In a second exclusive interview with the author, Simon Siabod Publishing spoke to Anthony Bloor about his novel Larry’s Lessons.
Simon Siabod: You call this novel a fictional autobiography, so I guess the first question to ask is to what extent does it reflect your own life. Are you the model for Larry Tonks? For starters, have you got webbed feet?
Anthony Bloor: [Laughs] No, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t have to wait till the age of 50 to lose my virginity. I was 18 I think. I was seduced by a girl who used to ride a moped. An older woman in fact. Also, my childhood memories are mostly happy ones, so there’s no similarity there. I’m not an only child either, I have two sisters. However, I did do a first degree in Pure Mathematics, after abandoning a degree in English, and my favourite topics in that area were topology and logic, but there the similarity ends. I keep in contact with colleagues in the Maths Education world, so I have an inkling of what’s going on there. As a character, Larry is his own man. That’s to say, he’s not based on any one individual, but he’s gathered traits from many sources and then developed his own persona. This is what happens, I find, when you create characters. Somebody says as much in the novel. You find that they take on their own life, and for them to be consistent you can’t make them do things they don’t want to do. When I first read other novelists writing about “characters taking on their own life” I used to think it sounded silly, putting too much emphasis on character at the expense of the story, the narrative, but now I can confirm that it really is the case. Characters do drive the story. In the case of Larry, he developed as an ugly mathematician partly from a satirical perspective – I was taking a stereotype and making it absurd. I do confess that I received an initial spark from a real-life mathematician as a model, but that was simply the germ of the idea. Larry’s back story is a total invention.
Simon Siabod: So what are you saying? That all mathematicians are ugly? What about Carol Vorderman? Some people could argue that you are merely perpetuating a myth about the ugly mathematician.
Anthony Bloor: But that’s the point – it is a myth. I think the best way of dealing with stereotypes is to poke fun at them. Carol Vorderman isn’t ugly, I agree, and she’s done a good job of glamorising maths, in a celebrity sort of way. Though her dress sense is rather odd at times. And her role on Countdown was very much second fiddle. She may know her differential equations but she’s only a woman, so she has to look glam and twiddle with numbers as she smiles at the camera. Which is perpetuating another sort of myth in a way. What I find surprising, and also quite comical, is that there’s been a concern in the Maths Ed world about the image of the mathematician, to the extent of conducting research into stereotyping in an attempt to find out what schoolchildren really think. And they’ve proved their hypothesis – yes, schoolchildren apparently do think of mathematicians as being rather odd people and possibly ugly. But why be so concerned about image? It’s the celebrity effect I think – we live in an age of the image where everything must be done for the sake of appearances, rather than substance. Besides, let’s face it, mathematicians are rather odd. I could tell you a few stories about my old maths lecturers…
Simon Siabod: Not right now, if you don’t mind. Let’s move on. In fact, maths – as a subject in its own right – doesn’t feature in the novel, apart from one or two passing references. Most of the novel takes place in a mansion in Wales, with Larry’s storytelling course being a dominant feature, and one suspects that this is really the main point of the novel. We gather from the acknowledgements that the ideas came from your previous work on fiction writing. What can you tell us about that?
Anthony Bloor: Aye, well, there’s the rub, this novel has a long history. It does go back to the days of my PhD thesis, which was on the subject of fiction writing. The thesis itself is an unreadable document, like most theses I guess. When I came to look at it, with a view to publication, I was shocked at what I found. For a start, the original submitted draft had to be expanded to satisfy the demands of the external examiner, who I think didn’t have the time to read it all, so the bits that were added were in fact repeats of information that was already in there. All that had to be taken out again, together with other irrelevant bits, and the whole thing re-structured and re-written. And updated too. The entire process – of turning an unreadable thesis into a publishable book, accessible and readable for the intelligent reader – took about 12 months. The result was A Multidisciplinary Study of Fiction Writing, which was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2003, six years after the doctorate had been awarded. I had an unfortunate incident with another publisher in 2002, which provided the basis in the novel for Adam Swan’s dissatisfaction with academia. Anyway, in the course of the re-writing for publication, I had the idea of writing yet another version, this one in a fictional form, making the ideas even more accessible. So I developed the idea of a writing school, or storytelling school, where the teachers use innovative methods and ideas which I’d developed previously.
Simon Siabod: There’s another strand to this though, which is the sexual element. Some of the presentations – I’m thinking of the Salamander Suite – are very provocative. Is this a method that you advocate? Is that in your PhD thesis as well?
Anthony Bloor: Er, no. The sexual element… well, it’s partly satirical, to do with the idea of “sexing up” things to make them more attractive, and one has to remember that the story is told by Larry, and he’s had instructions to make his story deliberately sexy. But it’s also an important part of Larry’s own development, of Larry’s story in its own right. And he’s had a long time to wait, let’s face it.
Simon Siabod: As well as the storytelling course, and the ideas that are developed as it progresses, there’s another discussion that takes place amongst the students – one could call it a sub-plot – and it’s scattered through the novel at various points. This is the debate about human origins. What can you tell us about that? How did that creep into the novel?
Anthony Bloor: Well, it’s an odd thing, but that very debate has just been aired again a few days ago, as a result of new methods of dating. It’s a subject that interests me greatly. In a way, it’s the most important story we humans have to tell. Namely: where do we humans come from? How did we evolve? I guess the other important story is the origins of the universe. Anyway, I used to work on archaeological excavations when I was a student, working on various digs during the summer vacations, digging with a trowel, and I’ve long had a fascination with the subject and the stories that emerge about our past. The debate about human origins concerns our relationship with the Neanderthals. In the novel, Stanley Cooper’s idea (which is partly my own, though I can’t quite follow his logic in places – he’s another character who developed a life of his own) is that Homo sapiens were co-existent with the Neanderthals, and modern humans developed as a result of interbreeding. Also, that we modern humans had a big role to play in the extinction of the Neanderthals, specifically through cannibalism. Now some of this story was established as fact at the time I first wrote the novel, and new evidence has come to light only recently which provides more evidence for his argument; namely, the co-existence with Neanderthals and our role in their extinction, though cannibalism hasn’t been mentioned – that’s Stanley’s hypothesis. But I do find the subject fascinating. After all, aren’t all stories concerned in some way with birth or death or reproduction or some stage of the human life cycle, and what can be more more fascinating than the birth of our species?
Simon Siabod: The birth of our universe, as you said. Of equal fascination certainly. And how it might end. But that subject is too depressing, so let’s move on. The ideas about storytelling, and those about human origins, play a large part in the novel and one is tempted to call it a “novel of ideas” rather than a fictional autobiography or a romantic comedy. How do you respond to that?
Anthony Bloor: Can’t it be both? Or all three even. There’s romance, and it is a fictional autobiography. There’s also a lot of ideas articulated in the course of it. But a novel based simply on ideas would just be a dull read in my view, unless there’s a story attached to keep the reader’s interest. Though, having said that, I remember reading Thomas Love Peacock and enjoying his work, and there’s very little story. But then there’s the historical interest. Anyway, I think you’re searching for tags, which I suppose you have to do from a marketing perspective. As I think I said in a previous interview, I don’t consider myself to be a “genre writer.” I would find it hard to stick to one genre; I find genre too restrictive and I like to play about with it. The most interesting genre reads I think are those that challenge genre conventions, that attempt to subvert the genre in some way. I do read a fair amount of genre fiction because I do like to have a sort of global view of things. I was brought up on horror fiction, then I moved on to James Bond. Now I read crime, thrillers, mysteries, so-called women’s fiction, sci-fi occasionally, historical fiction rarely. I’m an admirer of Catherine Cookson, very underrated in my view, and I read not so long ago a collection of Mills & Boon – now that was an eye opener, I have to say. They all followed the same pattern – masochistic fantasies, verging on rape in some cases. A genre that’s impossible to subvert from within as their writers have to follow strict guidelines, including rules on how men and women are meant to behave. In a Mills & Boon, I mean.
Simon Siabod: Yes, well, we don’t do Mills & Boon so our authors don’t have to worry about rules of that nature. While we’re on the subject of women’s fiction, there are two central characters in the novel, apart from Larry of course, and these are the two female characters Filomena and Pampinea, both of whom play a leading role in the novel and come across as strong characters. Are they based on real people? What, or who, provided the models for your tutors?
Anthony Bloor: If they were based on real people, do you think I’d tell you who? As it happens, they’re total inventions, gathering traits from I honestly don’t know where. It’s funny where ideas come from. The best ideas tend to come when you’re not working, I think, which is why they say that writers are in fact always working. Ideas can come from an image, or a chance phrase. A word even. I’ve just finished reading a collection of short stories by Daphne du Maurier – another writer I admire – and a couple of them hinge upon a chance utterance, a single word in one case which results in someone’s suicide. I honestly can’t remember what provided the material for the tutors. They take their names from characters in Boccaccio’s The Decameron of course. And I once saw a picture of a dress that resembles one worn by Pampinea in the novel. As for the rest, I honestly don’t know. Perhaps I’m just a fantasist.
Simon Siabod: One final question. What response have you had so far from readers?
Anthony Bloor: When I finished the first version, which was actually about ten years ago now – you know my novels tend to have long histories – I sent synopses and extracts to a few agents and one – a junior agent – asked to see the full manuscript. I then had an unfavourable response a few days later, with the typical comment about not being able to market it effectively – genre again, you see. She likened it to two novels I’d never read: Perfume by Patrick Suskind and John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Well, I took the time to read both of them and found that Larry’s Lessons is totally unlike either. The leading characters in both are psychopaths and actual or potential murderers; in one, perfume takes centre stage, and in the other, cuisine. Larry is not a murderer or a psychopath. Perfume plays a narrative role but isn’t centre stage, and cuisine hardly plays a role at all. On the other hand, storytelling, so central in Larry’s Lessons, does’t feature in either as a central theme. I think she read the synopsis, skimmed the manuscript and came across perfumes, and jumped to the wrong conclusion. It was more expensive to return the manuscript than to print another copy, so I reluctantly asked her to dispose of it. It was all quite depressing. Beware of agents who ask to see full manuscripts, “see” being the defining word. I think this one was attracted by the sexual element. The prurient reader. Sex sells, you see, though not entirely in that case. Perhaps she found the foreplay a trifle prolonged.
Simon Siabod: Hmm. Sex sells – well let’s give Larry our blessings and hope that other readers aren’t as disappointed.
Anthony Bloor: Cheers! Here’s to Larry. And, oh yes, another difference – he does live happily ever after. I think.
For information on Anthony Bloor’s Larry’s Lessons, click here.