Small Talk: James Meek

Born in London in 1962, James Meek grew up in Dundee. He published his first novel, McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989), while working as a journalist. He reported for the Guardian from the former USSR and Iraq but decided in 2006 to devote himself to fiction. Among his five novels and two collections of short stories are We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008) and The People’s Act of Love, which won the 2006 Ondaatje Prize. Meek lives in London.

What book changed your life?

Bulgakov’s The White Guard tipped me over into moving to Kiev in 1991. A great book about a city gives a city an allure, a mystery it can’t gain in any other way. The Busconductor Hines, by James Kelman, changed the way I thought about writing.

What music helps you write?

I can’t listen while I’m writing but sometimes I gee myself up with music. Anything from Handel to The Hold Steady. And I have a guitar in the house – when things are going very badly or very well I comfort or reward myself.

Which literary character most resembles you?

I feel a certain sympathy with [VS Naipaul’s] Mr Biswas, who is blessed with such a brilliant narrator, like a guardian angel. I don’t feel that I am narrated so well as he is.

Who are your literary influences?

Who do I like, or who have I ripped off? There are writers I’ve sat down with and consciously tried to learn from – Tolstoy is the first in that line. It’s a very rewarding process to apply to any writer you like.

What are you scared of?

Being extremely old for a very long time. It’s the modern nightmare, and you know it is because people rarely talk about it.

When do you feel most free?

When I’m by the sea, walking, and there’s that vast wilderness at my side.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

When I was a boy I used to walk in the Grampians with my father. “Contour round,” he used to say: “Don’t lose the height you’ve gained, follow the contours of the land to get where you’re going, even if it looks as if it would be quicker and more direct to go down [into] some hollow and scramble up the other side.”

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) by Picasso. It’s just at that moment where modernism meets classicism, and it looks both back and forward in time.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I could probably get by as some kind of cook, but not a very well-paid one. And I have a hankering after forestry.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

A forest in Italy on a particular day, in a particular minute. It was the combination of the light, company and activity. There hasn’t been a better place before or since.

What does it mean to be a writer?

Stubbornness; persistence; hope; habit.

James Meek’s latest novel ‘The Heart Broke In’ (Canongate) has been shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Novel Award

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