A TALK WITH ALAN HOLLINGHURST
By Owen Keehnen
(The following interview first appeared in 'Chicago Outlines' (1/95), and 'The Seattle Gay News')
In 1988 Alan Hollinghurst exploded onto the literary scene with publication of his stunning debut novel THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY. Now, six years later, Mr. Hollinghurst has come out with his second novel THE FOLDING STAR, which fulfills and surpasses the success and artistry of his previous book.
THE FOLDING STAR is a sprawling neo-Victorian achievement, full of memorable characters, breathtaking description, and graphic gay sex. At its surface the novel is the story of Edward Manners - a 40ish, drinkin', and rather raunchy former academic who relocates to a small Belgian town to work as a tutor. Almost at once Edward becomes infatuated with Luc, a student. His obsession is comic, tragic, and romantic. With this as its core THE FOLDING STAR then begins to reveal a much deeper and more complex reality. The interconnectedness of various lives and histories soon begins to become apparent, with former details gaining greater significance and literary relief in this engrossing epic.
THE FOLDING STAR was recently nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize, the national award for excellence in British fiction. And as if that weren't wonderful enough -- the BBC is also planning an adaptation of his debut novel, THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Alan Hollinghurst over a plate of pasta salad at a local deli. It was a pleasant afternoon lunch during which we discussed writing, the success of his novels, the BBC film, and the nature of obsession and taboo.
Congratulations on your Book Prize nomination.
Do you think the inclusion of graphic gay sex in THE FOLDING STAR hampered its chances of winning?
Because of the sex contained in both my books I never thought I would be short-listed. I was very surprised and pleased when THE FOLDING STAR was nominated. I never expected to win, and then someone decided I was a favorite and said I was bound to win, so I started to expect it a bit…but indeed I did’t.
Have mainstream reviews in Britain or the U.S. focused more upon the sex, that fact that it's gay, or the fact that Luc is 17?
The sex went almost entirely without comment in Britain. I think naturally the British shy from the issue more. The ages of consent are different there, so there's nothing illegal in that way. There was the question of Edward using his trust as a teacher in a sexual way, though I wasn't really interested in that aspect of it. I simply wanted to tell the story from the inside. Here, in the U.S., there have been more questions about the novel's improprieties, but all of that never occurred to me while writing it.
Does self-censorship or issues of audience response ever enter your mind during the writing phase?
No. It never occurred to me. There were sexual relations in my first book, THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY, between Will, who was 25, and Phil and Arthur, who were 17, but no one said a thing…apart from my Father who said, "I believe that what their doing is against the law."
Both your novels to date are so interconnected and supportive down to some of the simplest sentences. Is the creation of these intricately plotted webs a mind exercise for you?
I certainly seem to have a habit of doing that don't I? They do proliferate, but it wasn't all part of my working view of the books. The way I start is with images and atmosphere that slowly conglomerate until this other world seems to define itself. The plot is actually one of the last things that tends to happen with me.
That's certainly a unique approach.
I'm interested in that poetic or symphonic way of writing with different motifs in circulation that are brought back around in the novel in different combinations. One benefit of working as slowly as I do is that I tend to think my way very deeply into what's happening. Some people go through endless drafts, but I hardly do any revising. I go along quite slowly, trying to get an image right, working on a paragraph…
How clear is the finished product when you sit down to begin?
It's very important for me to have an overall shape in mind. I hate the idea of not knowing where I'm going. Yet all sorts of things change en route. Characters turn out differently, as I go it develops in a more complex way. Often my initial ideas are quite rudimentary, but they get broken down and refined, but overall the shape of the story is present.
The Belgian town in THE FOLDING STAR is so vivid. Was there a special trick in its creation?
Kind of you to say. My greatest pleasure in writing comes from the describing of things. The city is partly based on Bruges, but I take various liberties so I thought it best not to name it. Part of the reason I used it was that Bruges was a very popular topic with symbolist painters because it is an extraordinary place, suspended in time, seemingly deserted. I tried to give the town some substance, but it did emerge as a rather imaginary place, at least in the mind of Edward to a large extent,
Your description and capturing of all the many characters in both novels is incredibly strong as well. Which comes to you first, how a character looks, what they say and how they speak, or what they represent?
I tend to define them first by their relationships. Edward I saw as melancholy and disappointed and defined against Luc, a rather unknowable young person, and also against Paul, who has many secrets and is seen in a quasi-paternal way. Next I jot down characteristics -- age, appearance, etc. I tend to see things quite early on so appearance is a strong defining point.
What intrigues you more, obsession or the lack of obsession?
I'm not very obsessive myself, but I'm interested in the idea of people being taken over by some sort of irrational thought that becomes larger than themselves. It's quite an interesting thing to have propelling a book along - the obsession does a lot of it for you. On the other hand, both my novels are about people wasting a great deal of time hanging out and drinking too much and being swept up in the sort of plotlessness of life. I'm interested in describing that and running it up against something which does have plot and takes place in the past which forces these characters to come to terms with their solipsistic world views. The whole question of the past and the experience of others underlies both books.
Speaking of obsessions, THE FOLDING STAR also deals with a variety of taboos…
There's a split. There's something taboo and also idealizing and deeply romantic about Edward's fixation on Luc. It's one of those things that exist in ignorance. He knows hardly anything about the boy and part of the reason he is an object of obsession is that Edward can inscribe his own feelings upon his blankness. At the same time, his desire for Luc is constantly thwarted; his feelings are channeled into a sort of proxy of fetishism or voyeurism instead of the thing he wants. The whole idea of substitution is recurrent in THE FOLDING STAR particularly in the Orst story. The notion of an ideal love that we are searching for and the other forms we make do with instead is very much a theme.
'On a different note, have there been any developments on the BBC’s plans to produce THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY?
It's being decided. They're leaning towards going ahead, but there's been a bit of last minute cold feet. Now so many people know about it that it would be rather embarrassing for them to back out.
Would you like a hand in production?
I don't have a contractual part in it, but Kevin Elyot , who is a friend of mine, did the screenplay and I know the producer as well so I've sort of been brought in all along. I imagine to still be taken into consideration, but not in any official capacity.
Any casting desires?
That's what I'd like to be involved in of course. I'm very keen that the young people actually be played by young people and not forty year olds trying to play undergraduates. I do like Toby Stephens, the son of Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith.
Good genes! Tell me a bit about the annual publication you mastermind, 'Nemo's Almanac'.
It has the form of an almanac with twelve months, each of which have six quotations on related subjects. It comes out every year and has an eccentric but fanatical following. All you have to do is try and identify the quotes. There's a whole black market in the quotations that people get through bartering and various forms of bad behavior.
The hobby overlaps into your fiction quite a bit doesn't it?
Yes. There are a lot of quotations and literary references included, some of which will only be appreciated by me I suspect. I am rather bookish in that way.
Speaking of that, you did your masters on three gay authors - Firbank, Forster, and H.P. Hardy…
I studied them because I was curious about how they dealt with their homosexuality without openly writing about it. I was interested in the concealment. Firbank and Forster began writing a different kind of novel that was written before. The whole question was how to conduct a novel if it wasn't going to turn into a conventional thing of romantic interest between a man and a woman or any of those subplots.
You write in longhand. Do you have any other writing idiosyncrasies?
THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY I wrote in a desk diary with a page for each day. I started it in January 1st, 1984 and thought, "If I write a page of this each day at the end of the year I'll have a 366 page novel." It didn't pan out like that of course…I'd get a week or a month behind, but the book had a finite shape from the start. It had twelve chapters each of which ended on the last line of the month. It made writing a novel sort of like filling a preordained space. It was reassuring.
Did any such need occur with THE FOLDING STAR?
With this one I just decided it was going to take as long as it was going to take.
Well that was the right choice; it's a brilliant novel.