit is where he looks straight down the camera and warns people against leaving the cinema before the film has finished;

-       It’s really rude to the filmmakers.

-       How do they know?

-       They just do.

Joe was a script consultant on the film and helped ensure that the very specific, idiosyncratic tone of the book was maintained in the screenplay. He also helped out with casting and was generally around a bit during production. At this point I essentially go fishing for some glamorous Hollywood anecdotes ideally involving cocaine, strippers and Harvey Weinstein. However the coolest bit, it turns out, was much close to home:

“The best day was filming the scenes at Oliver’s school. They used the rival school to the one I went to in Swansea and the entire place had been done out to be the exact same school from my book. They changed all the crests, made up a Latin motto and had about 50 young extras in the playground all dressed up in a specially designed school uniform. It was such a surreal experience - basically this world that I’d dreamt up six years ago in my little bedroom in Norwich had been brought to life for real. It was like walking around in your own imagination – pretty fucking cool!”

I ask Joe about his movie influences and am delighted to hear that, along with more respectable directors like David Lynch, Michael Haneke and Werner Herzog, he also has a soft spot for 80’s action films! This prompts a lengthy “off topic” debate about Stallone vs Swarzeneggar vs Willis where we decide that Bruce is still rocking it mainly because he lost his hair early. This has, in a way, made him ageless. We also get into a highly detailed discussion about the size of the bullet wounds you typically find in a Swarzeneggar movie during which I become vaguely aware of the people on the table next to us, edging nervously away from these two weirdos enthusiastically discussing the precise ballistic power required to “actually shoot someone’s arm off..”

You can buy the book of Submarine here and you definitely definitely should. I’m not very good at writing about literature (this can be independently verified by various members of my old university’s English department) so it’s hard for me to put into words quite why I think it’s so good. Except to say that I probably related to the story and character more intensely than anything else I’ve read. Not that I ever could think of writing a novel myself (have you seen how long they have to be??) but, if I did, this would basically be the book I’d want to write. Which is a relief, in a way, as now I don’t need to worry about not having tried and just crack on with watching TV and going to the pub and stuff… So good, then.