Paul Magrs: Magrs attacks!

In a Paul Magrs novel, the characters shop at Poundstretcher and own Britney calendars. So he hasn't got a lot of time for the snooty literary establishment. Matthew Sweet gets an earbashing
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The Independent Culture

In Paul Magrs's England, soap stars sate their appetite for human blood; Iris Murdoch fakes her death in order to lurk about in internet chatrooms; London is invaded by aliens got up as characters from 19th-century novels; a man gives birth to a leopard. And yet, the world in which these outré events take place is much more concrete and recognisable than the one described in most contemporary British fiction. Magrs characters know about Poundstretcher and Cilla Black. They eat at Harry Ramsdens and drink Lemsip. They own Britney Spears calendars and Paul Klee prints. They live in places like Norwich and Manchester - and never north London. They even - get this! - work for a living. Sometimes in pot pourri shops.

In Paul Magrs's England, soap stars sate their appetite for human blood; Iris Murdoch fakes her death in order to lurk about in internet chatrooms; London is invaded by aliens got up as characters from 19th-century novels; a man gives birth to a leopard. And yet, the world in which these outré events take place is much more concrete and recognisable than the one described in most contemporary British fiction. Magrs characters know about Poundstretcher and Cilla Black. They eat at Harry Ramsdens and drink Lemsip. They own Britney Spears calendars and Paul Klee prints. They live in places like Norwich and Manchester - and never north London. They even - get this! - work for a living. Sometimes in pot pourri shops.

This, the novelist suspects, is a quality that has sometimes brought him into conflict with editors and publishers - particularly those who have put baffled question marks in the margins of his manuscripts, next to expressions as mundane as "MFI furniture" and "Richard and Judy". "A lot of copy-editors," he speculates, "must be posh bastards who never go out, have never read owt, and have no interest in life."

We're sitting in the back garden of a bar at the end of Deansgate, Manchester, a thoroughfare once described by Anthony Burgess as "the greatest shopping street in the world". ("He must have bought a lot of spiky cushions," observes Magrs.) The place is almost empty, allowing us to sound off about anything we like, without annoying the other customers.

"I hate stodgy books," he says. "Books that read like they need colonic irrigation. I want people to be able to read my books quickly. I want them to have fun. It always surprises me how middlebrow pundits find virtue in books which make it very hard for the reader to progress from line to line. It's all Martin Amis's fault. Rushdie as well. Appalling tossers. If only someone had given them a good slapping at the age of 13. But nobody did. Instead, they were encouraged."

If, metaphorically speaking, you stuck a hosepipe up Paul Magrs's fiction and switched on the hot tap, you'd not extract much surplus compacted matter. The complexity of his ideas never constipates his prose, or impedes the flow of his zippy, idiomatic dialogue. He doesn't write to prove how clever he is, or to ingratiate himself with Booker prize judges or semi-academic book critics.

Beyond that, it's hard to generalise about his work. Modern Love (2000) is a family saga initiated by an illicit coupling in the reptile house. All the Rage (2001) is the story of a gay fanboy who goes to bed with a female survivor of an Eighties Eurovision outfit, and finds himself masterminding their comeback. Aisles (2003) puts Iris Murdoch in cyberspace and behind the checkout of an East Anglian supermarket. His latest, To the Devil - a Diva! tells of a little girl whose pact with the devil rewards her with a career in lesbian vampire flicks and a Mancunian soap opera. His first book for children, Strange Boy (2002), the tale of a gay 10-year-old sustained through familial angst by superhero fantasies, generated a predictable splurge of controversy. "I did a lot of radio interviews," recalls Magrs, "where they all said: 'We don't want wanking in kids' books.' Yes you do! I did when I was 10. That would have livened up all sorts. The Secret Seven, for instance. Or The Owl Service. It's a rubbish book about a haunted tea set, but if they'd touched each other up halfway through..."

Though his publicists tend not to mention the fact, Magrs is also a prodigious author of Doctor Who novels - his latest, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, saw the BBC's Time Lord teaming up with Noël Coward to battle a race of alien space poodles who want to prevent a certain academic completing an interminably long novel about dwarfs and elves. (In the Magrs universe, Coward is revealed as a temporal troubleshooter who owns a pair of crimping shears which he uses to snip holes in the fabric of the space/time continuum.) "I'm convinced," he says, "that the world needs a TV show or a series of books in which Noël and Marlene Dietrich fight crime through time and space."

Magrs was born on Tyneside in 1969, but grew up in Newton Aycliffe, near Darlington - a move which his parents' marriage failed to survive. He declared his intention to become a novelist at the age of nine, and has never given serious consideration to any other career. "It was an act of rebellion in one way," he reflects, "because my father wouldn't let me read fiction. After the divorce, he was always in charge of the library visits. He thought fiction was effeminate. He always pointed me in the direction of weightier tomes about astronomy and dinosaurs. So sneaking fiction out of the library was always a big thing."

What else do you need to know about him? The g in his surname is silent: pronounce his name like the fourth planet from ths sun, if you want to get it right. He studied English at Lancaster University, where he completed a PhD on Angela Carter. For the last seven years, he has taught on the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. (This summer, however, he defected to Manchester Metropolitan University, where he hopes the students will be less middle-class.) He has a thing about DVD box sets - Upstairs Downstairs and Tenko were recent purchases - and has a B S Johnson-ish notion about constructing a novel along the same principles. His favourite film is The Beast in the Cellar (1971), a bonkers British horror flick starring Beryl Reid and Flora Robson as a pair of malevolent spinsters. He is enthusiastic about the work of Maureen Duffy, Susan Cooper, Michael Moorcock and Jackie Collins ("a brilliant technician"), but thinks that Rose Tremain writes "crappy middle-brow books for Sunday Times readers", and claims to have told her so. He does an excellent impression of Antonia Byatt doing an impression of Iris Murdoch bashing her head on the table.

As a creative writing tutor, he is bloodily honest with his students. Although he garlands graduates whose work he admires - Tiffany Murray, Doug Cowie and Tash Aw are his three tips for greatness - he is scathing about the bulk of the bodies which have cluttered up his seminar room. "Students on the creative writing course at UEA," he suggests, "tend to be people of about 30 who've burned out doing something else, who've read some Kundera and Rushdie and think they're going to reinvent the European novel by writing about their gap year and Roland Barthes. Somebody even turned up in a beret one year."

His main object, it seems, is to evacuate their work of pretension. One of his favourite exercises involves sending them out to eavesdrop on conversations in shopping malls and greasy spoons. Magrs has never been squeamish about importing contemporary references into his fiction. Like any author who wants to write effectively about the modern world, Magrs has his head deep in the scrag bin of popular culture. Hammer horror and the Eurovision Song Contest are as present in his work as the influence of Iris Murdoch or Angela Carter or Italo Calvino. He'd rather lose an ear, I suspect, than extrapolate a novel from a Vermeer painting or write one set in 19th-century Afghanistan. And authors who have pursued such projects can probably expect a tongue-lashing if they happen to find themselves sharing a platform with him.

"You can get a name for being difficult," he reflects. "And I think I probably have. But I'm rigorous with my own work and I'm rigorous with my students, so when it comes to working with other novelists and people in the publishing world, I can't pretend I like what they're doing if I think they're dreadful. There's something really important about words on a page. You get inside people's heads - or you hope you do. It's a big responsibility. But most people who do it for a living don't take it very seriously. They just twat around, knocking back too much white wine, twittering about nothing." I'll drink to that - and to the day when Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie are spotted shopping at MFI.

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