Russell Hoban : Odd, and getting odder

Russell Hoban should be putting his feet up, but his novels are as passionate and perplexing as ever. Tim Martin finds out what keeps the writer firing on all cylinders into his eighties, as he grants us a rare interview

Very few writers inspire such ardour in their fans. It's not easy to imagine the Philip Roth fan club, for example, getting up early on the great man's birthday to shock commuters with an excerpt from Sabbath's Theater, or Martin Amis's faithful secretly scattering the high deeds of Keith Talent over Soho.

But Russell Hoban is the most intimate of geniuses. Best known, perhaps, for his stark, apocalyptic fable Riddley Walker, a tale of post-nuclear Britain written in a rusted and eroded English, he is also the author of 13 other novels that use the quotidian as a springboard for ever more extravagant leaps into the unknown. His unique, oblique, animistic viewpoint on love and the world has won him critical panegyrics and legions of devoted fans, but he remains a word-of-mouth writer. It is a source of mostly pleasant irony for him that his bestselling work has been a series of children's books about a demanding little badger called Frances.

Earlier this month Hoban published his 14th book for adults, Linger Awhile. Set in London like the previous five and involving some of the same characters, the novel surpasses even the standard peculiarities of a Hoban story. In it, an 83-year-old man falls helplessly for the long-since-dead love interest from an old cowboy film. He persuades his friend to extract her from videotape by boiling her up with a couple of frogs in a suspension of disbelief: resurrected in black-and-white, she develops a hunger for colour that can only be sated with human blood. The toothy celluloid cowgirl goes on the rampage through Soho pursued by a poetry-quoting detective, a baseball-bat-toting jeweller and three increasingly anxious dirty old men.

"It began five or six years ago," says Hoban over the phone from his West London home, where he's laid up on antibiotics after some time in hospital. "I was trying to figure out a story that would have to do with a man joining up with characters in a Western film. And the label I put on that folder before I put it away to think about again sometime was 'suspension of disbelief'. Because the guy got into this by suspending his disbelief that he couldn't. And after a while it came to me to try it this way round. And I did."

This sounds like the most tranquil description of the creative ferment ever. "Well," he says laughing, "I really fly by the seat of my pants, and I don't have any theories as to why I do what I do. And I never get a contract till I deliver a finished book because I never know that what I've started I'm going to finish."

"I seem to be going faster these days," he says. "I don't know what the explanation is. Perhaps when the tank's almost empty you tend to drive faster. But what keeps me working, and what I'm primarily concerned with, is to get to the heart of the matter more than I've done before.

"I have a quotation here, from Reb Moshe Leib. He says, 'To know the needs of another and to bear the burden of their sorrow, that is the true love.' And I believe it. I think that in all of us there is a sorrow. There is the sorrow of mortality, there is the sorrow of the mystery and the unknowing of what it is to be alive. And I think that the true love reaches from one person's sorrow to another's when it happens.

"I myself would say I'm dedicated to strangeness. I find myself wondering what it is that looks out through my eyeholes, and I really don't know. And it's this strangeness that I'm always pursuing in my writing and it's this sorrow in each of us that I'm trying to get to and depict as accurately as I can."

The idea of something looking out through our eyeholes comes up time and again in Hoban's fiction, a disquieting image of something formless working out its unknowable purpose in humans. "It occurs frequently because that's how I feel," Hoban says. "I don't know if it's that way with you or with everyone - sometimes I get a letter with my name on or someone calls me up and says my name and I think, is this what I am? Is there such a person?"

So is that a religious or a mystical viewpoint? "I suppose if you accept as religion the feeling that there's something beyond one's immediate self, then it's religious," he says matter-of-factly. "And it's mystical in that it involves a mystery. But for me it's a matter of day-to-day experience."

Russell Hoban never intended to be a writer. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his parents, Jews from the Ukraine, were confident from early in his youth that he would be a great painter. "The expectation climbed on my back and bent me into a striving and competitive shape," he says. He started university but dropped out after a month to enrol at art school. He went to war at 18, and was decorated for bravery in Italy. Then he took work in an animation studio and with the advertising agency BBDO.

"Every day I worked in the basement of our house in Brooklyn. It seemed that my bent was for illustration." Before long he was drawing covers for Time magazine and illustrating for Life and Fortune. "Then having achieved a certain reputation, I heaved the thing off my back, got into children's books and in 1967 published my first novel."

Two years after that Hoban moved to London, where he has lived ever since. "It's where it works for me," he says, "where it happens to me. But I still feel myself to be an American living here, even after 36 years."

Does he think that a writer gains from being an outsider? "Well, I feel myself to be one, but that's my nature anyhow. When I lived in the US I felt myself to be a stranger in the place where I was born. So when I came here I felt comfortable being a stranger, because I was a stranger. My wife, who's German, says the same thing."

"I suppose it started in childhood," he reflects. "I was the only Jew in my immediate neighbourhood, and almost all the people around us were Gentiles. I wasn't religious. I remember declaring my atheism at age eight. But I suppose that feeling of outsideness grew along with me.

"I came to Britain because I was crazy about British ghost stories, and I wanted to spend some time in the London that had figured in those stories," he goes on. "And you know, the other day I read Bleak House for the second time and this time I knew all the places. All the locations."

We make a whistle-stop tour of the Hoban obsessions, the icons and images that surface in his work time and again. King Kong, for example, of whom a growling poster has hung over Hoban's desk for years. "I don't want to see the Peter Jackson version of that film," he says. "For me the whole thing that gave the 1933 King Kong its poignancy was that he was an artefact, he was not real. My feeling is that in all of us there is a wild untameable doomed thing that will always be shot down in the end. When King Kong tenderly puts Fay Wray down on a safe ledge and goes to his death, it moves us, because we know what it is that's happening. Because we know that that thing in us which is always doomed to be shot down, is being shot down. And when you have a realistic gorilla, it ain't gonna work."

And then there is H P Lovecraft, to whose Cthulu stories Hoban pays wrily mocking homage from time to time in his own work. "He's not too much an influence, I just love him," he says. "You know I read Lovecraft to all our sons when they were small. Friends and strangers," - he is laughing - "would say, oh my God, what are you doing, don't read them that stuff, you're doing them immense psychological harm! But, ah, they recall it very fondly."

The cult writer cheerfully owns to having no acquaintance with the contemporary lit scene. "I don't want to encounter too many guys who are better than I am," he says. "Sometimes I pick up a book and think, oh gee, that's a much nicer way to write than what I do, then I have to forcibly pull back and make an effort not to write that way.

"Mostly I just watch movies," he says. "And I really think I learn more about writing from that than I do from reading other people's work. I'm constantly reminded of particular dramatic elements that must be kept in mind. And they help me to keep straight with my own work."

Apart from an adaptation of his early novel Kleinzeit that never got made, though, Hoban disclaims interest in screenwriting himself. "No, I tend to make the words do all the work. But Riddley was optioned a couple of years ago by Jonathan Glazer," he reflects. "Then he dropped it. But I'm hoping someone will go for Linger Awhile."

Really? Vampire cowgirls in Soho? That would be quite a film. "Well, there aren't any difficult special effects. And you don't need any animals or children. It's perfectly filmable. I'd like it."

Here's hoping, then. And wherever you are on 4 February, raise a glass to Britain's most singular genius and keep your eyeholes open. That piece of yellow paper might just change your life.

To buy a copy of 'Linger Awhile' by Russell Hoban (Bloomsbury £10.99) for £9.99 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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