Novelist To Screenwriter And Back To NovelistInterview by Dennis Widmyer
Up until I met Alex Garland I had nothing to go off about his personality. Aside from the picture to your right, most images I had thus far seen of Alex displayed him as the brooding, quiet, maybe even introverted writer. Yet, still a damn good writer at that. I remember reading The Beach so many years ago and being completely BLOWN away by it. Seriously. That book to me was an example of an author just getting it so right. Probably the way Trainspotting felt to a lot of its fans. Just the right book at the right time.
So I'm at a small Borders reading in NYC a couple months back, waiting for Garland to take the floor, not sure what to expect of the guy, yet knowing that I wanted to interview him anyway. See I had just finished reading Alex's third and latest novel, The Coma, and I still couldn't shake it. And so I was pleased when Alex took the floor and turned to be a foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, genius of a Brit. The guy had the whole place cracking up from the minute he began reading Chapter 1 of The Coma, to a minute later when the PA system in Borders suddenly cut him off with the curt voice of an employee asking someone to come to Customer Service.
After the reading I introduced myself to Alex. He knew of Chuck and was astounded, yet a little cynical about the "Guts" body count, but he did not know about our site. And here I am, a little in awe of this dude who, if he did half as much publicity as Chuck, might be just as big if not bigger than him. I mean, the guy's already got three novels, two of which have been turned into movies (The Beach directed by Danny Boyle; The Tesseract directed by Oxide Pang) as well as the screenwriting credit for 28 Days Later, another Danny Boyle project that grossed over $75 million in the U.S. alone. But Alex was completely humble and seemed quite honored and appreciative to do an interview for The Cult. So here it is.
Dennis Widmyer: What are you currently working on? I remember you talking about a new Danny Boyle project. Care to elaborate?
Alex Garland: It's a sci-fi script, currently titled 'Sunshine', about a spaceship on a mission to the sun. As they get closer to the sun, the crew start getting increasingly fucked up. It's basically about man facing the inevitability of eventual extinction.
So it's the same stuff I always do. Genre. Written with affection for previous books, comics, and films. All wrapped up in stoner 'philosophy'.
I'm now working with Danny Boyle and Andrew MacDonald (producer) on developing the script and trying to put the film together. No idea whether we'll succeed or not, on any level.
Dennis: You've now had quite a lot of run-ins with the world of movie-making. Your first novel, The Beach, was turned into a big budget movie starring Leonard DiCaprio. Then your follow-up novel, The Tesseract, was brought to the big screen by The Eye director Oxide Pang (Thailand / Hong Kong). And then there was your second project with Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later. Can you talk a little about the differences you see in writing scripts and writing novels? Which do you like better?
Garland: I should mention that they only one of those three films I actually worked on was 28 Days Later. Apart from writing the source material, I had no input into the film of The Beach or The Tesseract.
As for writing scripts versus writing novels... I'm not sure I like either better. You can say that films are collaborative, and novels aren't. But my feeling is that there are more similarities between them than differences. They both reduce to the same thing: words serving the function of telling a story, creating characters, integrating themes.
I'll add that I find the actual process of film making to be more stressful than novel writing, but also more fun.
Dennis: Talk about the experience of working with Danny Boyle and company.
Garland: I take 'And company' to mean Andrew MacDonald, producer, mentioned earlier. I think (honestly) that they are among the most interesting film-makers around today, and I'm a film fan, so all in all, working with them is great.
As for the experience... they are both very good company. There's a lot of joking and general discussion. And where the work is concerned, there's a lot of respect, but also a lot of arguing. To date, no one has won an argument by invoking a veto. Instead, the point is just hashed out, and discussed either calmly or angrily until eventually a consensus is reached. Sometimes that can take a very long time, and can be exhausting. But I'd rather it was like that than anything else.
Alex Garland and Danny Boyle
Photo from Yahoo Movies
Dennis: Okay, let's back up now. I know you've probably bled from the ears already talking about The Beach, but I've never gotten to ask you about it, so tough titty. So, talk for a bit about the crazy experience that was writing your first novel and seeing it blow up so big and become the cult favorite that is.
Garland: Can't type.
Uh... what can I say? Made money. Given a launch pad for a working life. Set a precedent I had no interest in following. Created expectations that I was not cut-out to match. Disappointed virtually all of my readers subsequently. But I like what I've done, and I stand by it all.
Dennis: (dabs Alex's ears with a tissue) Before you had written The Beach, what other writing experiences had you had? Any prior manuscripts you tried to get published?
Garland: I wrote a whole novel before The Beach. Unpublishable. Junk. But, for some reason I stuck at novels and wrote a second. Still not sure why I didn't give up. Stubborn, maybe.
Prior to that, I had written & drawn many comic strips. Mainly a lot of Freak Brothers/Crumb rip offs. Stuff that gave the impression that I had taken more LSD than I actually had. Later, I started trying to write & draw extended strips that had proper narratives. In fact, the first version of The Beach was a 62 page comic strip (62 pages because Tintin books were always 62 pages).
Dennis: Let's talk about your new novel, The Coma. I read this in two sittings at a beach 2 weeks ago and it really got to me. So often people try to explain their dreams to you. Or, you find yourself trying to explain a dream you had to them... all with no success. It's never as vivid voiced, as you remember it in your head. But you achieve this perfectly in The Coma. The whole book feels like a flawless description of a dream. Was it a dream, or a series of dreams that formed the inspiration for this novel?
Garland: It was totally inspired by dreams. I just got really interested by the idea that we spend a huge amount of time in dream states but we're very bad at describing and recalling them. I also felt that I'd never read an account of a dream state that felt right to me. I also liked the sense that it was a taboo subject - dreams are cliches, they are misused, they almost embarass people as being an inherently sophomoric subject matter. All of that was very attractive to me.
Dennis: You seem to have a thing for comas. Your lead character in 28 Days Later wakes up from a coma too. What is it about them that intruiges you so?
Garland: Well, in 28 Days Later, it was really to facilitate a lift from Day of the Triffids - where a guy goes into hospital and the world is normal, then comes out and everything is turned on its head. But that said, I think comas are fascinating. Even the word 'coma' sounds amazing to me. Short, elegant, beautiful, sinister.
The key is, as we fall asleep at night, we do so with a confidence that - after a series of fractured and mysterious narratives - we will eventually wake up. And it's precisely this domestic and routine confidence that is removed by a coma. We might be held within the fractured narrative forever. To my mind, that's just a lovely and self-contained premise.Dennis: Your father, Nicholas Garland, did all the illustrations for The Coma and I really think they're great. They capture a certain mood that I can't even put into words. What was it like working with your father on this novel, and would you want to do it again?
Garland: I'm glad you like my Dad's stuff. I do too. And I can't put the qualities of his work into words either. I just know that he's a more talented and dedicated artist than I'll ever be.
As for what it was like working with him, it was basically easy. I knew how to play to his strengths, because I grew up watching him do this stuff. The only real difficulties we'd get would be because I would on occasion dramatically revert to being a stroppy adolescent, and start yelling about some thing or another. But he was well used to me being an idiot, so it all worked out okay in the end.
Dennis: At the reading, you spoke about your love for comic books and graphic novels. Being a big comic nut myself, I'd love to hear how they inspire you. List some of your favorite writers, artists and titles too.
Garland: Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, George Herriman, Herge. They inspire me totally and endlessly. They give me the confidence to do what I want, and I get more of that confidence from them than from any novelists or film-makers.
Dennis: While we're on the topic of favorites, tell me some of your favorite movies.
Garland: Badlands, Alien, Third Man, Apocaplypse Now, Godfather 1&2, Taxi Driver, 2001, Clockwork Orange, Jaws, Starship Troopers, Donnie Darko, Dawn of the Dead, Blade Runner, Empire Strikes Back... With films, I could go on and on. I've just thought of several that I like more than some I've mentioned... but then I'll get obsessive about compiling the list, and that will be the rest of my day GONE, so I'll leave it at this.
Dennis: How about some favorite books/writers too?
Garland: JG Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro, JD Salinger, James Fenton, Graham Greene, Varlam Shalamov, John le Carre.
Dennis: And (you knew it was coming)... favorite music? I only ask because I spent 4 months living in London and I find that Brits have much better taste in music than us. So are there some favorite selections you perhaps like to listen to when you write?
Garland: That question is impossible. IMPOSSIBLE. So instead I'm going to list artists that are out of CD cases and lying around my desk, to give a cross section of the last six of months (I'm very slow at putting CDs back). Beck, Ravi Shankar, Royksopp, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, Nirvana, The Handsome Family, The Black Keys, Solaris soundtrack, Nashville soundtrack, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy... As I write at this moment, I'm listening to Lemon Jelly. There's many more here. Ben Folds Five, Jim White, Bill Monroe... I really need to start putting them away.
Dennis: What's your view on authors becoming celebrities, touring like crazy, and doing all the basic PR stuff that goes with it?
Garland: Mmm... I don't much like author tours and PR. I've made a balance, which is I do enough PR to keep the publishers happy and not get a reputation for being a recluse (which can be counter productive), but I don't do so much that I get famous. And it has more or less worked. I'm not famous. When I walk down the road, or into a book shop, nobody recognises me. And that's great.
But being publicity shy has also kind of backfired. For the last few years there was this rumour in the UK that I had writer's block. But because I wasn't doing any publicity, I couldn't contradict it, so the rumour grew, and became accepted as fact. It got so crazy that there were actually headlines in British newspapers about it. One paper even ran an 'interview' about my block, with totally invented quotes and a photo of me that was four or five years old.
This shit meant that when The Coma came out in the UK, the book was almost always reviewed within the context of this non-existent writer's block. Like it was RESPONSE to writer's block Some reviewers even said the book was ABOUT writer's block. Drove me crazy! The book was about a coma! It said so on the cover! And it was a hybrid between a comic book and a novel! How can you tell? Because what the fuck else could it be? Look at the pictures, you mother fuckers!
And now I'm ranting. Stupid, because no one gives a shit except me. Anyway. Yeah.
Public life is bullshit.
Dennis: Okay, time to get studious now. Talk about your method. Do you outline your novels first? Write them longhand and then type them after? Do you workshop them with other writers like Chuck does? Are you a chronic, obsessed re-drafter and editor? Gimme the goods!
Garland: For the last few years, I have taken to writing down a first story outline on a single sheet of A4 paper. I don't usually do use more notes than that. The next step is just to start the story. Write the first line, then the second, etc. I write on a word processor - Word for prose, Final Draft for scripts. I'm an obsessed editor. I like to pare stuff down. I delete most of what I write. I rewrite a great deal. I don't read prose fiction while I write prose fiction. So, I can easily go a year without reading any fiction. But I do watch films while writing scripts.
Dennis: Learning what you have learned, what sort of advice would you give to first time writers?
Garland: Show people your stuff, listen carefully to their responses, but ultimately don't value anyone's opinion above your own. Be influenced by writers you dislike as well as writers you like. Read their stuff to figure out what's wrong. Find a balance between the confidence that allows you continue, and the self-critical facility that enables you to improve. Get the balance wrong on either side, and you're screwed.
Alex Garland's new novel The Coma is in stores now, and it's great. You can order it through our site by clicking here!