It is an upmarket version of the old Dream Dinner Party game. Which characters in history would you most like to invite to tea, and what would you ask them if they turned up? Perhaps you would grill Henry James about his sexuality, debate modern-day fame with Andy Warhol, or ask Arthur Conan Doyle if he had solved the Jack the Ripper murders yet.
All of these fantasy conversations are played out in Dead Interviews, a slim volume which makes a cerebral, if macabre, alternative to the usual zany stocking filler. Dan Crowe, editor of Port magazine, came up with the idea when he was editing the literary quarterly Zembla. To entice a higher calibre of writers, he promised to fix them up with a cultural hero or heroine (in fact, only John Burnside chooses a woman – the environmentalist Rachel Carson) of their choice. The only stipulation: that their subject should no longer be alive.
So Ian Rankin finds himself sharing a wee dram with Conan Doyle, Rebecca Miller spars with the Marquis de Sade, Geoff Dyer meets Friedrich Nietzsche and A.M Homes tackles Richard Nixon. As Crowe admits, it is not an original idea. Lucian of Samosata was writing his Dialogues of the Dead, wittily imagined encounters on the ferry ride down the Styx, as far back as the second century AD. The line of bookish parodists stretches down the centuries from George Lyttelton and Max Beerbohm to current pisstakers-in-chief Craig Brown and Sebastian Faulks, who published an anthology of spoofs Pistache, a few years ago.
This collection of literary séances is a deft addition to the canon, thanks to the quality and variety of the writers. There is something irresistible about the inventor of Generation X, Douglas Coupland, explaining YouTube celebrity to Warhol, or Rankin asking Conan Doyle how to kill off a popular detective. Whether they stick to the Q&A format or spin their dialogue into narratives, the contributors’ questions reveal as much about the griller as the grillee. It’s a two for the price of one.
The chief mode is erudite wit, as in David Mitchell’s attempt to crack jokes with Samuel Johnson or Michel Faber’s mischievous encounter with Marcel Duchamp which demolishes the contemporary art market with a wicked pay-off. The best sneak literary criticism in under the radar, with some pitch-perfect mimicry of their heroes. Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.
Other meetings, like Miller’s with de Sade are more tense. Joyce Carol Oates’ short story about a young woman’s encounter with a monstrous, bullying Robert Frost chills to the bone.
The project is not without its frustrations. The curious reader will wonder how close the encounters are to what the subjects said and did in life, how much is pure fantasy and how much the product of research. Then again, how true is any interview? Isn’t it the artificial product of a tussle between what the subject wants to say versus what the writer wants them to say? Look at it that way and these writers probably get more “truth” out of their ghosts than many a frustrated hack gets out of five minutes in a hotel room with a dead-eyed Hollywood star on their 75th promotional interview of the day. Certainly, their fantasy encounters are a lot more fun to read.
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