Adam Mars-Jones: 'My writing is like watching undercoat dry...'

Adam Mars-Jones' sharp pen has earnt him some enemies but, as James Kidd discovers, he can be his own harshest critic

Towards the end of last year, Adam Mars-Jones attended his publisher's winter party.

His reputation as a sharp and occasionally brutal critic preceded him: there was an awkward encounter with a writer whose book he had taken to task. "I said to my partner Keith, if my body is found in Faber's basement it will be like Murder on the Orient Express," he says. "There'll be at least 12 stab wounds and fingerprints everywhere."

Nevertheless, it was Mars-Jones's other job, as a short-story writer and novelist, that raised the most eyebrows. The publisher's party gave him the chance to launch his novel Cedilla, the sequel to 2008's Pilcrow. Mars-Jones had 90 seconds to introduce the work. The problem? Cedilla is 728 pages long. "It was like [Monty Python's] Summarise Proust competition," he says. "At least I was spared the swimsuit round."

Mars-Jones is making a habit of writing long books: Pilcrow may not be quite as magnum a magnum opus as Cedilla, but it still clocked in at 528 pages. Quite a departure for a writer whose previous work was infrequent and small: crystalline stories that examined the lives of gay men living under the shadow of Aids, or irreverent comedies such as "Hoosh-mi", which has the Queen catching rabies from a Corgi.

Indeed, Mars-Jones may still be most famous for the books he did not write rather than those he did: he was twice nominated by Granta as a "Best Young British Novelist" without having published an actual novel. (The Waters of Thirst eventually appeared in 1993.) "However much sour and knowing laughter it attracted," he says today, "Granta enabled me to survive in the marketplace."

We talk on a rainy day in Brixton, not far from Mars-Jones's south London home. Meeting him in person makes sense of Cedilla's polished verbosity. The 56-year-old could chat for England. In a conversation that lasts two-and-a-half hours, he glides effortlessly from the work of the Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu via the renaissance of checked shirts and Nicole Kidman's downward trajectory to Margaret Thatcher's reformation of disability benefits.

His cutting, critical voice is present and correct. For example, Mars-Jones recalls discussing a "Big Read" project on the radio. "If raising awareness of books means Nicole Appleton telling us that the novel of Misery is even better than the film, then let's forget the whole thing. If it needs a member of All Saints to recommend Stephen King then we might as well give up. Because in order to sell it, it has become necessary to destroy it."

Mostly, however, Mars-Jones is courteous, funny and personable; a blend of self-confidence punctuated by occasional moments of self-doubt. "I have a bad relationship with writing," he says at one point, adding: "It's not that I don't think I have a certain amount of ability, but it's not easy for me to think of myself as a writer. If something isn't working, I assume it's total incompetence."

In this light, it seems miraculous that he finished one page of Pilcrow and Cedilla, let alone 1,250. What makes the achievement so remarkable is the peculiarly microscopic tale the saga tells: in short, the life and opinions of John Cromer. Having contracted Still's disease (a juvenile form of rheumatoid arthritis) as a child, Cromer spends most of Pilcrow under strict bed rest, and all of Cedilla confined to a wheelchair.

"I am only attracted to projects that are borderline impossible," Mars-Jones explains. "John Cromer's story is like some hideous bet. Let's write 2,000 pages from the least viable position there is. Let's put him in a wheelchair. Let's make him a faggot. And let's make him a strange religious nut. Go and chew on that."

What holds the reader's attention is the playfulness of Mars-Jones's prose and his astonishing narrative invention. Cromer spins pages of witty and closely observed prose out of love, religion, death and family, but also Kit-Kats, Bruce Forsyth and his mother's irrational fear of Tom Stoppard.

"This is a scrag end of a life, with no obviously thrilling features. It's like a slow cooker. If you take cheap cuts and want the fullest flavour, you need a low temperature for a long time. I didn't write something that's like watching paint dry – it's like watching undercoat dry. But it can be very liberating. The thing about difficulty is: when it begins to yield, it takes you to the most surprising places."

Nevertheless, Mars-Jones is aware that Cedilla's tempo, infinitesimal attention to detail and subject-matter won't be to everyone's taste. "I'm not stupid. I know that readers of Pilcrow asked 'Is he never going to get out of that bed?' I can't be surprised that people who are able to run for a bus wonder why they should inhabit the mind of someone who can't do anything."

Mars-Jones says there are two more instalments of Cromer's story to come. The next part, which is almost finished, will either be called "Umlaut" or "Caret". His ambition is that this most restrained of epics will transform his own reputation for good. With a characteristic combination of assurance and anxiety, he cites how Remembrance of Things Past revolutionised perceptions of Proust. "Everybody assumed Proust was a party-goer with nothing substantial to say. They thought he was an exquisite who cared about clothes. After André Gide rejected Swann's Way, he said that not recognising Proust's genius was the greatest regret of his life."

Whether Mars-Jones becomes a 21st-century Proust, or even a bona fide writer in his own mind, remains to be seen. But that uncertainty is both the risk of writing fiction, and its excitement. "The only books worth writing are the ones the world is not ready for," he says. "If everyone said, 'Cedilla is the book we've all been waiting for,' I would ask: 'What kind of people are you?'"

Cedilla, By Adam Mars-Jones, Faber £20

"I was no more than a stray eyelash which the unobserved world would never know it had shed, unmissed ciliary casualty, cedilla with a C to hang from. In some way this must have been what I wanted. I had made it clear from the start that it was important for me to confront the world on equal terms. Nothing else would satisfy me. I had waited a long time for the day when there would be no safety nets, and here it was."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink