Imagine this: a chilly evening in London, two people sitting on the terrace of a London whisky club sipping a dram of Lagavulin. They are talking. One of the two is me, the other is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure – C.D. Rose. His body language and posture ooze shyness, his sentences are spoken nearly in whispers. But appearances are one thing, reality can shape itself into something completely different. C.D. Rose may be quiet and enjoy solitude, but make no mistake - Chris Rose is also a rebel, a radical thinker and a romantic. His book is a little bit like the Old Testament - a collection of cautionary tales that highlight the sins of the writer, the need for success and recognition and how this vanity leads to failure. But at the heart of it there is also a deep rooted love for this imperfect creature and their compulsion to write - a compulsion that is good and pure. The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure offers a form of paradise that writers can reach in the afterlife. The suffering, even though it appears to have been for nothing, is rewarded in the end, when they make it into the pages of the dictionary.
Imagine a conversation, on that cold evening in March that went something like this:
How did you come up with this idea? I know it was originally a blog, but there must be more to it?
Do you want the true answer?
Yeah, or the one you are willing to tell...
The truth is, I had written a couple of novels and I had gotten an agent and publishers interested with them (good publishers) and I had been all the way through the mill just to get the books knocked back at the last minute. Since it happened twice I was really fed up and then my agent dropped me and I thought: “I hate this. I don’t know what to do,” so I kind of stopped writing for a bit. I did keep a notebook though with ideas and I noticed that there were a few ideas in which the characters were writers who would have had some kind of mishaps. There were about two or three to start with and I thought: “could I turn them into short stories?” and I realised I was back on that trail and I thought: “oh, I am not writing another book” and then actually out of the blue I had this idea: “I know what I am going to do. I am going to write fifty two of these. One every week for a year. Keep them really short and then put them all up on a website or blog so that I don’t have to deal with agents or publishers or any of that lot. And maybe have half a dozen of people reading it or maybe nobody. I will do it. I will put them out there and then at the end of the year I will simply delete them all.” And that’s what I did.
But you turned yourself into one of your characters in doing that.
Well, that happened along the way and then I realised when it ended up becoming a book, that the editor kind of was one of the characters as well. He kind of disappears in the end.
Do you still have the record of all the blogs or did you just delete the whole thing? And how did it go from blog to book? Somebody must have picked it up?
Less than two months before it ended Melville House just got in touch with me, pretty much out of the blue saying: “we think this will make a really good book” and I wrote back: “Thanks for the interest, but to be fair, it’s not a book. It’s not going to be a book.” And they replied to me and said: “No, really! It should be a book! We are only a small publisher, but we are a good publisher” and again I wrote back: “never thought of it as a book” and they wrote back again and at some point then I thought: “what am I doing? This is a really good publisher who wants to give me money and should I really be saying no?” So I said: “ok, go on then.”
But it kind of goes against the premise of the book to have it published?
That was my thinking. It’s against its premise. But I thought it doesn’t matter, ‘cause the book will be so unsuccessful, it will vanish without a trace anyway and it will still be conceptually valid.
But it’s doing quite well though...
(Laughs) It is doing quite well.
The Paris Review even picked it up in their staff picks…
It has defeated itself conceptually!
You don’t call yourself the author but the editor and yet every story in it was written by you?
This came from my initial idea. When I started thinking about it, I thought: There is no way I can write one of these every week for a year, so I thought of asking other people to come in and contribute. Then the ones I did ask to contribute said: “we like it but you are doing such a good job on your own Chris, keep on… keep on.” So I just did. So I think, I initially planned to be the editor and not the author.
But you failed.
I failed in that.
In a way, the book is quite an elaborate scam.
Scam is not the right word. I do not want to cheat people.
Yes, I do like that some people think it is non-fiction.
Do you think it matters that it is not true, because you have taken those characters, you have gone through considerable effort to frame them into historical and literary context? So theoretically, they could have existed?
Yes, that makes sense. Does it matter? No it doesn’t. What is true and what is not? How can we ever really know? Particularly with life-writing that is considered very authentic, coming from the soul. Like Knausgaard, the Norwegian guy: “yes, this is absolutely true, I am spilling out my guts, everything is going on the page”, but it’s always refined, modelled reimagined. What we remember is never exactly how it happened.
There is evidence of it as well. Because you project your own experiences onto a memory when you recall it, therefore whatever you remember is not how it happened.
Absolutely. I don’t keep a journal but I keep notebooks and sometimes I write things down and a year later if I go back and find it, it’s often very different to what I remember.
Shall we go through the writing process? You said, you decided you are going to write fifty two stories. It is written in first person plural. This allows for a professional but also very personal tone. Was it always planned this way?
Yes, it was supposed to be a dictionary and I liked the idea that we were a group of people and I was the editor. So there were imaginary people around who were assisting me. It was always going to be “we”, not “I”.
In terms of the structure - the stories refer to each other. Is it something that was added later or did you do that from the beginning?
Apart from a couple that I had already written they were all pretty much written week by week. So I was making it up on the hoof, sometimes. And when I saw a chance to have a link I put them in, but that wasn’t planned out until it came to be a book. When we did it as a book, it was all rearranged and I saw opportunities to put a few more connections in, so what is in the book is slightly different to what was on the blog. I emphasised those connections. That wasn’t preplanned. It came in the writing process.
I wondered about that, because it is so perfectly managed. Then, the historical context, the framing of the characters in a specific literary time - was it something you had planned? Did you set out to place a character in a certain period of time?
There were ideas I had, when I thought about things I could do. They were specific literary milieux in which you could always imagine one of those people, like the one about the guy who always hangs out with all the beat writers. Every time you look at pictures of the Beats there is a whole gang of them and in all the biographies there is always somebody at the back of the picture and they are never really quite sure who that guy is. And I thought imagine if that was a guy who just tried, but had been forgotten. It was picking on particular literary archetypes, particular ideas of writers. Some of them are based quite closely on real people, some of them are widely fictional. There are quite a few people there who have done creative writing courses, who probably take after my own experience, people like me.
On the creative writing course topic, I have a couple of questions related to that. The book is kind of a creative writing student compendium of all the things that you are told you should not be doing as a writer and yet you catch yourself doing. The stories hyperbolise things that we are not meant to do and yet we do. It feels to me like the book is aimed at writers, as it feels like they are the ones that will understand it best.
When I said only half a dozen people will read it, I thought of people who are writers and maybe people who are big readers. I didn’t think it would have a wider audience than that.
It feels like that. I wonder, have you met anybody who is not a writer and has read it?
Yes, a few. Some of them are slightly baffled, some of them are charmed. One or two people, who are neither writers nor big readers have read it and been completely baffled. I wouldn’t want to press the book onto anybody.
Sometimes you take it to another extreme, like things you are meant to do, for example: “kill your darlings” (how many times have I heard that). You take that to the extreme and show that you can over-edit too.
Yes, to its ridiculous extreme, or logical extreme in a way.
So in a way, you also disagree with some of the advice?
Yeah, the process of writing is learning the rules and then breaking the rules and knowing how to break rules.
The characters seem so real. There is great vanity to writers. To be honest, I have not met one who does not want to be published or does not want the recognition (even if they say they don’t care, they do). That drives them. You play quite a lot on that, like writing the longest novel or wanting to be so original and so different… Do you play on it on purpose? It does not seem like you criticise this.
I think there are some people who I do slightly criticise in there, but it was in no way meant to be snarky or sarcastic or nasty in any way. One or two people have read it that way which upsets me, because it wasn’t meant that way. It is genuinely full of admiration, even for those people who just want to be famous. It’s all about recognition and posterity, fame and that is why a lot of people are driven to do it. It’s to leave something behind when we are all gone.
Do you believe that the person stays then or is it just the work that stays behind?
It is the work that stays, because you know a person can’t stay, but at least if you can leave something, you have made your mark, added your voice somewhere. I think it is a very noble thing to try and do.
How do you come up with fifty two different failures? They are all very original and I am sure that you must have come to the point where you thought: what am I going to do now?
(Laughs) I posted every one on a Wednesday, usually at six in the evening, so I always knew for a year that I had this deadline: six o’clock on a Wednesday. Most of the times I started something early in the week but sometimes I was there on a Wednesday afternoon thinking: “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!! What am I going to write about?” And I had to go through the notes I had written and then something happened. Some of them were written very quickly indeed.
They don’t read like that.
The thing was, once I found that voice, that tone, they were disturbingly easy to do. It was easy to slip back into it. That shaped it. That held it together. If I had to find a new voice, or new style or new way of recounting them it would have been way more difficult, probably impossible. But because I knew pretty much how long they needed to be (about 500 words each) and how they were shaped (clear beginning, good end and a tale in the middle), I knew what type and shape the box was.
You also refer to the rules of inclusion in the dictionary. Did you actually write the rules and have them throughout.
They were sort of in my head, you know. People kept suggesting to me things like: “why don’t you write one about somebody who had a successful first book but can’t write the second one,” and I would say “no, because they have to be completely anonymous is some ways”, with one or two exceptions.
You take it further though, like for example “the theory that love does not exist”.
I didn’t make that up. That is actually true. I came across that as a graduate. I had this radical tutor who would say that love is an invention, made up… it exists, that idea that love is just a social construct, which I never got. I could get it theoretically, but practically I didn’t really believe it. There were lots of things like that, that I sort of remembered from doing an English degree, creative writing degree and I have read far too many books myself. I have remembered ideas and theories, tales. Everything is really in there.
Do you find it ironic that having written a couple of novels, the piece you wrote to fail is the one that succeeded?
It’s delicious irony, isn’t it?
Does it not piss you off?
No, cause I am through with all that. I went through all the “pissed off” bit, and the grumpy bit and all that, people that I knew getting book deals and becoming successful (grunts) and you make peace with it.
Are you thinking of having the previous two novels published?
No, I am not. I have been asked. They are both good books, but they had their moment and I am glad I lived through that process, but I am not interested in publishing them anymore. I feel very balanced about the writing, at least at the moment.
That is probably a good attitude to have, probably the best one! Maybe it was such a success, because you didn’t care.
Yes, I didn’t really care anymore. I genuinely never planned to publish it. Whatever happens, happens.
The one with the slowest writer in the world - that is such a lovely one and the way it is set in Italy, where time just flies slower anyway. And it has this lovely mood and atmosphere and anybody who has been there can probably understand it and relate to it. I can’t imagine that story taking place in any other part of the world.
Yes, that was a place I know. I could just imagine a guy sitting there, doing that.
So how many of the failures are your own?
A few I think (laughs). Working very slowly is certainly one of mine. Over-editing, what else? A few.
Do you think originality matters? Becomes sometimes you come across very good writers and a great book and the bits where somebody is trying to be original are the bits that you enjoy the least.
Yeah. There is kind of this rule: “tell me something I have never heard before or tell me in a way I have never heard before,” which is not a bad rule of thumb. True originality never exists. You are always drawing on things you have read, or know or voices you have heard. There are so many books written in history it is difficult to see somebody create something that is totally, completely and utterly new or different.
You twist things on its head, because after you have read the book, you realise that failure becomes success. You refer to writers that have not made it into the book, because they haven’t failed completely. You can’t succeed without failure. You have to endure total and utter failure in order to succeed to make it into the book. There is a clear incentive to become that complete failure. Was that conscious?
Yes, absolutely. It is an attempt to remember even the ones who may not have really existed. Going back to your first question - what started it? It was genuinely thinking about things that have been. If you think of people who have died, for example in the holocaust, that is an obvious example, and so many other tragedies in human history. People might have written amazing things that got burnt or lost. I mean, they are there. Things happen. Some things probably have gone forever.
Do you also think there is a subjectivity to success? Whether you are successful depends on other people, so what you create is just what you create and it is for other people to decide if they want to make you a success or not.
Absolutely. There are so many things like for example: being at the right place at the right time. Personality, as well. Because a lot of writers don’t really like talking to people. Unfortunately, particularly the way it works today, you kind of have to know how to sell yourself. A lot of people that have been successful can often go into character. They might not necessarily be better writers, but they have a certain background and style and the way they are physically. It is very very sad indeed.
Do you think Creative Writing courses should perhaps have marketing classes in there? How to promote yourself?
I would love it to be pure and beautiful and in my perfect world it is, but not in real life. Considering the amount of money that people spend on creative writing courses I think it is probably essential to have some kind of marketing yourself. Reading particularly. I mean, I know some good writers, but then you go and see them read and oh… (sighs)
There is a lot of discussion whether Creative Writing courses work. Some say you can’t learn how to write. What do you think?
Can you learn how to write? No, but you can learn and practice different techniques. You can learn how to play a musical instrument, you can learn how to paint or different ways of painting. I don’t think you can teach genius. I’m not even sure if ‘genius’ exists, but you can give people tools to help them do what they want to do.
In the British Library there is an exhibition of manuscripts edited long before computers were around. We are sometimes led to believe that the works of previous masters were perfect from the beginning, because they didn’t have the tools, but that is not true. They were adding bits of paper and scribbling over it, so there was still a lot of editing going on back then. It is naive to think that it all came out of their heads directly, without any edits being required.
Yes, but that is what a lot of people still think. Even with self-publishing and e-publishing, the market has opened doors like that and everybody is a writer and it’s not very good.
I like to look at the psychological aspect of a book. Obviously you had two novels that failed, is this book kind of your way of taking back control?
Do you think it is what you needed to do in order to say: “I will control the failure now, and it will be in my hands not yours”?
Absolutely. Yes. You have about said it. I thought: “I don’t want anything to do with annoying agents or publishers who are driven by money and not principal.” I wanted to have nothing to do with them. “I will write it, filter it and edit it in my own head and I want nothing to do with them.”
Did you end up getting any help with it at all? Any editing?
No. Well, when it came out in a book we changed the order in it a bit, but it has not been heavily edited. My editor at Melville House, Kirsten Reach, has a keen eye and a light touch, essential things. We didn’t have to worry about a narrative arc and so on.
There is a poetry book by Erich Kaestner…
From Emil and the Detectives?
Well yes, he wrote children’s book but he also wrote poetry. Probably my favourite ever poetry book is Dr Erich Kaestner’s Lyrical Medicine Chest. It is a collection of poems, but at the beginning of the book, instead of having a linear table of contents it says: “on a cold rainy day” and then it gives you the page numbers of poems you should read. Or for example: “when you miss home” or “when your heart aches” and again the page numbers.
Yes. So I thought, because your book is a book for writers you could write: “read those stories when you are doing this etc.”
Yes, like a direction or guide to use the book. How to use this book.
I read the stories in a linear way and I thought the stories were wonderful. I was worried you would run out of interesting ideas, but you didn’t. The way you end the book is just perfect.
The last one was something that came to me about halfway through the stories. I knew it had to be the last one from that moment – the idea of a writer so obscure she may not have existed at all, with those last few paragraphs about futility and hope. It was supposed to encapsulate the whole book.
I think if you read the book as a writer you realise that even if you don’t succeed as a writer, it is still ok. It’s ok if nobody ever reads anything you have ever written. It’s fine. Was this what you wanted to convey?
Yes, very much so. It was about, that sounds banal, but not giving up and doing it anyway, even if you know nobody is ever going to read anything you write, ever, but if you have that genuine, sincere compulsion to write, then you should do it.
But some that are in the book might still succeed.
There a few in there that are open-ended. They could do. I wish them well.
Are you going to do another one?
Yes and no. It is not going to be the same thing as this. It will not be a volume two, but there is an idea at the moment, more novel-shaped, where the editor gets invited to do a series of lectures on great lost books, so it will consist of a series of lectures interweaving with the adventures of the editor’s travels.
Have you started it yet or are you still looking for ideas?
No, I am working on it, but I am where… sometimes it better to let things compost away for a while and not start things too soon. Let it grow a bit. It’s good to let things grow from time to time. Putting things to paper to soon… it’s a difficult balance. I keep notebooks. Sometimes I start writing a story and I don’t know where it is going and then I forget about it. It is kind of dead.
Do you go back to some stories?
Sometimes you go back and think it’s rubbish, sometimes you go back and think oh, actually, that is not bad.
And then you have the days you go back and think: everything is rubbish.
Yes (laughs). And sometimes you go back and think everything is brilliant. Oh my god, that is so sad.
Do you think writers are their own worst enemies? We get into our heads and overthink things.
Write like nobody will read it and set yourself iron deadlines. That is a good discipline. If you’ve got an endless deadline, you will think, well I will improve it next week or I will change that next time. Sometimes banging it out today and even if it is not perfect is a really good discipline. Stops you becoming your own worst enemy. Stops you thinking too much. I have a genuine admiration for short story writers, especially in America in the thirties. They needed some money ‘cause there were bills to pay, “I have to write a short story” and they would just write it.
I find people like to put you in a box straight away, but I find that most writers I know write a little bit of everything, depending on what it is they want to do at a certain point in time. But the only way people can understand you is if they put you in a box, but it is not where you as a writer want to be.
It is very hard, ‘cause you want to write all those different things.
But if they manage to put you in one, they say: “you are not original enough”. So you are set up for failure anyway. With the blog, you set out to fail, but didn’t. Are you happy about failing to fail?
I have to say that I am. I would have felt spiritually more pure had it disappeared, but I have to say I am happy that it didn’t. It was so nice, they did it so well. There was another publisher who came to me and I didn’t like their suggestions for doing it so I would have let that one go. Melville House said they wanted to illustrate it and I liked their idea.
Speaking of the illustrations- did you find those as well?
No, I didn’t. It was the art designer.
Really? They are really good.
They are great. It was the art designer. It took him a while to do it, but he found them all.
So you are happy?
Yes, very happy.
It is an amazing story. Very ironic. Annoyingly so.
Yes, I know. There is a zen thing about it. Stop wanting and you will get it.
See, I have that theory about life, that it gives you exactly what you need when you need it, but it is not always apparent what it is that you need. With that in mind, do you think that if you had published one of the previous novels…
… that book would never have happened. I wouldn’t have written it. It would not have come about.
Imagine yourself having published one or both of the other novels with some success, are you happy you didn’t? Would your life have been easier? It is a very difficult question.
Very difficult question… who could know? Maybe I am happier like this, because I think the books I wrote were beautifully written literary novels. If they had been published they would have discreetly sold, maybe gotten a few good reviews. They probably would not have won the Booker Prize or anything and I would have been left feeling a little frustrated, wondering how I could have done them better, where with this… I am happy.
'Cause you had no expectations.