Lying your way to the top

Literary editor Luke Brown’s debut novel "My Biggest Lie" follows a faltering literary editor into the labyrinth. But where does the truth start?

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Luke Brown’s debut novel appeared recently from Canongate, and is narrated by Liam Wilson, who, like Brown, is an editor of literary fiction in his early thirties. His story begins at rock-bottom: an overdue break-up with the love of his life followed by an ill-fated night escorting a renegade Booker-prize winner to an early death sees Liam flee to Buenos Aires to write a novel. The city’s Jorge Luis Borges is a regular referent – at one point the characters get lost in the nightclub version of the library of Babel -- in an unashamedly “literary” novel that nonetheless wears its learning lightly and is totally unpretentious. My Biggest Lie is a book within a book; a ludic, drunk, dizzying jaunt out and back into the UK publishing scene. But one that still manages to make pointed and quite brilliant revelations about love and when might be the right time to tell the truth – despite its narrator disregarding epiphanies as “a narrative convention encouraged by teachers of creative writing degrees.” Luke, a recently appointed Dr. in Creative Writing, spoke about lying to his mother and other acts of deceit...

Where are you right now?

In my flat in south-east London. I notice my internet has stopping working. One of the serious men of letters who came back after my launch party has spilled beer on the Wi-Fi box. I suspect I know which one. He works for a highbrow literary magazine and should know better.

What are you reading?

I appeared in Glasgow’s Aye Write festival on Friday night, where I was billed to talk about contemporary masculinity, not something I’ve ever felt afflicted by. So I’ve been reading interviews with Big Male Writers to inspire thoughts on that. The splendid Swedish interview with Philip Roth recently translated in the Telegraph in which he defended himself from accusations of misogyny in a stunning half-page sentence which detailed a list of the afflictions which assail his flawed men, including ‘urgent desires, uncontrollable passion, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-divison’. I like reading and writing about characters like this, which isn’t the same as celebrating them. For more male swagger, I read Hemingway’s Paris Review interview, in which he describes the day he wrote three stories, starting with ‘The Killers’, and was goaded by a waiter in Madrid for being too soft to finish a fourth. ‘Nonsense. You tired after three miserable little stories.’ How incredible if true, but if not, what a marvellous lie. And for some relief and context, I read Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman, which reminded me that desire does not belong to men and how culturally determined the nature of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is.

What’s the last thing you lied about?

The trick to being a good liar is to tell the same story to everyone, but I’m a born confider and so easily found out. Of course, that’s the kind of disingenuous admission a good liar would make to throw people off the scent of his dishonesty. The last lie I’ll admit to I told to my mother. She asked me not to get too drunk at my launch party, and I said I wouldn’t. Though perhaps I wasn’t lying. It’s possible I got exactly the right drunk.

According to your Twitter bio, the novel is narrated by a dissolute editor who bears no resemblance to you . . . but whether or not this is a lie, I’m wondering how you reconcile Luke Brown with Liam Wilson when writing. There’s no doubt you have things in common, but how do you work out what to leave out, and what to put in?

Liam Wilson borrows some characteristics from me. I started writing the book in 2010 after I’d just split up with a woman I loved. He’s an editor and I am an editor. So we shared a predicament, a career in the same industry, and a sense of shame at having destroyed a relationship with our flaws. But I exaggerated Liam’s flaws, and added to his shame by making him lose his job after a drugs binge. Liam Wilson is in some sense a projection of how I could end up, if I wasn’t careful. But there’s a lot of fun, as Roth recognised, in mixing the invented biography with the real. And sometimes it’s not so fun. My father died when I was writing the novel, and as a large theme of the novel already was Liam’s relationship with his father and with father-substitutes, my new and unwelcome experience pushed its way into the plot.

Writers get a bashing early on as – among other things – ‘Twitterers. Shit heads. Carrion-pickers.’ Is Twitter a force for literary good? It’s certainly another avenue in which a writer can self-style his own mystique. To lie, essentially.

Good novels only arrive out of concentrated thought, and Twitter, and email, and rolling football news, and pornography, which I have never watched, are all massive distractions that are bad for writers. I have an account @mybiggestluke and a lot of followers from when I was a commissioning editor and aspiring writers used to follow me. I have no idea whether my tweets ever sold a single extra copy of the books I published, but hell, I had to try something. Now I’m no longer publishing other people’s books, I suppose there’s no reason for me to be there, but I don’t want to lose all those followers in case in the future I need them for some unspecified megalomaniacal purpose.

The thing about Twitter that amazes me is the absolute lack of self-awareness with which people reveal themselves on it. The insecure people bragging of the parties they’re on the way to; then tweeting about how much fun they’re having when they’re at the party (and presumably not speaking to anyone). The urge to prove a happy fulfilled life is unlikely to arrive from the experience of living a happy fulfilled life. I suppose a writer could find it useful for stealing lines to give to minor comic characters.

Gwendoline Riley suggested to me once that anyone with a Twitter account is off the writer’s register forever, and I entirely agree with the sentiment, while hoping there’s room for exceptions.

Elsewhere Liam states that ‘you don’t have to be a liar to be a writer: that’s a book-festival cliché you hear from midlisters aspiring to midlife crises.’ But does it help?

To find your inspiration as a writer in the contemporary moment rather than in history and research might depend on accumulating the right kind of experience to transmute into fiction. It might make you curious about getting to know a lot of people, particularly if one of your main themes is desire. There’s perhaps an urge to act out a story in real life, an instinct to pursue ‘what happens next’ beyond what is responsible and kind. I think it’s important to acknowledge these urges, as they’re less likely to defeat you if you’re aware of them. ‘What if?’ is a very important question for a writer. In itself it is an expression of desire, a lust for imagined outcomes, new experience. If you’re basing a novel on real experience, it’s very important to feel free to embellish and depart from the truth in the interest of the drama. Liam likes to think about how this habit leads him to try to make life resemble art, but he’s aware too how convenient it is for him: ultimately he’s making excuses for the fact he likes getting high and talking to women, and so am I.

 

I think of David Shields . . . ‘that art is not truth; art is a lie in its pretence of actuality.’ Where do you stand on that whole debate?

I don’t agree with David Shields’ declarations against the plot-based novel’s ability to describe ‘reality’ or support his championing of the ‘lyrical essay’ as the highest form of literary art. I love the novel of plot and event and think when done well it will sidestep a lot of conventions; that whatever truth content it has will survive the use of those it chooses to employ. I love the Knausgaard books, which are ostensibly memoir, but full of novelistic detail and manipulation. I think we can still aspire to write fiction that aspires to be emotionally honest about the aspects of our lives we’re uncomfortable with, and that uses a novel as an instrument for embodying contradiction and nuancing a description of the world as we perceive it. Even such a committed critic of convention as Roland Barthes argued in the years before he died that the best novels could contain ‘moments of truth’.

You did a PhD on the intersection of literary and commercial fiction. How does that relate to your novel?

My Biggest Lie was the third novel I’d written, with the other two having failed to find publishers, and so I had a number of rejection letters full of editors’ caveats that I was trying to defeat. I’m not sure I could sustain the interest in writing a commercial genre novel – the conventions and forced mechanics of unravelling a mystery might be too powerful for me to feel I had control over the thing myself. Novels with too much plot always get very silly at the end. Characters have to act unlike themselves to provide a twist. But at the same time, when I was writing My Biggest Lie, I was aiming for a novel with event, with suspense and surprise, which would pull a reader through it quickly and make them laugh. I had written such a novel before, but set it in Fleetwood, the decaying former fishing town I lived in until I was eighteen, and so it was ‘gritty’ and Northern and on those grounds some editors felt it only had niche appeal. Buenos Aires as a setting was the polar opposite to Fleetwood, and while I chose it for thematic reasons too – Buenos Aires is a deliciously duplicitous, sensual and hedonistic city for a ‘recovering’ liar, womaniser and coke fiend to find himself in – I’m sure I had one eye on the commercial implications of such a setting too. I don’t think literary fiction is harmed by being written with the aim of entertaining people, unless you’re underestimating your readers’ intelligence. And I suppose I’ve become wiser about what might entertain editors in London.

Having worked for ten years as a literary editor, was it inevitable that you would write a novel about the publishing world?

Probably. I hate the trend for the high-gimmick novel, and historical novels seem like a lot of hard research, so I’m stuck with my own experience to draw on. The international publishing industry as experienced from London book-ends the Buenos Aires section of My Biggest Lie and there are some great characters to draw on: egotists, bullies, orators, piss-artists, bores, megalomaniacs, charlatans, hype-machines, liars and sharks from all across the world. And a great many tireless women and men (more women perhaps in this category than men) who do their job in a dignified, talented and truthful way, and so were less interesting to write about.

One of the things an editor of fiction does is tell a story about a story. This is how she convinces a writer to make changes, and how she convinces a bookseller to stock a book, or a newspaper to feature it. Some editors may put more space between these two stories than others. My character Liam Wilson has put a lot of space between the story he tells about himself and the actual narrative of his motives and actions: ‘lying was the most natural thing in the world.’ He’s been encouraged in this by his terrible role model, a maverick editor who is a brilliant salesman and something of a huckster. So the publishing world was usefully thematic as I wrote about a man trying to reconcile the fiction of his life with the actuality, or, depending on whether you believe in Liam’s sincerity, in trying to devise a fiction of redemption his girlfriend might believe in and so forgive him.

My Biggest Lie might refer to an elaborate fraud perpetrated in the book, or it might refer to my narrator’s confession and journey towards a wiser self. I hope it’s impossible for the reader to tell for certain.

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