Gavin James Bower is the author of two novels. His second Made in Britain, concerning three teenagers living in a deprived town in the North of England and seeking escape through drink and drugs, has just been published by Quartet. His first, Dazed and Aroused, was a semi-autobiographical peek behind the scenes of the not-so glamorous world of fashion modelling (Bower was a former model before becoming a journalist, and latterly an editor at Quartet.) John Lucas caught up with him to talk about Facebook, the UK riots and getting a boner for Claude Cahun.
Don Delillo is quoted as saying ‘the second book you really teach yourself to write’ – how true is that for you?
My agent and editor both think that my second’s stronger than my first – my agent even said, ‘You’ve become a proper writer now.’ I’m not so sure. I just wanted to write a more ambitious book, and not go over ground I’d already covered. I’ve said it before but, if the first was ideas driven, then this one’s all about plot. And tragedy. And dialogue...
How long did it take to write Made In Britain?
I wrote it in about six weeks, between getting a deal for Dazed at the start of September 2008 and signing the contract the following January. The process of re-writing and drafting, to render all three voices consistent and distinct (while also maintaining a story), took longer.
Do you have a writing routine / process?
As soon as I’d got a bit of momentum with book one, I’d go to the same cafe in Marylebone and write for two hours – until my laptop battery ran out. I did this for the last month of writing, and that first draft took eight weeks. I did something very similar for the second.
Essentially I need to be able to sit still for two hours, with only music in my ears and a coffee – or maybe something stronger – by my side. I find it easy to write short things while distracted, but not a novel.
The novel charts a season in the lives of its three protagonists, Russell, Hayley and Charlie, in showing the lack of hope and inherent violence in a provincial northern town. Why this strategy - why three points of view?
The characters represent a very different version of my experience growing up in a small town in the North. There’s the being popular but misunderstood, the dreamer, and the just wanting to get laid on your terms. All three of them struggle with their own limitations and naivety – just like I did.
Structure plays a greater part in Made in Britain than in Dazed and Aroused, which felt more stream-of-consciousness. Was it your intention to write a more plot-driven novel or did the material shape the text?
Both books, once I’d committed to start, came out as a stream-of-consciousness. That’s just all about momentum, and how I write. A good friend said to me that the second reads more like that, but it had much more work – in terms of redrafting and working out kinks.
It was definitely a conscious decision to focus on plot – and the stories that affect all three narrators. Made in Britain’s about the experience of growing up, and the stories of the narrators drive it on.
Did you find it technically difficult, in terms of voice and/or structure?
It was really hard to maintain consistency and make sure the voices were distinct but true – to the character, that is. I found it hard to write two boys who are from the same place and go to the same school, even though they’re completely different as young people. It was even harder to write a sixteen-year-old girl. I don’t know how YA writers manage it. NEVER AGAIN.
Why is first-person present–tense so important to you? Could you see yourself writing a book in, say, 3rd person past?
Gavin paused for a really long time, as if considering this – the most difficult of questions he’d yet faced.
James Wood has said something along the lines that ‘plot eradicates truth’ in fiction, and yet it seems to me that great plot-points, such as Charlie’s climactic discovery about Waj, themselves unsettle the protagonists sufficiently to provide great insights into character – what do you think?
What does that even mean? I can’t stand grandiose statements about ‘the novel’, ‘modernist writing’, ‘realism’ – it’s all bollocks. We’re just telling stories, trying to create a world apart from our own. We’re fantasists, idealists – sometimes cynics, too. But let’s not get carried away. It’s just words on a page.
All three characters are trapped in a world of drink, drugs, alcohol and violence. Only Russell’s story ends with a glimmer of hope. In a world of social media, the idea of mobility and consequent advancement seems natural to many of us who are more fortunate. Are these people genuinely trapped by circumstances?
Access to the internet or a Facebook account doesn’t change your surroundings, or class, or education, or upbringing, or the fluke of being born into a loving family as opposed to an abusive one. Talk of social mobility’s all good and well for the middle classes – transient by nature – but you’re still very fucking likely to die in the postcode (or its equivalent) you were born in.
Charlie’s sexuality is uncertain, and yet circumstances force him to play the heterosexual hardman. Hayley feels compelled to act more provocatively by the other, more precocious girls, and Russell is bullied for being different – one of the themes seems to be the manner in which societal and economic forces shape the individual – presumably this is a particular concern of yours?
It seemed natural to posit a question mark over Charlie’s sexuality. That wasn’t something shoe-horned in, but a conceit from the beginning. It doesn’t matter how realistic or not that is – that’s just Charlie, and he’s mine – and it’s not what defines him as a young man either. I just wanted to explore the idea that being hard, macho, isn’t anything to do with sexuality – and to do this through a character who’d normally be taken on face value as a straight lad. His choices and the consequences of those choices are what they are. As is his vulnerability. His preference when it comes to sex is no different.
The UK riots happened just before the book’s release – some commentators have remarked on the novel’s prescience. Do you think fiction can in some way predict the future sometimes?
I don’t think anyone predicted these riots – at least, not in the way they just blew up. What I think a lot of people have said over the last few years, though – from both Left and Right – is that there’s a lot of resentment in our society, whether it’s about personal opportunities, young people leaving uni, even younger people not being to afford uni, or just not giving a shit either way. Throw in everything from Thatcher’s legacy to the freshness of the banking bailouts – and the fallout from the Blair years and its unfulfilled promise – and something was bound to kick off.
Ten years ago there were riots up North, too – in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham. Made in Britain’s set in the former, and it’s a decade or so since I was the age of its protagonists. The town was singled out as a haven for drug gangs, as if the ‘social cohesion’ cited in the other official reports wasn’t an issue – as if there wasn’t a problem of integration, and people could just be left to get along and on with it.
I think there’s a deeper sense of betrayal, especially in places like the North, which I was writing about – and which manifested in a different way this summer.
Social inequality is an important theme in your work, both here and in Dazed and Aroused. But what interests me about your work is that it is more than mere reportage - there is a serious aesthetic element too which comes through in the sentences. Which is more important to you – creating art or social commentary?
I’m not a journalist or a social commentator, so the motivation’s to create art that makes up for that. Wilde argued that art shouldn’t concern itself with the present, but I’d argue otherwise – not as convincingly, I might add. As a novelist I’m freed from having to come up with the answers, or even address the myriad points of view and interests that cloud the issue. I can create a world, and make a statement. And I can do that through art – whether landscaping in the opening paragraph of a chapter, or obsessing over the perfect line of dialogue during a gang bang.
How do you approach a piece of fiction of this scale – did you think about the characters first, or the issues you wanted to highlight?
It started with the voices. Russell’s came first, though not as Russell. I was writing notes – short scenes, bits and pieces – in London. Then I moved up North for a winter and it just clicked – serendipity really: I needed to write about growing up. The best way to do this was to introduce different aspects of my experience growing up – because it wasn’t black and white – and to do this with what turned out to be three voices.
You often talk about Marx as an influence, and of course Bret Easton Ellis, but what else do you read? Fiction or non-fiction? What other writers do you admire?
I read both. I’ve heard people say they’ve stopped reading fiction – that there’s no point reading novels by anyone who’s not dead, even. I don’t go in for all that. I like to read as widely as possible, though I’m not going to give you a list. You never know when or from where you might like to steal something...
The book has been getting some great press, notably in The Guardian and The Observer. How do you feel about reviews – do they give you a sense of validation? Is it something you consider as you write?
Getting good reviews is great – but it’s not like I’m used to it. This is my second novel, so I’ve only had a handful of praise. A bad review won’t bother me for too long, but I find it hard to dwell on the good ones – that, and accept that not everyone wants to be my friend. It’s my own arrogance that I find most difficult to deal with.
Your next book is about Claude Cahun, an artist known for her sexually ambiguous images. How did that come about? Does this continue with the interest in identity as a construct that runs through your work?
I’ve been a big fan of hers for years, since writing one of my first features on her for FLUX Magazine. I kept the obsession going, until recently my friend Phil challenged me to up my game – and write something even more ambitious next time around. I I started to think about CC, and how I might pursue the interest academically. Then I pitched the one-page proposal to Zer0 Books, and they seemed to get a boner for her too. Which was nice.
Is it true that one of your short stories is being made into a film?
Yes – ‘The Intimate Adventures of a London Eunuch’.
Is there another novel on the way?
I hope so...
Also, a few questions on publishing, given this is for Writer’s Hub . . .
You are also an editor at Quartet. How did you get the job?
After Q published Dazed, I got to know everyone there and, slowly but surely, made it clear I’d like to help with things like editorial and the website. It happened very gradually, but Q’s a family – and there are at least four authors working in the same crooked, Dickensian building at any one time.
Do you deal mainly with agents or author submissions?
Both – but Q’s one of the few mainstream publishers that accepts unsolicited manuscripts.
What advice would you give to unpublished writers trying to get into print?
It’s hard to avoid cliché here, but ‘don’t give up’ and ‘keep writing’ spring to mind. I’d also say be prepared for criticism, lots of criticism, and learn to take rejection. Lots of rejection...
Finally, get your head round the fact that the really hard work starts after you get published.
The Kindle appears to have re-galvanised reading habits, which can only be a good thing. Given that ebooks offer a new route to market, is this actually quite a good time to be starting out as a writer?
There are more books published now than ever before – so no, it’s not a good time to be starting out as a writer. But writing isn’t a career choice. It isn’t something you get into because the prospects and perks are good. It’s just something you do – either well, or not so well.
A recent article in The Guardian suggested that the book is dead – what’s your view?
I hope it’s not true.