A Conversation with Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer has consistently ignored the borders between criticism and autobiography, novel and travel writing, art and life ...

Geoff Dyer is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of four novels and seven works of indeterminate genre. Over a 30-year career that has seen him tackle such diverse subjects as the First World War, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, life aboard the warship USS George H. W. Bush, and his own relationship to that savage pilgrim, D. H. Lawrence, Dyer has consistently ignored the borders between criticism and autobiography, novel and travel writing, art and life. This disregard has earned him, among much else, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, an ICP Infinity award for writing on photography, and, for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of his essays, a National Book Critics Circle Award.

His latest work, White Sands, is an interlaced commentary on the state of the outside world, our place within it, and the role of the writer as regarding both physical and mental geography. Across essays that read like stories, stories that digress into critical discussion, incorporating vignettes and photos, Dyer roves through the particular state of international mentality that has come to characterize modern life.

As restless in habitat as he is in style, Dyer now resides in LA, after periods spent living in Paris, Rome, and New Orleans, and it’s from there that he called me one afternoon at the end of May. Despite James Wood once describing the grit of his work as “a kind of comic English whining,” Dyer was jovial and uncomplaining during the course of our interview, generous with his explanations and the details of his own life. We talked about the construction of books from their constituent parts, the merits of the MFA, and what it means to engage with foreign politics. Because we are both Brits abroad, however, we began by discussing the weather.

David Wingrave (DW): I hope you’ve got better weather over in LA than this humidity we have here in New York.


Geoff Dyer (GD): Oh, it’s pretty wretched in LA, too. It’s like being in London at the moment.


DW: Oh God.


GD: We’ve got the June gloom—a euphemism for the gloom that extends from May into July.


DW: Now your new book, White Sands: I’m very interested in this type of construction, or the construction of a book like Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, where most of the pieces have appeared before in various places. When you’re writing them, are you consciously thinking that one day they’ll go into a book, or are you just sort of writing and waiting until they reach a critical mass?


GD: How long have you got? You’re right. Because the book is obviously a sort of a follow-on from the yoga book. I’m always thinking about what books I might end up writing. At a certain point I saw that there were enough pieces to maybe be a book, and in addition I saw there were certain themes that recurred. In terms of how the pieces were written, the Northern Lights piece, the origins for that were really quite cynical. My wife wanted to see the Northern Lights, so like the lowlife that I am I arranged to write the shortest possible travel piece in order to get a free trip. So we went and had this experience, and I wrote up the shortest possible travel piece, but I had a load more material that didn’t make it to publication. Sometime later I wrote this much longer version, and in the intervening period, it became a more sort of … well, much more was going on stylistically, and it became more like a story.

On other occasions, for instance the pieces about The Lightning Field and the Spiral Jetty, which appeared in the New Yorker, I was able initially to write at length about them, and so they then sat in the file marked “travel2,” or whatever. So there’s sort of a bit of both going on. I’m always looking for what might end up being a book, but the crucial thing is that when I noticed there were about 40,000 words, I had some ideas for some extras which could fit in thematically. Although I’m not against collected-essay type things where you just pour everything into the bag formed by the cover, it was important to me that this be a proper book in its own right, with its own aesthetic form.

DW: These extra pieces, are these the shorter, italicized essays?


GD: It was the two long pieces at the end about the Watts Towers, and about Adorno, and in addition some of the interstitial—to put it rather pompously—some of the interstitial chapters. Some of those had cropped up in different places, too, but in White Sands I really think they play an important part, not just in terms of linking one chapter to the next, but as a kind of underlying mesh.


DW: They remind me of Hemingway’s In Our Time—those war vignettes he inserts that have the odd quality of late-night thought. When was the earliest piece written?


GD: I didn’t have that consciously in mind, the Hemingway, but the moment you said it I saw the similarity. The earliest piece in White Sands would have been the Gauguin piece. I think that’s from really quite a while back, certainly more than 10 years. I think it came out quite soon after the yoga book, or pretty much at the same time.


DW: So there really is a kind of connection between them, in terms of when they’re being written, even?


GD: After that piece there’s a big gap until the next one. Apart from that, I think they were all written within the last five years. And because of that big gap, I actually thought about not including the Gauguin piece. But it seemed so sort of central, really, especially since originally the book was going to have this long title, Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going. It really had to be in there, even though it’s chronologically distinct from the others.


DW: At what point in its construction did the book take the form it has? I mean, did the interstitial sections become interstitial quite late?


GD: I really wanted to make sure it wasn’t a collection of random pieces. At an early stage I realized they could work together and then it was a question of arranging them in an order that functioned correctly. And then there are other little things that are going on; I really liked the idea of it being bookended by those two pictures of the statue at Luxor, in Egypt. Those pictures, how it appears one of the figures is ducking behind the other, that little moment is enacted in the story about Beijing. There was even some kind of playing around with the layout so that the photo at the beginning was on the verso page and the one at the end was on the recto. And I’m tempted for the paperback to change things around a bit, to start with the Forbidden City chapter, to provide the link with that second picture, to make sure it’s foregrounded. There’s all these little connections running through it that sort of bind the book together.


DW: I think a lot of people think Sebald when someone describes that kind of filamentous layering, though you, I think, were doing it first.


GD: Oh, thank you so much for boxing my corner. People are always saying, “Oh, he got this from Sebald.”


DW: Is this a comparison you get a lot? The Sebald one?


GD: It really is. You know, I like Sebald. I never went completely nuts for Sebald because I had already gone completely nuts for Thomas Bernhard, so I’d already had some inoculation, as it were. I’m really conscious that I was doing this before Sebald, especially in the First World War book, The Missing of the Somme. I used pictures, I dealt with a lot of the same themes. Though I suppose, on the one hand, while the comparison is sometimes galling, now it’s become an observable phenomenon, or a genre in its own right, it’s helped that I’m not the only person doing it. Still, in my irritable moments, I always want to insist that The Missing of the Somme was out in 1994 or whenever.


[The first of Sebald’s “prose fictions” to be translated was The Emigrants, which appeared in English in 1996.]


DW: You got a good spot on the beach with your towel.


GD: That’s right!


DW: There’s that Coetzee essay where he says that although Sebald preferred the term “prose writer” to novelist, “his enterprise nevertheless depends for its success on attaining lift-off from the prosaic or the essayistic into the realm of the imaginative,” and that his genius lay in the ease by which he attained that lift-off. When I think of the ease with which you flip through these genres, I wonder … when you begin writing, do you obey the ideas of convention? “I’m writing an essay, how am I going to fuck with this?” or “here’s a short story, how am I going to make it somehow critical?” or are you just … writing?


GD: It’s the latter. I’ve never had any kind of anarchistic desire to smash the place up. I’ve never been a manifesto-signing “Against the Novel” kind of person. It’s always just been the way that writing suits me. One of the things I’ve had going for me is just the ability to be, or rather, to not be in the thrall of conventions. I promise you I’ve never tried to cause trouble.


DW: What do you think that stems from?


GD: My own sense is that it stems from reading John Berger. In terms of the range of his interest and the things he’s written about, but also the incredible formal innovation of those books—in the way that in whatever way you categorize them, they’re always some other kind of book, too. For me Berger is the single most important figure in my formation as a writer. As applied to my own work, what I was initially most conscious of was the lack of continuity in the readership between one book and the next, so from the publisher’s point of view, each was a horrible new beginning. The jazz book was read by jazz fans, the First World War book by people who were interested in the First World War, et cetera. It was only quite late in the day, around the time of the yoga book, when people began to say “Oh, all these books are by the same person!” And I was glad that people were starting to notice that, because each book had been different from any of the others, and each, in its own wonderful way, had managed to flop.


DW: And this is your 14th flop?


GD: Something like that. I’ve got to the point where I’m tempted to knock a few years off my age, and in a similar way I’m tempted to diminish the number of books I’ve written. A small version of the Joyce Carol Oates thing, where you think, “Wow, someone’s written that many books? A lot of them surely can’t be any good!” I think when you get into double figures that starts to become a danger.

<i>Door Door</i>. Photograph by Peter Morgan / Flickr

Door Door. Photograph by Peter Morgan / Flickr



DW: I was not going to ask about your influences, but actually, I’d be interested in hearing about people you might have influenced yourself.


GD: I guess nowadays this genre-defying has become a genre in its own right, so, maybe to an extent … I don’t know! It’s difficult to say, really. I know that Out of Sheer Rage really struck a chord with writers because it was about writers. I worry that this kind of thing can become self-indulgent, where you don’t write about the subject but you just write about yourself, so maybe there’s this not entirely benign influence there. To backpedal a bit, there’s another thing going on here, though—when I was reading Bernhard, he came garlanded with all these quotes from George Steiner emphasizing he was in this Hermann Broch tradition of the great European novelist, whereas I think you can really see that so many contemporary American writers are influenced by Bernhard. And what they get about him is just how funny he is—I really think that he is stylistically one of the strongest influences on certain kinds of fiction coming out of America at the moment.


DW: Even from the MFA system? What’s your opinion on that, by the way, as a system of production?


GD: It seems to me that there’s only one opinion you can have, which is that it works. It works observably in that these great, ambitious, complicated, thorough books keep coming out. I remember that great essay by Jonathan Lethem where he describes how he became so drunk on an earlier paradigm, in which writers drop out, that he wasn’t even conscious of the extent to which it had been so thoroughly replaced by the MFA. There are particular MFAs that are so great: smallish towns, fully funded. What you get there is a more respectable version of the time in my life I’m always looking back on so nostalgically, when I was able to live on the dole in London, in a little community of people who were also artistically inclined. It seems to me that one of the things the MFA offers is giving people that period of time to really devote themselves to writing without having to fill their days waiting tables or whatever. One of the reasons I like teaching on these things so much is that these kids are all so fired up with the ambition to become writers, and they’re so in love with literature, and being around them I find incredibly rejuvenating.


DW: You taught at Iowa recently, I believe?


GD: Yes. When I got to Iowa City, I was told it was an okay place if you didn’t mind hanging out with your grad students. I remember thinking that was exactly what I don’t want to do. No way do I want to be hanging out with that lot. Anyway, fast-forward three weeks, I’m hanging out with them nonstop. And they want something from me, but goodness knows it became a two-way thing. Yes, the word I would repeat is rejuvenating. They turned me on to writers I’d not heard of, too, which is important as you get older. It’s so important not to become one of these people like my father-in-law, who only reads Stendhal.


DW: What you’re describing has been my experience of America too. And I’ve heard it from other people. I just think … there’s this overwhelming sense of good faith that envelops you as an English person in America. And you’ve said this elsewhere, that what you really appreciate about America is not the lack of class, but the lack of class hatred.


GD: Oh exactly, I thoroughly believe that.


DW: Which I found so incredibly liberating. It was something I didn’t have to think about as much anymore, and I had been thinking about it always.


GD: You can’t not, in England. You walk past some construction workers eating their lunch, you can feel the hatred. Here, you walk past a bunch of construction guys tucking into their sandwiches, and they say hello to you. It’s just that whole radioactive aggro of English life—it’s so lovely not to be thinking about it.


DW: My experience of moving about a bit is that, even though it makes you sort of more conscious and hopefully more empathetic toward the many different types of struggles, their connectivities and differences, I worry that it’s made me maybe less political that I’d maybe like to be, because it’s divorced me from one single government body that I could petition in some way. I wondered if you found that to be the case at all on your travels?


GD: As soon you said it I could see the truth of that. So you’re in New York, that’s the center of some sort of political activity, but here in LA I really feel cut off from everything that’s going on in the world except what’s going on in California. So when, let’s say, there’s the Paris bombings, or any event of political upheaval, I do feel sort of removed from it. I think not being rooted in one place politically, on the one hand you could argue it’s made me conscious of the global disenfranchised—but I think you’re right, that you really do need one thing you’re connected to and living under that you can have some effect on. Politics in a way is always a local affair.


DW: Exactly. Local and personal. One last thing, and I hope you don’t mind me asking, but one of the final pieces in White Sands is an account of your stroke, and I was just wondering how, or if, that experience changes your outlook, as a writer?


GD: Oh, there was this brief period where, I did sort of cherish every day and treat every day as a gift and all that stuff. The thing about the stroke was the absolute unexpectedness of it, you know? You get on your bike, or you get in a car, and you know there’s a chance you might have an accident, so you put a seatbelt on. But the thing about the stroke, it was so unpredictable. I could be sitting, talking to you now, and I could have a stroke. You don’t normally spend your days thinking like that. Predictably enough, that feeling was really, really intense for a while, and although people say that you’ve got to live everyday as if it’s your last, you can’t. So gradually, after a while, this intense feeling lessened, and life returned to what it had been before: a combination of great moments, and tedium, and a certain amount of irritation. icon

Featured image: Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Photograph by Retis / Flickr