Wales

Joe Dunthorne on his latest novel, new ideas and looking forward to a well-earned break

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It's fair to say that the success of his début novel, Submarine, opened a string of doors for Swansea author Joe Dunthorne.

Five years ago he was a creative writing graduate dreaming of getting published, now he has two novels, a film adaptation, two mini-collections of poetry and a literary prize under his belt.

Author Joe Dunthorne. Photo © Angus Muir

He admits that finishing his most recent work Wild Abandon and publishing it within a month, followed by the requisite three month promotional trail, has been exhausting but necessary, so the book could capitalise on the still-warm success of Submarine, and the excitement surrounding the film.

Released in March and directed by the IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade and produced by Hollywood darling Ben Stiller, the film managed to bring the painful yet hilarious coming of age tale of Oliver Tate to life on screen in a way Dunthorne had never envisaged.

He concurs that he did worry about the notorious difficulty writers often face in penning the second novel, particularly when the first has met with such acclaim.

But it looks like Wild Abandon too has been largely well-received and could also be adapted for TV, with talks already underway with Ayoade to transpose it to a six-part mini-series, possibly for Channel 4.

Cover image of Joe Dunthorne's Wild Abandon

The book casts a hilarious glance at life on a Welsh commune that is slowly disintegrating and the overarching desire teenage brother and sister Albert and Kate have to leave it. As their parents' marriage falls apart, and various characters' turbulent relationships begin to unravel, their father attempts to reunite all commune dwellers through an almighty rave.

Dunthorne visited several communes himself in researching the novel, "some culty, some just like the Good Life", but says the original idea came from a friend who lived on one in Pembrokeshire and spoke fondly of her time there.

He said: "I liked to hear her stories about it and ages ago started writing something about a commune through the eyes of a visitor, in the first person, and it just didn't work.

"Later I came back to it and felt more comfortable writing in the third person and set in the community itself, so once I'd found a way in, I just went with it."

He wouldn't be averse to living on a commune himself and says it's impossible to generalise as they are all different. "But I imagine it would have to be designed to my exact specifications, so I would probably have to be in charge of the place."

Wild Abandon is just as funny and touching in places as Submarine, with Dunthorne displaying that uncanny knack he has for seeing the complex world of adults through the eyes of a teenager.

"When I wrote Submarine and created Oliver's character, it wasn't so long since I'd been a teenager myself, so it wasn't hard for me to imagine inhabiting that realm," he said.

"I didn't plan to continue writing about them, it was just a way into the situation. But I think there's a great source of energy you get when teenagers are involved in a scene - they are unreliable and unguarded and unexpected things just seem to happen when they are around."

The TV adaptation will focus on different elements of communal life, perhaps with the separate episodes representing different characters' viewpoints.

But for the moment, Dunthorne is out of contract after finishing his novel and relieved his nomadic promotional days are nearly over.

He is looking forward to writing the next novel, but without the constraints of time, and immersing himself in his beloved poetry.

"The whole process so far has been really good and I'm really pleased with where it has left me, but there's tremendous value in being left to your own devices and weird and often more risky things come out of writing when you are not doing it for anybody else and it can just blossom.

"To have just finished a novel is such a luxury."

One idea he is working on is developing a short story he has written, which explores what happens when a writing tutor tells his students to let every bit of their life experience into their writing, with no shame or compunction about the feelings of those they mention, even if it includes their classmates.

Dunthorne says the idea and its potential for drama fascinates him: "A friend of mine told me of other writers who say their fiction contains more truth from their lives than their non-fiction, which contains more lies.

"So this idea of fiction being the place where writers can include very personal and possibly embarrassing things seemed a great route to explore.

"In the story the tutor tells the students to have no barriers about what they include and they basically go about cannibalising each other."

Surely this is one of the perils of being a writer, that every person you know dreads inclusion in one of your novels and chastises you if they recognise an ounce of their own experience?

With Submarine Dunthorne says some of his parents' friends were convinced that Mr and Mrs Tate were based upon them, although he denies this.

"It's not totally untrue, but it's mostly untrue. There are some people whose experiences I draw on explicitly in my work, but I always ask them and speak to them as part of my research.

"I'm a bit sensitive to using real people, I think fiction should use elements of real life as inspiration, but then you should be able to develop that as part of the narrative and move the character on."

Because Wild Abandon has been so all-consuming, Dunthorne has not had much time to devote to his beloved poetry of late, so he is looking forward to dedicating some time to it, with the hope of bringing out a full collection in the future.

"I've been writing lots of notes whenever I get an idea for a poem, so it will be really fun to revisit those notes and pluck out the ideas and develop them. I have at least 15 or 20 ideas already."

One of the things his success has allowed him to do is collaborate with other writers, something he relishes as he admits to being a sociable person, who can find slaving over his writing overly solitary.

Throughout the year he, John Osborne, Tim Clare, Ross Sutherland and Luke Wright have arranged a public event called Homework, which allows them to showcase their work and pool ideas. The last one saw them welcoming Nick Hornby and this month former poet laureate Andrew Motion is paying a visit.

They are currently working on a Poet in Residence theme which will see them visiting places which have no such position available. Dunthorne is going to the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, while the others are variously taking up residence on a London bus, a bowls club, an online casino and a Weetabix factory.

But for the immediate future, Dunthorne continues his whirlwind of engagements. Monday night sees him appearing at the Dylan Thomas Festival, while on Tuesday he will be at Swansea Metropolitan University to meet staff and students and to talk about his work.

The visit is a part of the South West and Mid Wales Regional Library Partnership 'Reading Roadshow' campaign, taking place this autumn.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by hanatomic

    on 25 May 2012 10:52

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