I sometimes wonder if our dog Otis is enjoying his life. He certainly seems a bit repentant for a dog, which might be explained by the Catholic atmosphere on my father’s toy farm, where he was born in the stable. (The scene was three wise men short of a Nativity.) I liked Otis on sight, and always imagined he was built for life in the London fast lane, where dogs sometimes enjoy lives of unparalleled glamour and adventure. But Otis is not like other London dogs: He stares at the wall, he’s frightened of the rubbish collectors, and he tends to mope around the garden like a teenager who has read too much Kierkegaard. I think our dog has issues, and I’m wondering, not for the first time, if the Americans have invented dog-Prozac yet.
This morning, Otis was outside barking at a blade of grass when the telephone rang. It was an Australian newspaper journalist calling to interview me about my new novel. “The critics down under are loving Personality,” said the woman cheerily. “Are you coming to see us?”
“Yes,” I said. “In two weeks. I’m reading in Melbourne and Sydney.”
“Smashing,” she said. Then her Australian-ness kicked in to a quite wonderful degree. “Yeh. But they’re only being nice to the book because your last one was short-listed for the Booker Prize.”
“Oh yeh. And because you’ve written about modern celebrity, right? Everybody’s interested in American Idol. That’s the only reason they’re talking about your book.” She cackled into the phone and puffed some Australian cheroot. “You were one of Granta’s Best of Young British Writers, yeh?”
“I was pleased to be inclu …”
“Yeh, well. It’s every decade, right? The list is nowhere near as good as it was 10 years ago. Not a chance. It’s no way as good as that. And the one before that was even better. There isn’t much good stuff around just now.”
And so it went. I’ve noticed this before: Many arts journalists hate the arts, or at least they allow a suspicion to percolate inside their minds about the terrible uselessness of the arts in the great world order. Maybe this comes from having to spend too many sad mornings in conference with editors who wish they’d just shut up. In any event, the interview seemed to go well, and after a while the woman began to tell me she was gripped by the story and felt that it was really the story of her own childhood.
Here’s another theory: Most arts journalists assigned to write about books nowadays only get excited when there’s some extra-literary matter to get their motor going. The greatest of these incitements to interest is The Movie Deal. “The rumor is you’ve already sold the film rights,” said Ms. Australia.
“Yes,” I said, “but there’s a long way to go …”
“Whose gonna play the mother? I think it should be Emily Watson. No, wait a minute. Catherine Zeta-Jones.”
“Well, the producers are speaking to people …”
“They’re speaking to Catherine Zeta-Jones!”
Let’s pause for a second. Now, it seems to me that even the dumbest writers begin to hear a headline coming after a little experience, after one or two spirited engagements on the journalistic field of play. He or she begins to know that the next sentence to come out of his mouth (if he’s not careful) will be the headline.
“It’s really too early to say,” I dodged.
“Come on! It’s Catherine.”
“No it’s not,” I said. “I’m sure she’s not even seen the novel and has no immediate ambitions to play a neurotic Scottish chip-shop owner.”
I thought this would end it, but—you begin to see?—who the hell would talk to a writer about books when there’s a way out? The great number two of the can-we-get-this-off-the-literary-pages questions quickly follows: “Is your central character based on anybody real?”
British newspapers, it must be said, are obsessed with this sort of thing; they love and deplore the idea that nothing in contemporary fiction is actually invented. Americans are very cool about seeing the parameters of fiction and nonfiction as being rather fluid— thus Don DeLillo’s Libra, Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde—but British culture is hysterical about who owns life’s materials and what you might call the ethics of creativity.
“I was inspired to write the novel by the story of a young singer who came to public attention in the 1970s, a little Scottish-Italian girl called Lena Zavaroni.”
“She died, right?”
“Yes. She disappeared into fame, then she died. Elements of her life, along with the lives of other people, affected what I set out to write. But my book is made of surprises.”
The journalist had a hook and was excited, I’m sure, that she wouldn’t have to write about language or form or tradition or any of the other guff that makes a novel a novel.
Meanwhile, Otis the dog was howling at a butterfly passing the study windows. I tried to cheer him up by showing him a stray copy of the Daily Mail, a British publication for people who don’t like people. Today, the Daily Mail carries a story about poor Liza Minnelli and that nice-looking husband of hers, David Gest. Turns out he wasn’t nice to her dog. “Otis,” I said. “He wasn’t nice to the dog, a little cairn terrier.”
Otis just shook his head and sat there. “Just who’s the sick one around here?” his eyes seemed to say.