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Rupert Thomson Interview: 'To Write Fiction at All Is a Moral Act'

18/09/2014 16:29 BST | Updated 17/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Vauxhall, which is 20 minutes by bike from where he lives, is where Rupert Thomson rents a nondescript office, snugged away in a corner of central London, alone with his imagination.

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"Everyone else in there has a proper job," he says, "...and then there's me. What's great about it is that I can work 24 hours a day, so if I want to work at night, I can. It's quite a characterless space, but I like that."

Thomson, a British writer whose literary voice is as unique as his angular agelessness, says his 10 books are the product of constant industry: "Some people say my output is prodigious, but it's not. It takes me two years to deliver a book, but that's because I work all the time. Seven hours a day, seven days a week. I just appear to be prodigious." And his laughter comes, I imagine, as a release from the self-imposed seclusion which has, nonetheless, permitted his imagination a fuller rein.

But such assiduous, meditative endeavour ensures his inner visions always make their way to the page; novels that have dealt with blindness (The Insult; a book David Bowie called "one of the 100 must-read books of all time"); the advertising world (Soft); a dystopian vision of a divided UK (Divided Kingdom); and the death of Myra Hindley (Death Of A Murderer) reveal a writer paying intense fealty to his creative instincts.

"I lived through a golden age because I was paid according to the perceived value of my books, and not according to the number of units I was selling," he says of his varied output.

As a seven-days-a-week writer, time becomes almost too finite a commodity for an imagination as active as his. Thomson the man, like his work, burns with a slow, careful fuse and often is called a writer of cinematic prose, appealing, uniquely, to those reared on a diet of movies and to those steeped in the ruminative process of the novel.

He tells me he takes daytime naps as a way of bringing the unconscious into the working day. "I go to bed late and get up early, so I need about an hour of sleep in the dead time of the afternoon. I always find that the writing I produce an hour or two after waking is more valuable than at any other time."

But when did it occur to him that writing wasn't going to be a straightforward profession? "In 2008, when I heard from a friend at a party that writers' advances were being reduced. It was then that, for the first time in my life, I sat down and re-budgeted. I was going to be earning considerably less.

"I remember when the [economic] jitters hit London in early 2009 and I saw the reaction of publishers. They hadn't quite decided how to proceed, but they knew things had to change. But since then there seems to be an absence of left-field thinking. Who is going to invest in work where there's risk and innovation, and that means all the work that is interesting?"

Undoubtedly, it's belt-buckling time across the board, with the publishing industry feeling it no less keenly. "But you've got to invest in new talent," he says. "Ironically, a lot of first-time writers are being invested in because they don't have track records. The worst position to be in is to have a track record that can be looked at in terms of the number of copies your last book sold. So you're always judged on your previous book."

With globe-trotting having fed his muse (he has lived in Tokyo, New York, Sydney, Rome, Amsterdam and Barcelona), Thomson has now based his family in London, his intellect undimmed by what some might call the coziness of home. "One of the reasons I wrote Secrecy [2013, his tenth novel], perhaps mistakenly, is that it would have a commercial veneer because it would appear to be a historical novel. It did occur to me to try to outwit my times, by smuggling literary fiction into what appeared to be a historical novel.

"My books always start with something that is abstract, and the subsequent writing of the book is what makes the abstraction clear." The subjects of each book, he says, are things that fascinate or intrigue him. "Each book is an attempt to explain something to myself, to work something out. I never know where I'm going or where I'll end up."

Then something mischievous invades his eyes. "I don't think reading will go away. Because, if nothing else, writers provide the content and source material for the film industry, and now more so than ever. Storytelling is so deeply embedded in human nature that I believe the novel achieves what no other art form can.

"I'm pushing against what are perceived as my limitations. Ideas always arrive rather than being chosen. I worry now if I don't feel the old panic. The worry is that I've taken on too much, but if I don't feel that, then I feel that I've taken on something too easy."

Yet after so many years working as a writer, does he consider himself a moralist? "There's a relationship between fiction and ethics, because what fiction does, as opposed to any other art form, is put you inside someone else's head so you can experience someone else's consciousness," he says, fixing a hawkish look. "Fiction, therefore, is important because it allows you to understand how someone else feels and thinks; and civilisation begins at the point where we imagine what it is like to be others. So, to write fiction at all is a moral act."

Rupert Thomson will be reading at the SouthBank Centre's centenary celebrations of William S Burroughs on 11 Oct and will be in conversation at BookCourt, Brooklyn, NYC (20 October); and the Boston Book Festival (25 October)

Photograph by Robin Farquhar-Thomson