Since he burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with Anthropology, a collection of surprisingly poignant super-short stories, Dan Rhodes has made something of a reputation for himself. A self-confessed ‘miserable git’, in 2001 he announced that he would no longer be writing fiction, having grown disenchanted with the publishing industry. In 2003 Granta magazine listed him as one of their Best Young British Novelists. His inclusion on the list was justified with the release of his first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, a curious blend of charm and brutality loosely based on the Eric Knight book (and 1943 film) Lassie Come Home. I say loosely, because in this version the heroic canine gets kicked to death. I did warn you that it’s brutal.
Following his ‘retirement’ Little White Car was published under the rather transparent pseudonym Danuta de Rhodes. The story of a French girl who thinks she’s accidentally killed Princess Diana, the book exhibits some of the same quirky humour as his debut, albeit with less brutality. His third novel, Gold, has just been published by Canongate, and with Dan’s real name returning to the front cover it looks as if his retirement is well and truly over. The tale of a half-Japanese lesbian who’s uncannily good at pub quizzes, it’s brimming with the quirkiness, humour and occasional tragedy that first brought him to Granta’s attention. The tag of ‘Best Young British Novelist’ now looks remarkably prophetic.
I meet Dan for a cup of coffee in his Edinburgh home, the ‘miserable git’ actually turning out to be a very congenial host. Unshaven but undeniably cheery, he seems to be in a much happier place than he was five years ago. I start by asking about his choice of lead character for Gold. In Timoleon Vieta the main character was a gay man, and now in Miyuki he’s crafted a very convincing lesbian. They’re a pair of interesting choices.
‘Well it wasn’t really a choice,’ Dan explains, ‘those characters just came to me and I liked them, and wanted to write books about them. People often ask me that question, actually. One day when I’m older I’ll go through my books and draw a sexuality pie chart of all my characters, then I’ll just be able to hand that over in response to this question. Out of five books I suppose I’ve had a gay lead character and a lesbian character, but if you take Anthropology and Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love they’re very much boy-meets-girl books. So, just like the characters I suppose, there’s no political agenda, or even a great deal of reflection, behind using them.’
Was it difficult to find a convincing female voice, though? Both Little White Car and Gold have female leads, and in the past male writers have been known to struggle to create convincing female characters. In both these cases the end result is remarkably believable, but did he find it difficult writing as a woman? ‘No I didn’t. It’s just the same, although I do have a gender consultant who I run things by. She’ll point out if I’m making glaring errors. Which I often do, of course.’
It’s noticeable that he started out writing short stories, with the collections Anthropology and Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love, but we’ve now had three novels in a row. Does this mark a permanent change in direction? ‘It didn’t really start that way, because my first three books overlapped a lot. I started Anthropology third, finished it second, and it came out first. Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love I started first, finished it first and it came out second. The dog book [Timoleon Vieta Come Home] I started second, finished it third and it came out third. So there’s a bit of a jumble there. I sort of wrote them together, really.’
Across all of Dan’s books, short fiction or novels, there’s a strong vein of humour closely entwined with the brutality and tragedy. When I mention this he agrees that it’s a big part of what he’s trying to do. ‘I always think I’m writing comic fiction,’ he tells me, a wry smile on his face. ‘A lot of people disagree with me, but that’s what I think.’ So does he work hard to make the humour work, or does it just pop into his head ready-formed? ‘Well it kind of pops out and then I have to work on it, because most of the gags I put in my books are actually a bit crappy and have to be kicked out. I put a lot in just for the sake of it, to keep myself amused, and they wouldn’t work for the final version, so I do have to do drafts where I take out almost all the gags. Some of them find their way in. Maybe one day I’ll write a book without any jokes in, because some of my favourite books are very, very serious.’
His books often seem to turn up in the Cult sections of bookshops, perhaps because of this unusual blend of humour and tragedy. I ask Dan if he sees himself as a ‘cult’ writer. ‘I certainly didn’t set out to be a cult writer. I was hoping to sell millions, so I wouldn’t really call myself a cult writer. Although I suppose you can be cult and still sell loads, can’t you – like JD Salinger, I think, is still regarded as a cult author. But I think quite often ‘cult’ can be a euphemism for low sales. My sales are okay, so I can’t complain. You don’t ever really know who’s reading your books, that’s one of the weird things about the biz. Sometimes I go out on the road and do readings, and the people who turn up are a complete cross section. They certainly don’t strike me as being cultish in any way.’
Talking of books that sell millions, Dan has been quite outspoken in the past about the quality of some of modern literature’s big-hitters. More than just a case of sour grapes (Timoleon Vieta won both the QPB New Voices Award and the Authors’ Club First Novel Award), he has some valid points to make about the output of certain literary prizewinners. ‘I think a lot of big literary authors take themselves so seriously that they end up churning out work that’s critic-friendly and prize-friendly,’ he explains to me, ‘but it’s actually just boring. For me. I know there’s an enormous audience for it but I find a lot of literary hard-hitters to write quite boring stuff. Whereas I’m as influenced by telly and comedy and music as I am by book writers. And what I’ve taken from those things, I think, is that you just have to keep the pace going, you have to keep things toe-tapping and entertaining.’
It’s interesting that he compares his writing to TV rather than other modern literature, as it’s a nod towards popular culture that some writers seem reluctant to make. I ask him why he thinks this is. ‘A lot of writers seem to think that their books somehow inhabit a different universe from TV and film and music, but in real life they don’t, apart from a miniscule proportion of the population who are solely devoted bookworms. I think most people, when they get home of an evening, they’re going to choose between reading a book, going to see a film, watching telly or listening to a record. And I think that’s where books slot into people’s lives these days. At least that’s how they slot into my life. I’m very excited actually, because I’ve just got the first series of Sabrina The Teenage Witch on DVD, which I’ve been waiting for for years. I’d been wondering when they were going to finally release it, and it’s arrived. So I’m very, very happy about that. And I’ve finally been able to throw away my VHS collection, which has freed up several cubic metres.’
Which brings me (almost) neatly on to his music taste. In previous interviews he’s often referred to The Smiths as a major influence, but the S-Club Juniors also crop up from time to time. ‘Well I object to them on every level,’ Dan says defensively as soon as I mention the mini-Clubbers, ‘except they did one very, very good song. That’s my official line on the S-Club Juniors. If you must know the title of the song, it’s ‘New Direction’.’
It seems likely that The Smiths had a larger influence on Dan’s writing style, though, their songs blending humour and melancholy in a similar way to his books. ‘Well, they sing about life don’t they,’ he replies when I point out the comparison. ‘I grew up with The Smiths, I got my first Smiths album when I was twelve, and I think Morrissey’s a shining example of somebody who should have shut up shop before the well ran dry. I don’t understand how he could listen to his old stuff from The Smiths’ days and then listen to his new stuff, and think that his new stuff is anything other than plodding and dreary. The last album I got of his was You Are The Quarry, which was, bizarrely, heralded as a return to form. But you’ve got to wonder whether those reviewers have actually heard The Queen Is Dead. I think the old Morrissey has been kidnapped and is in chains somewhere, and there’s this impostor out there on the road.’
Luckily for us, Dan Rhodes still looks like he’s the genuine article, despite his new cheery disposition. Gold is sure to win even more glowing reviews for one of Britain’s best young novelists, and hopefully there will be more of the same to follow. Assuming that he doesn’t announce another retirement, of course.
Whose mind isn’t on gold these days with the blitz of TV, direct mail, and radio ads trying to convince us to sell gold jewelry for cash?