Tom Pearman is a struggling but ambitious young footballer playing for an obscure club when he spots a chance to make the big time. The Keighley-born author’s third novel A Natural (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) delves into the heart of a professional football club, examining the pressure, loneliness and threat of scandal. Raisin has been named among the best young writers in the country by The Sunday Times and Granta.
After the dark themes of your first two novels, what drew you to football as the focus for your third?
The darkness again, I imagine. I don’t think that it is possible to think about football without thinking about the dark underside of it – or, certainly, it should not be possible, but the entire superstructure of the sport is geared up for creating such a separation. Even as the child abuse scandal broke late last year, the shiny product of the Premier League rolled on, untarnished, as we listened to dozens of harrowing revelations, then a couple of minutes later listened to match reports, as if the two belong to different worlds. And look, incidentally, at how the promised culture of openness and independent inquiry has been going over the last couple of months. Aside from the darkness, there’s also the fact
(and believe me, I’m aware of the conflict here) that I am a football supporter.
Your first two novels had very specific settings – the Yorkshire Moors and Glasgow. Was it an intentional move to make the geographical locations in this novel indistinct?
It wasn’t intentional in relation to the first two novels, but certainly it
was intentional in that I did not want the fictionalised club of the novel to be identifiable with any real club. For legal reasons, if nothing else
but also because I didn’t want that kind of detective search to distract from the story of the novel. It’s not The Secret Footballer. (There is a
part of me, by the way, that hopes the secret footballer will read and enjoy it).
Do you find that there’s something toxic about the stereotypical masculinity that surrounds professional football in this country?
In short, yes. There is no area inside a football club in which the performance of some kind of stereotypical masculinity doesn’t pervade the atmosphere: the dressing room, the training ground, the boardroom, the terraces. Also, and significantly within the novel, the internet message boards. It is this performance of masculinity that is at the root of so much of the discomfiting things that go on – whether that is the sexual humiliation of young players at the Christmas party, or aggressive banter on the pitch, the training ground or the message board that can, and does, turn into violence.
A lot of your characters, both in this novel and your previous works, are classic literary outsiders. What is it that attracts a writer to this sense of un-belonging?
It’s to do with understanding the culture and behaviour of the norm by looking at what that culture thinks of as abnormal.
For Tom, much of the novel is about what he doesn’t say rather than what he does. Did that make him a difficult character to write?
It’s funny – you don’t really spend much time thinking about your writing as a whole. You concentrate hard on the individual project, one at a time. But now that I’ve written three it’s becoming clear that there are certain things that I do seem to return to, and inarticulacy is clearly one, both verbal and emotional. So I suppose, no, I didn’t find his inarticulacy difficult to write. The question for me, further down the line, perhaps, is whether I would find an articulate character difficult to write.
Fear of failure and obscurity is one of the dominant strands of the novel. Is this something you’ve ever experienced as a writer?
It depends how you define those words in the context of being a writer. I don’t greatly fear reviews and prizes and the external mechanisms of success, because I try not to set much stead by them (nice as it is when they go well). I do, though, if I’m honest, have a greater desire now than I used to for more people to read this book. Novels can be published and disappear very swiftly; I feel a little sheepish to admit it, which I’m aware is daft, but I don’t want that to happen with this novel.
It’s been six years since your second novel. After the critical success of the first two, did you feel under pressure to get this one right too?
Well, as my last answer probably suggests, I don’t personally believe that I have got the first two right just because the critics thought so. There is always a pressure, an internal one, to get it right – to fully do justice to your idea – that is not in fact so much a pressure as an impulsion, one that carries so much force and focus that I never really stop to think about what anybody else thinks. (Until it is finished, that is, and you give it to somebody else, who is, let’s say, your wife, who, let’s say, doesn’t think you’ve quite got it right.)
Both Waterline and A Natural have certain political undertones. Have you ever thought about writing anything more overtly political, or even non-fiction?
If I did, then it would have to be non-fiction, because if you write something that is fiction and it is overtly political, then it will be crap. The political lives on the inside of the fiction, invisible and not didactic. Readers have to be given the capability to think for themselves, otherwise what is the point of fiction?