Like a virtuoso musician who can master any instrument they lay their hands on, author Geoff Dyer brings the same wit and intelligence to the page whether he’s riffing on jazz (1991’s Somerset Maugham Award-winning But Beautiful) or writing a book about not writing a book about DH Lawrence (1997’s Out Of Sheer Rage). He’s also a deft and original critic, shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Hatchet Job prize for his withering takedown of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense Of An Ending [“It isn’t terrible, it is just so… average.”]. Back in 2009 GQ described him as “writer as hipster polymath” when we made him our Writer Of The Year following the publication of his travelogue-meets-novel Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi, and this year he lived up to that pithy epithet yet again with the publication of Zona, his idiosyncratic exploration of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 classic of Soviet cinema. Here Dyer talks to GQ.com about the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, whether being able to hold court in the pub will make you a good writer and why Drive‘s style masked its failings as a film…
GQ.com: Is it accurate to say that rather than being a book about a film, Zona is a book about your personal experience of watching Stalker?
Geoff Dyer: It’s a bit of both. The fact that there’s a character in the film called “Writer” means he can serve as my embedded representative and enable me to participate in something I’m observing.
Do you think you need to be a good raconteur to be a good writer?
No, there’s absolutely no connection at all. One is always meeting people who are very entertaining socially but can’t do it on the page. Some writers are fun socially and some aren’t. Naturally, I am great fun – just about the funnest person in the room – which is why, as far as possible, I try to make sure no one else can get a word in edgeways.
How do your journalism and non-fiction relate to your fictional work?
To me it’s all just writing. The idea of invention and imagination is not just about making up stuff or scenes or stories within a book; it needs also to be considered at the formal level. If we bear in mind that Zona, like all my non-fiction books, has a very unusual and original structure or form then it could be said to be fiction which we expect to be original but which of course is often anything but, especially at the structural level.
You wrote in Prospect magazine about your “literary allergy” to David Foster Wallace’s lengthy footnotes, so why did you decide that similarly extended footnotes were important for Zona?
It was a technical expedient: the least inconvenient way of reconciling the demands of the successive (things unfolding in sequence, over time) and the simultaneous (things happening at the same time). In the course of the book the distinction between footnote-type stuff and the main body of the text dissolves, to the extent that the latter is overgrown by the former. This is appropriate in a film in which the manufactured and the man-made are in the process of being reclaimed or overgrown by the natural.
This “overgrowth” of footnotes works on the printed page, but eBook readers compartmentalise them by filing them neatly away. Do you think electronic readers will change the way people write?
I don’t have any kind of e-reader (though I am all for them in theory) so it was not an issue. I had no idea about the technical complexity posed by footnotes on an e-reader, but it’s not like I’m a zealous footnote-ist generally, lobbying for the protection of an endangered species; it’s just that in the context of this book they were necessary.
Which films do you consider stylish?
Lots, but the fact of being stylish does not prove anything one way or the other. Look at that film Drive with Ryan Gosling. It’s immensely stylish, couldn’t be more stylish, and this deluded people into thinking the film was of some merit. In fact, its stylishness is absolutely inseparable from – ie a symptom and cause of – the larger idiocy and waste (of Gosling’s talents, for example) of the film. The whole thing is entirely gratuitous. To give another example, I watched Claire Denis’s Beau Travail again the other day. Every bit as stylised as Drive but here it’s an inherent part of a very deep cinematic experience.
Can you recommend a good book?
Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station.
If Zona had a soundtrack, what would it be?
Stalker has already got a great soundtrack that has stood up remarkably well over the years! I was listening to Stars Of The Lid a lot when I was doing the book and was overjoyed to find that they actually use a sample from the final scene of Stalker in their track “Requiem For Dying Mothers”. Also the Necks, as always, and William Basinski, particularly The Disintegration Loops.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Play more sport. Drink less.
Originally published by British GQ.