With such a prolific career, can you tell me about yourself?
I was born in Hastings, where I consider “home” and where my mother still lives. I went to public school in Canterbury, where I learned to play the guitar. I then went to Cambridge, where I read English and started to write songs. While unnecessarily prolonging my academic career with a PhD, I started doing gigs, which (after a pragmatic change of name, to John Wesley Harding) brought me to America, where I’ve lived ever since. I like the movies of Werner Herzog; the comedy of Steve Coogan; the books of Barbara Comyns and Charles Dickens; the music of David Bowie and Neil Young. I do not like self-promoters, empire-builders, humidity, most magazines, dull food, or businessmen who are annoyed that they’re not in first class. I am currently enjoying reading the essays of George Orwell, drinking Darjeeling tea and dusting off my old vinyl (which is mostly folk music).
Your career spans both music and literature, and with 15 albums under your belt; can you tell me where you get your inspiration from?
Ideas for songs come from snatches of dialogue, a surreal thought, or just the way that words fall together. Novels are very different, although I definitely don’t write to a well-thought-out plan. I tried it and it self-defeated. I generally start out with what I think is a good idea, or at least an idea that won’t let me be (a boy raised as a girl, a novel narrated by a ventriloquist dummy, in the case of the first two books) and the themes that idea will explore (gender identity and narrative voice, respectively). But when I start writing, I write to see what’s going to happen.
Where did you first get the idea for Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer?
I wanted to write a novel about music, but one that wasn’t hijacked by the trappings of the way that I make music (dressing rooms, studios, contracts, and broken strings). I wanted to try to structure the novel like an opera, a long slow burn. The first idea came on seeing Death for Five Voices, Herzog’s documentary about Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th century Italian composer who committed the most notorious crime in musical history: the brutal murder of his wife and her lover. This gave me the idea for the book. On the eve of the opening night of his first opera in 1923, Charles Jessold murders his wife and her lover (as if inspired by Gesualdo), before turning the gun on himself. At the centre of the scandal is the opera, Little Musgrave, which seems to foreshadow this copycat crime.
Your writing is lyrical and poetic, how did you develop this style and use of language?
That’s interesting you say that, I’m pleased and hope you’re right. In the case of this novel, I tried to suit the language to my narrator, a gentleman music critic in the early 20th century. There were some things he would say, and some things he wouldn’t, and everything had to sound believable coming from him. In many ways he is a rather blinkered character, but on the other hand, he is a writer, and a sincere music lover. Also, I’d add that song writing was a very good training for writing novels. It allowed me to trust in words, and let them fall out of me quite naturally and without any great self-censorship.
How do you undertake the differences between writing music and prose?
I like to write songs on scraps of paper (at least the initial lyric ideas) and hum snatches of melody onto the Voice Memo app on my iPhone. Twitter is another good format for the brief idea. With the novels, however, I need to be at home, surrounded by pictures and reference books, online constantly. I need to be situated for days at a time. I’ll take a month off and, family pleasures and obligations permitting, work 9-to-5 until I really feel I’m into it. Then once there’s a substantial amount of stuff down, take a breather, and review it all in relaxation, maybe talk about it with my wife, a friend or some other victim.
The marital theme is the crux of this novel; how does this play out with regards to wider moral themes like guilt and justice?
Caution: I have to be careful what I say with regards to giving too much away. The book is about the difference between love and passion: one character wrongly thinks he or she is pulling all the strings, but the forces unleashed are beyond control. It’s also about the hazards of the biographical approach to criticism. Contemporary rock music writing often makes this mistake, bending the known facts to fit the theory. The works themselves are often hard to discuss; easier therefore to focus on the human stories beyond. That’s also crucial to the book. And that’s all I’ll say on the matter.
Misfortune was received with great acclaim, how has your work progressed?
Misfortune began as a song, from my album Awake (1998) and then became a novel. I wanted the next book to have nothing to do with sexuality or gender. Certain themes are the same in all the books – I just keep circling the things I’m interested in and each one of them have interlocking stories. It’s my own brand of postmodernism “lite” (a very unattractive concept, I do realise) that I hope is always in the service of the characters and the plot. I can definitely see development from book to book, but a movement that is dictated by what I didn’t want to write about again, and by those things I couldn’t avoid writing about however hard I tried. The next novel will be (and has to be) set in more or less the present day.
Do you feel living in the USA has had an influence on your work?
The completely serious answer is that it has made me love Britain more. I like being in England in my imagination, even if my body is the other side of the Atlantic. I came over here in 1990 looking for Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Now I find myself only interested in Fairport Convention and Jim Moray: the grass is always greener. Ultimately, the joke is on me, for Britain has never had any great need to take my music seriously. But I’m glad my books are easily found and bring me back from time to time. The Hay Festival is literally like being in Heaven.
Finally, can you tell me more about your future plans?
I am making a new album in November, and after the pesky business of moving house, from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, I will get back to my next novel. I’ve been doing shows across America with comedian, Eugene Mirman – “Wes and Eugene’s Cabinet of Wonders” (a structured variety show) and these will continue. Future plans also include a libretto about Dido & Aeneas for composer Errollyn Wallen, and a collaboration on some of Charles Jessold’s imaginary music, as envisioned by contemporary composer Daniel Felsenfeld. We’ll be touring the latter, interspersed with readings from the new novel, when the book is published in America in February 2011.