First Novel is not the first novel by Nicholas Royle. First Novel is the seventh novel by Nicholas Royle. The protagonist is a novelist called Paul Kinder who teaches Creative Writing in Manchester. Nicholas Royle is a novelist who teaches Creative Writing in Manchester. Paul Kinder is fascinated by first novels. Nicholas Royle is fascinated by first novels. Paul Kinder is friends with novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Baines. Nicholas Royle is friends with novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Baines. Paul Kinder has a fascination with the uncanny. Nicholas Royle has a fascination with the uncanny. In other words, First Novel is very much in danger of disappearing up its own arsehole. It is in danger of being branded a ‘post-modernist novel’. It is in danger of being labelled ‘metafictional’. To its very great credit, it transcends all of these things. It is a gripping thriller, beautifully crafted, full of flair and originality. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
The book deliberately invites comparisons. To what extent are you Paul Kinder?
• Ever since I started writing fiction, 30 years ago, my practice has been, in many cases, to write from personal experience and at some point in the narrative to apply a subtle twist that takes the storyline beyond my own experience. It entertains me – as it can sometimes alarm friends and family – that I do not make it obvious at what point this twist occurs. While the details of Paul Kinder’s narrative – and the circumstances of his life – differ from mine in various respects, I feel, nevertheless, a certain closeness to him. In many ways his story is my story.
The book starts with Paul meticulously taking apart a Kindle device and then putting it in the bin. What is your opinion of electronic books?
• I think my opinion of them is quite clearly expressed in the opening scene of the novel. They’re kind of handy if you’re going on holiday or reading a thousand stories entered for a competition you might be judging, but they don’t look great on bookshelves, you can’t lend them out or smell them or idly stroke their covers.
We have both done something in our writing, that some may feel blurs the line between fact and fiction. We have both put people we know into our stories. Why did you decide to include Elizabeth Baines and what does she think about the inclusion?
• I like to use real places in my fiction. The streets and footpaths and architectural landmarks of south Manchester play an important part in First Novel. Why draw the line there? Why not use real people as well? Well, because people are not buildings, you might say. They have their own private lives. But then so do buildings. OK, but surely only a psychopath would fail to distinguish between people and buildings? Really? If I’m writing a novel about a writer who lives in a suburb of south Manchester, it would seem perverse to me not to include one or two real writers who live in or around that same suburb. For me it adds authenticity. Far from jolting the reader out of the story, I believe it helps with regard to verisimilitude. Plus, it adds spice and fun and mischief. I would love to appear in somebody else’s fiction. I included the Belgian film director Harry Kümel in my novel Antwerp. Since he would briefly be a murder suspect I thought it would be best to seek his approval, which he was happy to give (he liked the end product, too, he said). I admit I didn’t ask Elizabeth Baines to approve her walk-on part (in just two scenes, I think), but then seeing as her real name isn’t actually Elizabeth Baines, I didn’t see why I needed to. Some of her friends, however, thought it outrageous.
When writers write about writing, they are sometimes accused of running out of ideas. What is your response to this?
• Bollocks. Did anyone complain that Billy Wilder had run out of ideas when he made Sunset Boulevard? David Lynch/Mulholland Drive. Man Bites Dog. Blow Out. Barton Fink. Adaptation. Etc.
In fact, the book isn’t really about writing, the plot is a rather dark and the tone, clinical, slightly sinister. It soon turns into a page turning thriller. What made you want to write the story?
• I tend to write about what’s going on in my life, not always in the most obvious way, often very obliquely. I’d moved from London to Manchester, was teaching creative writing and feeling somewhat alienated. I found myself walking by the river, thinking about life and death. There was the Stockport Pyramid, rising up from the most mundane surroundings. I had a student whose name I could never remember because both parts of it could be either a first name or a second name, which tied in with a problem I’d had for years about confusing east and west and not knowing whether certain famous people were alive or dead. A working title came to me – Either Or. It remained the title until my agent read the novel and said he thought I should change the title to First Novel, a suggestion I enthusiastically followed.
What do you want your reader to go away thinking about?
• That is a very difficult question. If I say I want them to go away thinking it was a brilliant novel and I must be a really clever guy, it makes me seem rather vain. If I say I don’t really care what they think, it makes me appear aloof and superior. I think the honest answer is, it had never occurred to me that they should go away thinking anything in particular. Which is not to say I never think about readers, or care about them. I do, a lot and enormously, respectively. Obviously I want people to like it, and not only for selfish reasons. I know what it’s like to read a 300-page novel and feel you’ve been wasting your time. I’ve done it often. You want that time back and you know you’re not going to get it back. So I hope not too many readers go away thinking that.
Are you worried your students will read it and get ideas?
• I hope my students will read it. I know some of them have. They’re not short of ideas – or talent, a lot of them. I have found working with MA students an exhilarating and inspiring experience.
There is a long and exhilarating passage (about thirteen pages) towards the end of the book in future tense (is it simple future of future continuous?). Why did you decide to write the passage in this tense?
• No spoilers! I don’t know if it’s simple future or future continuous. I hadn’t planned that section before I got to it. I don’t plan very far ahead, as a rule. I like it to be organic.
Last question, Nick. Do you have a Herman Millar Aeron chair?
• No, dammit! I don’t have 900 quid for a swivel chair. My writing chair came out of a skip. I wrote to Herman Miller when the hardback came out, suggesting they might want to give me a chair, kind of after-the-fact product placement. They didn’t even acknowledge my email.
And that folks, is as valiant an attempt to acquire a Herman Miller chair as you are likely to see this week.
First Novel is available from all good bookshops now.