Joe Dunthorne doesn't just have a talent for portraying the misunderstood - his talent, or one of them, is portraying characters who like to be misunderstood, who think being self-important and a little righteous is necessary in a world full of people who just don't get it. His first novel, Submarine, which became a film of the same name directed by British comedian Richard Ayoade, is about a deeply precocious Welsh teenager named Oliver whose arrogance gets in the way of his attempts to connect with people. That novel is funny, empathetic, and barbed and had everyone tagging Dunthorne as a promising new talent. Dunthorne's new novel, Wild Abandon, is set on a bigger stage, a commune in Wales founded by Oxbridge grads whose intentions are noble but doe-eyed. Dunthorne tracks each of the four family members of the founding family of the community (as its inhabitants call Blaen-y-Llyn): Albert, the pre-teen obsessed with apocalyptic visions; his father Don, whose frequent misreadings of others' emotions wreak havoc at the community and in his family; Kate, who's determined to get into a top-flight university to get away from the community; and Freya, who's done what Don told her to do all these years and is now figuring out that that life isn't her destiny. Wild Abandon's satire stings, but Dunthorne's understanding of his characters is rooted in empathy. Wild Abandon is one of the funniest novels published so far this year and one of the most insightful. Dunthorne talked to me recently about where the idea for the novel came from, among other topics.
- Clay Smith
Texas Book Festival: The details of the community are so nicely observed - did you spend time at a commune or imagine what life must be like living there?
Joe Dunthorne: It was a few things. The source of the novel was a friend of mine who I went to university with who had grown up in a community in Wales. I didn't find out until I had known her for a few years that her middle name is Acorn and that gave it away right there. I went to stay at the community she grew up in for about four days. I did a mini-tour of other communities to see how they functioned in a day-to-day way. The rest was interviews. There were things I could get from the surface level of visiting but the people were quite trying to show the positive side of life for only a few days, and it took my speaking in-depth to people to get more of a sense of the politics and conflict. I felt like I was getting too rosy a picture of the communes.
Festival: The book is actually pretty forgiving of the characters who live in the community but were you concerned about what the actual commune inhabitants you had interviewed would think about your portrayal of life there?
Dunthorne: Yeah, a little bit. I wanted to be generous about the lifestyle because it seemed the easy option to poke fun and be cynical. In early drafts, I did find occasionally this lazy meanness creeping in and in fact, the more research I did, in terms of journalism, the tone the journalists adopted was hackneyed and unnuanced - there's a cynicism about the life there, of frazzled hippies. Maybe that has a shred of truth about it, but I was trying to steer past that a little bit.
Festival: Both Submarine and Wild Abandon have characters who have high-minded objections to the world and its customs - what interests you about that kind of person?
Dunthorne: On a practical level, that kind of person is a great deal of fun to write because you're able to hopefully capture quite sophisticated or high-minded thoughts about the world and it's all embedded in the sense that they've overthought it or gotten it wrong. In Submarine, there's the gap between what Oliver thinks and what the people around him think - his egotistical statements. But broadly speaking, I do like to have characters who have massive egos. It's nice to have people who assume they're always right about the world and give forth their unlikely theories. That's a nice thing about fiction - you can construct the person's elaborate internal construction of the world.
Festival: There's a point where a kind of crisis of faith and the reluctance to believe in the original vision of the community happens for almost every character in the book - do you think that kind of crisis is inevitable for people who try to live in a planned utopia?
Dunthorne: Yeah, I do. I think it's functional as well. The feeling I got from particularly looking into the more recently formed communities is that they have to build into their construction what they believe has been disproved by older communities, the hippies. The newer ones, they were very consciously unfluffy - they were tough and you could sense that comes from the fact that the world in general is very hard on any sort of hippie idea. The hippies get a hard time; the new generation has to form a community where they present themselves as tough and unsentimental and not lovey. This next generation has to free themselves from any free love associations.
Festival: Do you think that makes them more successful at building a commune?
Dunthorne: I think it's more sustainable. It's less romantic, less exciting. The challenge of the book was I wanted to write about a boring version of a community - a more pragmatic, possibly drab version of reality.
Festival: You have these really nice phrases that impart so much life to the book but they're just short sentences, like "his teeth patted the food on the way past, as though encouraging a long-distance runner." Sentences like that read like they're effortless but my guess is that they take more time to construct than they might seem to take. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? Do you revise a lot?
Dunthorne: Yes. I noticed this when I read The Pale King [David Foster Wallace's unfinished, posthumously published novel] the other day. He clearly has these favorite lines that he repeated four or five times and he's going to decide the most perfect moment to deploy those. I write poems as well and I have a favorite line recycled from a poem that I move around in the text and find its most perfect position. I'm very much into trying to re-house a favorite image or line - never let a good line die. I have a group of homeless lines that haven't yet found a home.
Festival: Did you grow up in Wales?
Dunthorne: Yeah, I grew up in Swansea.
Festival: Both this novel and Submarine treat Wales like a beloved but wacky uncle…
Dunthorne: Yes. That's fair. My dad is English and my mom is Scottish and they moved there for my dad's work when he was 30. I'm the least Welsh Welshman. We don't have any family there. I have a bit of distance from it but I love it and I'll support any sports team from Wales. A wacky beloved uncle is about the size of it.
Festival: Is it that Wales tries to set itself apart from the rest of the United Kingdom and is almost purposefully anachronistic?
Dunthorne: There's a really funny story - this is about the community from which the book is primarily inspired. They were Oxbridge grads who went to Wales to set up their community because it was cheap there. Many years later, there was this news story where basically a mapping plane had been taking images of Wales and found a group of roundhouses and buildings in the forest. The media started writing stories about "the lost tribes of Wales" and it was actually Oxbridge grads. It's a small country but there's lots of room to disappear in it.
Festival: What was it like working on the film version of Submarine?
Dunthorne: Richard [Ayoade, the director] was very generous. We watched a lot of films together and would talk about what we liked and didn't like. He sent early versions of the script to me and I'd send him back notes. Even during shooting, he would ring me up and ask me what Oliver would do in a certain situation and he tried to stay true to my intentions.
Festival: Are there any film plans for Wild Abandon?
Dunthorne: He and I are hopefully going to work on this one too. It's been optioned by the same company [that produced Submarine] and at the moment it's looking like it's the same setup [Ayoade and Dunthorne working on the script together and Ayoade directing].There's talk of it being on TV but who knows.
Festival: What's next for you? Another novel?
Dunthorne: I've got one at the very fringes of my brain. Other than that, I'm writing a lot of short stories and writing poems. And the script for Wild Abandon, which we'll start doing this year.
Festival: Is there really an England Writers Football Team?
Dunthorne: It is real and it is the best gig in writing. We're going to Stockholm this spring to play the Swedish football team. It's a ramshackle group of writers who get to travel the world playing football. It's brilliant.