Simon Okotie was born in East London and grew up in Norfolk. He works in transport and is writing his second novel. His first Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? was published recently by Salt. Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is a curious novel, ostensibly following a detective, Marguerite, on his investigation into the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the adviser to the transport minister. What marks this story out is the fusty voice of the narrator, unrelentingly fastidious and pedantic.
I spoke to Simon about transport, philosophy and his writing on a bus ride from central to east London. We took the jazzy, puffed-up version of the classic routemaster. Topics were wide ranging, touching on Noveau Romans, Tom McCarthy and the recategorisation of crime fiction, punctuated by the now distinctive beep of the oyster reader and clumsy stumbles on the stairs. Below is an extract from our conversation.
I can imagine people having quite extreme reactions to Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? I found it challenging to read. Afterwards I felt the ideal situation would be to read it in a single sitting – maybe on a train journey that lasts a few hours - to get the full effect.
My editor Nicholas Royle said some people are going to be so frustrated by this book. People might hate it.
If they have those reactions, all strong and clearly defined, that seems more satisfying than mediocrity/indifference even if it’s negative. Did you always know how the book would come out? The voice is very defined.
No. I did some Arvon courses and the teaching seemed to say I should write something traditional and ‘normal’ before I could start experimenting. Which, actually, I think was very bad advice. I started writing a traditional narrative – a coming of age story, very autobiographical. I couldn’t do it. I had to put it to one side.
Were you frustrated that you wasted time doing that?
No, I didn’t actually feel like that - I feel like it was a good apprenticeship to spend a long time trying to do something. Yeah, I think it was good.
It’s more the advice was off-kilter...
Maybe it’s unfair to say it was bad advice that I needed to write something autobiographical. Maybe there isn’t a shortcut.
The bus arrives, meeps of the oyster cards in quick succession swaying up to the upper deck. There’s room for us to sit and we continue to talk unperturbed by our fellow passengers.
I found Arvon great and I went to City Lit for a while.
On finding I previously attended City Lit, we talk for a while about John Petherbridge who we both studied under on his Creating Fiction course.
I really relate to the idea you mentioned about just getting something down on the page, then later on the editing and the critical mind comes in. If I start editing something too soon, start hearing that voice stops the process and it can be a bit destructive.
Yes, I always fear if you stop the voice mid-flow for the grammar that idea could be lost forever. You can get better at technical stuff, always improving as you read/do it more, but not the conception.
Yes, it’s terrible if you’re in your flow and you get interrupted it’s awful.
I always think it’s like when your dreaming and you’re woken up – not necessarily a good dream but an interesting one and you’re like I’ll definitely remember what happens in it and write it down when you get interrupted by the radio or something from the real world and it’s gone.
At this moment the recorded announcement drowns us out ‘This is the 38 to Hackney Central’.
It’s weird how something unremarkable can spark something else special. That’s why I like writing on the bus – you can look out the window at something that might be very familiar to you but see it in a new way.
I like writing in company – a bus is fantastic for that as long as there’s no-one you know and you’re completely anonymous. I like writing in cafes for the same reason – if there’s conversation going on in the background so much the better as long as you can zone out. I find that very productive actually.
One of the things that struck me about the book were the footnotes – the fact that they run from A-Z. Was that carefully thought out as a nod to the London A-Z?
You mean in terms of having 26 footnotes – I don’t really know actually. I don’t know why it’s like that seemed to make sense to me.
Do you know Tibor Fischer? He’s a big fan of the footnote and subversion of genre even down to punctuation and the layout of the text on the page.
No, I haven’t read him. I like that people can suggest to you these books that your own brought them to recall. That’s one of the real pleasures for me of writing - you get these recommendations. I really love that. Really great writing with my editor, Nicholas Royle. When he took the book he said it really reminds me of The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s a real pleasure to go and have a look and see where the comparisons with your own work come from.
Zadie Smith seems to crop up a lot in our conversation. Famously she’s a fan of Robbe-Grillet.
Reading Zadie Smith’s essays made me explore Robbe-Grillet – he’s quite out of print here. Before he died he gave an interview (about his recent film back in 2007) and said that Britain was the place that understood his novels the least and when they were published they were always in American translation. I think people will find reading your book quite challenging – I can see the frustrated reaction that your editor mentioned occurring too. You have to concentrate or you’ll miss something vital. Zadie Smith discusses this idea in one of her essay that just as good writers have to work incredibly hard at their art, readers should have to work to decipher the meaning. I wondered what you thought about that?
I don’t know about making the reader work but I definitely think the reader needs to create the story. To me the function of writing is to allow readers to do that. There should be just enough there for that to happen, for the form and the shape of the story to be pleasing. I don’t think it should necessarily be challenging. Partly I was interested in how the story exists in readers minds. When I was writing I didn’t have a particular reader in mind. I really like the essay that she wrote, that actually I’ve gone back to recently, Two Paths for the Novel. (NY Times archive 2008)
Yes, I found it interesting because I really liked both those books when I read them.
I haven’t read the Joseph O’Neill (Netherland, Harper Perennial 2009), but I really loved Remainder (Tom McCarthy - Alma 2006).
Did you read Remainder before you wrote your book?
Towards the end of writing this book actually. You spoke at the beginning about reading my book in one sitting - I pretty much read Remainder in one sitting and I don’t tend to read like that ever. Anyway, Zadie Smith talks about that area of post modern/modernist writing differences. To me there’s something vital about the presence of the reader - if the writer of the story doesn’t acknowledge it that seems a bit fraudulent. To make it feel as though the writer is not there. To me there is a relationship between the reader and the writer and the character. And that relationship should be defined.
Opinions on Remainder were so polarised. I remember hearing lots of strong words against that book. When Tom McCarthy talks about his work he has all these philosophical ideologies - Heidegger on tap. It’s clear that he knows what he’s about. With post-modernist literature often people get irritated it’s trying to be too clever.
I don’t know about that symbiosis between writer and book. The book has to stand alone. I also think I’m not sure about analyzing your own book. The writer has the privileged position of knowing the ideas behind it. It’s dangerous. I think having the author’s perspective actually prevents the reader creating the story for themselves.
I find it hard to do self-categorisation on a very basic level, i.e. what style/genre do you belong to. But to go beyond that - say what your feelings or big ideas are – should a writer do that? The reader creates their own experience with their personal frames of reference.
There’s a documentary on WG Sebald. His editor talks to him about where he wants his books to appear - basically he wanted his books in every section – autobiography, fiction, history, travel. Sebald taught at UEA.
I grew up in Norfolk. The novel’s inspired by a man from Norwich who walked out to direct the traffic in rubber gloves. People still remember him. So I was trying to get inside his mind, imagine how the world seems from there.
One of the things I like about London is you can step out of that - just get on a bus and go see somewhere else. Growing up In Norfolk the option of getting away didn’t really exist. It was claustrophobic at times. Partly to do with coming from a mixed race family growing up in rural Norfolk we were very unusual, very striking. Me and my brothers always felt very visible.
We talked about reactions to your book that may not be positive. How does it make you feel?
Feel a bit apologetic for my book in a way – I love my book but it’s more like apologising for the effect some people told me it had on their mind. Afterwards they found themselves talking in this very particular way, occupying this slightly obsessive mindset. I would much rather readers have a strong reaction to the book than a mediocre one.
You can gauge from the tone of the voice on the first page that things aren’t all they seem. Unreliability is always something a reader will feel intrigued by - it’s an incentive to read on to find clues to decipher – their own parallel detective story.
You asked me about people’s responses to my readings.I did one on Saturday and someone really wanted to know what happened after the novel.
How do you feel about that? Is the open end not part of the conceit?
Well now I’m writing something new. At first I found I had to stop myself from carrying on with it, because it became to me such a natural voice, I could write on.
But it’s a voice you can go back to if you find it easy to access? Alan Warner went back to The Sopranos characters he wrote about in 1998 12 years later.
I don’t read many detective novels but it’s such a familiar genre isn’t it? The other great thing about your central character being a detective is that rather than just having a story, he can have a career.
Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? was published in October 2012 by Salt.