In 2013, Adam Thirlwell made Granta’s list of the Best Young British Novelists for the second time. Their previous list came out in 2003, the year Thirlwell, then 24, published his debut novel, Politics, which has been translated into 30 languages. Since then, alongside more books of his own, he has published Multiples, in which a stellar cast of international writers translate and retranslate stories, and taught a course on collectivity in literature with the novelist Daniel Kehlmann, at Berlin’s Freie Universität. He tells Tank about leaving the garret and why writers should be more like architects.
Lidija Haas Why did you become interested in the idea of literary collaboration?
Adam Thirlwell It was partly that I was just getting lonely sitting in my room all the time. I envied film-maker friends who went out to work and got to talk to people. It was also a theoretical interest, though, because I was writing a book on style and translation, and translation seemed a pure example of collectivity. You and the translator form this new unit that produces a book and it’s still called yours, but none of the words are yours except the characters’ names – not even those, sometimes. So despite all the rhetoric about literary style as an expression of pure singularity, we’re silently used to the idea that a novelist’s style could have more than one person involved in its production.
LH So you wrote to Daniel Kehlmann about collaborating…
AT Yes, and at first we were calling it The Book of Tasks: we’d deliberately set each other writing exercises the other person wouldn’t like to do. For instance, Daniel is very shy, so I made him follow somebody and describe them, because I knew he’d find it embarrassing and painful. Our idea was that great editors say, write on this, and you say, I don’t know anything about it – and that’s often your best piece. So why isn’t it the same for fiction? But with Daniel this failed, because we hated doing the tasks we didn’t want to do. In the end, our styles were too singular… Then when the Freie Universität asked me to teach a course, I thought it’d be fun to do it with Daniel, about collectivity. At the same time I was planning the McSweeney’s edition with these multiple translations, which addressed a similar problem: is a Kafka story multiplied by five other writers still Kafka, or is it now someone else’s?
LH You mentioned editors: what about Carver and Lish, for instance?
AT It’s interesting – why do we not think Lish’s name should be on the cover? Or with Eliot and Pound –
no one would have wanted to read the manuscript version of The Waste Land. Philosophically, there’s a slight aporia that people aren’t willing to think about, around the production of literature. There’s something very 19th century in this idea that it’s just yours. Another project I’d love would be to have writers as named editors, like, I don’t know, the new Jonathan Franzen, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. You could even publish two versions: a story the writer thought was finished and then another writer’s edit. The problem is, it would be such a violent act, if people did it honestly – a ruthless form of exposure.
LH Sheila Heti uses her conversations with other people in How Should a Person Be?, which obviously isn’t that unusual, in a sense.
AT One thing I love about Sheila’s book is that she makes something overt that’s normally covert: every writer in history is stealing dialogues they’re having, but pretending they made them up. It reveals something not just morally but aesthetically wrong in the literary system; there’s so much theft going on that’s unacknowledged. It happens at the deepest level: all novels are co-productions. Think of the acknowledgements, those sad sentences at the end of a book where someone’ll say: “And of course, I couldn’t have done this without my wife,” or boyfriend, or lover – every writer knows that means much more than just: “They were there at three in the morning when I was crying.” It’s one of those purloined letter jokes, so open that it’s ignored – you know what they’re really saying is: “I’ve stolen all my wife’s stories.” Maybe that’s why everyone gets so publicly upset about plagiarism, it’s literature’s over-determined, neurotic place. People fixate on it precisely because it’s actually happening all the time. On the course, we taught Lautréamont’s Poésies, where he takes lines from other writers without acknowledging them, and slightly rewrites them, sometimes to mean the opposite of what they originally said. Fittingly, one of his epigrams is: poetry should be done by everyone, not by one person.
LH “By everyone”: could that even include
AT Actually, Raymond Queneau used that Lautréamont line as the epigraph for A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems – the book is just strips that you can keep rearranging: he worked out, because he was also an insane mathematician, that if you multiplied the 14 lines of a sonnet enough times, you could have 100,000 billion variants of this poem. There’s something thrilling about that, because, yes, there is a certain amount of collaboration in the very act of being read, except that as the writer you don’t get any control over it, you don’t even see it happen.
LH Almost the reverse of the thing where you’re writing down what everyone says and not telling them...
AT It’s true. If you think of a novel as an object purely owned by the novelist, then it’s almost as if the reader’s being immoral, or grotesque – because you take every text over just by reading it at all. Maybe that’s why seeing someone reading your book on the tube – this happens once every 17 years, let’s not exaggerate – is disturbing, because it’s proof that something’s happening beyond your control: it’s like the difference between suspecting your boyfriend’s having an affair, and actually seeing him having sex with someone else. But what I like about the Queneau is that no one can read the whole book: it’s too vast.
LH The ideal solution – write a book that can’t be read by a single person.
AT I only realised when I’d finished Multiples that one of the things I loved most was that because it ended up having 17 languages, no one I know can read the book in its entirety – I can’t read it. It was quite lovely to think of it as kind of an inexhaustible object. But this interaction with readers could definitely be explored more: I love the Duchamp experiments, books of instructions, or Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It project. Could you imagine a Do It project for literature? Anything that loosens the absolute grip of the author on the work seems interesting. People do like the idea of groups in literature, the Surrealists or Oulipo, but mainly in a biographical way; they like people to be having sex and falling out and maybe reading each other’s work, but not necessarily literally working together. The danger of proximity is that everyone starts writing like each other; weirdly, a collective doesn’t necessarily lead to multiplicity. The Surrealist ideal was definitely collective – with their cadavre exquis game, for instance. But I think they’re quite sad as a group, because they were such a hierarchy. Breton was always on top, so it turns out the only happy collective is one with a dictator in it, telling everyone what to do, and that’s obviously not a collective anymore. In fact, a lot of the really great Surrealists are ex-Surrealists, Bataille or Leiris, people who left the group quite early. It’s funny, though – what made Daniel and me feel old was that we put our students into groups to write something, and we were saying: “Of course, what will be revealed is the problems of a collective, because who will be in charge of the piece of paper, etc.” But they all went away and produced stories that really were collective works. It turned out we didn’t even know Google Docs had been invented.
LH It seems for you and Daniel, the difficulty of working together was part of the point?
AT Definitely. It comes back to the first idea, where if one of us didn’t like writing sex scenes, say, they’d have to write a sex scene. One model for that was the Lars von Trier movie The Five Obstructions. He asks Jørgen Leth, an older Danish director, to remake The Perfect Human, a short film Leth had made in 1967. Each time, von Trier gives Leth an obstruction – each shot can only last 12 frames, say – and the obstructions get more and more insane and difficult. And even though Leth keeps saying, that’s it, I’m leaving this project, he always succeeds. It’s partly about the S&M of collaboration: there’s a clear hierarchy, von Trier has the power. But you gradually realise it’s also a film about love, in that Leth hasn’t made a movie for a while, he’s somehow depressed, so really what von Trier’s doing is saying: Look how good you are, look, you can keep doing it – and it’s making him work.
LH Is that still your model for a productive collaboration, then?
AT Perhaps it’s too invasive. Although another dream I have is to set up a literature production company, the kind they have for film, where you could tell writers you like what projects to work on. I’m a control freak – I basically want to control all of literature! It would be more like an architectural practice, though – you could be working on your own project, but you’d help out on other projects. That sort of collective work exists in other art forms and I think it can exist in literature but doesn’t, and it’s the doesn’t that intrigues me. §