How do you navigate between it being u and it being the author you’re absorbing from?
I think you can just feel it. Among the writers who are my closest friends, they all speak of it the same way. And they’ll look at what I’m doing or I’ll look at what they’re doing and I’ll say: “I know you’re doing a José Saramago thing! Come on.” I think of it in terms of music. You know when you’re playing a cover song or if you’re playing a song that feels beholden to something—that’s the difference.
Do you think it’s a problem? I mean, plagiarism as an idea and intellectual property as an idea have changed enormously in recent times. And there seems to
be more encouragement for bringing together your creative influences. How do you think about that?
Well, I appreciate people being honest about it. I’ve met many writers who up on stage will say: “It just speaks to me and I don’t know where it comes from,” and then off-stage will say: “Oh I just love this novel and I’ve read it over and over again and I wanted to do what they did.” I don’t like that kind of dishonesty. It seems a little sordid. I also think of myself when I was a young writer and would go hear writers speak. Those who put on a show of “the muse visiting them” frustrated me. ’Cause I thought, Well, that hasn’t happened to me. And so I guess I can’t do this. Then you’ll get to do it and you’ll learn that it’s less glamorous than that, and less of a kind of journey.
I think that dishonesty gives a false impression of the creative process.
It’s why I often look to music and the way musicians regard their own work—it’s much more fluid. You’re never going to meet a jazz saxophonist who says, “I just picked it up and started playing! I’m not beholden to any other jazz saxophonist who’s ever walked the earth! I mean, I guess I listened to John Coltrane but…” Nobody says that! But writers more or less say that.
Yeah. And you actually make music, which adds to the tapestry of who you are. Do you find similarities between engaging with music and writing?
Well, my engagement as a music player is refreshing because I am not the one in control. So I play the accordion. I mean I always say the great thing about playing the accordion is that you’re probably the best accordion player anybody knows.
And so because it’s a relatively unusual instrument I’m asked to sit in with a couple of bands sometimes, a few musicians, but it’s always their show. I’m not at all the composer or even the arranger or anything like that. So I have a very small place to fill. I’ll just go into the studio and do my bit. And that feels healthy—to be completely the servant. Because the rest of the time I’m at my desk doing absolutely whatever I want in terms of creative output. But in terms of listening to music, I think that’s a similar level of engagement to literature. I find a lot of inspiration from it. And I find that it’s an interesting way of thinking about a book.
Listening to music is a way of thinking about a book?
Yeah. When I wrote We Are Pirates I started listening to a lot of romantic and adventurous classical music that sounded like a pirate score. And then I began to think about that kind of music and how that was written and what that sounded like. It often sounds like the work of very serious composers but it’s been pepped up for the market. So I thought it was interesting, that kind of façade.
Who were you listening to while you were writing A Series of Unfortunate Events?
A lot of Shostakovich. Shostakovich string quartets were a big thing. And Scriabin, who’s this Russian composer, wrote this piece “Preparation for the Final Mystery,” which he believed would bring about the end of the world. And then he died before it was finished. And his student, Nemtin, took over. And he said, “I’m going to finish and now we’ll bring about the end of the world.” And then Nemtin died. So it’s a very dramatic piece of music as you might imagine.
They thought the music would end the world?
This specific piece of music, yeah.
And I always think, We’ll never know if it would have brought upon the end of the world! [Laughs] that’s fun to think about!
Yeah! You said earlier that you felt an absence that made you start writing. How would you describe that?
Well, when I was writing The Basic Eight I felt that everyone I knew—not that we were all ripe old age, but it felt ripe old age—were very concerned with adolescence. Hardly an encounter with anyone would go by without them telling some story about what happened in high school. It’s funny to think now because young adult literature has exploded and it feels like: “Who isn’t writing about high school?” But at the time it really felt like no one was. In fact, the novel was rejected forever. They said, “I don’t even remember when there was a novel about high school. Who would want to read about high school?” And people would compare it to The Catcher in the Rye—I don’t think it had anything to do with The Catcher in the Rye. And so that was the only adolescence they could see. Now it would be like saying, “When will they make a zombie movie?”
And with A Series of Unfortunate Events, people really loved Edward Gorey and I really loved Roald Dahl but I didn’t see that sensibility for children. In that case it was more out of ignorance than actuality. I wasn’t reading children’s literature. It was just when I looked on a shelf at a bookstore I thought, Oh it’s all kind of sweetness and light and there’s nothing of the kind of thing that I would like.
You wanted a dark side?
Just a way of looking askance at the world, with more mystery and not knowing where things came from or what that was. Edward Gorey, I don’t know how high profile his work is here, but in the States he made these picture books, for lack of a better term, that have illustrations and a few sentences of text. And you couldn’t tell if he was chronicling an actual world or a fictional one. He was very mysterious to me. And that was some of the most profound reading
I remember in my childhood.
So that’s really what I was after. Darkness yes, and everybody always says, “Oh you wanted darkness.” But it was more a specific kind of darkness. It wasn’t just terrible things happening. I wanted this underlying tone of “is this real?” And “Did this really happen?” And then, “Oh, well they mention this thing, that seems crucial, but then that doesn’t seem to be part of the plot.”
So it’s the feeling of being confused? Or being unsure?