Chris Power: 'You burn reality to fuel the fiction'

The critic and author on writing about writers, his 20-year-long fascination with Berlin, and the political manoeuvres of the Putin era

Chris Power, 46, grew up in Farnborough and lives in London. After studying English at Swansea, he worked in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. He has judged the Goldsmiths prize and presented Radio 4’s Open Book. His debut story collection, Mothers, was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio prize. A Lonely Man is his first novel; set in Berlin, it turns on an encounter between an expat novelist and a fugitive English ghostwriter whose latest client, a dissident oligarch, has recently been found dead. The writer Catherine Lacey has called the book a “a page-turner with exacting syntax and emotional heft”.

Where did the idea for a thriller about Russia come from?
I’d long been grimly fascinated by Alexander Litvinenko’s killing in 2006 when I read Heidi Blake’s long BuzzFeed investigation, From Russia with Blood, into these 14 deaths on British soil of Russian nationals and British lawyers and fixers. It’s definitely on the lurid side – it’s like a James Herbert horror novel – but it’s a brilliant piece of reporting. There was Scot Young, this playboy money guy [a property developer], who supposedly jumped from the top floor of his Eaton Square apartment, but his daughters went there the next day and found fingernail marks on the window sill. The verdict of suicide was suspiciously open and shut. Blake’s report is very compelling but nothing’s proven and the layers of intrigue and inconclusiveness in the article got me thinking about an oligarch’s ghostwriter as an innocent in that world – as a bridge into it, I suppose. Robert [the expat novelist] added another layer: the book’s shape came from working out which writer was the main character.

The setup resembles Karl Ove Knausgaard stumbling into a spy novel. Do you read thrillers?
Not really, but I certainly don’t dislike plot; some books could use a little more of it, and while there are other ways to challenge a character’s self-conception, plot is probably the most efficient. There’s a sense of Robert being too busy to be in a thriller – he doesn’t have time. I wanted to think about how, if strange things were happening – corner-of-the-eye things – he would ignore or explain them away.

There’s a vogue for novels about writers in Berlin.
I faced down my self-consciousness about the writer element. “Another novel about a writer…” Well, I’ve got two writers! As for Berlin, I’ve been going there regularly for 20 years. My wife and I had been talking quite seriously about moving there a few years ago, so I had already imagined a life there. I’ve got some good friends who are Berliners and they have mixed feelings about having seen their city become a lot more expensive. It’s the classic story of gentrification but even more extreme. Particular neighbourhoods have just changed utterly – hedonistic, lawless party places at the turn of the millennium are now very well-to-do with strollers everywhere. In practical narrative terms the city’s English-speaking community meant Patrick [the ghostwriter] could go there while he’s trying to get his bearings and function without speaking the language.

Did you have any qualms about using Russia in the story?
I did ask myself, is this irresponsible or simplistic? I grew up with the cold war in full swing and Russia was always the bad guy in Bond, Rocky IV, whatever; I didn’t want to add junk to that pile. I read a huge number of books and articles and essays and everything I could get on Russia in the 21st century to make sure I understood the political manoeuvres that have gone on in the Putin era. I also interviewed a couple of women who had worked for oligarchs, teaching their children. It’s grisly stuff, but without being flippant I knew these kind of events would keep happening; the Skripal attempted assassination happened in the week I started writing.

We’re told that Robert’s parents hate one of the stories he has published – it sounds like one in Mothers, The Colossus of Rhodes, whose unnamed narrator recalls being groped on holiday aged 10.
My mother has some objections to that story but unlike Robert’s mother she never said I shouldn’t have written it. It’s not the Marvel Cinematic Universe or anything but I did think about how my books might relate to one another. Giving that story to Robert was a Bolañoesque touch [Roberto Bolaño uses a recurring narrator called Arturo Belano]. I like that element of Bolaño and I think it became a way for him to write about his experiences, as well as a bit of fun. But I was saying to my wife the other day, I don’t know if I should have called the novelist Robert Prowe, it’s not really me or anything. I put The Colossus of Rhodes into the novel because it’s about one of the book’s key questions – when you tell a story and it involves someone else’s experiences, how does it look to them? There’s always distortion: you burn reality to fuel the fiction.

Bolaño can seem like a daunting writer. What’s a good starting point in his work?
Start with 2666, go in hard. Yes, it has got a crushing, incredibly dispiriting 350-page section [The Part about the Crimes, about Mexican femicide], but the atmosphere of that part isn’t at all the atmosphere of the entire book, which is so dynamic and shifting. It’s funny and warm as well as scary and a powerful critique of neoliberalism. The stuff about the maquiladoras in Santa Teresa is a problem that has become worse and affects anyone who shops at a high street fashion retailer.

What other writers have influenced you?
I spent years trying to emulate Denis Johnson, which was disastrous, but his style did get incorporated into the solidity I wanted for my own writing. As few words as possible; not gaps but spaces. Strip out everything I can. Lots of books have too many words.

Does having young children shape how you write?
Writing from 6-8am became 5-7am, then 4-6am at one point. When I was doing the edits on Mothers my elder daughter got wise to the fact that if she got up early I’d put on Paw Patrol for, like, an hour; she’d come in shambling, still asleep, rubbing her eyes to get television. Pockets of time open up as they get more self-sufficient. And previously I’d been writing kids based on kids in other books; now I had these real people to immediately co-opt for fiction.

Was there a particular book that inspired you to write a novel?
It’s not a cool answer: The Lord of the Rings. We’re reading it at bedtime now. The medievalisms are a bit ridiculous, and the handling of plot and action can be creaky, but there’s lots of really good stuff too and I can completely see why it captivated me. I carted round the 1,000-page edition for a year when I was eight. Then I wrote bleak epics in exercise books about adventurers meeting grisly ends in a dungeon somewhere. Even at 10 I had no facility for a happy ending.

A Lonely Man by Chris Power is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

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