Questions contributed by Kirsten Anderson
Q: The ending leaves the reader guessing what choice Douglas will make. What was your thinking behind leaving things open and were you ever tempted towards a more definitive coda?
Well there is this clear hint in the graveyard scene what finally happens to Lou, and I decided to make that explicit quite late on in writing the book, so I am afraid even in some quite late drafts of the novel, there really existed a “Thirty-Years-Later” coda, where Douglas visits Lou and Aoife for an afternoon in Twyford, near Reading – of all places- where Lou was an English teacher in a local comprehensive. They have had another kid - a teenage son - and Lily is a post-grad student. There was even a groansome appearance from Lamborghini the tortoise. It was my Dallas – “the new series” moment. What was actually odd about it, was that the emotions of the scene swerved madly around and all were unspoken. Normally that’s a good thing, but here I felt it really caused a sort of vacuum of feeling rather than a punch. It was unfocused, there was this strange emotion between Lily and Douglas too, and there wasn’t enough time to explore what those emotions were – it was impossible to cram all the exposition which was needed into the scene. It was what made me realise I had to take definite action - so in the graveyard scene I made it clear what was soon going to happen to Lou and that totally changed things and made the choice Douglas makes all the more crucial as he will be implicated. I wanted it to be quite subtle and just dropped it in there, but in a way it is the most crucial sentence in the whole book. Sometimes though, you have to write a scene like that coda to detect exactly where the true ending of any novel is. Too many endings is such a risk for fiction. I just read two excellent novels by writers I admire, but they both had - in my opinion - tagged on not one extra scene beyond the real ending but two or even three. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s hard to let go in life and in art. Who wants to let go, who wants to end that long saxophone solo when it sounds so good? How can you end it? Well as Miles Davis once said – just take the saxophone out of your mouth. James Kelman and James M. Cain are very good at endings. They just bring down the chopper and that’s the way a book needs to end. It’s like death itself. As a writer you just get all rhetorical at the end. You imagine that when you finally croak, you will be able to nicely collect your thoughts, make a speech to the heirs of your vast estates - even if just in your own mind - formulate a nice, rounded conclusion to your time on this fair earth. But only suicides get close to that. The rest of us will be cut off, in absurdum, half way through a random act, or thought, during some unremarkable perception or in mid-dream whilst asleep. The great dramatic moment of ENDING that we all have waited on and attached such significance to our whole lives, actually evaporates and we just disappear. I hope. I could be tortured to death by scalpel-wielding book critics?
Q: The novel is set during the Thatcher years and there are a number of allusions to this social and political backdrop. To what extent are you using this backdrop to explain the circumstances and behaviour of the main protagonists?
I don’t think I was at all. In some ways, there are parallels between Aoife’s and Abby’s relationship, and Morvern & Lanna’s: possession, deception, jealousy, revelation. I think I am exploring repeated themes in my novels but doing so unconsciously. To be bland, for me there are just always things going on with humans that as a novelist, I want to chip away at - what James Kennaway called, “the caveman stuff going on beneath.” That is what is so fascinating about reading novels from other ages – the continuity of certain human traits and obsessions placed inside a greater scenario. I am not trying to suggest an abstract, continuous human nature exists, but it is so interesting – if Their Lips Talk of Mischief had been set in 1964, 1944, 1884 or 1774, what would the historical setting do to the characters motivations and conflicts?
Q: How do you feel about the many comparisons to Withnail and I that this novel has received? Whilst the novel is permeated with a great deal of humour based on the behaviour and antics of the main characters, to what extent would you agree that one of the more serious themes in the novel is the development (or lack of development) of individual conscience and personal responsibility?
I am not sure the development of a conscience or personal responsibility is a theme of mine. When I am thinking about a novel, I sort of live it out in my head to a great extent. I almost see it happening in my head. I am sure this is going to happen or I want that to happen. She will say that, he will reply this. It lives quite intently in my head for a spell but then of course I start to write it. I don’t think I have ever thought to myself, “The theme of this will be this.” It all seems to stem from the characters. It is almost like you take a photograph of a street with shadows on a winter evening and then someone says to you, “Was depression your theme in this photo?” No. I had no theme, I just took the photo. I don’t want to seem glib or evasive, but that is sometimes how it feels.
I’ll take it as a compliment for the book to be mentioned in the company of a great film - and writer. Bruce Robinson is a wonderful writer and director, and a fascinating man. I adore Withnail but I am also a big fan of Robinson’s forgotten movie, How To Get Ahead in Advertising. I do wonder though if there is a wee bit of pop-culture laziness - of non-literary response - going on with book critics there. I thought there were more obvious literary comparisons - which I happily admit to - like JP Donleavy’s novel The Ginger Man and its main character, Sebastian Dangerfield. I even recall saying to a pal who had asked what I was writing, that it was, ‘sort of The Ginger Man in 80s London.’ It was the idea of the bookish, flighty male character, vacillating between remorse and indulgence towards his lover, between seething lust and the call of duty: that awful conflict between the love for an infant child and the egotistical world of literary fulfilment. All that made me think of Sebastian Dangerfield - not Withnail. Withnail is rather hard to think of in terms of fatherhood; can you imagine him even trying to be a father? Oh dear. His solecism is so massive he couldn’t hold it down for a moment. But what Cunningham, Abby, Lou and Aoife are doing, is trying to work their way through the requirements of friendship, relationships and the responsibilities of caring for an infant child. I think Lou does do his best to live up to his responsibilities, though obviously he doesn’t do very well at it. He is fallible as we all are. Lou does love his daughter, but he is being pulled in many directions – including, rightly, by fear of death. I would also add that I think there are a few other ingredients in the soup: the spirit of Branwell Bronte - the great underachiever - is always a fascination with me, a male fuck up in an amazing family. I reckon there’s a good bit of Orwell’s great Keep the Aspidistra Flying in there too. And Flann O’ Brien of course.
Donleavy is currently unfashionable among the reputation-makers in London and Ireland, but I think he has a fine style and I like all his stuff, even the recent work.
When I first went to live in Dublin - in 1997 - like the good tourist I am, I immediately began draining many pints of Guinness in all the great old Dublin pubs - especially ones with literary associations. I began re-reading my favourite Irish books. I should have been paid a monthly stipend by the Irish Tourist Board. I reread Dubliners in the back-parlour of Mulligans in Poolbeg Street, which is seemingly unchanged from the day of that great story ‘Counterparts,’ when the drunken clerk goes there on a pub crawl and arm wrestles; right there, where I was sitting. I found it remarkable, almost dreamlike that those pubs of Beckett and Joyce and Kavanagh were hardly changed. I used to read the poems of another American – John Berryman - in the very pub where he wrote some of them, Ryan’s Beggars Bush on Haddington Road. (I recall once, being on a U.S. book tour, arriving at the airport in Minneapolis and the young lady driving the car asked if there was anything I wished to see so I replied, ‘Prince’s studio and the bridge Berryman jumped off, please’).
That was a bloody great life back then, happy days - through Dublin I followed the changing addresses of Beckett, Wilde, Moore and Paddy Kavanagh, and all those locations of Ulysses.
I had a wild synchronicity in Dublin when I reread The Ginger Man. I had first read it in Oban in 1981 or 82 and of course, I embraced it as I was just warming the chestnuts of my own pretentions to become a writer. I had only retained a vague memory of the atmosphere of The Ginger Man - but one afternoon, at home, I sat down and began re-reading it after a gap of seventeen or eighteen years. We were then living in Howth, in north Dublin, in this great apartment overlooking the sea, on the Balscadden Road. To my amazement, in The Ginger Man’s second chapter you will read that Sebastian Dangerfield is also living right on the same Balscadden Road in Howth, yards from where I was sitting
I have lots of odd reading tales like that. You know when I first read Finnegan’s Wake I was at the University in Glasgow. I had hiked the Faber edition around with me for a few years, down to London and back up again, and while I am addicted to Ulysses and find it easy to read, I was a bit intimidated by The Wake – I carried it around for years but kept putting off starting to read it. I was also aware, from reading Robert Anton Wilson, of all the strange, personal associations you can find in its frothed up language. So I finally sat down with a cup of coffee and began reading it in Hillhead, Glasgow. On the very first page of Finnegan’s Wake, you will find the word: Hillhead.
I had an even spookier experience another day with a Bob Shaw sci-fi novel in a rented cottage near Oban, but I will spare you the details and you wouldn’t believe me.
Q: Abby is sexually uninhibited and confident, whereas Aoife is seemingly very naive and at one point even asks Douglas to explain sexual positions to her. Did you want to use the two women to reflect the extent to which the male protagonists develop self-consciousness about the impact of their lifestyle, behaviour and actions? Or did you intend for readers to view Aoife as much more manipulative than she appears to be on the surface?
I see what you are saying, but I don’t believe I would develop any character just to reflect an aspect of other characters. That’s what Mrs Micawber does, says she will never abandon Mr Micawber and she doesn’t. But that’s all she does as a character. Characters for me have to do their best to come alive as autonomous people on the page then bounce off each other. To me Aoife and Abby are just two high school mates who know each other inside out and came down to London together, to make it in the big city, yet they are still capable of that element of surprise for one another – which I think can be true of friendship and all its attendant jealousies. It is when friendships are tested that the truth of their nature begins to emerge.
You have to be careful as a fiction writer that you don’t end up with just a load of louche characters that the reader does not care about, jumping into and out of beds with one another. That’s the problem of pornography. The world is never just about sex and nothing else - but porn pretends – like some ridiculous fairy tale - that it is, it pretends that no reality exists beyond sex. That’s why I liked that book by Catherine Millet so much, it wasn’t really about sex at all; it was about philosophy and need, and personal psychology. There has to be a meaning as to why characters bed hop. I don’t think to get through modern life the best idea is joining a sex cult, and I don’t think we are best taking a vow of celibacy either, the ideal is somewhere in between! So I don’t share Abby and Aoife’s preciousness about the sexual act – though you will note that both of them do seem to enjoy – with some gusto - breaking the rules when they finally do. Despite that, I think we have to cut Aoife and Lou some slack. They are young and vivacious, but they have been hobbled by an accidental pregnancy and youthful parenthood. That is a huge thing to cope with and I felt a lot of reviews about Their Lips Talk of Mischief (but not Brian Morton’s, in The Scottish Review of Books) overlooked the importance of parenthood in the book and its demanding, hourly requirements. The looming presence of baby Lily was very important – I mean morally important to me; but a lot of reviewers - even very favourable ones - overlooked that.
Q: Lou is painted by our narrator, Douglas, to be violent and neglectful, and undeserving of Aoife’s love. Which is of course manipulative, given Douglas’ actions later on when he embarks on an affair with her. However, it could also be argued that Lou knew exactly what he was doing when he invited Douglas to live with them and left him alone with his wife for long periods. After all, he was bored and looking for excitement and perhaps a way out of the relationship, without the guilt. Who do you see as the master manipulator in this novel? The “evil” one, to whom the title refers?
I am not sure that Douglas is such an unreliable narrator – the entire novel seems to amount to some kind of confession where he was simply unable to reveal his final act of indulgence and recklessness – which I think led to the tragedy for Lou hinted at in the graveyard. Of course we witness everything that happens through the perspective of Douglas, but a great deal of his narration leaves interpretation open for the reader. It is as much what Douglas doesn’t write about – what he leaves blank for the reader to fill in- which signals where his guilt and paranoia lies, rather than what he is overt about. When Douglas and Aoife shack up together while Lou is away teaching at that language school, we don’t have extensive daily descriptions of Aoife’s and Douglas’s little private honeymoon. As well as having sex, Aoife and Douglas must be having conversations – but of course those conversations are never reported. Yet Douglas finds himself abandoned the minute Lou returns to London for the funeral. I do think though, that Douglas is trying hard to tell the truth about things – he is showing us boldly and not without self-hatred, the lengths people –especially himself - will go to in the spell of lust, in the desire to possess another. Douglas shows what he will do to get what he wants or...to get what he thinks he wants - but isn’t quite sure until he tries it. People are often surprised to hear me say that though I comprehensively detest Lou’s outbreak of violence towards Aoife, I often feel Douglas is the real villain of this novel. Lou struggles very openly with all his worries but Douglas is a bit of smiler with a knife - yet I am not sure I would endorse him or anyone as ‘evil’. In a sense, the title is ironic – in the case of strict morality, we are all modern sinners and evil-doers. All of our lips talk of mischief constantly. I don’t think there is a master manipulator here unless it is god or the devil. They all have a go, but I think it bites them all in the end – only baby Lily is innocent. ●