It's not even a question of whether the universe is meaningful or meaningless," Scarlett Thomas is telling me. "It's in what way could it be meaningful, or in what way, if it was meaningful, could that be even more meaningless than normal meaninglessness?" She pauses for me to catch up, but I must have betrayed my incomprehension. "That probably didn't make any sense," she laughs. "But maybe when you listen back to your tape..."
If Thomas's novels are about one thing – although in fact, they never are – it would be this issue of the universe's meaningfulness. It sounds a daunting topic to tackle but, "With fiction-writing," she explains, "as Chekhov says, the important thing is to formulate a really good question, not set out to answer it."
Thomas's latest novel, Our Tragic Universe, is either her fifth or her eighth, depending on whether you count the three mystery novels about the crime-solving English lecturer Lily Pascale, published when she was in her twenties. (Thomas, now 37, is inclined not to.) It is the second instalment in what she plans to be a loose thematic trilogy, after the success of her previous book, the Orange Prize-longlisted metaphysical thriller The End of Mr Y. Like that novel, it has a bookish, cerebral, slightly screwed-up heroine, Meg, interested in science, philosophy and literary theory. But unlike Mr Y's heroine, who was on an exciting quest that took her to whole other planes of existence, Meg is more of a stay-at-home protagonist.
Flat broke, and trapped in a stale, sexless relationship, Meg lives in a damp cottage in the same part of south Devon in which Thomas lived before relocating to Canterbury to teach literary theory and creative writing at the University of Kent. Meg ghostwrites sci-fi fiction for teenagers, and occasionally reviews popular-science books for a newspaper; but is also attempting to write a proper, probably metafictional, novel, of which she has deleted far more than she has saved.
So, a novel about a blocked novelist. Had it by any chance been hard to write the follow-up to Mr Y? "Yeah, it was actually. I must have deleted 100,000 words, which is quite a lot." It is. A novel's worth, in fact. But, she adds, "It was definitely a case of having too many ideas, rather than too few. The difficulty was trying to work out how to put them together."
While writing her third literary novel, PopCo, Thomas devised a way of working by which she researched the things that had most lately been fascinating her, then looked for the connections – "The theory being that they always do connect." So PopCo was about, among other things, maths, cryptography, capitalism and toy-making. "Maths and capitalism quite obviously went together. But with Our Tragic Universe, I wanted to do something about tragedy and Zen, knitting, a beast, and a ship in a bottle. Those are the things I had at the beginning."
Explained out loud, Thomas worries that her working method sounds uncomfortably close to the kind of lame creative-writing exercise she would hesitate to set her students. "I hate myself for saying it, because it feels like then I'm saying that writing isn't an art any more but a science. But like so many of the things I'm interested in, writing is both an art and a science." As it is, her join-the-dots approach to constructing stories is actually a method she has found "to go some way towards being original. Because if you try to think of a story or plot first, you're likely to think of a story you've heard before."
Originality and authenticity are recurring themes, both in conversation with Thomas, and in Our Tragic Universe, which takes one of its epigraphs from Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. Stanislavski also comes up more than once during the interview: "Honesty and authenticity are a big deal for me. I did things like learning how to knit socks, so that Meg can knit socks. But at a certain point you have to fictionalise, so then you're looking for different kinds of honesties – emotional and intellectual."
At the heart of Our Tragic Universe is a discussion between Meg and an anthropologist in which it is decided that the only kind of narrative forms with integrity are tragedy and Zen koans, which are paradoxical parables, or storyless stories. As Thomas did at the beginning of her career, Meg has tired of writing predictable genre fiction and feels trapped by its conventions. "I hate stereotypes and I hate cliché," says Thomas. "I think predictability is built into any good novel in some way – you begin reading Anna Karenina and you know pretty much what's going to happen at the end. But that doesn't mean you know what's going to happen in the middle. For me, it's that sense of what happens in the middle that's important."
Having narrowed her choices to tragedy or a storyless story, Thomas went for the latter ("Because I'm not quite good enough yet to write a great tragedy"), and koans are scattered throughout her looping, slippery, meta-metafictional novel. It turns out that she also has a naturally Zen turn-of-phrase in person, as well as an affinity for head-scratching paradox. I refer you back to the question of the universe's meaningfulness, above.
"I was asking myself questions with the novel, like 'If it's a choice between a meaningless universe or one with some kind of consciousness or creator, then which is it?' Eventually I decided it's better to not know; that an unknowingness can be better than an answer. I was three-quarters of the way through the book and still didn't know whether I didn't, at least a little bit, believe in magic, or the possibility of meaningful coincidence.
"I read some books on witchcraft during my research, then went out to try an invisibility spell on myself. And although I felt stupid, there was a part of me thinking, 'How cool would it be?'; a part that wants to believe these things are possible, even though I don't want to at the same time because I can't make sense of a universe in which they are possible."
Interviewing Scarlett Thomas, who is softly spoken and deliberative, is pleasingly akin to the experience of reading her books with their digressive, thinking-out-loud quality, and long, Platonic passages in which characters engage in philosophical discussion. Over the course of our meeting, we talk about badminton, religion, homoeopathy, her dog, self-help books, the tarot, smoking, computer games, and what strikes me as an unlikely coincidence in the similarity between Buddhist teachings about emptiness and illusion, and what particle physics tells us about how much of seemingly solid matter comprises empty space. ("But if something is true," she counters, "or as true as anything can be, then there must be different routes to it. You must be able to get to it through science or poetry.")
Most of all, Thomas evinces precisely the playful seriousness (or serious playfulness), and the appetite for knowledge that you would expect from her books. "I'm the girl with 1,000 hobbies," she says, having just tried tap- dancing for the first time on the day before we meet. ("It's a lot harder than it looks in Fred and Ginger films.") She is also halfway through an MSc in ethnobotany. "I felt like I'd dabbled in the sciences that come a bit easier to me, such as chemistry and physics and maths," she says of this particular choice. "But I'd always wanted to look at a flower and know what that is and how it works."
What she learns will inevitably feed into her next book, which she hasn't begun to write but which does have a title: The Seed Collectors. "It's going to be the kind of novel where the characters all go travelling to far-off places looking for very rare plants..." she explains, "that might contain the secret of the universe. Why not put that in again?"
Our Tragic Universe, By Scarlett Thomas (Canongate £14.99)
'...Recently, I'd been trying to make the novel into a great tragedy, but that wasn't working either... I was always trying to make the novel catch up with my life, and then deleting the bits that got too close... I invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until it's a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him too'