Ned Beauman is the author of four novels including his highly acclaimed debut, Boxer, Beetle. He has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, won a Somerset Maugham award and has been named one of Granta’s best British novelists under 40.
Your new novel, Madness Is Better Than Defeat, is inspired by the making of the films Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo. What interested you about that process?
The inevitability of it: this sense that you go into the jungle to make a film about white men falling victim to tyrannical hubris and latent insanity, then the exact same thing happening to you. You’re doomed before you even begin. So the book is asking: what if there’s some deep occult reason why this keeps happening over and over again?
Why do you think those films capture the public’s imagination?
This is one of the themes of the book – and indeed the title of the book – that there’s something extremely seductive about madness, about the possibility of abandoning all civilisational structures and common sense and plunging into something much darker and more turbid. And for a lot of people, the jungle seems like the perfect place to do that because it’s a long way away and nobody’s watching.
One adjective that’s used a lot about your novels is “experimental”. Is that what you set out to be?
I don’t think I do anything in my books that hasn’t been done before somewhere. I don’t see them as genuinely avant garde and I don’t have that modernist urge to break fiction open. It’s experimental just in the sense of trying out something a bit unlikely to see if I can make it work.
Two of your three previous novels either won or were shortlisted for prizes. What value do you place on literary prizes?
I’ve been with the same publisher for all my books so if you have a publisher who has put that much faith and investment into books that aren’t exactly blockbusters then you’re always thinking: how can I make sure that pays off for my publisher? And a prize nomination is simply the best way to make sure that happens.
Which authors have had the greatest influence on your own writing?
Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Nabokov and William Gibson.
Do you read while you’re working on a novel, or steer clear of other people’s prose?
Since I was about 16, I’ve had a novel in progress continuously, so I have to read while I write otherwise I could just never read anything, which I think would have set me back significantly.
What’s the book people would be most surprised to find on your bookshelf?
I recently paid a high price on eBay for The West Wing script books, which I feel slightly sheepish about because at this point it’s really uncool to like The West Wing. But I’m trying to get into screenwriting and there just isn’t anyone who’s better at dialogue than Aaron Sorkin.
You campaigned for Labour in the recent election. If you could press one book into the hands of Theresa May, which would it be?
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: it’s the most compelling contemporary novel I’ve ever read about how hard it is to be in the underclass. But I’m sure Theresa May has read a lot of novels and she would no doubt say that you don’t read a story about an imaginary person and then try to raise taxes because of it. So I’m not sure it would do much good.
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