Joe Dunthorne is hailed as one of the most exciting and talented writers in the UK, and this week the 29-year-old follows up on the promise of his genre-defining debut, with the release of Wild Abandon, his second novel. Wild Abandon takes themes familiar to readers of Dunthorne’s first book, Submarine, including young people coming-of-age and disintegrating families struggling with divorce and depression, and transplants them into a decidedly different setting – an off-the-grid commune in South Wales. The book follows Kate, 17, and Albert, 11, who are coming to terms with their unusual upbringing - Alfred becomes obsessed with surviving the collapse of human civilisation and Kate moves into her suburban boyfriend’s house, ignoring her family’s attempts to contact her while single-mindedly focusing on getting into Cambridge and covertly flirting with her boyfriend’s dad. Set against the background of Kate and Albert’s parents imminent divorce and the commune’s attempt to rebrand and remain relevant, Wild Abandon is a hilarious and insightful look at the clash of contemporary culture with an idealistic alternative belief system.
Apart his work on the film adaptation of Submarine, Dunthorne has been busy with his first collection of poetry for Faber & Faber and with giving readings at literary events and festivals around the country including Homework, a monthly literary cabaret at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club in London where he is a resident. Dazed had a chat with Dunthorne about writing the difficult second novel.
Dazed Digital: Where did the idea for Wild Abandon come from?
Joe Dunthorne: A good friend of mine grew up in a community in Wales that her parents had set up. It's fantastic, and is still going today. She and her siblings were homeschooled, learning about Italian architecture one day, and milking goats the next. When her parents broke up, it split the community in two. I wanted to try and write a story about a commune that wasn't just the Sixties cliché of drugs, sex and dropping out. I wanted to capture something of the mundanity, the pragmatism, the normalness of alternative ways of living -- a post-hippie lifestyle -- and to do it without being snide or cruel.
DD: Why did this feel like a better topic for your second novel then the gangster novel you started writing?
Joe Dunthorne: You didn't read the gangster novel. Sample sentence: "Divots of flesh on Highway 322, the nineteenth fairway, the road the police don’t believe in."
DD: How did you learn about the daily practicalities and human dynamics of a commune?
Joe Dunthorne: I did two types of research. First, I visited lots of different communities, which helped with the practicalities, the day-to-day stuff, and gave me an understanding that no two communities are the same. But also, I quickly realised that I wouldn't get an accurate picture of the tensions, politics, allegiances in a community by just staying a few days. It would take months, years, in one place to get to grips with that, so I interviewed people who'd lived at communities, or grown up on them, to get a sense of the dynamics.
DD: Why did you bring the collapse of civilisation and the Mayan 2012 prophecy into the book?
Joe Dunthorne: One of the recurring themes in a few of the communities I visited, was this idea that we are always just about to make the leap in to the next level of consciousness. It's always coming, just around the corner, but it never arrives. There are spiritual magazines that are built on this anticipation and have been peddling the same message for years: this will probably be the last issue of the magazine -- the paradigm is shifting.
DD: How did you approach writing your second book after the huge success of Submarine? Did it feel difficult to follow up?
Joe Dunthorne: It was a real challenge to try and switch off that self-censoring voice as I was writing. That's where the gangster novel came in. I thought: I'd better write something that's just hugely different to show everyone how incredibly virtuoso I am. I soon realised I can't write like that. I have to follow what I'm truly interested in, if I'm to spend three years working on it. And once I was really in the deep end of Wild Abandon, I managed to stop worrying and just go for it.
DD: After writing Submarine in the first person, what was it like writing this book from the perspectives of a few characters with different ages and genders?
Joe Dunthorne: Before Wild Abandon, every time I tried to write in the third person, I always ended up sounding like a bad imitation of Jane Austen. The real challenge was to write in the third person, but to keep hold of my own personality in the prose. Once I'd got used to it, there was an amazing feeling of freedom about being able to go anywhere, follow anyone, hear anything.
DD: Were there any films or music that influenced you while writing Wild Abandon?
Joe Dunthorne: Films: Together by Lukas Moodysson, Short Cuts by Robert Altman, Pulp Fiction.
The only song I ever listen to while writing is this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8HUSdM53-w
DD: What would your ideal commune be like?
Joe Dunthorne: A disaster. I would build my community on the twin pillars of sport and cooking. Those would be my main criteria for entrance: Ready Steady Cook meets Sports Day. I can imagine it working really well for about a fortnight: massive communal games of ping-pong followed by Moroccan tagine.
Wild Abandon and Submarine, the DVD, are both released this week.