Daren King: The author who dances

His surreal wit and dazzling prose saw his first novel hailed as the work of a mad genius. Four books in, Daren King tells Katy Guest that writing is harder than that

Friday 13 June 2008 00:00

At the beginning of our interview, on a sunny day in Brighton, Daren King is relieved by the relatively straightforward demands of our photographer. Others have had perverse requirements in the past: that he perch in an oversized armchair, for example, or jump around on a bed. "It's the 'childlike' thing," he says, with great patience.

To be fair, it is difficult to sum up King's dazzlingly weird, filthy-naive writing style in photographic form – or even in words. His first novel, Boxy an Star, was published in 1999 to gasps of astonishment. Critics described it as "exceptional", "maverick", "scorchingly poetic", "my very favourite work of fiction this year" and "like some delirious encounter between PG Wodehouse and William S Burroughs". Those very few who didn't love it hated it.

Boxy an Star was set in a foggy near future and told the story of Bole, a loved-up young pill-head, and his girlfriend Star. It began: "Me an Star are under the pill bag. The pill bag is a jumbo big bag an is massive an full up of pills. It feels nice on us. On me an my girl she is called Star an we are in love." The language was hypnotic and dreamy and could get stuck in your head – or rather your head could get stuck in it. King hooked up with a fashionable group of young writers, the New Puritans (two of them, Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne, turn up in his second novel as the camp pimp Mr Bingo and his minder, Ape Hands), contributed to an anthology of smut edited by Zadie Smith and was seen at literary parties accompanied by a small, stuffed giraffe. It looked as though a brilliant, eccentric new star had been born.

Getting to know King in person, then, it is tempting to want him to be a little more zany than he really is. He is gentle and softly-spoken with a surreal sense of humour, but this is no eccentric savant. King is a grown-up, hard-headed, professional writer. He knew from an early age that he would be published "because writing was something I could do – it was the only way I knew that I had a chance to become wealthy", he says. He lives in Dublin so he can save up some tax-free dosh under Ireland's special exemption for writers and artists. But what surprises me most is that writing, for him, is damned hard work. That repetitive, free-associating prose that reads like an uninhibited expression of the sheer joy of putting words on paper is in fact the result of very focused perfectionism. "This last book really did my head in," he says. "It's quite difficult, that's the thing."

This last book is Manual (Faber, £10.99), narrated by a sweet young man called Michael. He loves Patsy very much, and through their website offering kinky fetish services they meet Edward, a businessman, and his 15-year-old mistress Baby Girl. "Manual is like Boxy an Star with loads and loads of full stops," King explains. And indeed, there are similarities. The couple at its heart are sweet and protective, a lot like Bole and Star – "it's like they love playing house together". It's a surprisingly clean story that won't win any Bad Sex Awards. And yet it leaves a nasty, grubby impression. "It isn't really the sex that makes it feel pervy but something else," he explains (he's very good at reviewing his own novels). "It's the way people treat each other." And why did he want to explore that? "Because it's a good idea!"

King's editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone ("He's brilliant. I was going to give up on this book and I had a meeting with him in a really lovely pub in London, and he drew a diagram of all my characters...") describes Manual as "a kind of tragic requiem for the consumer culture... a book about how people fail to connect in a material world." But I'm reluctant to believe in it as a complicated satire. This turns out to be a wise precaution. "When people interviewed me about Jim Giraffe I didn't have anything interesting to say," he claims. "Everyone said there should be some big metaphor. So I said it was about Prozac. But it wasn't." Jim Giraffe was King's 2004 comic masterpiece about a ghost giraffe with a filthy mouth, a book about innocence and experience, love, loss and bedroom furniture. Not about depression. Nor did he really eat cannabis for breakfast while writing Boxy an Star, he now says. OK, but he was a junior estate agent in Essex – right? "Um, no. I used to make up loads of things."

Now I know how much King's fiction extends into his life history, I don't know how much to believe when he tells me about his writing schedule. But he promises that he doesn't fib to interviewers any more. He is currently working on three new books – four if you include the picture book he is writing with his ex-girlfriend (it says on his website). Oops, that would be his current girlfriend, but you don't want to sound too smug on a website, he says. And while it would be nice to believe that brilliant and original novels such as his can come out of cannabis on toast and an afternoon's random typing, this isn't true either.

"I've always had trouble taking the story forwards because I'm constantly going back and changing it," he says. "I find a different way around this problem with every book, and that makes the books very different. I wrote Jim Giraffe on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, so I couldn't go back and change it. I did the whole thing in capitals with no punctuation – just getting it all out, and then you've got something to work with. With Boxy an Star I used to set the computer screen so you could only see about two words. Huge. It's just a way of not looking at sentence structure too much." His style is not about clever words, he says, but a way of putting words together. It gives it a magical rhythm.

King began Boxy an Star as part of his creative writing course at Bath Spa University, inspired, he says, by Irvine Welsh and Suede songs. The characters Bole and Star were somewhere in "Trash" ("We're trash, you and me/ We're the litter on the breeze/ We're the lovers in the streets") – the lyrics but also the "really trashy kind of neony" sound of it. It was the success of Trainspotting, he believes, that enabled publishers to take a punt on a druggy, phonetic, weird first novel like his. "I just thought this was a way in for me to write that kind of book... but by the time it came out it had become really corny to do a kind of ecstasy generation thing." He doesn't really like Boxy an Star now. But then, he doesn't really like any fiction. Apart from Martin Amis's Money, which he re-reads each year, and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, he thinks Bret Easton Ellis is OK but "he gets carried away by the violence. That doesn't really work in his books."

Throughout our interview, King keeps picking up his novels from the pile I have brought with me, frowning at the cover of one, the author photograph on another. This is the first time he has seen Manual – he's worried that it looks darker than it did on a computer screen. Since he started writing stories as a child it has been the book as artefact that interests him – not the book as art. "I was always more into making the book: drawing the cover, trying to write on the spine of an exercise book so it looked like a book."

I first got to know him in the days when he painstakingly sewed little Jim Giraffes and gave out hand-made business cards, and I think he is still into making books. "Oh yeah. It's more about creating a product than being literary. I could just as happily, if I had the skills, be anything else." If he'd had the right sort of brain for it, he says, he would have gone into the City and worked in an office – a career that Michael in Manual fetishises without knowing what it means.

His next book is going to be completely different, he says. With Manual, "I've kind of done what I was trying to do. I consider this book perfect in terms of what I was trying to do." So New Love, which will be published in about a year, doesn't have any talking animals, isn't about two people who really love each other and "it doesn't have that sweet thing – there's no really close relationships in it." I must look disappointed because he says, "OK, I'll put one in just for you."

I ask him what he does to relax while writing four books simultaneously, and he starts talking about clubs and dancing. And then I see the instinct that wants to make books kick in. "I'm a dancing author," he says. "That can be your heading: 'The author who dances.'" And all of a sudden he is adding this interview to the products he works on with a perfectionist's delight. Not that this is a "childlike thing", of course. Daren King is far more serious than that.

Biography: Daren King

Daren King was born in Harlow, Essex, in 1972, and started making and writing books and stories as a child. He left school with one O-Level, but gradually earned enough qualifications to attend a creative writing course at Bath Spa University. His first novel, Boxy an Star, was started during this course, taken on by the agent Anna Davis, a former student there, and published by Abacus. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award. It was followed by Jim Giraffe (2004), Tom Boler (2005) and three children's books. His fourth adult novel, Manual, is published by Faber and he is currently working on three more books. He lives in Dublin, where writers pay no tax, though he looks forward to moving back to Soho and going out dancing.

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