Dan Rhodes: 'Revenge is why I write'
His penned his first book to find a wife, and his subsequent deliciously dark novels to get back at the publisher who ditched him. So let's hope Dan Rhodes hasn't gone soft with his latest, a tear-jerker about a 'museum of suicide'...
Sunday 07 February 2010
The last time I spoke to Dan Rhodes, he was rushing around his bachelor's flat "scrubbing". It was 2004, during his short-lived "retirement" from writing, and his brand-new wife had just upped sticks from San Francisco and was about to move in. It sounded like the start of a Dan Rhodes short story, provided that the story went on to have the besotted hero scrubbing himself literally to the bone, and ended with his beautiful wife leaving him for the owner of a Vim factory. Happily, life in the Rhodes household has not echoed his fiction.
When Rhodes' debut, Anthropology, was published in Britain in 2000, it rapidly achieved a cult following. A collection of 101 stories, each 101 words long, it was bitter, cynical, and horribly funny about love. "My girlfriend died," begins "Ashes". "We hadn't been together long, and I had felt indifferent towards her..." Other stories describe a girlfriend "so beautiful that she has never had any cause to develop any kind of personality", or a couple who cannot stop kissing: "Our lips are four broken scabs, and our chins always covered in blood, but we will never stop. We are far too much in love."
It was on a US book tour, talking about Anthropology, that Rhodes met his wife. "Emmily bunked off her Spanish class to come to see me speak," he explains. "So, job done. I sent that book out into the world to bring me back a wife, and it worked."
When he opens the door to his "very grown-up" new house in Buxton in wellies and a sweater, Emmily has the kettle on and their toddler, Arthur, has proudly whipped us up a batch of chocolate brownies. And very fine brownies they are, too. The couple moved to rural Derbyshire from Edinburgh just over six weeks ago, and were snowed in for most of the first month. He insists that he hasn't been missing the city, or the company, or the ability to get out of the house at all, but he is noticeably itchy to go into town for a pint and a gossip. (It turns out over a post-interview Marston's Pedigree or several that he is a huge fan of Ken Dodd and a nostalgic former regular at TJ's disco in Swansea. He also knows a lot about the ingredients of pub peanuts.)
Much has changed for Rhodes since Anthropology. It was followed, in 2001, by Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love – actually the first book he wrote, and a collection of pithy modern fairy tales that again described the darker side of desire. "My real motivation for writing was to impress girls," he says. "I was never very good at sport or music. So many films are about aspiring writers who get off with beautiful women. But in real life, being an aspiring writer is very unsexy." He found out how unsexy it could be when his publisher ditched him before his third book, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, and he and the book world spectacularly fell out.
Which meant that 2003, Rhodes' 30th year, was a strange one: named one of Granta magazine's Best Young British Novelists of the decade for a book (Timoleon) that had yet to be published, he criticised Granta for listing him; he then fell out with the other listed authors when he asked them all to sign an open letter criticising the war in Iraq, and "only nine out of the 20 responded". He found a happy home with a new publisher, Canongate, while fighting viciously with his previous one, Fourth Estate. And then he declared that he would never write again. "I've downgraded my plans from 'definitely never' to 'dunno'," he admitted in an interview almost immediately after. "I should just have shut my trap."
Rhodes's antipathy towards Fourth Estate and the Murdoch empire has softened slightly since we last spoke, when he told me that "most publishers are bastards; they often have an utter lack of regard for their authors." But he still insists with a glint in his eye: "I write for revenge."
In the past 10 years he has made "about three-quarters of a modest living out of writing". But he still supplements his income with "proper" jobs: opening big boxes of other people's books in a bookshop was "really soul-destroying", while a recent job in a whisky warehouse came with a very tasty Christmas bonus. "I do like to do jobs that are outside the biz," he says. "I don't want to be teaching creative writing, because I would only do that when I was having difficulty making a living through writing, and it would feel a bit awkward trying to tell people how to write."
It's lucky, then, that Little Hands Clapping shows promising early signs of success. The presses were stopped when a glowing tribute from Douglas Coupland ("Totally sick and brilliant") arrived six hours before printing started. Canongate is selling it hard: the hardback is only £10. Like Rhodes' previous books, it will doubtless divide opinion and provoke some outraged reviews. (Some of these are listed at danrhodes.co.uk, a website that is "absolutely nothing to do with" the author but is apparently run by "several hundred painfully beautiful 18- to 23-year-old Taiwanese girls... in a skyscraper in the heart of downtown Taipei".) His fans (and I am one) will go nuts for it. But still, there is a slight sense that Rhodes won't be entirely happy until everyone at Fourth Estate is called to a meeting at which they stand in a circle and give each other a collective kick.
At 313 pages, the new novel is Rhodes' longest yet – "my first to go over 60,000 words," he says proudly, as if the book, like the new house, is slightly disturbingly "grown-up". But fans will be pleased to know that it contains many unmistakably Rhodesian touches. Set in a German museum of suicide, it features an old man, the caretaker, who munches spiders in his sleep and is involved in a creepy pact with the local doctor. It has magnificent little cameos for characters who seem straight out of Rhodes short stories: stoical Hulda, who turns out to have a mind-blowing past; the museum owner, "Pavarotti's wife"; the beatific Lotte Meier; and the renegade cop who distinguishes himself from other renegade cops in stories by being the renegade cop who mutters not very apropos Latin phrases under his breath. The humour is dark and – Coupland is right – sick. And, not to give too much away, towards the end of the novel there is a shamefully funny line about what a character does not do to frozen cats.
Rhodes is reluctant to talk about how the novel ends – obviously – but it is pertinent to ask whether his happily domesticated new life has had an effect on his writing. He used to work best, he says, while listening to The Smiths and writing through the night on budget lager. Now, the gentle strains of CBeebies drift upstairs along with the aroma of chocolate brownies and tea, while Arthur occasionally interrupts to "cuddle daddy".
"I'm quite surprised that I managed to write a book like this while being married with a baby," he admits. "But yeah, it still has that darkness to it... I think I have got a little bit old and soft, though. It is quite a soppy, sort of tear-jerky ending, at least for one of the characters. And that's one of the reasons I keep thinking that I should stop [writing]. I wrote this one not being able to see beyond it and thinking, 'Maybe it'll be my last book', so I really chucked everything at it. Because you never know when you're going to be booted out of the biz."
His nervousness is understandable, but Rhodes is unlikely to be thrown out of the biz soon – not if the quotes on Little Hands Clapping are any indication. "He sucks you into his world," Coupland's reads. "I loved it." "Reliably odd and fabulous", raves another. Is he reliably odd in real life, asks the photographer. "No," Rhodes replies. "Fantastically disappointing in the flesh." Then, he adds, "That should be your headline." It's good to know that he's not gone too soft; the books are great revenge.
Little Hands Clapping, By Dan Rhodes (Canongate £10)
'...The old man's mouth shuts and the spider races around, trying to make its way out, but there is no escape from the thin, grey tongue... After some final desperate flailing, the spider is crunched into a gritty paste and the tongue moves around the old man's teeth, collecting stray pieces. His breathing slows, and he swallows the final traces. Soon the rattle returns. In and out, in and out...'
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