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An interview with the world’s greatest essayist, Andrew O’Hagan

Steve Braunias shares a divan with British writer Andrew O’Hagan at the Wellington writers festival.

London novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan was in Wellington last week as a guest at the New Zealand Writers Week, and people constantly mistook him for another guy. “Look,” said the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten, as O’Hagan walked into the faddish Hippopotamus, the upstairs restaurant in the unbearable Museum Hotel, “it’s John Key.”

The resemblance is there, if faint, and striking mostly to people who haven’t actually met the Prime Minister. They have the same long snoot set in a similarly bland fizzog, but O’Hagan dresses conspicuously more dapper in a close-fitting grey suit, and is considerably smaller. He almost qualifies as a shrimp, standing at maybe 5’7” in his brightly hooped socks. He is Scottish, but there was an English reserve or timidity about him, like a man standing on the doorstep unwilling to open the door. His handshake was reluctant. He averted his eyes. But there was a strong suspicion in the easy smile that he was also good fun.

He is 47-years-old and has written five novels and a shimmering collection of essays, The Atlantic Ocean (2008), many drawn from the London Review of Books. His long association with the journal is one of the great enduring pleasures of British cultural life. The marquee byline ANDREW O’HAGAN signals an event, the promise of a new and thrilling encounter with the world. O’Hagan reports. He sees things for himself and sees the meaning of things. As an essayist, he’s very likely the best practising non-fiction writer alive in the English-speaking world; the prose is always clear and eminently readable, electric with insights and fascinating ideas, and he is drawn to subjects or themes which represent some important truth about the times we live in. His most famous single essay is probably his 28,000-word memoir about ghosting an autobiography of Julian Assange. It reads like a modern tragedy. It’s also a devastating critique of Assange, “an ageing movie star”, who “doesn’t understand people in the slightest”. And: “He eats like a pig.”

I decided to open the interview by challenging him about the Assange piece. The day before, at his writer’s festival session onstage at the Embassy Theatre, the line of questioning was soft, polite, meandering, and I dozed off once or twice during the pleasant, civil, meandering answers; I wondered what an immediate jolt might achieve when we shared a divan in a lobby at the Museum Hotel on a Saturday morning.

JULIAN ASSANGE, THE PRISONER OF THE EMBASSY

Julian Assange. Do you think you betrayed him? Did you perhaps show too much relish in spilling the beans? Because even though you’ve been vocal in saying you admire his principles and the work he has achieved, and that you deplore his weird exile or imprisonment, it makes it difficult to take him seriously after reading your devastating portrait.

I never saw myself as part of the publicity machine for Julian. I was an individual writer when we met, and I left as the same thing. I wasn’t a member of his staff. And so a writer must always remember his place. His place is to write truthfully and clear-sightedly, so that’s what I did.

Did he get back to you about it?

Initially, he tried to persuade me not to publish it, and then when I did, he sent me a lawyer’s letter. That was the last contact I had with him.

Did you tip him off that it was about to be published?

Yeah.

That’s unusual.

Well, I thought he should prepare himself. I thought that was only fair.

Do you feel a sadness for the guy?

Yes. I feel as somebody that tried to do the great work that he did, and is sill trying to do, he shouldn’t be holed up under conditions of asylum in an embassy, anywhere. I look forward to him being back in the world doing the work that he was pretty much born to do.

You must have known your article would hurt him.

I didn’t feel it would hurt him. I felt that it would be something he wouldn’t agree with. We’re talking about somebody who is in the line of fire in much more significant ways than by a novelist saying Assange eats lasagna with his hands. The piece would be revealing about him, I knew that, and he would find it discomforting.

You say “discomfort”, but surely it’s stronger than that? Wouldn’t he be deeply hurt?

He is not given to being easily hurt in that way. It would have bugged him, but not hurt him. He is thicker-skinned than you might imagine.

He certainly turns against people, doesn’t he, who he feels have wronged him.

He’s untalented when it comes to getting along with people. He sees the world only in terms of people’s loyalty to him. What he forgot, or chose never to realise, is that I only have one loyalty, to my readers. He shouldn’t expect loyalty. He’s not a leader. He’s a journalist.

Did you like him?

I did, yeah! He was funny, and also I really like disobedience, and he was natively disobedient.

He’s a genius, of a sort, do you think?

Oh definitely. He’s very gifted. It was brilliant and provocative what he did and continues to try to do. I just think his personality gets in the way. He’s not good with people. In some senses it’s no more complicated than that. He’s good with data, and bad with people.

Did you write that piece fast?

It was pretty fast, actually. I had very good notes. I’m a stickler for keeping orderly notes. I wrote the piece in six days. With  two or three days in there for revision. I’ve never written that fast on anything.

You refer to his “disobedience”. Do you have that in yourself?

I would like to think I have an instinct for it but when it comes to everyday life I’m probably a complete conformist. Whatever instinct for disobedience I have comes in sentences and paragraphs. In my life I’m probably as conservative as it comes. I’m a guy who likes to wear a tie, and walk his daughter to school. I really don’t have much barricade-storming in me.

What is your life?

I’m a very busy guy with a lot of work on my desk.

Are you a family man?

Yes. I have a 12-year-old daughter, Nell. My partner Lindsey, who’s here with me, is a stage manager. We live in Primrose Hill, and we get on with our tasks.

Do you take stands?

Oh, all the time. I’m a classic old-fashioned socialist. I’ve never really changed my position all my adult life. I believe in a strong national health service and looking after the poor.

That’s nice, but aren’t socialism and communism kind of like antiques in the showrooms of the deregulated societies we both live in?

Well, interesting times for that particular view, given that the British Labour Party is now headed up by a man who’s more left-wing than any leader for 20 years or more. Jeremy Corbyn must make the spirit of Tony Blair turn in his grave. Tony Blair set out to end that aspect of the Labour Party, forever. And yet here it is, back. And so it’s not as anachronistic as you might think.

When you think of public figures whom you might despise, is Blair at the top?

Oh certainly.

Below or above Thatcher?

Above. Because Thatcher was beyond the pale for me in so many ways. And therefore there wasn’t so much disappointment  in one’s estimation of Thatcher. She was everything she seemed. She always appeared to me as a person who despised human weakness and vulnerability. She hated the idea of common need in any form, whether that be trade unionism or free school dinners. Tony Blair on the other hand, when he first emerged, seemed like he wouldn’t compromise core values, but compromise core values is exactly what he did. So he is profoundly objectionable. His politics in the end were a kind of manic narcissism.

Do you wish anything upon him?

Evil, you mean? No, I don’t. I don’t have it in me to wish evil on people. I was asked recently to interview him and I turned it down because I couldn’t sit in the same room with him. I once met Thatcher and wouldn’t shake her hand. Well, I deliberately walked around the room so I wouldn’t have to.

There was a very interesting piece by Russell Brand after her death. He wrote a vignette in the Guardian about seeing a frail old lady watering roses under police supervision. It turned out to be Lady Thatcher, not long before she died.

I missed that piece. Was it a hating piece?

Well, Brand loathes what she achieved, and the kind of Britain built in her image, but the story was about seeing a doddering, little old lady watering the roses.

It’s full of pathos, that picture, isn’t it? I think there’s a valuable lesson in that. We must remember the fundamental humanity in people even though we despise not only their actions and decisions and perhaps their whole moral landscape.

It’s perhaps a theme of your non-fiction, this Britain in Thatcher’s image and Blair’s image, this land of Big Brother, of the Sun, the Mirror, this land where a situation has been created where everyone is out for themselves and that’s considered a good thing.

It’s a very ambivalent set of islands that I live in. It is extraordinarily rich in spirit. But also deeply ugly in its public policy. So there really is two Britains now. The one where people have got to do well, and the one where they’ve got to fail. Living there you constantly feel as though you’re walking that faultline, and as a writer you’re trying to describe that faultline, again and again.

Now this is something that Norman Mailer did in America in his great period as a journalist or non-fiction writer in the 1960s and 70s. You’re lucky to have formed a friendship with this genius.

Yes, it was terrific luck. I’m a great believer in heroes. He was a writer who I admired. And I admired him for his pluck more than anything else. Norman dared to fail, and sometimes he did fail as a writer. I’m not interested in writers who don’t dare to fail.

He not only dared, he failed profoundly, because he wanted to write the Great American Novel and it’s like he never got around to it.

Well, that’s a view. I feel that he did write a great novel and I feel he did that more than once. I also think he did something as big as writing a great novel, which is that he changed the face of the novel. What he achieved with Armies of the Night, and again in The Executioner’s Song – he actually changed the flexibility of the form, that could encompass history and journalism in a new way.

You wrote about him, “He was everything I felt a writer could be, a cosmonaut of psychic space who could find the pulse of the times in themselves.” When you write this about Mailer, is it also a challenge to yourself to be that person?

Almost certainly. I’ve always taken it for granted that literary criticism is a form of autobiography. I don’t know that it’s been said enough, actually. It’s certainly true of me.

I grew up reading first-rate non-fiction prose as a young man, writers like Frank Kermode and Edward Said, these first-rate literary men and women, sensational writers like Hilary Mantel, and later I worked with them and commissioned pieces from them, and what I found is that nearly all of their criticism was a self-description. A wishful one. I don’t want to suggest that what I said about Norman was a self-description.

“I, Andrew O’Hagan, am also a cosmonaut of psychic space.”

Ha! It’s more a case, as you suggested in your question, of naming the virtues you yourself would most like to have. To embody the spirit of one’s time in literature would certainly be something to aim for as writer.

I think it’s something you are definitely conscious of and attempt quite explicitly in much of your writing.

Unashamedly. I first try to identify the energies of the time, and then locate them. But I don’t consider myself to be some kind of literary drone flying over the landscape photographing things and sending them back to base. I get in among the mess.

The perfect metaphor for this mess is my favourite essay of yours in The Atlantic Ocean – the one about the sludge boat on the River Clyde. Can you talk the reader through this?

That was fun. That was such fun. Ian Jack, when he was the editor of Granta, was having a special themed issue on food. He needed a piece to close the issue and he called me and said, “How do you fancy going on the sludge boat in Glasgow?”

There were two boats, so-named locally as the sludge boats, and they would carry the sewage, the raw, fairly untreated sewage from Glasgow, up the River Clyde, into the Clyde estuary, and then open the floodgates underneath the boats, and then three and a half tonnes of effluent would flow into the sea. And this had been going on every day, twice a day, since about 1914. I went there in 1995.

The ship itself would defecate.

It would take a giant dump in the water. It was discontinued not long after I wrote about it. It seemed to be permanently altering the seascape with nearly 100 years worth of Glasgow shit.

So I climbed onto this boat and as luck would have it – being Glasgow, they’d decide to kill two birds with one stone, and seeing as this boat was going up the Clyde, they decided to build a little saloon on the top and allow the pensioners of Glasgow to have a day out on this boat. On the day I went out it was the turn of the Clydebank Holy Redeemers Senior Club who were eating sandwiches and cake, and drinking whiskey, and having a little jig.

Sometimes the journalistic gods are smiling. Not all the time; some pieces are a giant struggle, but that day I arrived on the boat to discover these pensioners on an outing, it was just such a gift. And there they were, chewing away on their sandwiches and inadvertently producing the next day’s effluent whilst the previous day’s effluent was billowing into the sea.

I think of that as a kind of companion piece by Jonathan Raban, an essay, a black comedy, called “A Christmas in Bournemouth”.

I don’t think I know that piece. He’s a great writer.

It’s in a collection of his essays called For Love or Money. It came out  at a time when publishers  were almost routinely putting out books of essays – Clive James among them. And now that’s a bit of a rarity.

It’s disappointing. Some of the greatest reading pleasure I had growing up was reading collections of essays and reportage. We were talking about Mailer before; I think I came to Norman through his collections of pieces. Similarly Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe. And that’s just the Americans. In Britain, VS Pritchett, and Frank Kermode. Clive James. Robert Hughes. They were my kind of writer.

And the idea that that’s gone out of the culture is unthinkable to me, because the essay as a form is a particularly robust form. Not everybody’s got a good, never mind great novel in them. We all struggle to write that good novel. But it’s often the case where there’s a handful in every generation who are particularly good with the essay form. And they could turn that 3000-word piece of prose in regularly. You could set your watch by it. Joan Didion would suddenly be appearing in the New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker – fresh prose served up regularly.

Those journals are still doing very well, but you just don’t see those book collections, and I wonder if my generation, when I look around me – take the Granta list that I was on in 2003, [the best] British writers under 40, very few of them were essayists as well as novelists. That’s a disappointment. I have to look at the generation and a half above me for that great swathe of essayists.

That golden age of Didion, Vidal, Plimpton.

Those were rich, rich times. And perhaps the times gave themselves to reporting, a particularly stylish, high-energy reporting, which was perhaps an emanation of the 60s vibe in some way.

But the times now are just as rich and provocative and terrifying. It’s just that the whole publishing scene has radically altered.

You’re right. These times are rich. I’m constantly looking around me thinking, “Oh my God when is somebody going to climb into that particular irony and produce a piece?” As I was saying yesterday [onstage], this flag debate that’s going on at the moment in New Zealand, surely that’s going to produce a singular essay by a really excellent essayist. And if it doesn’t, that’s a disappointment.

I do look around me a lot in my own country, and I look for those essayists rushing Orwell-like towards a new phenomenon, and very often it doesn’t happen. For all the blogging, and all the blethering that goes on, sometimes that first-rate piece doesn’t occur. And maybe that publishing aspect you’re talking about is the reason why we don’t get these collections.

Book publishers are panicking, and the print media is in crisis.

I just don’t know the print culture I grew up in will survive. I started my career at the behest, really, of editors who loved nothing more than finding a young writer, someone brand new to the scene, and making them well-known. They could create a star. Where are those young writers going to find their playground in the future?

The narcissistic maelstrom that is the universe online – the unedited, the great phoney democracy, that exists online – I don’t find that to be anything like as valuable a space. Maybe because it’s too self-appointing. The old spaces had editors, who had judgment and experience and prejudices. I worked for those men and women, and they were infuriating and frightening, grandiose. And at the same time they were creative enablers. They gave so many writers their start.

Tell me about your rise as a young writer at the London Review. Was there a moment when you first experienced the thrill of being published and also being read and discussed, when suddenly your writing was hot?

Yes. It was the Bulger piece. That was the moment for me. I went to bed and I woke up in a different world. The phone never stopped ringing. It was an old-fashioned Boy’s Own version of success, I have to say. I couldn’t have dreamt for anything better. You pour your heart out on a story, and it connected.

Talk the reader through what it was about.

In March 1993 there had been a horrific murder in Liverpool of a small boy called James Bulger, a two-year-old, murdered by two 10-year-olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. In the early days of the investigation they were known as Boy A and Boy B because they were being protected from public security. And a big debate went up in Britain about the nature of childhood evil. Juvenile violence was very much on the radar. People were very much discussing it.

Chucky.

Chucky, yeah, the character in the video nasty that was supposed to have influenced the boys. Child’s Play 3. I went off from the London Review one day and wrote an essay on the killing, which was really a memoir, about growing up on a housing estate, as I did, outside Glasgow, during the 70s and early  80s, and being part of a marauding gang of wicked youth who weren’t driven by moral scruple. The piece tried to be honest about what we’d done, but we hadn’t grown up to be serial killers or criminals who ruined lives.

Anyway the essay was published, and when I woke up the next day the phone rang from the beginning of the day to the end, with every publication you can think of wanting to republish the piece, and interview me. I’d never been interviewed before. I was 24 years old, and everyone from the New York Times, to the New Yorker, to Vanity Fair, the Sydney Morning Herald – it was all ceaseless attention, falling on this one essay. It happened with the Assange piece a bit, and it happened with a piece I wrote about the BBC and the culture of paedophilia, that happened then too. It’s happened maybe four or five times in my life. But that was the first. I had no idea that could occur.

Andrew O'Hagen - author

YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE A FAINT RESEMBLANCE

Did you experience a level of fame, and did it turn you into any kind of asshole?

I don’t think so! I was always quite self-doubting. I was as big an asshole at the end of it as I was in the beginning. I don’t think the piece disimproved me in that way. It just led to a whole lot of work. I was off to the races, you know. From that moment on I was writing all the time and I’ve never stopped since. I’ve always had books, essays, plays, jobs on my desk. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky in that way. I love work. I love being able to write.

So that was the beginning, and there was a certain amount of fame, and for a few years I was the person who wrote that piece.

When’s the last time you read it?

I don’t think I’ve read it since. No – I did read it, when it was in proof for the Atlantic book. So almost 20 years had passed. I remember thinking it was a piece written by a very young man. I couldn’t write in that way now. With that lack of guile, that lack of experience. And a lack of children. I could never write dispassionately now about the agony of a child’s death. I would succumb to that agony now. Life does that to you. Back then I was a 24-year-old kid with no children – I didn’t even have a girlfriend! I was just a young writer. I was  able to confront any horror back then by turning over a fresh page of the notepad, and write it down. [There is a later, harrowing essay in the London Review where O’Hagan writes of his nightmares about the Bulger killing.]

We talked about Mailer before and I liked that very much. Let’s talk about Updike. I spent the summer reading an Everyman edition of all four Rabbit novels.

Oh God. Amazing books. What I love about Updike is that he’s a valiant stylist. There is no moment in his writing when he gives up the energy of being a first-rate stylist. You never read a piece by Updike and think, “Oh, he’s turned his jets off. He’s leaning back on his elbows and letting the world flow over him.” He’s always inventing. I  mean he would describe you drinking that cup of tea in a way that’s completely fresh. Something about the light hitting the cup, something about the warmth remaining in the cup from the tea you’ve just drunk. He would find the thing that brought the cup alive.

Virtually the first sentence of the first book is Updike describing the sound of children’s voices “lifting high into the moist March air, blue above the wires”. And then the book heads off, and charts and registers 40 years of American life.

Just the sheer generosity of that style, the luminous generosity. He couldn’t stop himself from finding life persistently interesting. It makes him a great human being to me as well as a great stylist. I think great stylists fundamentally have something deeply human about them.

And yet you once wrote of Updike, comparing him to Mailer, “you never felt he had taken risks on your behalf. He stayed wise.”

I think he was wise, but that’s not a crime. When I was assessing Norman, I would point out that virtue in Norman, that he wasn’t held hostage by his wisdom, ever. No one would accuse him of that. He threw all caution to the wind. Well, Updike never did that. Updike was a writer for the New Yorker who went to his desk every day and kept house and was sensible. He wasn’t out storming the barricades and stabbing his wife and trying to free killers.

Are you temperamentally more Updike than Mailer?

It’s an interesting one for me, that, because if I had to, with a gun to my head, position myself, I would say that I was bang between the two. I have that Updikean relationship with a single publication, where over the years your contributions accumulate, and your readership solidifies, and people know who I am through my contributions to that journal as much as they do through my novels. But I keep my sand shoes by the door. I’m always ready to pull them on and run into the street in search of some vital energy. So I don’t quite have Norman’s passion for disaster and I don’t quite have Updike’s solemn dedication, either.

My vice is to give equal energy to every single thing I do. There’s as much energy in this conversation now as if I were talking to the New York Times or writing a sentence. It makes no difference to me. The occasion is the occasion. I don’t know how to dip my lights. I’m just always searching for the right word and the right sentence to express the truth of whatever I’m talking about, and I’m not going to give a half-effort to that at any time. So it might be there’s things I’ve talked about in this conversation where I’ve reached further than I’ve ever reached before. That’s just the way it is for me.

Oscar Wilde was a great conversationalist, apparently. That was his real height. He was one of those people of whom it’s said, “If you think his writing’s good, you should hear him talk.” They say it of Coleridge as well. Christopher Hitchens was able to talk better than he was ever able to write. He was a dazzling speaker. I knew him when I was quite young and we had many late nights.

I found Hitchens unreadable for about the last 20 years.

I lost appetite for reading him with enthusiasm, too.

When he had The Change.

The Change was so disappointing and so self-indulgent, really. And so predictable. So many intellectuals move from their left-wing beginnings to something more conservative.

It’s a cliché.

A total cliché.

Is that true of Amis, do you think?

Yes.

He once wrote an admiring, even adoring portrait of Blair in the Guardian. Hangin’ out with Tone. Despicable!

I wouldn’t want to hold writers to account for every misstep. We weren’t supposed to be superlative human beings. But it’s disappointing when writers behave as if they have no talent, by hanging out with corrupt politicians. That seems to me such a profound insult to their own talent. I think writers exist on ambivalence. I think F Scott Fitzgerald said that the sign of a first-rate writer is his or her ability to occupy both sides of the argument simultaneously, and still function. I really strongly know what he means by that. It’s not your job to be certain about everything in a way that a politician must pretend to be.

Although I’m almost beginning to get used to the idea of what it must be like to be a politician, because everywhere I’ve gone in the last week, in Wellington, I’ve been mistaken for your Prime Minister. It happened so much last night that I’ve begun to see the opportunity for fantastic pranks. Just this morning a man stopped me in the street, and said, “Good morning, Prime Minister.” I thought, “How could I use this to create disorder for the Prime  Minister, and hilarity for me?” I’m thinking about that as we speak.

Your latest review in the London Review is of a memoir of Hollywood, told as oral biography. George Plimpton did this to fantastic effect with his books on Capote and others.

I’ve always admired the oral biography as a style. I’ve never taken it up or anything.

In some ways you have. You’re a great one for voices; look at your novel Personality. So much of it is told in the characters voices.

You’re quite right to correct me on that. As a novelist I’ve been influenced by it. I’ve never written non-fiction that way.

I think of Viriginia Woolf’s literary criticism in similar ways to yours. You both review biographies and write about how they somehow embody or illuminate the times – your latest review, of the Hollywood memoir, and Woolf with her writing about Victorian nobility.

I was so big on Virginia Woolf at a certain point. I just thought sentence for sentence, she’s a marvellous writer. But I didn’t love her literary journalism that much. I thought it was pious, and a little bit tight. I thought the novels were absolutely sublime. Just in the way you quoted very effectively before, in our conversation about Updike, that absolute confidence that let “blue above the fences” work like that, she had that. She would just let the line find a new level. I absolutely adored her sentences.

As with Updike, some people find it all a bit too much. “There’s too much style. It’s too pungent or florid.” I’ve never felt that. It’s not a popular view among writers at the moment, because everybody wants everything to be super simple. Dirty realism. Take out all the adjectives. I’m always encouraging my students to put more adjectives in. If they’re good adjectives, and they’re apropos. If it’s a beautiful sentence, let it live.

Clive James wrote like someone in constant pursuit of the next beautiful sentence – it could be long or short, or extravagant or concise.

He had an absolute native skill for coming up with an apercu. He’s a master of the delightful.

I think you owe it to yourself, and to honour your friendship and kinship with Mailer, to find the spirit of the age by going to Cleveland and covering the Republican convention.

I can’t. I’ve got two film projects going on.

The man who was too busy to find the spirit of the times!

You’re making me feel bad. I’ve just got so much to get done. I don’t know…maybe I should just get the credentials, and go. Because conventions – God, there’s nothing like them. The one that I was at, and wrote about, was the famous one where Obama gave that incredible speech. I’ll never forget that moment. It’s the only time I’ve been in a room where I felt that people were levitating. Something happened in the room. People’s beliefs rose, and they rose with it. Physically.

MR TRUMP IS NOT AMUSING

Do you think there’s something similar happening with Trump? Aren’t his rallies a kind of levitation, a holy lifting up of nastiness?

Oh God. I fear that you’re right. What we’re witnessing is a supernatural communal turn towards something deeply sinister. He summons everything that’s worst about the American character and sells it back to them as virtue.

I was reprimanding writers over drinks last night about them being too sanguine about Trump, and finding him “amusing”. I told them off to a standstill. I said that Trump was a juggernaut, a train gathering momentum, and that assuming he would gain the nomination, and goes up against Clinton, he has a very real chance of winning and that they ought not be so complacent or so fucking “amused”.

I’m with you on that. I think it is a juggernaut. Nobody ever went poor underestimating the taste of the American public. They could really go for this guy. He appeals directly to something vengeful and self-loathing in the American character. They look at that guy and see a reflection of something very essential to themselves. That is a frightening energy. And it could get out of control. It already is out of control. The fact that he’s got this far is baffling. Baffling to me precisely because it makes me feel nostalgic for somebody like Reagan.  Or even Nixon! Nixon is René Descartes next to Donald Trump, a deep philosophical original thinker.

So. God knows. I’ll be watching it with both eyes, and hoping that the writing that people do comes up to scratch. If only Mailer were alive at this hour! He would have written his heart out on this.

Nixon was his great subject. He writes about Nixon appealing to “people who have chosen stupidity as a way of life”.

Ha! That’s very good. And if that’s what he thought of Nixon, then Christ knows what he’d think of Trump. I think he’d find him a manifestation of some – it’s nihilistic, almost.

Trump appeals to people who have chosen nihilism as a way of life?

We are living through quite nihilistic times. The searing image in American communal life right now is the school shooter.

Now you wrote about that recently in the London Review, and I found it a curious piece. I had the feeling it was somehow restrained, or that there was more to come.

I think there probably is more to come. It’s a developing story for me. It’s part of something larger, and it’s to do with nihilism. You spotted it correctly. It’s not that I pulled punches, it’s that I said what I had to say for now. But there is a larger subject and I think that it’s possibly a book.

I suspect you are talking about fiction.

It possibly is. It’s do with not just that self-destructive energy of the lone gunman, but with the society-destroying energy that’s in the air at the moment, that people want to take down the whole world. It’s there in the jihadi mindset of course but it’s there on the domestic American mindset as well, especially among that generation who grew up gaming, which is a very nihilistic activity. You score higher and higher points by taking down more and more phantoms. I think there’s a direct link.

In some ways the shooters are emblematic of a zeitgeist, and let me immediately say what an awful word that is. But it comes in handy, doesn’t it?

It’s useful. No other word quite does the business.

We need a synonym.

I’ll tell you what else we need, a new, better phrase than “creative non-fiction”. I’m coming to detest that. It’s the title of the course they teach all over the world. But given they’re all dealing in language, and it’s all about the language, they can’t find the language to describe the fucking course. They should all sit down in a room  somewhere and have a big fat lunch and work out a better fucking description. It’s just terrible.

“THE COSMONAUT OF PSYCHIC SPACE”, NORMAN MAILER

Do you ever think about unleashing yourself in a piece of writing, in a Mailer way? You are a shrewd, astute presence in your essays, someone who is always thinking, but where’s the dude, the writer as motherfucker?

I don’t have it in me. The thing about Norman is that he had incredible reserves of anger and violence in him, and I don’t. And that’s something you can’t fake. I will put myself in my stories, but what you’ll never get from me is the great public self-dramatisation. Because there really isn’t anything there. I don’t have a great wound waiting to explode. I don’t have a capacity for violence that would suddenly alter my style – I mean, Norman ripped his style apart about three or four times. He obliterated his voice. By the time he gets to The Executioner’s Song, he’s literally cancelled that third-person Mailer voice out, and there’s only that brilliantly barren Utah landscape.

Joan Didion said to you, “My subject was the West, but Mailer was the one who got it.”

Yeah. He just entered into it. And he did something brand new. He wasn’t just a writer, Norman; he was a fantastic performance artist of a sort, fuelled by anger, revenge, and tremendous capacity for violence, and it was there in him. I’m quite mild. I just go back to my desk.

You haven’t stabbed your wife.

And she hasn’t stabbed me yet, which is more likely. Norman was at war with his times. I’m in an occasional skirmish with mine. And fame was a big factor in Norman’s life. The last time I saw him was at a place in Provincetown where he loved to eat the oysters. Everybody in the room knew him. Norman was so famous. He would walk down the street and people would literally be thinking, “Here comes Tolstoy.” No writer could achieve that now. I mean – Jonathan Franzen? Give me a break. Bless Jonathan Franzen, but nobody would recognise him if he walked down Fifth Avenue with bells hanging off his dick.

You were taken aback by the opening question, weren’t you? Look at you now, gabbling away happily and at length, but at the start, you gave terse little replies.

No! I wasn’t discomforted by it. But I was fascinated by your technique. Because that’s the sort of question people would normally bury further down. I was amazed by that technique. I thought, “God, straight out of the traps!”


 

Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel The Illuminations is available at Unity Books.

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