BEFORE HE ESTABLISHED a reputation as a ceaseless dissolver of genre boundaries, and a casual expert on everything from WWI to photography to jazz, British writer Geoff Dyer pursued a much more conventional authorial trajectory. After publishing his first book, Ways of Telling (1987), on the work of John Berger, Dyer wrote two novels, both of which have just been published in the United States for the first time. The Colour of Memory (1989) is a fictionalization of Dyer’s 20s, a time spent in 1980s Brixton living on the dole and avoiding full-time work. The Search (1993), a mystery of sorts set in a vast, imagined landscape, is an anomaly among Dyer’s fiction, mostly for its elements of magic realism and noir and its lack of autobiographical roots.
Most recently Dyer returns to nonfiction, as usual on his own terms. Another Great Day At Sea, a journalistic account of two weeks in 2011 spent aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, confirms Dyer’s experimental proclivities. These days, Dyer dwells happily in Los Angeles, within biking distance of Venice Beach (and a “really great” ping pong establishment). We met at Intelligentsia Coffee, which, I learned, had been the notoriously picky pastry eater’s favorite spot for twice-baked hazelnut croissants until a stroke in January put a halt to his habit. I ordered a cappuccino in a to-go cup (a crime in Dyer’s opinion), while Dyer went decidedly cappuccino-less.
JORDAN G. TEICHER: What was it like re-reading The Colour of Memory to prepare it for the American publication?
GEOFF DYER: I kind of liked it really, but then I am a fan of my own work. So I didn’t have the reaction that one might be expected to have, which is this kind of heart-sinking, ‘Oh shit.’ I really did quite like bits of it, but I could see very quickly how it could have been improved. At the same time, I didn’t want to invest a load of energy into it, the thing that John Fowles did with The Magus — totally re-writing it however many years later. So I very quickly cut out a few scenes and cut out some of the swearing. But what was there that I still really like is the lyricism and the sort of romance of it. Writers often say they look back at their old work and feel as though a different person wrote it. But for me, The Colour of Memory still seemed very evidently by me. I could see both the good bits and the bad bits were my bits.
The Colour of Memory was your first novel. How did you feel at the time about having finally become a published novelist?
One’s first publishing experience is often so incredible, but in my case, with the Berger book, Ways of Telling, it was terrible because the publisher went bankrupt just as it was about to come out. With The Colour of Memory, I got the copy of the book, and it was so glorious. I remember thinking almost that the world should just change because now I was a novelist, which at that stage was the top of the tree as far as I was concerned. Then the publication was disastrous. They did this marketing campaign with me and three other writers, whose books I hadn’t read, but when I did finally read them they were all terrible, and I thought the fate of my book was unduly tainted by it being judged not on its own merits but as part of this group. It took a long time to recover from that. Rather egotistically, I still believe it’s a much better book than the circumstances of its publication led people to expect.
Do you consider The Colour of Memory a nostalgic book? You wrote it about your 20s as you were entering your 30s.
I don’t know if it’s nostalgic. It certainly was even then sort of elegiac, I think, because that kind of world was starting to come to an end. My generation was really the last beneficiary of that moment. The strange thing is when it came out there was so much hostility to the way these people just seemed to be wasting their lives and living on the dole. I always felt the lives those characters were leading were really quite attractive and fulfilling. When I was teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop it reminded me of that, in a way, because there was this quite geographically defined area, Iowa City, which, like Brixton, was full of people with artistic ambition — more so than the people in The Colour of Memory, but a definitive set of people nonetheless. I’m more convinced than ever, actually, that there’s something really magical about that post-college, pre-work period of peoples’ lives, which is increasingly being shrunk as people leave university with debt and have to get on with the business of making money to pay it back.
Financial obligations notwithstanding, it does seem that adolescence has been extended in some ways.
That’s true. Getting onto a funded MFA program is the equivalent of living on the dole, but with more respectability and a greater chance of getting your teacher to blurb your book at the end of it.
Did you find this time of living on the dole appealing while you were living it?
I guess I really did like it. But I was always conscious because I’d been to Oxford, which was full of ambitious people, that I was perhaps not just falling behind but being condemned to the life of a sort of eternal drop out. But I was always being quite industrious. I’d still sign up saying it was a great time, a time when I really felt a great sense of belonging.
Do you feel a sense of belonging in the phase of life you’re in now?
A sense of belonging is something I love and crave still. I haven’t had it here in Los Angeles because it’s something I think the architecture doesn’t lend itself to. I felt such a sense of belonging in New York and even in London in a way that I kept saying to my wife, ‘I want to get away from this social and cultural overload!’ Now I’ve come to Los Angeles and of course I feel I’m kind of missing it.
You’ve said that you felt you were born to be a West Coast writer ever since your first visit in your 20s. What was it about California that first appealed to you?
It’s the classic English thing, coming from this little, cloud-shrouded rock to the sunlight and the expansiveness, the lack of agro, the friendliness. My response to California was one hundred percent unoriginal. It was just part of a long history of English people liking California.
What were the circumstances of your first visit?
The immediate motor was reading Jean Baudrillard’s book, America. I so wanted to go to Death Valley, and I’d always liked the idea of San Francisco. When I went there it was January, and it was lovely blue skies, and it was just wonderful. Then I came down here to LA and I was stuck in somebody’s house in some suburb or other, and it was so awful I just didn’t know what to do with myself.
Could you have imagined that you’d someday be living in LA?
No, I’d never imagined it. Venice is certainly the only bit I could live in because it’s walkable and manageable, and again, there’s nothing original about that either. It’s just packed with English and French people who feel the same way.
Have you found a community of British people here?
I don’t know about a community, but I know a few. British people tend not to like seeing other British people in America in some weird way. There are a lot of British people here trying to get on in the movies, and that brings on a certain way of behaving that is not entirely appealing to me. Although one could understand the motivation behind it. It’s relaxing for me to be here because I have no desire to write for the movies at all. LA can be a place of torment because the rewards are so huge, but the difficulty of getting your hands on those rewards is so great. That doesn’t concern me though because I’m not even knocking on that door, let alone thumping on it.
After The Colour of Memory was published, did you know what kind of writer you wanted to be?
At that point I still assumed I was going to be a novelist. But later I got this bee in my bonnet about writing a book about jazz, But Beautiful, which was the first of those neither one thing nor the other books that I wrote. But I still felt I was on the path to being some sort of long-term novelist, as opposed to just being a writer, which is what I feel happier being now.
In The Colour of Memory, Steranko says, “I hate plots. Plots are what get people killed. Generally the plots are the worst thing about books.” Did Steranko’s view reflect your own thinking at the time?
It did, and my thinking since then has just gotten more and more vehement in that direction. He said plots get people killed, but now I think plots are just boring, mostly because it’s not what I’m in the reading business for. I’m in it for all sorts of other stuff — psychological insight, etc. I don’t need much plot in order for those kinds of things to emerge. I’ve just started watching True Detective, however, and the plot is really intriguing so I’m more tolerant of plot in film and television. But really, I don’t need it in books.
Do you think of The Search as a more plot-heavy book?
Not exactly. What I do like is a kind of situation, the kind you get in film noir in which a woman comes into a private detective’s office asking about a problem, and then nearly always the detective finds himself in a situation that is not the one he signed up for. So I like that as a kind of MacGuffin to get things going, but very quickly that kind of device peters out. Really, what gives The Search traction is more the picaresque or travel elements. I still find to this day that as soon as there’s any kind of journey I’m always interested.
The Search was not particularly successful upon publication.
That’s an understatement. It was a total flop. In fact, it was a catastrophic flop even before publication in that it really struggled to find a publisher, which amazed me.
What was that like?
I remember I went on some sort of psychological strike whereby I told myself that until The Search got published I wasn’t going to write anything new. Then it did get a publisher, which was such an enormous relief. Even though the publication was destined right from the outset to be a very, very low-key affair, the mere fact of its being published got me over that hump.
It must be gratifying to see The Search published in the United States.
I certainly am glad to have finally managed to bring the terrible waiting of the American people to an end. I’m happy for you, Jordan, and your nation.
Well, I don’t know if I would have gotten my hands on a copy otherwise!
I’d always wanted to be established as a writer in America. So it’s nice now that all of my books, except for the Berger one, Ways of Telling, will be available here.
Any desire to see that re-published?
No! Although I’m not suppressing it to the extent that Tobias Wolff denies completely that there was a first novel that he’s managed to bury. I feel no need to reprint that book.
What were your impressions upon re-reading The Search?
I felt it was a little bit programmatic and neat. I think it might have been improved if it had just been swirlier and crazier. But what I did like was the way that it made the transition from a sort of realist beginning to whatever kind of world you want to call it. You could never tell at which exact moment it had gone from the real to the surreal.
You haven’t spoken of an affinity for surrealism or magic realism since.
I’ve developed a deep hostility to magic realism, actually.
Was it your love of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that influenced you at the time?
Overwhelmingly. But in The Search I was always trying to make these weird cities seem very tangible rather than just being fable-like in the way that Calvino made his.
Invisible Cities makes an appearance in The Colour of Memory, as your protagonist is reading it at one point. What was your experience with that book?
It was unlike anything I’d read before, and weirdly it was one of those quite enclosed sort of love affairs. Nearly all the other writers I’ve had a mad crush on have manifested themselves in everything since, whereas I don’t think Calvino has manifested himself in anything I’ve written since then. I think it was so alien to my sensibility, which is why the Calvino influence has confined itself to that period.
Will Self recently wrote in The Guardian that the serious novel is dead. Do you have thoughts about that?
I feel it’s not so much that the novel is dying. I just know that for me as a reader it’s not what I’m in the market for these days. Quite often there can be a really, really good novel, and I realize it’s just not what I want from a reading experience, and increasingly it’s not what I want as a writer either. So I’m reluctant to pronounce the death of the novel. I’d be much more confident saying I’ve drifted away from it in the same way I’d say I’ve drifted away from going to trance parties. I wouldn’t feel so confident about announcing trance is dead. It might well be, but I wouldn’t know.
You’ve described Ways of Telling as a “dull” book. At one point, you called The Colour of Memory “a bit of a mess,” though your opinion has clearly changed about it now. Which of your books did you feel best about straight away?
I really was quite pleased with But Beautiful, partly because it was a more appropriate tribute to Berger, who’s meant so much to me. Then I liked The Missing of the Somme. Those two made me start to realize I was writing things that weren’t novels, but which weren’t straight, down the line, nonfiction books either. So I think from that point on I started to feel more confident. With The Colour of Memory and The Search, I knew they were falling short in terms of what people might expect novels to be, whereas with these other kinds of books I felt I’d successfully generated the standards by which they might be judged.
Another Great Day At Sea, on the other hand, does seem to fit more easily into a pre-existing genre, one to which you’ve admitted to feeling ill-suited to contribute. As someone who “loves not having to notice stuff,” why subject yourself to two weeks of intense noticing on an aircraft carrier?
That’s an easy one: I wanted the free trip! I wanted the experience and it was understood that in order to do that, I had to then sing for my supper. It wasn’t difficult to notice stuff. The difficult thing was finding what the words were for all the things I’d noticed because it was such an alien, technically complicated environment. But the reasons for going there was that it was such a great place to be.
Clearly, though, it wasn’t the most luxurious free trip you might have been offered.
I’ve done quite a bit of travel writing and the worst sort of free trip to have is always one where you go to some incredibly expensive, luxurious resort, and you have nothing to write about it. On the other hand, if you’re traveling under your own steam and it’s awful, then you’ve typically got lots to write about. Once I got my own room on the carrier, comfort wasn’t an issue.
It wasn’t pleasant all the time though.
It wasn’t always pleasant but it was consistently amazing. It was never boring. The people were amazing.
Have you always had a generally positive view of Americans?
Yes, I’d say so. I came of age in this lefty world in England where it was all very anti-American. When I came here, it didn’t take me long to be amazed me by the incredible politeness of Americans. Even New York, which they say is the rudest place in America, I find the level of politeness extraordinary. Of course, by the time you get to California it’s almost Japanese, the politeness.
You’ve said, “Of all the kinds of writers I’m not, a reporter is right at the top of the list.” Had you an inkling of that before you started working on Another Great Day At Sea?
I think I did. In all the books that I’ve written I’ve managed to minimize the amount of conveying of facts that I’ve had to do. In The Missing of the Somme, for instance, there’s not really that much fact stuff in it. In the photography book, all the fact stuff was what caused me problems.
You managed to get away with forgetting a lot of information about the people you’d spoken to on the carrier.
It took me a while to get into the habit of just asking people to identify themselves. Even so, when I got back I found out I didn’t know the ranks of people I’d interviewed. But when The New Yorker did their extract from the book, I got off relatively easily in terms of the fact checking, partly because I said it’s best not to ask me anything. I just gave them the address of Paul Newell, who was my chaperone on the boat.
I’m thinking specifically of that moment in the book when you’re sitting with the Captain, the Air Wing Commander and his deputy, and you write, “I could see the shapes of their faces, slightly illuminated when they puffed on their cigars, but could not tell who was speaking.”
There was a major error there, actually, which I should have gotten right. I think I said we were on the port side of the ship, which is actually impossible because there’s nothing on the port side of the ship. We were on the frigging starboard. So The New Yorker did correct that.
You wrote about Joan Didion’s “invisible” reporterly presence. What kind of personality did you try to assume on the carrier?
Well my thing was just that I was this tall English guy that was always in the way. So I feel the opportunity of being Didion’s type of reporter never presented itself to me. I like interacting with people more than she does. I’m not one of these people for whom social life or parties are a form of torment. I kind of like them. One of the reasons I’m not noticing is because I’m too busy in conversation trying to think of my next wisecrack.
As you know, there’s a rather successful reporter by the name of Geoff Dyer, the former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief and author of The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China — and How America Can Win.
It really sucks doesn’t it?
Have you met him?
I haven’t. I called him once years ago because I thought a check I was expecting from the BBC had gone to him. When the Financial Times asked me to do their weekly diary, I did quite a funny thing — I wrote a bit of it as though written by him, all about how I regretted fiddling my expenses and how my opium habit was out of control. Recently, it’s gotten worse of course, because he’s also being represented by the Wylie Agency. On my recent flight to New York, when I checked the tickets I found the middle name was wrong and the air miler count was his. Often, I get letters from my agent congratulating me on the wonderful review of his book. So it’s really unfortunate, actually.
Is there anything about the situation you find interesting?
I can’t think it does me any good at all. As a writer, you try to brand your name. My brand is already watery enough since my name is not unusual, and he’s just further diluting it. It seems so unlucky in a way. I guess his area of expertise is so different from mine, but then again, I cover a lot of different areas. Zadie Smith wrote to me once and said, “You’ve just written a book about China. I didn’t even know you were the Beijing bureau chief!”
Was she joking?
I think she was drunk when she wrote. And then her husband wrote and said, “I thought it was your best book yet!”