Bianca Summons talks with Jonathan Coe during an author event at WHSmith Paris about Starbucks, Ricky Gervais, and on what he’s got lined up next
How has the international reception of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim been?
As far as I can tell, the novel has taken off into a different league in France in particular. In a month it sold four or five times as many copies in France as it has sold in the UK ever since it has been published! So it seems that the French like it more than British, which seems odd! Perhaps the fact that it is a very British book is part of the appeal. I know that French people have a phrase they use sometimes, which they say in English when they say it - ‘so British’. If a reviewer in the UK says a book is ‘so British’ they are probably trashing it, whereas in France I gather that is a term of praise. I also did a tour recently of the East Coast of the United States, mainly in the Boston and New York area. I haven’t been to the States in about eight years and it was the first time I’d ever done a book tour there. It was an interesting process because they tend to go for the hard sell over there. It comes back to the ‘so British’ thing! They love the Britishness of what I do but there aren’t quite so many Anglophiles. The ones that are there tend to be on the East Coast. It was a lot of fun to meet some American readers at last. I have to say the most enthusiastic couple I met was in a little town in New Jersey called Metuchen. I was a bit nervous about doing a reading there on a Saturday night because I thought that it would probably not be well attended, but it was fine in the end. And this couple who was very excited to meet me and had read all my books was Russian! So I don’t know quite what they were doing in Metuchen on a Saturday evening, but it was nice to meet them. This sort of thing is always rather nice as it gets you out of your workspace and into motion. Travelling somehow stirs something up inside your mind, and what's more and more important for writers these days is finding a reason to leave your desk. The curse of the internet is that everything that I used to do in libraries and by going to newspaper archives and meeting people can nearly all be done online.
How did The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim come about?
The idea behind it is already explained at the end of the novel in a slightly curious last chapter. Like most of my novels, I suppose, it arose from the collision of three or four separate ideas. When I notice these discrete episodes or sequences or overhear fragments of conversation, which a writer who was that way inclined would weave into a short story, what I start to do in my head is form connections between them, think of ways in which these separate episodes could be connected into some kind of ironic or tragic relationship with each other. That was really the germ of the book.
Why is Maxwell Sim a toothbrush salesman?
Well, I always want to break new ground, and maybe he is the first one in literature! Life imitates fiction sometimes. On that theme, another character in this book has a job which I thought I was inventing for the purpose of the novel. She is an adultery facilitator, and her job is to hang around airports around the world and make sound recordings of the airport so that cheating husbands – or even cheating wives, for that matter! – can, when they phone their spouses back home, they can play this sound in the background in order to thrown their partners off the scent to make them think that they are in a different part of the world. I thought I had made this up completely, but I read only a couple of weeks ago in the newspaper that there is actually a casino in Moscow, which was raided recently and which had a telephone booth in the middle of it where you could go to make a phone call back to your wife, and you had four or five buttons which offered a choice of different soundtracks play inside the soundproof booth as background noise – one of them was an airport, but you could also choose noises from football grounds and so on to make someone think you weren’t in a casino. Life imitating art! As for the toothbrushes, I wanted my anti-hero to be as ordinary as possible and I couldn’t think of something much more ordinary than a toothbrush, which we all use every day without thinking about it.
One of the themes of the book is the difficulty that modern technology presents for human relationships, and yet of course it is not technology’s fault that Maxwell Sim fell out with his wife and didn't have much of a relationship with his father or his daughter. Do you think it’s fair to say that modern technology complicates human contact?
I write books nowadays not because I think know the answer to something and want to write the book in order to prove it, but I write them because I don’t know the answer and want to find out! Investigation is a huge part of the process of writing a book, and it does strike me as being incredible how the revolution in communication and technology in the past few years is something that we take for granted now. People have now of course started to write about how that affects the way we relate to each other. We now have all these new and amazing ways of connecting with each other and I thought it would be interesting to take a character who was lonely and slightly socially dysfunctional and find out whether this really makes life easier for him or intensifies and magnifies his loneliness and gives him new ways of realising he is lonely. Facebook is the obvious example - I knew nothing about Facebook before I started writing this book so I joined in order to find out how it works. I just joined and left it there and then after a while I realised that everyone else I knew on Facebook had three or four hundred friends and I had seven or eight friends, and I started to feel a little pathetic about this and started to actually feel very lonely on Facebook. So I thought that the same would probably be true in the case of Maxwell. Similarly with the email thing - he comes back from holiday and 136 of the 137 emails he's received in that time are spam and the one that he does receive is just a one-line message from his only friend in the world. So that's just another thing that brings home to him how friendless he is. It was a strand in the novel that was meant to be just a minor thing, but it made me wonder if it's possible these days to have a close, genuine and involved relationship with someone who doesn't actually exist online, because Maxwell's online identity is completely fictional. And this also started making me think about what it is that I do as a writer and what it is that I encourage my readers to do, which is to form an emotional bond with characters that I have made up. So part of the process of writing this novel was also a process of starting to question not only what I do but also the idea that we might get close to non-existent people online as well as in literature. An interesting kind of double standard!
I once read that you write from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., sometimes while listening to music and often without talking to anyone. What else can you tell us about the way in which you write?
I wish I did write from nine to five; if I did I’d probably produce about three novels a year! The reality is that I publish a novel about once every three or four years, of which the actual writing process takes about three to six months (about three-quarters of The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim was written in about 3 months). I’m at my desk let’s say from 10 until 4, but not much about it is writing, and I always feel rather guilty about this because a lot of what I do as part of my working life is just leisure as far as most people are concerned. Reading is an important part, but that is one of the more strenuous things I do. Sitting in a comfortable chair and staring into space is an extremely important part of the writing process - perhaps the most important part - which makes it hard to explain to your family after "a day at the office" when they ask how many words you wrote that day: "Well, I didn't write any, but I thought of some great ones...!"
What are you working on right now?
I’m in a difficult position at the moment because something has happened to me that has not happened to me before. I have two ideas for books and cannot decide which one to write. They're completely different ideas and each one is a step into the unknown for me. So the short answer is that I am trying to make up my mind as to what I am working on now. I haven't written anything since I finished Maxwell Sim, which is 18 months now, so I have to start something this year. Perhaps I'll get a different idea that will solve the problem!
How much interference do you have from editors; what is your relationship with your own editor like?
I know writers who have very close relationships with their editors, where the editor - although this doesn't occur quite so much these days - would work on the manuscript line by line with the author and go through all of the little changes with them. In a way I slightly envy that but in another way think I wouldn't enjoy it as I can be too bloody-minded! For my last four or five novels I have had a very good relationship with an editor who makes very broad and sweeping suggestions for changes, and I have made fundamental changes to at least one of my novels as a result. When it comes to the American editions some further changes are made, and in Maxwell Sim this related to some of the language that he uses. In general, though, I suppose I am lucky to have someone who likes my work more or less as it is and tends to let me get on with it!
And what about your relationship with the critics?
Henry Fielding (who I wrote my doctoral thesis on) was quite thin-skinned about the critics; as, I think, most writers are, but we try to put a brave face on it! I'd be lying if I said that I didn't read my reviews - but I don't know why I read them, really. I never learn anything from them; all you learn is that some people like some things and other people like different things! Once you have written the book there is nothing much you can do about it. I have heard more interesting things from readers - both for and against my books - than I have from reviews. Most reviewers, even the good ones, have an agenda and a theory of some sort – that’s their job. There have only ever been one or two occasions when I have read a review and thought “That was really mean, and I hope I never meet that person in real life”. Even when the review is positive, I sometimes think, “Well, it’s nice that they said that, but I don’t think they really ‘got’ it, actually.”
Going back to Maxwell Sim: I sometimes found him to be so irritating that he reminded me very much of David Brent, the character played by Ricky Gervais in The Office. Was he a direct inspiration in any way or was this purely coincidental?
I’ve never seen The Office, but it’s such an iconic show that I almost feel that I have seen it even though I haven't - I have seen many clips of it. But I hadn't put two and two together. So yes and no is the answer - not a direct influence, but I'm always encountering influences that I hadn't put my finger on before, and that might be one of them.
So who, in your view, would be best placed to play Maxwell Sim in a film version of the novel?
Now that I think about it, Ricky Gervais is a great idea. There’s also another British actor called David Morrissey who is mainly known as a TV actor, who I think would be good as Maxwell.
In The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, there seems to be a lot of ‘product placement’ – you have already talked about the inclusion of Facebook, but you also mention a lot of other brands, such as Starbucks and Pizza Express. Was this name-dropping of brands intentional?
I can’t say I’ve received anything from Starbucks for mentioning them, although I was once offered money by a car company to have one of my heroes drive a particular car, which I didn’t do, although I might regret it a little bit – it was quite a lot of money they were offering! I don’t know – how do you write about an ordinary man in the UK in 2009 without mentioning all of the usual places where he spends his life?
And finally – after your experience there as Maxwell Sim – are you still on Facebook?! Yes, but I can take it or leave it – I think I’ve got about 90 friends there now.
The paperback edition of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is out now; the audio version, read by Colin Buchanan, will be released on CD in May 2011