Daren King: The doors of perception

Hilarious and delirious, Daren King's fiction takes its readers on a tragicomic trip. Christina Patterson goes down into the basement of a unique imagination
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The Independent Culture

Any fears that the English eccentric is a dying breed are swiftly allayed by Daren King. You would expect nothing less from a writer whose first novel was hailed in this paper as "like some delirious encounter between P G Wodehouse and William S Burroughs" and whose second starred a sex-crazed ghost giraffe. In my review of it last year, I concluded that King was either mad or "in the grip of some major hallucinogens". Or, I added, "perhaps he's just extremely talented."

King is certainly talented. His first novel, Boxy an Star, published in 1999 and currently being made into a film by the photographer Rankin, only just missed the Booker shortlist. The novelist Liz Jensen hoped that "this original, poignant, funny book" would become a classic. Julie Myerson pronounced him a "scorchingly poetic writer" and declared that the world "desperately" needed "more voices like this". Matt Thorne went even further. "Daren King is a genius," he announced, "and Jim Giraffe is a masterpiece."

You don't, of course, have to be mad or drug-crazed to be a genius (though a school of thought says it helps). Like comedians who reserve their wit for the stage, you can pursue wild flights of fantasy in your art and still live like a bank clerk. Luckily, for the purposes of this interview at least, King doesn't.

He lives in a tiny flat in Kennington, south London, in the basement of a house owned by the writer Patrick McGrath and the actress Maria Aitken. It's so dark, even at five o'clock, that I can barely navigate to the sofa - but then I see that the blinds are down. Perched on the sofa is a large soft toy with a long body like a sausage dog. "That's Jim Giraffe!" says King. "I made him myself." He is, I remark, made of the same check material as the screen that separates the sofa from the kitchen. "Yes," says King, "that's his mother."

He settles in the swivel chair by the computer, but after a few minutes leaps up. "I won't be a minute," he says. When he comes back, he's wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with, yes, a giraffe. I'm beginning to feel as though I'm in some kind of giraffe emporium, a surreal fancy not helped when King starts swinging in his chair. It creaks like an old ship's bows. He moves to a different chair, then to the sofa. "I've written since I was little," volunteers King. "But I think I was more into producing a book as a physical thing than producing literature. I had a little logo: 'King books'. The whole thing would be in pencil, rubbed out lots of times to make it really neat. When I was at infant school, we all read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and we all had to write our own magic adventure story. And I did a story called 'The Magic Land'."

All three of his novels, I point out, are variations on the theme of the magic land. Boxy an Star is set in a timeless future of fourth-generation drug users whose brains are so addled by prolonged pill-popping that they can't remember how to put on their socks or turn on the cooker.

Jim Giraffe is about the relationship between Scott Spectrum, the naive narrator, and the ghost giraffe that emerges nightly from his bedroom wardrobe. Jim, the giraffe, launches a dialogue about sex that runs for the book's 200-odd pages, and a new career as the star presenter of a TV variety show. Spectrum, meanwhile, is delighted when his wife becomes pregnant. He is less delighted when she gives birth to "a bouncing baby giraffe".

And now there's Tom Boler (Jonathan Cape, £10.99), a prequel to Boxy an Star, which recounts the lonely adventures of Boxy an Star's narrator, Bole (short for Boler), when he is nine. When Tom's mother disappears, he is visited by Uncle Dustman, who fills the house with rubbish and has an erotic fixation with donkeys. He is adopted briefly by a posh dipsomaniac, Primula Spatula, and eventually taken in by Boxy, a black transvestite, and his partner, Roxy. It's their friend, Robert Tablet, who introduces him to the bags of "spangles" that will turn his already fried brain to mush. His weird world starts getting even weirder.

Magic? Well, it's hardly social realism. "I guess so," says King. "Yeah. Jim comes to a wardrobe to our land. But really," he adds, "if you're going to have a giraffe in furniture, where are you going to put him? If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had had him coming out of the washing machine, I wouldn't have put Jim in the washing machine. His hooves would have kicked the door open. It's more logical, proportion-wise." Right.

It all started with Trainspotting. Having left school with the equivalent of one O-level, King had managed to acquire enough qualifications to do creative studies at Bath Spa University. "I was writing a really awful story called 'Rubber Nose'," he confesses. "It was probably some sort of parody of Trainspotting. Boxy an Star also came out of that - the idea that you could write some sort of book that came out of drugs.

"Now," he adds, "I think I'm a really happy, together person, but it's easy to be that way when you can just about afford to work from home and you've got a nice flat. But then I was just really struggling, and had a really bad depression. I would take ridiculous amounts of cannabis - not just smoking it, but eating it for breakfast and stuff. There's been quite a lot of statistical evidence linking cannabis with schizophrenia. I believe that's where I was heading. It's like an echo in your head, where you just think the same thought three times and it echoes around in your brain."

When he fell out with the people he was living with - "arguing over the washing up, that kind of thing" - he moved out and stopped taking the drugs. "I was really stressed out," he confides, "but I was feeling so bad anyway. There was no big kind of dramatic thing about it. I wasn't abused as a child, I didn't cut myself or anything, but internally it was a big thing."

Abuse and rape do, however, feature in all three novels. Is that, I wonder, as some kind of metaphor for impotence? "I don't really know why it's there," replies King, disarmingly."Maybe it's because it provokes an emotional response and maybe it's a way of expressing the bad feelings. But in Jim Giraffe, it's completely different. It's kind of just a joke, really, the fact that you're not supposed to make jokes about paedophilia. It's the last kind of taboo subject. It's defiance, I suppose - the opposite of being impotent."

The idea for a prequel to Boxy an Star came, apparently, from Jensen. He even wrote some of it while staying in her house. "I thought of the name Primula Spatula for Prim, and I thought it would be a great chapter heading. I always work in chapter headings. They need to give the sense of a very different and unfamiliar world that you're about to go into - like a row of doors or something."

The challenge of a prequel, as King points out, is to fill in some of the gaps without killing the mystery. "It's got to be another question that feels like an answer," he explains, "but it's still got to raise loads of questions." And this time round, it was written without the aid of narcotics. "I was more aware what I was doing," he confides. "People have said it's a more powerful read because it's a bit more controlled."

Like Boxy an Star, it is funny, moving and dark."All my stuff is 50 per cent comedy and 50 per cent tragedy," King says. "There's a tension between those things. I aim to make people work and to disturb them. Jim Giraffe is more the making-you-laugh side - Men Behaving Badly with hooves - and Tom Boler is more the disturbing side. My next book, Hello Robot, looks like being the fun of Jim Giraffe with the darkness of Boxy an Star."

What the books all have in common is a mix of the innocent and the knowing. "Yes, that is me, really," says King matter-of-factly. "In a way, I'm a really innocent personality, but in a sort of taking-the-piss way. I think I have a persona, with my friends, and in relationships, that's quite mischievous and dark at the same time."

There's little doubt about the innocence, mischief or darkness. There is also little doubt about the talent. King is a one-off: a literary writer who doesn't read much, a self-confessed computer geek who needs to "spend loads of time" on his own, but also has "loads of friends". "Do you like my robot?" he says, pointing at a Barbie-sized silver model on the table. It is, apparently, a gift from his agent. Yes, I say, I do.

Biography: Daren King

Daren King was born in 1972 in Harlow, Essex. He left school with the equivalent of one O-level and worked as a junior at an estate agent before reading creative studies at Bath Spa University College. It was there that he started writing Boxy an Star (1999), shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award and long-listed for the Booker. It was followed in 2004 by Jim Giraffe and, this week, by Tom Boler (Cape). His cartoon book, Smally's Party, will be published later this year, followed by a novel for children, Mouse Noses on Toast. He is also working on the screenplay for the film of Boxy an Star, to be directed by the photographer Rankin. His website, which invites financial contributions, describes him as "a screenwriter, novelist, journalist, illustrator, bomb disposal robot from space, and a person".