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Dan Coxon talks to Dan Rhodes – author of Anthropology, Timoleon Vieta Come Home and This Is Life – about his latest novel, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, and the difficult decision to self-publish.
What was the immediate inspiration for When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow? What did you want to achieve with this book?
I miss Spitting Image. If it was still going they would definitely have a Richard Dawkins puppet, and every week I would be sending in lines for it – but with no Spitting Image I’ve had to take matters into my own hands. I’ve had ideas about writing about him for a long time, and when it was in the news that he’d gone apeshit on Amazon about some instructions for a DVD writer, I knew the time had come. There’s a lot of comedy to be found in people who are perpetually exasperated at the world around them – he’s a bit of a Basil Fawlty in that regard. Coupled with this was a trend for assaults on authorial freedom from people with access to petrifying lawyers. Scarlett Johansson, for instance, appears to have driven a French novel out of print because a character in it resembles her, which apparently damages her brand – as if her maximising her fees from Soda Stream and Moet adverts is in some way more important than authors being able to write fiction – that’s fiction, Scarlett – freely. I had the idea of assembling a protest anthology containing stories featuring clearly fictional versions of public figures, but in the end I decided it would be clearer and less bother just to write this book instead.
I’m sure you know that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Spitting Image. If they were to revive the show next week, who would you like to see them lampooning (apart from Richard Dawkins, obviously)?
There’s never going to be a shortage of horrifying public figures to make fun of. I’m sure they would get a lot of mileage out of Vince Cable for a start. Michael Gove would be an open goal.
For a comic novel, there are some pretty deep, philosophical discussions about the existence of God and the coexistence of science and religion in When The Professor… Why in particular did this interest you?
I’m not embedded in the argument. If I was, and I was trying to get a point across, I think the book would have suffered for it. If I ever tune into those debates they sound to me like the screeching of squabbling toddlers, and I don’t find myself with much option but to make fun of both sides.
You mention a number of celebrity authors during the course of the novel, from Martin Amis to A.C. Grayling. Have you met any of these in person? What has been your experience of these kinds of celebrity authors while on the book festival circuit?
I’ve not met Martin or A.C.. I tend to be at the tail end of these literary events. I always seem to end up among the aspiring novelists as they vomit into municipal shrubberies.
Why the decision to publish this one yourself?
I wanted to get it out fast, and publishers don’t do fast. Also, they are – to put it politely – cautious, and it’s unlikely they would have waved it through without demanding changes. I’m hoping, with this publication, to prove that it isn’t a legal minefield, and to partner up with a conventional publishing house for the paperback. Wish me luck with that.
How challenging have you found that?
Hmmm… You’d better ask me in a few weeks. So far it’s been pretty smooth. I’ve printed 400 first editions, which I’m signing and numbering, and they are trickling out nicely to independent bookshops.
You’ve said that this year marks your twentieth year working in the book trade. What lessons have you learned during that time that you’d like to pass along to our readers?
That nobody knows what makes a book catch on. I know I’m doing everything wrong, but I take comfort in the knowledge that there’s no right way of doing things.
I just bought a stack of John Wyndham novels, which I’m looking forward to, I’m watching Dad’s Army and Blossom, and listening to Samson & Delilah by VV Brown. Part of my determination to get this book out – less than two months between finishing it and publishing it – is my continuing dismay at the delay of the MKS album. We should have been listening to that for months, but instead we’re growing old.
And what can we expect to see from you next? Do you have any unfulfilled projects you’d like to tackle?
Every time I finish a book I feel as if I’ll never be able to do anything every again. But so far something’s always reared up. Who knows?
When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow is available now from select bookshops, or from Dan Rhodes’s website. It is also available as a Kindle ebook. Dan Rhodes has written eight other books and won a bunch of prizes, including the E.M. Forster Award. He lives in Derbyshire.