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In our interview, Rhodes shared some fun facts about himself with us:
"When I was 22, I was fired from a sensible office job after nine days for my failure to adapt to an adult environment. I still have difficulty acting in a grown-up manner, and this gets me into all kinds of trouble."
"The pinnacle of my showbiz career came when a copy of my first book, Anthropology, was seen on Carrie's desk in an episode of Sex and the City. It's been downhill ever since."
"I was in the audience at the final concerts of both the Smiths and the Spice Girls."
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In the fall of 2003, Dan Rhodes took some time to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
This is a really difficult question. I suppose I should go back to my childhood, and a book that blew me away and made me oblivious to everything going on around me. I'll say The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. I have no idea if I would appreciate these stories as much now, but at the time they really made me realize what wonderful thing books could be.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This list changes by the hour, but here are my favorites right now:
Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton -- This trilogy of short novels set in London in the 1920s has been my big discovery of 2003. It's an excruciatingly well observed book about loneliness, drunkenness, and infatuation. Patrick Hamilton was in his 20s when he wrote it, and he manages to combine youthful verve (it is very funny) with an absolute mastery of his craft. Sadly, it seems to have fallen out of favor, and it's quite hard to come by.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- What a wonderful and funny book. The story behind it is heartbreaking -- what must it be like to have written one of the most excellent novels of all time and be told by a bunch of publishing dullards that it wasn't up to scratch? Surely it would send you round the twist. Tragically, this book wasn't published until after the author's suicide. Toole's biography, Ignatius Rising by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, is essential reading for all Dunces fans.
Ask the Dust by John Fante -- This book captures better than any other the ludicrous joy of finding your work in print, and the inevitable crushing disappointment that follows. It's a must-read for all aspiring writers. I've heard it's being turned into a film. Please don't go. Read the book instead -- there's no way it can be improved upon by a bunch of poncey actors.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger -- An obvious choice, but it's great, isn't it? Leave me alone. I just love it and that's that.
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar -- This is one of those rare books that plays with form and still manages to be beautiful. The opening chapters had me so aghast with wonder I had to keep on turning back to the beginning. There's a passage in One Hundred Years of Solitude in which the characters from Hopscotch put in a cameo appearance -- a respectful nod from Gabriel García Márquez.
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor -- A wonderful, sinister, and darkly funny collection by a superb storyteller. For some reason, she's not particularly caught on back home, but whenever I mention how much I like her to Americans they tend to roll their eyes as if she's just such an obvious author to revere. But I don't care -- she's great.
Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards -- This is my ultra-obscure choice. The Welsh author Dorothy Edwards wrote a novel and a load of stories (collected in Rhapsody) before throwing herself under a train at the age of 31. This book, long (and criminally) out of print, is funny, creepy, and strangely beautiful. The narrative voices she uses are so brilliant they could drive aspiring writers into frenzies of jealousy.
Madame Bovary by Flaubert -- Yet another of my more obvious choices. I'm a sucker for mournful French fiction -- maybe this is because I share my birthday with Victor Hugo.
New Grub Street by George Gissing -- This was recommended to me by a writer friend who was tired of listening to me whine on about the horrors of the London book world. She told me nothing had changed since New Grub Street was written 120 years ago, and she was right. The squabbles, the power struggles, and the inevitable collisions between art and business are all here -- it could have been written yesterday. It made me feel my troubles weren't as unique as all that.
More or less anything by Anton Chekhov or Raymond Carver. OK, I know this is cheating, but I can't write a list of great writing without including these two. They are such brilliant storytellers.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I hardly ever watch films. Once or twice a year I'll try, but I almost never enjoy them. I sit there wishing I were watching a decent TV program (classic Frasier, or the Westbridge High years of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, for example), or, of course, reading a book. The only films I can stomach are funny ones. The one that's given me most enjoyment over the years is This Is Spinal Tap. I also love Billy Liar, which I first saw when I was an uncannily Billy Liar-esque 19-year-old, and it petrified me out of my torpor. I've also enjoyed Gummo and Spiceworld, but that's about all.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm a pop fan. I love the Smiths to distraction. I listen to a lot of Magnetic Fields, Giant Sand, Arthur Lee from Love is a big hero of mine (I've always gone for the wrong role models), Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Daniel Johnston, the late great Townes Van Zandt, the Four Tops, the Shangri-Las, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, and a lot of really obvious pop. I recently went through a phase of several months where I only listened to the hits of Roxette and Ace of Base. It was a very difficult time of my life, so I hope you can understand and forgive me.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I'm strangely allergic to dissecting books, and I feel uncomfortable talking about them in an analytical way, so you won't ever catch me in a book group. But if the alternative to joining a book club was death, I suppose I would be tiresomely evangelizing about Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton, as usual.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I spent years working in a bookshop, so I can't remember the last time somebody gave me a book as a gift -- they see it as taking coals to Newcastle. I'm always giving books as gifts, though -- I tend to give ones that I'm crazy about, and the kind of books that I think would suit people. Often they are photography books -- I've lost count of the amount of copies of This Is Blythe by Gina Garan that I've given to people. It's a wonderful book of portraits of a doll who, like me, was born in 1972. I've also given people Martin Parr by Val Williams. This is a huge retrospective of Parr's work -- he's the best photographer in Britain.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I usually write after dark with a beer on my desk. I follow in the rich tradition of drunken authors -- all my books owe a lot to the bottle.
What are you working on now?
Nothing, and I'm loving it.
Many writers in the Discover program are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I had my first offer from a publisher on my 27th birthday. I had been sending work out for about a year, which is a relatively short period for a new writer so I can't claim decades of prepublication struggle. That said, I'm on my third book at the moment, and I've not yet had anything that could realistically be called a hit. My rejection horror stories have carried on well into my professional career -- Timoleon Vieta Come Home was turned down by its original British publisher because they said it "would not stand up to critical scrutiny." I had to spend a miserable year ferociously defending it, and I eventually wrestled it away from them and found another publisher, one who saw where my writing was coming from and appreciated it. If there's anything inspirational to be found in this dismal anecdote it's that there's a real possibility that people who tell you that your work is worthless are badly wrong. So stuff them to hell and back."
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I just read an advance copy of a book called Jim Giraffe, by the English writer Daren King. Jim is a ghost giraffe who haunts a sexually repressed sci-fi fanatic. It's the kind of book that exists in its own little world. Daren King's really stuck his neck out (pun intended) and written a work of wonderful lunacy that knocks spots off (sorry) most new fiction. I hope it finds a U.S. publisher and does incredibly well.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
It's hard to say. I don't feel as though I've been around long enough to offer sage advice. Also, I wouldn't want to encourage people to waste their time writing a book that will never come out. I don't want to sound too Simon Cowell about this, but the chances are you won't get published and would be much better off spending your time doing something else, like learning Welsh. That said, if writing is something you really, truly enjoy then that's an end in itself. And if it's something you're deadly serious about, then I'm afraid you're going to have to let it dominate your every moment to the detriment of your social, romantic, and professional lives. Otherwise you just aren't trying hard enough, and if you're not trying hard enough you're not going to write the best book you possibly can, and if you're not writing the best book you possibly can, you might as well not bother writing anything at all. That sounds gloomy, but it's a gloomy job, and I'm a gloomy bastard.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Dan Rhodes had to say:
Zazie In The Metro by Raymond Queneau -- This book was written as a commercial enterprise, and while people have tried hard to intellectualise it over the years, claims of Great Literary Merit have never quite stuck. Queneau succeeded wonderfully in writing a funny, breakneck romp, and to be honest I prefer it to his other, weightier and less holiday-friendly, work.
The Restraint Of Beasts by Magnus Mills -- One of my favourite British novels of recent years, The Restraint Of Beasts is wonderfully dark and funny. It's also pretty short, which is something I often look for in a holiday novel. I would rather plough through a pile of short books than tackle one or two housebricks.
A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- I first read this on a long flight, and almost died laughing in the Cheers bar as I changed planes in Kuala Lumpur.
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar -- This a great big sprawling wonder of a novel from the Argentinian author, and if you don't feel like tackling such a big book he kindly gives the reader the option of stopping halfway through.
Martin Parr by Val Williams -- It's a pretty huge volume to take on a journey, but if you can fit it in your luggage it would be well worth it. A retrospective of the work of Britain's best, and most dryly humorous photographer. And if you can't quite be bothered to read any words you can just look at the pictures. There are hundreds of them, every one a gem.
Peyton Amberg by Tama Janowitz -- Bleak and shocking, Peyton Amberg is also very funny and a supremely engaging read. Tama is one of the most fearless writers around, and has the kind of integrity that is becoming increasingly rare.
Man Enough To Be A Woman by Jayne County -- What better way to spend a day on the beach than by reading the memoir of your favourite transgendered rock ‘n' roller? Jayne has quite a story to tell.
Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton -- Patrick Hamilton would have been a hundred years old this year, had he not drunk himself to death in 1962 (or, I suppose, died in some other way between then and now). This lost classic, written while the author was in his twenties, tells a superb story of the squalor of drunkenness and the misery and lunacy of infatuation. It's truly wonderful.
Jim Giraffe by Daren King -- I'm not sure how available this is in the U.S., but it would be worth making an effort to get hold of it if you are interested in reading the world's most wonderful novel about a perverted ghost giraffe. It's not for the faint-hearted.
Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance by Johnny Rogan -- This is for those of us who prefer to spend warm summer days indoors. The story of The Smiths -- the best band ever to walk the planet.
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