July 2011

Margaret Howie


An Interview with Joe Dunthorne

Joe Dunthorne's debut novel Submarine is refreshingly different from most teenage coming of age books. There's a welcome embrace of the pedantic side of the teenage brain, whose passionate convictions about the workings of the world jostle uncomfortably alongside the gnawing aggravations of perpetual horniness. Released to wide acclaim in 2008, it's now enjoying a second life with the release of the film adaptation (which is out in the US in June). Though the movie lacks the celebration of hideous fonts that the book does, it's a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted movie with real heart and wit. With his second novel, Wild Abandon, on the horizon, the London-based novelist and poet took a break from a life of Hollywood-drenched glamour for an e-mail interview about adaptations, mix tapes, and learning to enjoy what you write.  

How did the adaptation process begin? Is it as simple and glamorous as getting a phone call from Ben Stiller one day?

Why, yes! The first I knew about it was when the private jet landed. Not quite. The process began with being matched up with Richard Ayoade by the producers at Warp Films. We got on really well and started to talk about how an adaptation might work. Then we watched lots of films that use voice-over, to give us an idea of what worked and what failed.

When did you start writing Submarine? Did it have a connection with your previous work?

I started writing Submarine in 2002, in my final year as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. It was quite different from most of the stories that I'd written before it, and it was the first time I'd really felt a character's voice come through very clearly. Prior to Submarine, every time I'd tried to write "a novel" I'd been paralysed by the expectation that I put on myself -- that a novel needed to be something grand, very literary and hugely ambitious. With Submarine, I managed to stop myself overthinking, and just wrote what I enjoyed. 

Given Oliver's firm convictions, are there any stubborn teenage beliefs you've held tight to into adulthood, logic and experience be damned?

Good question. There probably are but, if I truly believe in them, then I wouldn't even have the self-consciousness to see them as stubbornly teenage. I'd believe they were adult perspectives. I think we (I) always battle our inner Chips who would like the world to be simplistic, binary, and to follow straightforward rules. That's why polarised viewpoints are so appealing. It's a real hassle to see the world as complicated, ambiguous, undecided.

I was struck by how both the novel and the film of Submarine were both such vital pieces, and not quite like any other coming-of-age stories I'd encountered. What novel would you like to see filmed?

If it could be guaranteed that it would be an utterly flawless masterpiece, then I'd like to see White Noise by Don DeLillo on film. That long set-piece with the whole town being evacuated, driving out of town in their family saloons, with the Toxic Airborne Event swelling in the sky behind them. That, I would love to see. 

Was there anything missing from the film version of Submarine that you felt the loss of?

There's a scene in the book that I really love -- although it has no plot function, which is why it never made in to the film script. Oliver takes his father to the funfair, thinking that it might cheer him up. He has read that one treatment for depression is electroconvulsive therapy but also that placebo treatments are often very effective. As a result, he takes his father for placebo electroconvulsive therapy on a ride called The Shocker -- a mock electric chair. He kind of symbolically kills, and revives, his father.

When did you first see the movie?

In Toronto, at the film festival, where it was premiering. It was a huge cinema, and Ben Stiller introduced. He, like everyone in Hollywood, is way smaller than you'd expect.

Your new novel, Wild Abandon, is out in August, can you tell us something about it? (Or will Penguin send predator drones out for you?)

It took me ages to think of a succinct way to sum up my new novel so you'll forgive me if I copy-paste the blurb, rather than do a bad job of trying to freestyle it:

Kate and Albert, sister and brother, are not yet the last two human beings on earth, but Albert is hopeful. The secluded communal farm they grew up on is -- after twenty years -- disintegrating, taking their parents' marriage with it. They both try to escape: Kate, at seventeen, to a suburbia she only knows through fiction and Albert, at eleven, in to preparations for the global endgame.

Faced with the prospect of saving his community, his marriage, his son from apocalyptic fantasies, his daughter from impending men, Don Lish, father of the family, leader and maker of elaborate speeches, sets to work on reunifying the commune by bringing it in to the modern age, through self-sufficiency, charisma and a party with a 10k sound system.

Which of your poems would you like to see adapted for the movies, or, possibly, lavish BBC mini-series? (My pick would be "Cirque de Modernisme.")

Good idea. "Cirque de Modernisme" would be a fun big-budget BBC costume drama. (If the beeb want to get in touch, am happy to discuss this.) I'd like to see my poem "Workshop Dream," where all poets, both dead and alive, live in one low-rise Tenerife-type holiday resort. It could be the follow-up to Cirque de Modernisme. David Lynch should direct both series.

Given the importance of mix tapes in the story, what's the best one you've ever made?

I definitely made some great skate-punk mixtapes when I was fifteen: Fugazi, NoFX, Rancid, Offspring et al with a bit of Cypress Hill at the end to show I wasn't totally one-dimensional.