How my novel ended up on David Bowie's must-read list

To find the novel I’d written was one of my hero’s favourites – and may now be chosen for his new book group – is thrilling in the most peculiar way, writes Rupert Thomson

I spent most of 1997 living in a small ground-floor apartment in Rome. One morning the phone rang. It was Interview magazine, calling from New York. The man told me they had a great new idea for a series of interviews: they would be asking famous people to talk to people who were much less famous. I knew right away which role I would be occupying. “So who’s going to interview me?” I asked.

“David Bowie,” the man said. I almost fell off my chair.

Between 1969 and 1984 I had been obsessed with Bowie. During those 15 years, I bought every album he released as soon as it came out. I knew the words of all his songs. I loved Bowie’s music so much that I decided I could never see him live for fear of being disappointed. What an idiot. In the meantime, his influence spread through all aspects of my life. The makeup, the showmanship, the androgyny – he gave us permission to flirt with different identities, to be the people we wanted to be. If I hadn’t endlessly listened to his classic 1973 album, Aladdin Sane, would I have flown to the US as soon as I’d graduated from university? I doubt it. He wrote the soundtrack for that part of my life.

“Why did you think of David Bowie?” I asked the man from Interview magazine, when I had recovered from the shock.

“Because he loved your book, The Insult,” the man said.

I waited for the magazine to call again, as they had promised to, but the days went by, and then the weeks, and the phone didn’t ring. The interview never took place. I never did meet, or even talk to, Bowie.

In my memoir, published in 2010, I mentioned him several times, including a vodka-drenched late-night viewing of the documentary about the famous “last-ever” Ziggy Stardust show at the Hammersmith Odeon. So I thought it might be a nice gesture to send him a copy and mailed a proof to the woman who managed Bowie’s New York office. Though I never heard back from him she assured me that “Mr Bowie” had received it. Did I jog his memory, I wonder? When, three years later, his list of 100 must-read books were revealed, I was thrilled – and astonished – to see that The Insult had made it on to the list.

‘Bowie gave us permission to be the people we wanted to be’ … Rupert Thomson.
‘Bowie gave us permission to be the people we wanted to be’ … Rupert Thomson. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The David Bowie Book Club, which Duncan Jones has just launched as a tribute to his father’s love of literature, seems like a thoughtful initiative as well as logical one, since the books will be chosen from that 2013 selection. It will be interesting to see what members of this new reading group make of seminal counterculture works such as Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train and classics such as Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. And who knows, if the reading group lasts, perhaps The Insult will also, one day, be put before them.

In the 30 years I have been writing, I have received kind letters from an unexpectedly eclectic range of people, including Liv Ullmann, Tobias Wolff, John Cale, Samantha Morton, Philip Pullman, and Budgie, the drummer from Siouxsie and the Banshees (my first ever fan letter, written on dark-blue note-paper and postmarked West Berlin). But it always makes my day if someone bothers to let me know they love something I have written, no matter who they are. Every reader is equally valuable. Reading is, in that sense, a great leveller. And a book actually benefits from being read by a wide variety of people. It becomes richer and more strange. As the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote: “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”

Even so, to have had the seal of approval from a hero, to imagine his fingers turning the pages, his mind responding and reacting to the sentences, is not something I bargained for, or ever dared to imagine. I’m not a writer who has had much luck with prizes, but as Lionel Shriver said to me the other day, when we were talking about not being celebrated: “That Bowie accolade, though. No one can take that away from you.” She paused. “You can take that to your grave.”

Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Never Anyone But You, will be published by Corsair in June 2018

Contributor

Rupert Thomson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Bowie's top 100 must-read books

Jack Kerouac, Spike Milligan and Sarah Waters among star's favourite authors, revealed at exhibition in Ontario

Liz Bury

01, Oct, 2013 @2:00 PM

Article image
Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson review – life transformed by art
Reinventing themselves and resisting Nazi occupation: the French surrealists Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore inspire a taut, magnificently controlled novel

Elizabeth Lowry

15, Jun, 2018 @6:29 AM

Article image
Rupert Thomson: ‘I'm drawn to Flannery O'Connor's quiet savagery’
The novelist on Mary Norton, Thomas Hardy, finding a long-lost brother through his own memoir and publishers’ hype

Rupert Thomson

26, Jan, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson review – heartbreak and hope in the city
Three linked novellas offer an unearthly, multilayered view of Barcelona, with its beaches and bars, beauty and dark shadows

Nicholas Wroe

10, Jun, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
From Schubert to Sinatra: why the song cycle speaks to the heart
A new English version of Die Schöne Müllerin offers a reminder as to why it’s Sinatra – not his classical contemporaries – that matches Schubert in ambition

Christopher Fox

07, Oct, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
David Peace: ‘My comfort read? Old Labour party manifestos’
The novelist on the brilliance of Bulgakov, the Japanese short story that changed him, and wanting to live in Pogles’ Wood

David Peace

30, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Strange fascination: The best David Bowie books
There are surprisingly few good books about the late star – but, as a new collection of reminiscences by friends is published, we pick out the heroes of the Bowieography

John Harris

12, Aug, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Haddon Hall by Néjib review – where David invented Bowie
This is a vibrant, enjoyable graphic novel about Bowie’s formative years but there’s not much actual insight

James Smart

24, Feb, 2017 @4:30 PM

Article image
This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan review – explosive post-punk novel
A portrait of a fictional Airdrie rock group morphs into a haunting, hallucinatory vision of the early 80s

Toby Litt

17, Feb, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
David Lammy: ‘The book I’m ashamed not to have read? Animal Farm’
The MP on missing out on Orwell, his love for Arthur Miller, and the book that made him cry

David Lammy

13, Mar, 2020 @10:00 AM