John Lanchester: 'We should treat reading more like sex and drugs'

The bestselling author on his new short stories, catching Covid-19 and why children ought to read Tintin

John Lanchester’s career is a mix of prize-winning novels and popular nonfiction, with a regular output of journalism that straddles literature, finance and politics. His novels include the Booker-longlisted The Wall (2019) and Capital (2012), while his nonfiction analysis of the credit crisis, Whoops! (2010), was a bestseller. Lanchester was born in Hamburg, brought up in Hong Kong and lives in London. Reality is his first collection of stories, each of which takes the reader on an unsettling journey from the seemingly familiar to the eerily uncanny.

Why did you decide to publish these stories, several of which have appeared in print elsewhere, now?
The “Why?” really was that I wrote the first one and read it to friends at the new year and someone said you should send it out. I sent it to the New Yorker and they published it [in April 2017]. It was the first short story I’d ever written. There’s not many things in your mid-50s that give you a tremendous buzz of validation, but that did. It felt like the universe was telling me to write another.

The prompt for the second story was that I was on a tour of the Garden Museum, the wonderful museum just by Lambeth Palace. The curator was talking about when they were rearranging things in the crypt, the difficulty they had in moving coffins, because they’d often burst and the corpses liquefied, creating this thing called coffin liquor. It was like… ding-ding-ding, there’s a story.

Is writing in the short form different from writing novels?
It’s a weird guilty secret that most novelists have a teenage poetry phase. I did, certainly; it went right into my early 20s. Amazingly bad poetry, all of which has been lost, thank the lord. The thing I remember from that was the odd passivity of writing poetry: you had to wait for it to come. Short stories just arrived.

These stories often locate the uncanny in technology. Is there something particularly creepy about our online lives?
I was about halfway through before I realised that there was this theme about the unsettlingness, the eeriness of… [he holds up his phone] … these things. I note in passing that even in those great old English ghost stories, there’s more newness in them than you might think. Perhaps the greatest ghost story of all is The Signal-Man by Dickens. We see it as a quaint story, but signalmen were new then. Another one is Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by MR James and although it has medieval props, he’s a Cambridge academic staying in a golfing hotel… all very modern. There’s often a kind of unsettlingness about the new. There’s a fascinating observation by Edward Wilson, the American sociobiologist. He says we have paleolithic brains, medieval institutions and godlike technology. It’s the space between them in which the uncanny lies.

How has lockdown been for you?
As a writer, your working life doesn’t change at all. I had the galleys of these books to deal with, but I found it very difficult to get any work done. When I eventually managed to get to work, I found I could do half as much as before. I was a kind of experimental animal, because it was a sign of just how much bandwidth Covid-19 was consuming that I was only able to get a fraction of it done. It’s a testament to how much it took out of us emotionally and cognitively. Even when we’re here, we’re not really here, because Covid-19 is exerting such a strain.

My wife and I both had coronavirus and we were lucky to get it early. I have asthma and so I was quite worried about it. My wife got it from her book group. The moral of the story is: beware of book groups. They were discussing a Brontë novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I don’t know if that’s relevant. It feels relevant.

What books are on your bedside table?
Shakespeare’s histories. I felt I couldn’t read Shakespeare for something terrifying, like 30 years, because I’d studied him too much at school and university. I started at the beginning with the Henry VI plays, which are really interesting to read just now because they’re about division and leaderly incompetence.

Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you admire the most?
Too many to name, but I’ll name the one I’ve just read: Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, an absolutely wonderful book about commodification of attention. Really interesting.

How do you organise your books?
That’s an incredibly contested and bitter point, because they’re not organised and I spend a significant and embarrassing amount of time every day looking for a book that I know I’ve got but I can’t find. I’m always hovering on the edge of buying a second copy…

Which classic novel did you read recently for the first time?
I don’t know if it counts as a classic, but The Village in the Jungle by Leonard Woolf. It’s an extraordinarily good book. He wrote fiction earlier on and he was a colonial officer in Sri Lanka. It’s very much admired there. It’s very harsh. There’s no wish- fulfilment in it. He’s an astonishing talent in his own right.

Which book would you give to a young person?
Probably Tintin. My thing about reading is that we should treat it more like sex and drugs. Sex has proved health benefits, but that’s not the reason anyone does it. Drug dealers, when they’re trying to get people hooked they give them free samples and things that are immediately pleasurable. So with books, it’s anything that is pure enjoyment - that’s the gateway drug. Tintin’s hard to beat. One of the things I try to do is to get the kids off that very gendered way that books are marketed to them, these kids as little consumers.

• Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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