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Geoff Dyer

Hunter Braithwaite

Portrait by Curt Richter.

With last year’s publication of Zona, his book on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Geoff Dyer has further established himself as someone who can write about just anything. His subjects have included the Venice Biennale, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Burning Man, and World War I statuary. Here, he talks to Hunter Braithwaite about boredom, a writer’s youth, and “inhaling the dead.”

HUNTER BRAITHWAITE (RAIL): I made a list of questions, but to be honest, I’ve been a fan of your work for many years, and I’d love to talk about anything you want to.

GEOFF DYER: I want to talk about what you want to talk about!

RAIL: Great. In Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, there’s a moment in the beginning of the book where he’s attempting to have a “profound experience of art” in the Prado, and it doesn’t really work out. As a young writer, or as a writer invested in cultural matters, have you ever struggled to have these aesthetic experiences?

DYER: The answer is yes, and in many different ways. When I was an undergraduate, I would read everything I was told to read. I had absolute faith in the canon. So for example, I read Nostromo by Joseph Conrad even though I was bored out of my mind by it because, using the same logic of discernment that elevated prog rock over pop, really deep works aren’t immediately enjoyable. If you stay with it, you’d get to the end and there’d be a payoff and you’d say, ‘yeah, I’m really glad I slogged through that.’ But with something like Nostromo, that payoff never happened. Walter Allen and [F.R.] Leavis were quoted on the back saying what a supreme masterpiece it was, but I had not experienced that feeling for myself. Fast-forward thirty years, I tried Nostromo again and it seemed so dreadful I had to stop at about page fifty.

When you’re young, your sense of what a good book is and what a book is doing for you are being worked out. Your ability to process things is in the process of formation. I guess by the time I was 23, 24, I was starting to be confident enough to feel that I couldn’t fake it, that I couldn’t say in any meaningful way ‘yeah, X is great’ unless I really experienced it myself. And then of course one realizes that the canon is pretty reliable, but it’s not absolutely reliable; it’s not a thing that’s set in stone.

I read five volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, and it just seemed to me devoid of value. I feel like I gave that guy a lot of rope. My father-in-law said, ‘Oh, what a shame you didn’t move on to Volume Six, because then it really gets going.’

One becomes more and more impatient for that experience. I’ll take another example: Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise. The first 150 pages, I really felt it was pretty poor, but then I turned to page 151 or something and it went, in an instant, to being great. I wonder if I would have the patience to get to that stage in a book now, before abandoning it.

RAIL: Speaking of patience, I believe that you said somewhere that you could give up a book with no problem. I feel the same way, I give up books constantly, but I also have this lingering guilt. How often does that happen? 

DYER: It happens loads, and it happens for all sorts of different reasons. It might be because I’m not persuaded that the game is worth the candle, that this book is good enough. That would be a very common thing. I guess as you get older you get more and more impatient of things that are not really great, because you’re aware of the time that you’re wasting. I’m about to give up on Volume Four of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson[1], not because it’s not great, but because I realize that I just don’t need to know that level of detail.

If I’ve got a project underway, like when I was writing the photography book [The Ongoing Moment] then I would be capable of reading all the way through a biography of Stieglitz or something which was otherwise quite boring. I would be capable of getting all the way through that, because I want something out of it.

I walk out of films. People tell me I shouldn’t have walked out of Mulholland Drive by David Lynch because it becomes good—and I missed the girl-on-girl action, which apparently is quite something.

RAIL: In your 1995 essay “Unpacking my Library,” you said that your books went into storage in ’89, and their coming out was the occasion for writing. Was that because you had reached a period of your life when you could afford a large enough apartment, or you stopped moving around?

DYER: I’d been really moving around a lot, and so they went into storage. Storage—I wonder with the Kindle whether we’re coming to the end of a phase of people putting books into storage. Now you don’t need to lug all these things around. But yeah, it was great to put one’s life into storage. And now of course I’ve got more books than ever. I’ve got them all in my London apartment. Being in that room of mine, with all those books, is a source of great happiness. And although it’s not superfluous, it’s less essential than it ever was, because you can see all that stuff online.

When I was teaching at Iowa last semester for four months, I had to take from Britain the few books I knew I absolutely had to use. I really missed [my library], actually, because by time you get to my age, you’ve fallen into certain patterns of work. If I’m writing an essay, of course I can look up all this stuff online, but I like to have my books there with my annotations.

RAIL: What did you teach at Iowa?

DYER: Two courses. One was a workshop about the essay, although most of the people were writing memoir, and the other was a reading course, whereby each week, we’d do a book of my choosing. It was just random nonfiction books that I happened to love, like Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.

RAIL: How did you feel inserting yourself into the MFA world?

DYER: My experience in Iowa was blissfully happy. I loved being in the town. Really liked the whole setup there. Liked the students, liked hanging out with them. I found it stimulating. Not all of the students were terrific writers; there was a wider range of quality than I was anticipating. But a lot of them were turning me on to things that I’d never even heard of.  So it was a real shot in the arm for me. I felt energized by the experience. There I was, this 54-year-old guy, I had published books and all of this sort of stuff. I was, in a sense, where they hoped to be. But, looking at them, I said, ‘You may not realize it now, but this is probably the nicest stage of your writing lives.’ You see it in the memoirs of successful people; typically the pages where they wax most lyrical are about those years before they’ve quite made it. The Patti Smith memoir [Just Kids] is quite representative of this. There they are in New York. They’re poor, but they’ve got that desire, and there’s a wonderful purity about it.

RAIL: Do you think that has something to do with the evolution of a writer’s career, or is that just nostalgia for your early 20s?

DYER: It’s both, I think. Your brain has been formatted by your education as an undergraduate. When you’re an undergraduate, you’re just taking what’s pushed at you. When you’re in that phase in your early 20s, you’re discovering stuff for yourself. It’s a phase of tremendous receptivity. You’re reading people with the best kind of ulterior motive: like, what can I learn from this person? So it’s a kind of radiant period. I don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body. I don’t want to go back to my 20s. But I derived a lot of energy from being around these people who were in their 20s. Also, I was telling them to read stuff, and I was selfish enough to think, ‘Ok, I’ve given you this recommendation, now what are you going to show me?’ And they showed me plenty.

RAIL: To talk about the different periods in your life, one of my favorite John Berger essays is “Between two Colmars,” in which he talks about going to the Grünewald Altarpiece in 1963, and then again a decade later, after the hopes of ’68 had crashed, and that parallax between the younger Berger and the older one. Are there any works that you approached, genuinely, at an earlier age, and then re-approached later, works that maintained their luster but maybe the meaning changed in a massive way?

DYER: You see what I was saying about these young people? How great that a word like parallax can just trip off the tongue like that! It’s a good question. I can think of loads of things, more of a kind of fled-is-that-music kind of thing. When I was younger, I could sort of see that Albert Ayler was meant to be a big deal. It’s only recently that I’m really—this goes back to your first question—getting Albert Ayler, the greatness of it. Maybe to a degree, Ornette Coleman as well. I always liked Ornette Coleman, but in this weird way that one makes these Tolstoy-or-Dostoyevsky choices, I was so in awe of Coltrane that I just didn’t bother so much with Ornette Coleman. And now I find late Coltrane close to unlistenable to. Well, I think I always did at some level but I just couldn’t admit it to myself because the Coltrane legend was so strong.

I’ve been into Keith Jarrett for a long time. I think my sense of Keith Jarrett’s greatness grows and grows. Those are examples in the realm of music, curiously enough.

RAIL: Your new book Zona began as a tennis book. And it’s not a tennis book anymore…

DYER: …You’re so sharp that you noticed that.

RAIL: …[laughter] I know. A lot of your books start off as one thing and then slowly shift, coming to terms with a project not working out the way you initially saw it. But I’m interested to know if there were any false starts. Not things that shifted, but things that you completely scrapped.

DYER: Yes, there are. The tennis book is the most painful example to me. Because when you give up on something, is it because you genuinely can’t do it? Or, is it just you haven’t got enough staying power? So I quit the tennis book, and that was O.K. because I wrote something else instead, but I think the moment when I could have written a tennis book has passed, and part of me wishes I had written one.

The other thing that I quit on, which I really regret, was I arranged with Harper’s to write about “The Clock” by Christian Marclay. And I just couldn’t do it justice. I sort of said, ‘Oh, I can’t do this after all.’ And I know now, that was just laziness on my part. Typically in the past, if I’ve really responded to something warmly enough, I have always managed to get it done, with all usual authorial gripings and stuff. That was really feeble of me. So yes, as you get older, you’re conscious of things that you haven’t done.

I feel like I’ve abandoned relatively few things. My attendance record has been quite good.

RAIL: I’d like to ask about Death in Varanasi, and how that shifted from the first half of the book to the second. By the way, while I didn’t read the book in Varanasi, I went to Varanasi soon after reading the book.

DYER: Did you really? Did you stay at the Ganges View?

RAIL: I stayed in a hotel right above one of the burning ghats. I became deathly ill.

DYER: You’ve certainly been to Varanasi then.

RAIL: But as far as the structure of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the first half ends with Laura taking off in the plane, and there’s the contrail and the cocaine and that’s done. It could have been finished there, and it would have worked, but there’s this other half, and they work together. You’ve said elsewhere that writing your books is a process of discovery. So when you get to the end of a book, do you have to go back and change the beginning to make it more cohesive?

DYER: Oh, yeah. Well with that one, to get all those chimes and echoes between the two bits…I got the idea for it because I noticed they were there accidentally and then I added a load more stuff, little details, into the Venice part, to make them chime with the Varanasi part, and then added more in the second half too. So what were you sick with? Tummy thing?

RAIL: It was this deep chest cold. I felt that if I died there, it would have made sense. I think that happens to the narrator as well. Were you sick when you were there?

DYER: Of course! One is bound to get sick in Varanasi. Although it’s one of the greatest cities on Earth, it’s also a filthy pit. And in addition to all the stuff you expect to get, like stomach upsets, I didn’t realize that almost everyone ends up with some kind of lung thing. Because you’re inhaling the dead, I guess. You just have to hope that you get one of these things that, when it’s over with, it’s over with. What you don’t want to do is come back to your home and find that, actually, your kidneys, or your stomach, are shot to hell for the next twenty years. But whatever the risk, it’s worth it; it’s such a powerful place. Also, in addition to the physical problems, quite a lot of people seem to go nuts.

RAIL: All of India really, but northern India especially, and in that area…

DYER: I think that’s what Varanasi is. You know, you get this big, sprawling, mad subcontinent, and then, it all just converges, and the intensity is raised to a new level in Varanasi.

RAIL: I read that you advised working on two projects at once in order to stave off procrastination, to keep it going. I was wondering what were on your desks at the moment.

DYER: Eek. Not so much actually. When I was teaching at Iowa, although I physically had the time, in terms of the hours in the week at my disposal, it used up much more psychological time than it did actual time. There’s this little book I was doing about my time on the USS George H. W. Bush, an aircraft carrier. That needs to be revised a bit. But yeah, I haven’t got a book on the go, but I have a lot of bits and pieces to write. Although at some point I feel I have to stop doing bits and pieces. But, it’s funny, because now I’m in the position where I’m getting asked to do really interesting and fun things, so I don’t want to turn them down.

RAIL: Your work pushes first at the limitations of genre, and most recently, with the extensive footnotes in Zona, at the limitations of the page. They show up differently on an e-reader, or cause the physical reader to flip back and forth. I was wondering if you had any interest in not writing, but making movies or a television series, something along the lines of Ways of Seeing?

DYER: What I’ve got no interest in is writing for anything except books. I’ve got no interest in writing, what do you call it, online stuff. I’ve got no interest in doing film scripts, because I need the little treat at the end of it—the book in my hand. I like the idea of doing a film or whatever it might be, but what puts me off is the process you have to go through. The great attraction for me about writing is you don’t need anyone else’s permission to do it. Irrespective of the scale of the project, unless you need a load of funding to do research, you just sit down and you say, ‘ok, I’m going to do this.’ I never write proposals or treatments for books. Whereas with film and TV, it’s all about getting permission to go from one stage to the next. And in order to get to that stage, you have to prepare something to say what you’re going to do at the next stage. I can’t bear that. I just want to start and do it.

[1] Dyer admits to not reading Volumes 1-3.