In the summer of 2012 Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin to spend the summer with him and his wife in their idyllic mountain-top house. A story of fracture in paradise against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, The Fall Guy (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) marks a change in direction for the US-based British author.
The Fall Guy is quite different from your previous work – was that intentional?
I didn’t set out to write something “different”, but as the story evolved I realised it was more like the psychological thrillers I’d been reading somewhat obsessively in the previous couple of years, than a strictly “literary” novel (whatever that is). So I thought: why not see if that’s what it really wants to be? In other words, it was more a question of just not resisting the tug of a certain kind of genre, than actively pursuing it.
It’s very cinematic. Do you have ambitions for a film adaptation?
It seems to have caught the eye of a few filmmakers, so I’m hopeful there’ll be something.
Why did you choose the Occupy movement and the financial crash as a background to this domestic thriller?
Background and foreground were always inseparable in my mind. At some level it’s a story about moral accountability. Who suffers? Who is to blame? Who gets punished? Who gets off scot-free? Those are the underlying questions posed by the domestic story, but to me they were always directly connected to the ethical/political questions raised by the financial deregulation and crash. A banker with an uneasy conscience (Charlie) was an integral element from the start. His complicated relationship with his impoverished cousin is on a direct continuum with his tortured forays into “ethical” investing. Then too, of course, Occupy – its promise as well as its more or less predictable failure – was very much in the air while I was writing, and I wanted to capture something of that.
Is it inevitable that families are becoming fractured by deep divisions between the left and right in both the UK and the US at the moment?
The US (where I live) seems to be well on its way to inhabiting two mutually incompatible realities. I’m hopeful that the one built on demagogic lies will collapse – and sooner rather than later. But I’m a little apprehensive about the aftermath. Disappointed Trump supporters might be even more dangerous than enthusiastic ones…
Matthew’s obsession with Chloe veers into stalking, a subject you’ve both written about and experienced before. Have you found it therapeutic to write about?
Well, I certainly felt qualified to write about it. And I’m hopeful that, having done that both in non-fiction and fiction, I’ve finally got the subject out of my system. It’s an uncomfortable subject, to say the least!
How different is your approach when writing fiction to writing poetry or non-fiction?
Not very different at all. You always want to be as vivid, lively, moving, lucid, engaging, inventive as you possibly can. Sometimes the subject matter demands one form, sometimes another, and each of course has a few special features and limitations, but you’re always trying to do essentially the same thing: express something as well as you can, in the form of words.
You teach creative writing at Columbia University. What is your best piece of advice for your students and did you adhere to it yourself when writing this novel?
I’m not a great dispenser of words of wisdom. But in general I encourage people to do three things: 1. Keep a journal or notebook so that you get in the habit of turning thought/feeling/observation into language quickly and accurately. 2. Read critically – always trying to analyse why a passage engages or fails to engage you. 3. Live an interesting life. I was certainly doing my best to follow my own advice while I worked on this book!