John Lanchester: 'I started writing Capital in 2006 assuming a crash was about to happen'

The author on watching the global financial crisis in real time and writing a nonfiction book to avoid ruining his novel with too much knowledge

There were two big differences in my writing process when I worked on Capital. The first was that I drafted it on a computer. With my previous novels I wrote the first draft in longhand, on index cards. For my first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, I tried typing out those cards, but I started to come down with carpal tunnel syndrome. I switched to reading out the longhand version into tapes, which I then sent off to be typed up. (Startlingly expensive, by the way.)

Reading the book out loud, I’d hear all sorts of things that I wanted to change, so I’d end up with a second draft just through that process. The finished typescript would come back within days. Then I’d leave it in a drawer until I felt ready to do the editing and revising. Editing is more fun than writing because you know you have a whole book there, you just have to chisel it out of the ice. I followed that process for my first four books.

Capital was different because I knew it was going to be longer and have multiple narrative strands, and I needed to be able to see the whole thing from a top-down, aerial perspective. I used the word processing program Scrivener and it was very helpful in juggling a novel of that sort.

Once I’d finished a draft, that was when the next big difference kicked in. I need a few months after finishing a novel before I can see it sufficiently clearly to assess it, think about structural changes, and begin the process of revision. I’d always had fantasies that I would use those few months constructively: learn German, train for a charity 10k, take up tai chi. Instead what I usually did was look out of the window and then realise with a jolt that three months had gone past.

With Capital, I finally did act on the intention. I started writing the book in early 2006 on the assumption that some form of crash was about to happen. When the crash did happen, it was much bigger and more systemic than anything I’d expected. I was following the story in real time, and by the time I finished the novel, in early 2009, I knew quite a lot about the credit crunch.

I was worried that when I went back to revise the book, I would end up including too much of that knowledge and wreck the story. You can do a lot in fiction, but you can’t explain complex subjects at length without killing the narrative. “As Nigel looked towards the lights of Canary Wharf in the distance, he struggled to remember the definition of a collateralised debt obligation.” I decided to take three months or so and write a nonfiction account of the credit crunch as a way of quarantining what I knew about the financial crisis. That book was Whoops!

I wrote that pretty quickly, but the publication process was all-consuming, and it was about 18 months before I got back to Capital. It was like reading someone else’s book, and I’ve never had such a clear sense of perspective when revising – at the start I was worried that I was so distant from it that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I was absolutely certain I’d got the timing wrong and nobody would want to read it.

• Reality, and Other Stories by John Lanchester is published by Faber (£12.99).


John Lanchester

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Capital by John Lanchester – review

Theo Tait weighs up John Lanchester's panoramic survey of the London bubble

Theo Tait

24, Feb, 2012 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Wall by John Lanchester review – ‘The Others are coming’
From Brexit to migration, this masterly climate change dystopia explores contemporary fears with a blend of realism and metaphor

Tom Holland

19, Jan, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
John Lanchester on Capital – Guardian book club
John Lanchester on how he came to write Capital, his 'Big Fat London novel'

John Lanchester

08, Mar, 2013 @5:59 PM

Article image
Reality, and Other Stories by John Lanchester review – horror for the digital age
Vinegar-sharp ghost stories play with the hold that technology has over all of us

Christopher Shrimpton

22, Oct, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
'Writing a novel is like wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm': John Banville on The Sea
The novelist, who won the 2005 Booker prize for this novel, recalls the childhood holidays that inspired him

John Banville

03, Oct, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Guardian book club: Capital by John Lanchester
John Mullan on the extraordinary omiscience of John Lanchester's narrator in his novel about the life of one London street

John Mullan

01, Mar, 2013 @5:42 PM

Article image
André Aciman on writing Call Me by Your Name: 'I fell in love with Elio and Oliver'
The novelist on his famous romance, initially scribbled as a distraction from the novel he was supposed to be writing

André Aciman

09, Jan, 2021 @12:30 PM

Article image
John Lanchester: ‘Walls were coming down around the world – now they are springing up’
His last novel Capital skewered the property bubble, now his latest The Wall imagines Britain barricaded after environmental catastrophe. Lanchester talks about refugees, Brexit – and optimism

Lisa Allardice

11, Jan, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Roddy Doyle on writing The Commitments: 'Whenever I needed a name, I used the phonebook'
The Booker winner and dramatist on writing his much-loved novel while teaching at a secondary school in a Dublin suburb

Roddy Doyle

12, Dec, 2020 @12:30 PM

Article image
'It began with the memory of a playground game': Philip Hensher on writing The Northern Clemency
Years of thinking about school and childhood brought forth forgotten details that the author eventually spun into his epic portrait of life in Sheffield

Philip Hensher

06, Jun, 2020 @12:00 PM