Toby Litt read English at Worcester College, Oxford and studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia where he was taught by Malcolm Bradbury.
In 2003 Toby Litt was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'.
His most recent novels are Journey into Space (2009) and King Death (2010).
British Council: Can you tell us about your experience as part of the British Council ‘Writers Train’ in 2003?
Toby Litt: We had lots of meetings with Chinese writers. Most of the events we did in China were in schools. I did a creative writing class for a school in Kunming with quite young children, about the ages of 11 or 12. I think we also did a reading at a British Council office.
But most of us were doing blogs and things like that as we went along, and we were all writing diaries. There was a TV documentary as well. It was a bit like being in a band, we were being filmed at every moment – Susan Elderkin was making a radio documentary – everything was being recorded.
In trying to think about what was useful to me – that [trip] was useful in the way it changed my view of the world, I suppose.
I did a thing where I wrote two lists – one was ‘what I expect’, before I went, and one was ‘what I remember’ after I’d come back – to try and deal with my feelings about the place. I have a problem with travel writing which is too cosy; so I wanted to show that my memory was fallible and also that I had preconceptions about some of the things I would see.
And some of those anticipated things I did see. And it gave me such a sense of – amazement in a way, that China was industrialising and building at a rate that made London look like a museum. The scale of things there. You couldn’t help but compare it to our [British] industrial revolution.
You’d be sitting outside of the hotel in Shanghai looking down on the river, looking across at the Pudong district and all those buildings which have been in Mission Impossible and other films now - and just seeing it as a working river where you’ve got enormous boats going up and down carrying metal rafters or huge amounts of concrete. And you'd compare that to the Thames, which just has tourist boats and the odd canal boat - but this was like a motorway, it was like watching the M1, everything was about ten times the size. That really scared me.
Particularly when we were in Chongqing, which is a vast city and very polluted, or at least it was when we were there. I was inside my hotel room, I was quite high up, and I was looking down on one high-rise being demolished and the one next to it being built – it was almost like watching the graphic equalizer on a stereo - as one goes down, one comes up. That gave me a sense of velocity – of things going so fast. The construction is going so fast and change is happening so fast that you have to react to that in some way.
After that, I wrote Hospital, which has about 130 characters. And I tried to write a crowd, which is difficult enough to do, so I think - after visiting China - I had an idea that to write a novel dealing with a few cosy people wasn’t enough.
BC: Had you sketched that novel out before you went or was it something that came out of the experience?
Goodness. I don’t think I was working on it. I think really the idea came out of a number of things. I wanted to have so many people in the novel that, if you gathered together all the main characters in the novel, they’d be a crowd and you’d be in the middle of them - psychologically. But no, I can never remember when ideas start or stop.
What was most interesting about the China trip, as far as writing went, was that there was a big difference in approach (and this is a generalisation) between the British Council writers and the Chinese writers. And that was partly because the Chinese writers were familiar with a lot of what we were seeing – whereas we were seeing things for the first time. The Chinese writer who I became most friendly with was Chen Danyan – she didn’t write. She didn’t take notes or do anything. She said ‘I work by looking at things and taking it in, and then I’ll go away and eventually - a few weeks after this - I’ll sit down, and the important things will be what stuck with me and I’ll write it in one go.’
But all of the British writers were notebook fiends. We were all recording as we went along and, in a way, it seemed that we weren’t trusting our memories. I tend to write things in a notebook and then not look at them again. But between the British and Chinese writers, our ways of writing were very different.
It was a bit like what is expected of the handwriting in both cultures. When you do Chinese calligraphy you have to do it in one go. You have to visualise the character and then, without taking your brush off the page, you have to complete the thing. And if you make a mistake, basically the whole thing is out. It has to be done spontaneously. Or, it has to be both spontaneous and considered. Whereas a piece of our kind of calligraphy – you might have to do everything once but it would be very painstaking – you know, you’d be very slowly putting it together and you’d be referring to a pencil sketch of how it should be and all those things. So it’s always interesting when you can see another approach.
We assume that all our note-taking as we go along is the way to be more accurate about it, in a sense. But by letting your own forgetfulness come through, you might come out with something stronger in the end. I sometimes feel this when I’m teaching creative writing - and I see people taking down every word I say, but not looking at it– they’re just transcribing it. And I think, 'Just don’t take any notes - if it’s important to you, you’ll remember it. If it’s really important, you’ll remember it in a couple of weeks’ time or a couple of years’ time. Otherwise you’ll just waste more paper.'
BC: I think the Writers’ Train trip took about a month, is that correct? Which is quite an extended, and quite unusual for the BC?
TL: Yes. China that year was a very big series of projects with the Anthony Gormley exhibition and lots of other things. So we were part of that. But, yes, it felt quite epic in terms of miles travelled, and you really got to know people a lot better, just because you’re with them in this strange bubble of being looked at.
BC: Have you made any lasting connections with any of the writers on that trip? Either British or Chinese?
TL: Yes, I’m still in touch with Susan Elderkin and Chen Danyan. The biggest frustration about travelling for the British Council is making really, really good friendships with people on the other side of the world. You meet people and you think, 'You would be one of my best friends if I could see you more often - but you’re a long long way away.' And it’s not only happened with writers from other countries; I became quite good friends with Ian Samson, who I met on that trip to Romania, and he lives in Northern Ireland.
BC: What year was the Romania trip?
TL: I went twice. Once I went with Lawrence Norfolk and once I did the Oradea seminar. Oradea was 2000; that one was very intense. One of the things that you learn, travelling for the British Council, is that the rhetoric that prominent writers use when they speak in public differs extremely, country to country. By rhetoric I mean what expectations the writers have about how they should speak and what people want to hear from them.
So, for example, in Germany there seems to be an expectation that a writer won’t speak for less than an hour. There seems to have to be a solid extended piece of speech. Not like the idea that we have here [in the UK] now where you get up and speak for maybe 5 minutes about your novel before speaking about your writing process for 55 minutes, or telling amusing stories about your life as a writer. In Romania there was definitely a rhetoric, at that time anyway, of speech-making. And because Ceausescu had sometimes spoken for 6 hours on TV, if you spoke for 45 minutes it was extremely short! And then the Romanian writers also spoke incredibly seriously and probably in a way that was part of very established debates between them and the other writers. How does this reflects back on us travelling for the British Council? Well, that other countries often treat writers with something approaching reverence, and that those writers can get quite used to being revered.
I think British Council travelling writers are sometimes amused by this, when they’re not embarrassed by it. But when people approach you with the same respect or deference as they would their own writers – because their own writers don’t really see themselves as entertainers so much, they’re something more like prophets or social prophets – it can be quite unnerving. British writers aren’t used to being taken that seriously. Or if we take ourselves that seriously we just get the piss taken out of us.
So for example Harold Pinter - he would speak with a kind of rhetoric, he would speak very directly, very angrily, but he was ridiculed for it, widely ridiculed as someone who was just intemperate. Not that he was an engaged public intellectual who was well within his rights to be politically angry – the usual reaction to him was just ‘God this is embarrassing! Why doesn’t he just tell us some amusing theatre stories’. And I think that Pinter is much more what a writer is expected to be in some of those countries the British Council goes to, particularly Romania or Slovenia or places like that.
BC: Having had that sort of experience of being able to see how writers are seen or perceived overseas does that make you lament the situation we have here in the UK, or are you quite relieved about it?
TL: Well, obviously you look at it and think ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to be revered?’. But then you think, revered writers can get very lazy and very pompous, and that can happen very fast. If all you need to do is be a writer in order to be respected, you don’t have to do very much - you just need to occupy that position and then the work is done. And, in a sense, most of the time British writers have to work harder to achieve being taken seriously. Or if they have to use humour and irony in order to get things across, then what they’re doing can be richer.
There is often a sense of fun about British Council trips. The British writers are aware of being comic. Whereas they might be encountering people that are very used to being completely serious all the time - or that their comedy is much more painful, as it were. So, as a British writer, you can end up feeling trivial sometimes, I think - by trying to entertain the people in front of you rather than instruct or tell them that they’re wrong. But telling people they are wrong doesn’t go down very well at Cheltenham.
BC: So I suppose what you’re saying is that having been on some of these trips has given you a much more rounded view of the role of the writer or the status of the writer in different countries…
TL: Yes - but that they’re very different. People may be attracted to being a certain kind of writer because that’s the way writers are expected to be in that particular country. It’s less likely that someone who is politically passionate would feel as comfortable being the writer-as-entertainer; but then, on the other side, it’s also less likely that in the country where the writers are expected to be prophets that someone who was comic would be attracted to being a writer - or at least they’d be more likely to be a satirist rather than someone who just wanted to make people laugh.
An audience has expectations of what they’re going to get when writers turn up from the way that writers have behaved in front of them before. And so sometimes, when the British Council comes to town, the events become far less formal. Or less respectful. Or more fond of laughs. Sometimes, when writers in the country you’re visiting begin to talk among themselves, for example in Romania, if anyone mentioned issues of language, it would often lead to a discussion of the dominant language and then the languages which don’t get enough airtime within the literary culture, the way language had been affected by Ceausescu for example - that was their debate, it seemed, they’d disappear into that very quickly, and they wouldn't come back.
You’d be much more likely to get that debate with Welsh or Scottish writers than you would with English writers.
BC: We’re looking at this over a period of years – do you remember if you have awareness or involvement or opinion of the British Council before you started working with them?
TL: I did, from the outside, when I lived in Prague. I arrived in the Spring of 1990 and the British Council had a little tucked away office with, very importantly, a functioning photocopier. And newspapers. So I read about Geoffrey Howe’s parliamentary attack on Thatcher and other things there. It was a tucked away little place, sort of trying to keep its head down - and you could meet other English-speaking people there.
The most frustrating thing, for me, was that they had a whole load of contemporary novels which, as a Brit, I wasn't allowed to borrow. So the new AS Byatt was there, pristine on the shelf, and you thought ‘Who else is borrowing this? Please let me borrow it!’ I went along to a British Council event that Alan Hollinghust did, and I think I got chatting to him afterwards - and it felt like something was happening, like something was going on. But I think that was the totality of it – there may have been other events but I wasn’t always aware what was British Council and was British Embassy.
BC: Have you noticed any evolution or difference between the British Council of ten years ago and now in the way we work?
TL: Well, clearly I was involved at a time which was post-Cold War, in that the places I tended to go – like Romania or Croatia or Slovenia - had been part of the Soviet Union and they were dealing with that still. The focus was on widening Europe, as it were.
There was also I think a harking back to how the British Council had operated during the Cold War, and it having a role alongside things like the World Service, as a kind of beneficent and slightly subversive foreign presence. And I think the focus of the British Council has shifted very much away from that and away from that expanded Europe.
There are places and countries I’ve gone where the offices are now closed; they were places where the British Council had wanted to expand, to be slightly subversive or to just have a presence. I think there was a feeling that sending writers to these places to meet other writers and talk to other writers and do interviews and public events did something worthwhile - but it was very hard to quantify. And when the demand for things to be quantifiable in order to justify themselves came to dominate, as it has done, it became much harder to defend those kind of gentle interventions.
It’s no longer enough to just be creating cultural goodwill or maintaining a dialogue - all those things that a British Council event would culminate by gesturing towards - ‘This has been a wonderful dialogue, let’s keep it going’ - that’s a bit too vague, and the benefits are very hard to point out.
But I think, generally, people would say that cultural insularity is a big problem for British writers. And that what’s worth being serious about or what isn’t worth being serious about isn’t questioned enough here. Writers travelling for the British Council might be seen as just going somewhere and having fun and then coming back – but I think writers are affected more deeply than that.
Often when I travelled for the British Council the first thing that was said about me was ‘This is Toby Litt, he’s a member of English PEN’ – that sort of thing, the defence of freedom of speech, is taken more seriously than here.
BC: What do you think you’ve gained, personally and / or as a writer? What is there to be gained by working with the BC?
TL: I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the British Council. It's been a great thing.
I think anything is good that allows you to realise that your way of doing things is not just not close to how someone else does something, but is be entirely other to they way they do things, and that they do things better than you because they do it in another way. Your assumptions about what a writer is can become devastatingly conservative, if you get nothing but the British view.
There are very few ways to meet writers from other countries and cultures, to have proper intellectual encounters with them – to have a formality that means that you don’t just socialise. You are asked to challenge one another. You have to not just get on – you have to make your case. And if I hadn’t done any of that I think that, I’d have a weaker sense of what a writer can be. But, more broadly, I'd have a poorer sense of what writing can do in the world. I mean specifically that the way writers exist in their society can mean that they are, at times, the most important person in their society.
For periods of time Vaclav Havel was the most important person in that [Czechoslovakian] society. In the years before he became President, he was far more important as someone writing political essays than he was when he became President - because he was important as a thinker. And as soon as you say ‘as a thinker’ in an ‘English’ way, you basically imply that they are someone who’s got above themselves - rather than someone who’s saying on the most basic level, 'Look, these are things we’ve got wrong. These are things we need to change.' Because, without critical writers, there’s a very easy route to smug consensus.
Interview by Tanya Andrews