Paul Torday: The PG Wodehouse of moral depravity

The author of 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen', talks to James Kidd about his bleakest novel to date

'I've always managed to become involved in deeply unfashionable things. First it was manufacturing. Then I dabbled in farming. Now I'm writing novels." So says Paul Torday with almost the final words of our interview. When we meet in Newcastle (the nearest city to Torday's home in rural Northumberland), fashion does not propose itself as a strong suit. Dressed smartly in tweed and tie, the 66-year-old is unlikely to be mistaken for a style icon by anyone other than Bertie Wooster.

The conventional surface is somewhat deceptive. As his potted curriculum vitae suggests, Torday embodies an intriguing combination of the conservative and the daring. This is someone who waited 60 years to realise his life-time ambition of writing a novel, he says, for "a lack of courage". But then he achieved international success, seemingly overnight, with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Torday is clearly a man of many parts, who nevertheless gives an impression of perpetual under-achievement, or at least dissatisfaction. It is present when he discusses his new novel, Light Shining in the Forest; when he addresses the state of the nation; and when he mentions his better-late-than-never triumph. Was there a moment, I ask, when Salmon Fishing's global popularity made him regret waiting so long?

"There was a bit. It was hugely enjoyable writing the book. The fact that it got published was a bonus. But I did slightly think, why couldn't I have done this before. But that is not the way life works."

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has spawned a successful movie and six fictional heirs, written at the impressive rate of a book a year. Prolific he may be, but Torday is otherwise a somewhat tricky writer to define. His lighter comic touches, hapless male protagonists and high-society settings propose him as a P G Wodehouse for the 21st century. But his gift for levity is weighed down by something a little wicked. The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce examines a man's descent into alcoholism with a story moving backwards from despair towards innocence.

Torday accepts the dark sides of his art cheerfully enough. "When you write at a younger age your optimism and energy are probably greater than when you are older. I am sometimes accused of writing melancholy books. I think that's a function of my age rather than the fact that I am a particularly miserable git."

Nor does he flinch when I suggest that Light Shining in the Forest is his most disturbing and angry work to date. An arresting fusion of genres (thriller, satire, romance, horror, ghost story and fable), it has a plot propelled by a gruesome child killer, who is tracked down by a complacent civil servant, his ambitious secretary and a dishevelled local journalist.

"It probably is my darkest book. You should be writing to entertain and interest people. But I did start after reading some appalling newspaper account – possibly about Baby P. It was all about blame. Was it the social services' fault? There was almost nothing in it asking how, in the 21st century, we are still producing individuals who do this to children."

The distressing subject matter made the writing process more than usually arduous. "If I see a story about child abduction on the television, I find it almost impossible to watch. Writing about this was really quite hard work. For whatever reason, it really upsets me."

Nowhere was the struggle more profound than when portraying the macabre psychology of the book's killer, Gabriel Merkin. "I'm not really happy that I got there. I tried and tried to imagine the mind of a man who is not really human, which was almost impossible. Is he really a victim of a nasty upbringing, or a thoroughly evil person? I incline to the second view."

The novel offers no such clear-cut responses to the question of evil. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore a spiritual dimension in the story: the arc that transforms Norman Stokoe from remote bureaucrat to possible fanatical believer, for example. Describing himself as "broadly C of E", Torday says he is not preoccupied by religion per se, but by the consequences of its marginalisation in British society.

"Is there a moral blankness in society now, because religion has retreated so much from our lives? We are becoming a society in which process is more important than right and wrong. Judging has become a difficult and sometimes indefensible thing to do. Moral values seem to be receding. We are a very modern, sophisticated nation and yet we continue to tolerate levels of crime against children which just seem extraordinary."

Torday insists that he remains an optimist at heart, but admits that Light Shining in the Forest has taken something out of him. "As I wrote the book, I felt that we live in a society which is far less in control than we like to pretend. All around us is chaos, and it seems to be increasing rather than decreasing."

This disenchantment goes only part of the way to explaining Torday's decision to take a sabbatical from fiction, in addition to retiring from his commercial manufacturing ventures. "I feel I have been writing too fast. I had all these ideas bottled up. For the first three books, it was like riding a bike. I felt that if I fell off, I wouldn't remember how to get back on again. If I am to write another novel, I want to stand back and ask, 'What have I done wrong? What could I do better?'"

I ask Torday whether he has come to any conclusions so far. He thinks for only a second before replying. "That you never, ever write as well as you ought to."

Light Shining in the Forest, By Paul Torday

Orion £12.99

"Mary and Geordie have lost a child. Why should they think themselves anything special? Why should they feel entitled to grieve? It's so commonplace. Abusing and losing children is something the nation excels at … It's hard to believe how many simply disappear. Presumed runaways, presumed to have gone to live with a relation, presumed to be someone else's problem ..."

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