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

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss