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Issue 50 / December 2012

'Talent is cheap, a lot of people have talent. What you need to become an artist is a character that will drive the talent to its fruition and not many people have that.'

Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban talks to Katie McCalmont about his forthcoming novel and why at 83 years old he's proud of what he's done.

'It sounds vain but, for one reason or another, I often have to pick up one of my own books and I always like them.'

Russell Hoban has agreed to meet me at a café near his house. He gives me directions over the phone like it's a covert operation, no street names, just instructions: "turn right, walk a few paces, turn left before the Nicolas wine shop". It is a peculiarly English manner of explanation, although Hoban still considers himself an American, and he still sounds like one, despite having lived in England for nearly forty years. I see his frail, 83 year-old figure approach the table with uncertain steps. He looks like Richard Attenborough with his carefully trimmed white facial hair, cane and glasses, but his voice is a John Malkovich drawl: slow, articulate and ever so slightly suggestive. He orders himself a beer and tells me that he's thrilled to see that someone is manufacturing Sarah Palin condoms.

Hoban is a writer's writer. He has been lauded by the likes of Anthony Burgess, David Mitchell and perhaps most surprisingly, the self-confessed non-reader of fiction Will Self. Self even wrote an introduction to Hoban's book Riddley Walker, claiming that anyone who didn't like it was a 'tosspot'. It is this chilling, post-apocalyptic vision, written in an early English, guttural dialect about a 12 year old boy called Riddley, that has received the most flattering critical attention of any of Hoban's books. Indeed, Anthony Burgess described it as "what literature is supposed to be". However, beyond the critics and beyond Riddley Walker, Hoban has written 15 novels and over 60 children's books, and has amassed the kind of cult loyalty few other authors can compete with.

Hoban was born in 1925 and grew up in Philadelphia. After a stint at art school and serving as a radio operator in the military, he settled into a job in illustration. However, while working for Sports Illustrated, he began to do some writing and gradually it took over, leading to a copywriting job for the cutting-edge advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. This kind of job summons images of the glamorous, New York advertising world of the sixties, filled with powerful, beautiful, chain-smoking people, taking long lunches and drinking martinis. But Hoban was desperate to finish his new book, The Mouse and his Child, and would commute from his home in Connecticut at 6am to write before the day started. Then, when everyone else left for their two hour lunch break, he'd rush to get a sandwich, lock his office door and write. Finally, at the end of the day, he'd either stay behind to work late or catch the train home, have a nap, and continue writing afterwards. It's hard to imagine that this didn't affect his family life, but the compromise was rewarded: The Mouse and his Child gained classic status and launched him as a novelist. In 1968, after falling in love with the image of London conjured by Victorian ghost stories, he moved his family over here. His wife and family would later return to America, but Hoban stayed, living with his second wife in the same house in Fulham to the present day.

He writes everyday. Waking up early, writing until lunch, having a nap, writing until supper and then often afterwards. Once he's finally done for the day, he'll watch a film, rarely getting to bed before 3am. He works from home in an office that used to be 'charmingly cluttered' but is now so messy that he won't show it to me. He describes how, "sometimes I have to buy a DVD or a book that I already own because it's more economical than trying to fight my way to it", but in one of his rare nods to age and, frustratingly, his growing ill-health, he adds "there won't be a major clear out until they carry me out."

He composes his novels directly onto the computer. "I do many redrafts," he says. "I type a page and as soon as I've typed it I see something to do, so I print it out and type it again and print it out again. Sometimes to get even from one page to the next page I might print it out three or four times. When I'm developing a novel, my first impulse might get me to pages 20 or 30 and at that point I see that I haven't understood things well enough and I've missed quite a lot of things, so I go back to page one and then I carry on from there. I keep doing that all the time." He relies on two close friends to read through his work and comment. One of them is making a documentary on Hoban and has read everything he's ever written. This makes him, in Hoban's eyes, extremely sensitive and perceptive. It was this friend who advised Hoban to rewrite his current novel Volatore and Angelica, a love story between a hypogriff (the offspring of a griffin and a mare) and a woman, inspired by the 16th century epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Hoban is still nervous about working to contract. He will not present work to a publisher until it is finished, "because I never know whether I'll finish what I've started ... I had a go at this one back in 1997 but gave up until now."

This might suggest that Hoban is a little flaky, yet, in the last ten years he has produced almost a novel a year. His most publication, out in paperback this month, is My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, a short novel about an American writer living in London. The characters are insubstantial; they flit in and out of the plot in a swirl of public and private spaces, connected unknowingly by a series of coincidences. There are also two predominant characteristics of Hoban's style which lend a peculiarly filmic quality to the novel: his constant visual references and the accurate and attentive description of real-life locations. The description of paintings, such as Daumier's Don Quixote and Guardi's Barbara Strozzi, and of advertising slogans on the city walls, owe much to Hoban's own beginnings. He claims to have left behind the painting and the illustration - "I can't walk and chew gum at the same time" - yet it feels like he has found a way to merge them all with his writing. Hoban also explains that he wants his characters to be likeable - "if the reader can't engage with the characters they'll stop turning the page" - and to his mind that means people who are interested in art.

His detailed description of location - from the National Gallery, to Eel Brook Common, to Clerkenwell - is an attempt to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. Hoban mentions to me his passion for Walter de la Mare, particularly his admiration for de la Mare's ability to make his characters familiar. By grounding his story in a factual London setting, Hoban is attempting to imitate de la Mare and help us to recognise his characters. These descriptions are also explained, in part, by what Hoban regards as the best piece of advice he was ever given. Ferd Monjo, editor of The Mouse and his Child, once told him to "explore your material". Hoban interprets this in a physical and geographical way, setting up his characters in a location and then exploring every part of that location: "when I did Barbara Strozzi I was still ambulatory and I relied on pedestrian research. I would rely on public transport to get places then I would walk around with a camera and a little tape recorder and get the details of what I needed. But now I walk with difficulty and I had to give up that research."

While unafraid to acknowledge his growing infirmity and hence his mortality, Hoban rarely lets it make claims on his writing or change the way he thinks about it: "I have no policy statement to make." Having said that, there's a pride in what he's done and he looks back over his work with joy: "it sounds vain but, for one reason or another, I often have to pick up one of my own books and I always like them." He is particularly fond of his novel Kleinzeit, the story of a man in search of reality, armed only with a Glockenspiel and a copy of Thucydides' The Peloponnesian Wart. "That's a really nifty little book, if I say so myself. It just jumped into my head and it put itself together and every time I look at it now, so many years later, it still makes me laugh. It seems good to me." This kind of artistic contentment is rare and is owed to an innate confidence with which he credits his parents - "like any neurotic I blame all kinds of problems on my parents, I suppose just like Philip Larkin, but they did one thing that really worked for me. They inculcated the idea in me that anything I was doing was worth pursuing. They never said 'no, don't waste your time on that'. I was always encouraged to draw, write, anything at all. Because of that, I have never doubted that what I was doing was worth doing." He is also proud of the choices he has made in his life: "I was never cynical ... I have never gone slumming." As a result, Hoban often gets asked for advice - writers send him their work and ask for his opinion: "people who are considering a career in writing ask me should they consider doing it, I always say don't do it unless you can't stand not doing it. And I can't stand not doing it, it is just an addiction, I feel physically unwell if I am prevented from writing." He also points out to them the importance of character, "talent is cheap, a lot of people have talent. What you need to become an artist in any kind of art is a character that will drive the talent to its fruition and not many people have that."

I ask him about whether he's thinking about the next thing yet, whether he has any stories or characters he feels he must write. He shows, as usual, a certain amount of laissez faire about it: "At the moment [Volatore and Angelica] has completely taken up my mind and I don't have the next place to go to. I am 84 in February and my health is very uncertain, so when I get to 84 I just hope to be short listed for 85. I don't really have any plans apart from that.'

Thursday, 6 November, 2008

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