John Lanchester in Conversation with Colm Tobin

Gold-making fairies in caves, a boom and bust economy, multi-ethnic London, the constraints of finances and defecting nuns; it was all discussed in this enlightening, honest and mesmerising conversation between two extraordinary authors. Here’s a snippet of what John Lanchester and Colm Tobin had to say…

Colm: For those who haven’t read your book, Family Romance, tell us who you are.

John Lanchester
John Lanchester

John: My mum was from County Mayo, she was a nun in Africa. When she left the convent in 1958, she couldn’t come back to Ireland – it was a great scandal – so she came to London, without having any connections, and met my father through someone she worked with in a school. In 1960, when they met and started to fall in love, she thought he wouldn’t want to marry her if he knew she was forty so she made a decade of her age disappear! She took her younger sister’s identity and applied for identity using documents belonging to her younger sister. She took the secret to her grave. She always talked about home but never went and ultimately, it was this secret that caused the severance with her Irish family…I found out the truth literally the day before her funeral when a relative mentioned something.  I must have known something; didn’t see it coming but knew instantly that it was true. But it means that the name on my birth certificate isn’t my mother. In Family Romance I wanted to get a sense of what her internal narrative had been. I don’t think I managed it.

Colm: Talk about your main character in Capital; there’s such a strong sense of repression. Even his sex life is repressed. It’s clear that he’s from a certain class and is good at it; everything’ s a given. That’s the feeling…but as a novelist, you’re not helpful to him.

John: I thought people would hate Roger; but I’ve been surprised because people don’t, even though he’s weak. We (my wife and I) moved into our apartment in the 90s but the dynamics have changed because everyone now works in the finance district now. It’s caused alterations in the demographics; you never see a man there. Between dusk and dawn… but they’re obviously still procreating because you still see the women loading kids into cars. That was where this novel stemmed from; in around 2000, I heard someone in the street say they had got a million pound bonus. To him, or to anyone working in that sector, it wasn’t a freakish or bizarre thing! So I wondered what would it be like to be that person? I thought, quite quickly, you would start to need the money; that was the germ of their lives, their characters came from that.

Colm: The London in your book is a power capital; with London and money entwined. It seems like a story that belongs to the fifties or the Victorian novel, but in reality, it’s still going on next door.

John: ‘I didn’t grow up in London; I grew up in Hong Kong. When I first came to London, I thought it was grey, provincial and drab; the people, places, food was all grey. I’ve been now there for twenty years and it’s no longer true. In London, you see it all; grotesque indecencies. There are many aspects of the city that interest me, such as when you leave your house, how long will it be until you meet a Brit? You can go out for the whole day and not yet see a Brit. And there’s so much going on outside the window! The press of the world on this city is so vast; I wanted to write about the way the world presses on this city, this street.

These buildings we live in now were built for middle classes with dream and ambition, until 5/10 years ago when there was a sudden switch in the demographic. Now, you have to be rich to live there. You’re automatically a millionaire. The setting looks the same; but the whole ethos and background has changed. My character, Petunia. is the embodiment of this. Me and my wife joke about being the last aborigines because we’re the last ones who live there that don’t work in the financial district. Petunia’s living an unlived life; that’s what interested me.

Colm: Capital in the book doesn’t make people happy; every image of capital is damaging.

It’s one of those things where you discover what the book was about when you’d finished. There are lots of people thinking that capital are what you have written on a piece of paper. But I disagree; the most importance forms of capital are emotional, linked to relationships; human capital.

Colm: The most affectionate portrait is of the Pakistani family…

John: Different people have different preferences; we had a shop near us with three brothers who were middle-class Afghans who had fled the Taliban; they were constantly arguing about the timing of the sale of their property back there. They were the germ of the idea but in the novel I made them Pakistani instead because, although there is a rich Afghan community in London, the Pakistani generations go back further so I thought there’d be more to explore. I wanted to write about things that were happening outside the window; it was obvious that this was a crazed bubble but I thought, this can’t go on. I wanted to write a novel that had a boom and bust into it; I thought it was a property bubble. The reader knew right from the start that things were going to go pop; in one sense I had it right but I was very specifically wrong about what the crash was. London property is the one thing that hasn’t bust.

Colm: While I was reading Capital, I was in full possession; I was completely informed about everything to do with the financial situation and could have argued it as a result of your creation. How did this happen?

John: I was very interested in it; my dad worked in a bank and it’s inherently incomprehensible. He was an old fashioned type of banker, that would listen to the request, assess the situation, then either lend you money or not. So some of the sense of madness came from that, having known this man in a very different finance world.

Colm: With regards the future, what’s going to happen? We’d like our gold back; we don’t know why or how. And there was gold. We were living in gold. We don’t have it any more. Will you help us please? Tell us, is there anything we can do, for example. What could we do as a community to get our gold back?

John: If you imagine there are fairies or elves in caves creating gold – which is easier to understand than the truth – you can also picture how the magic-elf created gold, was for younger, hungrier more energetic and aspirational generation that was completely real and completely deserving. Until about 2002 – until then, the gold was legitimate and it’s all still there. Ireland’s a small and flexible country; it will recover, it will bounce back. Overall, the penny has dropped that we did too much too quickly. Periods like this require solidarity; but in the west we didn’t really do that. We pretended we were in it together but that wasn’t the case. We need a changed metaphor for being collectively engaged; and that will be difficult to fix. The big scandal is that what happened is legal. We travelled so far down the deregulatory route that everything was legalised.