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Interview #23: Toby Litt


TOBY LITT is an English writer with a prolific publishing record, a series of novels and collections of short stories to his name. Educated at Oxford University, he was later a writing student at the University of East Anglia under the novelist Malcolm Bradbury. Today he is Associate Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Southampton and also edits the Extinction Rebellion website Writers Rebel.

In 1997, he issued Beatniks, his debut novel, a book subtitled An English Road Movie. The work portrayed a group of young British people who share an interest in the Beat Generation writers and the musical world that surrounded them. They set out on a journey across the UK, attempting to recreate the spirit of a 40 year old literary movement.

One of our regular interviewers MALCOLM PAUL recently caught up with Litt to discuss his Beatniks book, his subsequent writing, the ways in which music shapes his creative approaches, his spiritual quests and the relationship between words on the page and the politics of wider society. We are delighted to share his wide-ranging and thoughtful responses at Rock and the Beat Generation

MP: I think my first question would be about your novel Beatniks, which I have recently re-read. It was published in 1997, which is quite a remove from both the 1960s/70s counterculture and a long open road from the Beats. You are still young compared to an older age group talking about Beats and the transitions to those countercultural developments that followed in their wake, so your relationship feels more difficult to put a finger on.

TL: When I was first promoting Beatniks, at events organised by my publisher, I met a load of the regional book reps who sell in new books to bookshops. They had the same question. I think the honest answer is that, growing up, my best friend got into Kerouac. He had copies of The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans around the place. When he wasn’t at home, I probably picked them up and read a few paragraphs.

Years later, once I started writing, I wanted to find a way of writing about where I’d grown up. But that seemed impossible. Whatever happened in Bedford? Then I found a way in, by writing about a group of people who live there but try to ignore it entirely. I liked the idea that they were into a completely outmoded youth movement. They are doing their best to live in a different time to everyone around them.

Pictured above: Toby Litt’s Beatniks, released in 1997

MP: Did you read the Beats when you were younger? In your teens? At university? Or did you only pick up on them when you came to reference them for when you started writing Beatniks in the 1990s?

TL: I read bits and pieces of Kerouac when I was still at school. I got Ann Charters’ biography of him out of the school library. And then an anthology of Beat writing. I read Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. At that age, I wasn’t great at finishing books. Later on, I read On the Road. I liked The Dharma Bums more and Tristessa and, most of all, Big Sur.

MP: Was the idea of the Beatniks book, your second I believe, a project you had carried with you which you decided to work on later? Or was it a contemporaneous decision based on a recent reading of the Beats?

TL: I think the thought process went: need to write a novel about somewhere I know, only places I know apart from Oxford (which I’m not writing about) are Bedford and Brighton. How can I write about them when they’re so eventless? This was around the time I was working on Adventures in Capitalism, my first book of short stories. That was in mid-90s.

MP: Your critics, at least some and unfairly I feel, thought Beatniks was going to be an English version of On the Road. How did you feel about that?

TL: Well, I think I subtitled it ‘An English Road Movie’. I wanted it to be read alongside On the Road, but to show all ways in which we English fall short of the wild, open, hip beatnik dream. We have a fundamentally different sense of space. We’re Europeans, and that’s like being born with a number of deaths in the family.

You meet people like Neal Cassady, occasionally, but they’ve got nowhere to go! I’m speaking only for England. I think Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland are each different. Niall Griffiths’ early novels have something of the Beat in them. And Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar.

MP: Did you think the purist Beats just missed the point by just wanting an updated Beat novel set in England? When they got a book that I think challenged some of the Beats’ ideology: spiritual voyaging.

TL: Yes.

MP: If you’d read the Beats before, do you think they influenced the way you wrote? The writer and critic C. J. Stone claimed Burroughs taught him to pare down his sentences, a bit like the New Puritans later did with a simpler writing form.

TL: I went through a Beat phase in poetry, along with a Dylan phase, when I was in my teens. And the very first novel I tried to write had some influence. But by the time I came back to it, I was more influenced by Modernist writers – James Joyce, Beckett. And then comic writers like Evelyn Waugh and Douglas Coupland.

A lot of people were attracted to the Beats and later counterculture because there was a restless searching for something inside the individual as well as at the same time wanting to live freely in society outside the norm, be it through drug taking. sex.. travelling the open road nomadically, open relationships – often misogynistic, I feel.

MP: When you wrote Beatniks, could you relate to any of the Beat rebellion and hedonistic search for freedom, inner and outer, or just rebellion in general?

TL: I wished I could. Those things didn’t seem available to me. I felt too constricted by place. After university, I travelled across America by Greyhound – San Francisco to New York. But I felt far more as if I wanted to be an invisible observer than part of some melodramatic scene.

MP: I also wanted, Toby, your explore the relationship to music – how that works for you as a writer. Does it have importance? It is an influence on you? I’m immediately thinking of the 2001 book deadkidsongs and assuming it is making some reference to Mahler’s kindertotenlieder?

TL: Yes, deadkidsongs is a brutal translation of the title of Mahler’s song cycle. And increasingly mistranslated versions of the Ruckert texts come in between the chapters of the books. They include a very sentimentalized view of children, which is meant to contrast with the boys in the gang who are at the centre of the novel.

MP: Abba make an appearance in Beatniks on the car tape. Are the group a diabolos ex machina in the plot? It strikes me as music no self respecting Beat would listen to, at least I imagine! Abba appear to signify fun in joy. Are you being iconoclastic?.

TL: This wasn’t iconoclastic. It was, as I remember, a plot point. When the Beat characters in the novel start to break out of their self-imposed restrictions, they go for something, as you say, joyous and definitely not Beat. I’ve got my own 1970s memories of Abba, and I think disco’s unifying vibe was what I was hoping to import.

MP: Does Dylan still play a part in your life? Do you continue to listen to him? Does he continue to influence your writing in some ways? Did he shape the writing of Beatniks?

TL: For a long time I wanted to be Dylan. At university, I had a folkie cap, a bit like Dylan’s in his early days in NYC. Later, I felt I had to get away from that, and from Kerouac/Ginsberg’s spontaneous bop prosody. I felt it wasn’t going to be a positive influence on me as a repressed English writer – apart from maybe showing me a different kind of rhythmic freedom. There’s a lot of embarrassing sub-Dylan poetry around, and I’ve written a chunk myself.

MP: Do you think lyrics can influence the way an author writes prose? The Czech author Jachym Topol with whom I’m currently exchanging emails, started writing novels after writing lyrics for his brother Filip’s punk band Psi Vojaci…

TL: Yes, that’s true. I think I was the first person to translate Topol’s poetry into English. I did a couple of poems in collaboration with the Czech poet Tomas Mika. I also saw Psi Vojaci play at Laterna in Prague, in 1992. Their big song was ‘Marilyn Monroe’.I’ve written, and continue to write, lots of lyrics. I’m not sure what the influence is. There’s a link between what’s singable and what’s sayable.

MP: Tell me more about your book I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay from 2008. A case of rock ‘n’ roll excess? Did you ever entertain the idea of wanting to be a rock musician with the lifestyle that sometimes goes with it? Or as you’ve said you, do you prefer the role of spectator?

TL: I very much wanted to be rhythm guitarist in a band. That was my ideal occupation, when I was around 12 or 13. And I was in bands with my friends, but we only did one gig. I didn’t connect with the people who were into the same music as me. The drummer loved Prince and the Human League, the bassist loved Alien Sex Fiend and the singer was into oi. We didn’t fit.

Pictured above: Litt’s 2008 short story collection

MP: Did writing I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay feel like letting your hair down? It’s a great read! Not sure Blake’s roads of excess lead to Paradise. Would you agree?

TL: After Ghost Story and Hospital, I Play the Drums… was a more free, less anxious book. I learned how to let the action happen by just watching as a group of characters grew up – or didn’t. The main narrator Clap becomes increasingly moral as he becomes more Buddhist. That’s a Beat influence coming through – on me and then on my characters.

MP: Other music you tapped into while writing Beatniks? Any jazz/bebop? Miles? Coltrane? Bird, Mingus, Monk?

TL: All of the above, but especially Bird. ‘Koko’ is the book’s theme song.

MP: Do you listen to music as a background to writing, a CD player on your writing desk? Or is silence and meditation more real?

TL: No, I usually write to music. It has to be wordless, or something I know so well I can ignore the words. Here’s one playlist I used a while ago…

MP: I read now you follow Zen Buddhism. Do you think the Beats talked about Zen but didn’t really get it or have the discipline to follow that path?

TL: I think they got it, but in a particularly American way. The idea of instant dharma. It’s a very impatient view – that satori is available. But it’s patronizing to say Kerouac didn’t get the Buddha. His engagement was sincere and profound. However, there was a lot of misreading going on.

Pictured above: The author has pursued Zen Buddhism practices

MP: Do you think the counterculture still has a role in society/culture now as much as it did with say the Beats, not to say the hippies and punks? If yes, how and why?

TL: More so, perhaps. We need to find pleasures that don’t destroy the planet – to put it very simply. If the change needed doesn’t look like a blast, it’s not going to appeal to anyone. This isn’t about a new puritanism, it’s about forms of connection that are genuine, sweaty, present and far more fulfilling than what you’ll get through corporate culture.

But they involve more work to set up. They involve building communities of resistance. They involve finding political structures that work – and that work, in an anti-fascist way, to allow people to have more freedom, do less labour, spend more time creatively.

MP: If you were to write about the Beats again – indirectly – would you feel differently about them now? Do they still have a relevance?

TL: I would write differently. But I’m not sure they’re a big preoccupation for me at the moment. I have been writing a lot about Zen, in fictional form, but that won’t come out for a while.

MP: Do you still have a yearning for the open road? Freedom? Can literary ammunition possibly stir a revolution?

TL: It was a way of being young. It’s very hard to be young now. The surveillance makes everyone self-conscious. I’m sure the envy for the freedoms of the 1960s and earlier is only going to grow. But any revolution has to come out of the conditions and the technology of the moment.

MP: Is everything too fucked up for us to be able to revolt anymore? Or should we, like you, take issues like the environment more seriously rather than living an ‘in the moment’ hedonistic lifestyle?

TL: I would say the two are connected. But living in the moment has been co-opted by corporate culture as a way of creating permanently distracted customers. If it’s always ‘next next next’, you’re not going to be a difficult citizen. You’re not really going to organise in the way that’s necessary, but also fulfilling.


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