Philip Womack talks to the author about writing bad comedies, the timelessness of novels and having egg on his face – literally
Ivo Stourton has got food on his face. Well, he doesn’t really, but he touchingly asks me if he has before we start filming. He’s also written on his hand – a boyish detail that sits at odds with his acutely besuited exterior. When I last saw him, at the launch for his second novel, The Book Lover’s Tale (published this month), he looked like the immaculate conception of a professional, with a silk tie, and matching Hermès handkerchief blossoming elegantly out of his top pocket; bought for him (he confessed) by his fiancée. I was blown away. ‘Actually,’ he grins sheepishly,‘I do have some egg on me,’ which makes me feel better as I have a third-party cigarette burn on my favourite jacket. Lunchtime mishaps aside, Stourton is composed, perching on a silk sofa in my flat as if lounging at Madame de Stael’s salon. The early evening sun is streaming through the windows, and we are
looking at the author picture in the back of his book. ‘The one in the first is older, they’ve made me younger,’ he says.
Like Dorian Grey. And the comparison is apt – not necessarily for Stourton (although who knows, he may have a picture in the attic), but for the world which his protagonist, Matt de Voy, inhabits. de Voy is obsessed with surfaces, revelling in the material; vain, snobbish, cruel to his wife and to his many lovers. Once a promising novelist, his talent soon ebbs, and he becomes dependent upon his wife’s aristocratic fortune, and a lackey in her interior design business specialising in choosing books for bankers’ libraries. (The job itself sounds tickety-boo – anyone who wants me to do it for them, I’m available at competitive rates. Ahem.) When de Voy meets the swishly scintillating Claudia, he is appalled by her vulgar husband, and wishes to obtain her for himself. The only way he can do this is by murder. de Voy, you understand, doesn’t have quite enough spoons to make up a picnic set.
Stourton enjoys writing. For him it’s like going to the gym (which he also does a lot.) I suggest to him that he’s taken a big risk in making his main character unpleasant. Is de Voy a symptom of our cultural malaise? Stourton agrees.‘It’s a big creative risk to express that directly through the narrator … reading a book is a bit like being trapped in a lift with this guy. What I was hoping was that you would start to kind of like him despite yourself, he’s sufficiently charming and mad to begin to elicit if not quite sympathy, then at least the desire to find out what happens.’ This is true. As a reader, there is a compulsion to the novel, a kind of prurient necessity, which propels you into the bloody heart of the mystery. ‘I quite like books with horrible narrators. I love American Psycho, it’s one of my favourite books.’
That combination of thriller and literary novel is something that interests Stourton. ‘Your first duty above all others as a novelist is to earn the time taken out of that person’s life by gripping them with a story … the urge to tell stories comes from the urge to make sense of our lives.’
What does he think the role of a novelist is when bookshop shelves groan with misery memoirs and celebrity biographies? ‘Different ages produce different documents, in fictional form or nonfictional, sometimes it’s been plays, sometimes poetry, but for the last two hundred years it’s been novels. But there’s no reason why this should remain stable. Nonfiction feels more authentic to people, given the effect that postmodernism has had on the form.’ So we, as novelists, must tap into that deep need for narrative, the sense of unity and order that stems from the most ancient places.
Stourton was born in London, in 1982, but had a dislocated upbringing. His father, broadcaster Edward Stourton, was a foreign correspondent, and so they moved around, living in Washington and in Paris. I wonder if this gives Stourton the faintest of American twangs, and allows him to see our English society (depicted in The Book Lover’s Tale as mostly morally empty) as those of us brought up inside it can’t.
He remembers the moment he wanted to be a writer, coming back from skiing: ‘I was about twelve and we were delayed for fourteen hours, so I wrote thirty pages of an Ealing comedy. It wasn’t very good.’ Undeterred, he wrote a successful play at the age of 17: ‘it teaches you narrative, you can’t afford digressions or dead ends in a play.’
Stourton’s first novel, The Night Climbers, followed a group of students at Cambridge as they leapt over roofs, into each other’s beds, and into a daring art fraud. It, too, was dark in subject matter. Why is Stourton drawn to that side? ‘I’m generally quite a happy person, so I have to find some socially acceptable way of processing my dark side and writing books is probably the easiest.’ Phew! Well that’s lucky then. I don’t go to the gym quite as much as Stourton so I don’t think I’d come out well in a fight. It’s a form of catharsis, just like the tragedies that his character, de Voy, is obsessed with.
So what can we young writers do to remain relevant? I suggest to Stourton that we get our microphones out and go on a world tour. He laughs. ‘It would just be you and me and an empty auditorium.’ Although I do think there’s a lot to be said for a hybrid approach, a return to the era of Dickens, with author as entertainer, or of Shakespeare, with author as actor.
Stourton is now working on a form of science fiction for his next book. ‘Not hard SF, I don’t have enough science, but it’s set in England in about 30 years’ time. I did think about calling it 2084 but that might cause some problems…’
As the sun swims past my window, I ask about when de Voy, in the novel, tries to seduce Claudia with a copy of Anais Nin. Has Stourton ever tried to do the same? He laughs. ‘I never have! I think once you’ve broken out the books you’re onto a losing streak…’ Not for Stourton, though. His new novel marks a maturation in style, and it looks set to be a winner.
Ivo Stourton’s second novel,The Book Lover’s Tale, is published by Doubleday. Philip Womack is the author of The Liberators and The Other Book.