As a gay man, novelist Dale Peck knows all about isolation. He spoke to Jonathan Keane
Dale Peck's first offering, his 1993 literary novel, Fucking Martin, was greeted as marking the "arrival of a prodigious talent". Many critics also viewed it as shocking, not least because of its title. (It's called Martin and John in the States.)

At its core is the relationship between John and his HIV-infected lover, Martin. Peck has his characters switch role from chapter to chapter so that in one Martin becomes John's stepdad - and yes, they still have sex.

Finding himself accused of writing a kind of obscure autobiography, the 30-year-old Peck went on to write a brilliant second novel, The Law of Enclosures, exploring the failure of love between two parental figures, Hank and Bea.

In the centre is the real picture of Peck's relationships with his parents - the abuse he suffered at the hand of his father, the death of his mother when he was three - the events which, he explained at the time, "set his imagination going".

On its publication, in 1996, the New York Times heralded him as "one of the most eloquent voices of his generation". This is a scary thing to know when you're about to enter into conversation with the man in a transatlantic phone call. "Hello, er ... Dale?"

"Hi, how are you?," a friendly yet clipped North American voice zings down the line. "Have you heard the new Pulp album? It's shit. It's like all the old ones. They obviously had no clue what worked and what didn't on Different Class." He follows through with a quickly restrained giggle. Not quite what one expected, but engaging none the less.

Sitting in his "100-year-old East Village tenement", he is happy to indulge in a clear if economic description of his surroundings - "we have the original parquet floors ... I'm seated at a fabulous leather club chair" ... until with mock astonishment he asks, "Are you going to fake my flat?" Suspicious, these gay writers.

Out gay creatives have to be careful how they are represented, especially in the States. Ellen Degeneres had her programme axed following her leap into sexual openness. Peck's career has not suffered, however - more the opposite.

During his first and only year in Columbia University's writing school, his tutor criticised his initial drafts of Fucking Martin, as "too post- modern and too gay". Peck dropped out and immediately landed a publishing contract. An achievement which in no uncertain terms "showed them".

He finds himself in good company, part of a trenchantly gay but dystopian literary scene made up of writers such as Dennis Cooper and Scott Helm, who between them have generated a cult following.

"Which means I'm successful," he says, "but not as successful as a lot of my slightly older peers I guess, who are mostly heterosexual men. They got a lot more money for their books and more critical attention, which transfers into more sales and that really bugs me."

We're interrupted by the arrival of first copies of his new book, Now it's Time to Say Goodbye. It's his most ambitious work to date. A 458- page epic thriller set in a make-believe Kansas town, originally a black settlement called Galatia but now encroached on by a white community who have remained it Galatea. A whole population of trapped, unfulfilled individuals are contained in these pages, their lives violently caught up in a tale of the rape and abduction of a young white girl.

Peck explains: "If I had to say what the book was about, it is how people construct or make up stories about their lives, which make more sense than the actual lives they are leading. All these characters are caught up in one simple, very real story which they all play out in slightly different, conflicting versions."

The result is a dark and uncompromising take on how people are unable to connect and how this can lead, as Peck says, in melodramatic tones, to "things going awry".

"I think the tone of the book is probably a reflection of where I was at the time," he muses. "I was in the midst of a rather protracted break up, living in London, and I wasn't feeling connection very much. I don't think I feel it that much in general, but I was feeling it even less at the time.

"I tend to think the book is about failed relationships more than anything else - the failure of love. Which is probably the subject in all my books anyway."

London was Peck's home on and off for three years. He rented a house in Mile End and misses the place, especially the capital's gay scene - "more enthusiastic and a bit more oppositional than in America".

He pauses: "Perhaps being gay and feeling an outsider - growing up and realising that you don't fit in - is what helps give me the licence for inhabiting or imagining other peoples' contexts." This is the skill that more than anything else defines him as a gifted writer, someone who can imagine the inner worlds of blacks, women, straight people.

"At this particular point in time," he adds, "everybody is really sensitive about who is writing about who and for what reason. And there's this attitude that people should be just writing about themselves".

He believes that Quentin Tarantino is an artist with a similar disdain for this view. "He doesn't write about black people, he writes about drug- dealing niggers. He doesn't write about gay people, he writes about gay people who keep gimps locked up in their cellars in full leather outfits. Just to show how silly that idea is."

Peck himself has never shied from writing about dysfunctional sex and it's almost the only connecting force linking characters in this new novel. "I think that most people do have bad sex. Most people don't have sex to get closer to another human being. I think most people have sex to sort of lose themselves in physical sensation so that they don't have to think."

His characters are infused with the sense of tragedy that he grew up with. "I think it will always come back for me," he says. "It's like my permanent imaginary landscape."

Suddenly, he launches into a discussion of his present hobby. "I'm reading Thackeray right now and I really love it, you know Vanity Fair, whatever, but it's just that I've read the first 150 pages and by now it's very clear to me that the entire book is going to be this way and like - I get it. Ohkay! I get it - Gol- lee!"

Jonathan Keane

'Now it's Time to Say Goodbye' is published by Chatto and Windus.

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