Ned Beauman’s two novels don’t read like the work of an author in his mid-twenties. At 27 he is by some margin the youngest author on the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize, yet he seems to have emerged already fully-formed as a mature and wildly inventive storyteller. His debut novel, Boxer, Beetle, which simultaneously told the tale of Nazi memorabilia hunters and a eugenics-obsessed scientist, was published in 2010 and picked up a clutch of awards. His new book, The Teleportation Accident, takes as its starting point the plight of the Weimar émigrés fleeing Nazi Germany, but resolutely refuses to take itself as seriously as that subject matter mightsuggest. The protagonist, Egon Loeser, is more concerned with finding someone to have sex with him than political upheavals and eventually leaves Berlin in pursuit of a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation). Over chamomile tea in a hotel bar in Clerkenwell, Beauman discusses the parts of his books guaranteed to embarrass his friends, his love of Terrence Malick and how earplugs changed his life.
GQ: Your first book featured Nazi sympathisers while this book centres around a German character in the Thirties who’s completely politically oblivious. What is it about those morally dubious characters that appeals?
Ned Beauman: The main thing is that I still haven’t written about a character who’s on the right side. Either they’re on the wrong side or they’re not on any side. I wouldn’t find it as interesting. It’s like the fact that it’s impossible to write an interesting Superman story. I would find it really difficult to write a good story about a French resistance hero or a George Orwell-figure. There’s no contradictory pull of contempt at the same time as attention.
Your Thirties Berlin is really a thinly-veiled version of East London in 2009, right down to the anachronistic ketamine that everyone’s taking. Did you decide early on that you would have to knowingly acknowledge this piece of teleportation to the reader?
It’s acknowledged in the sense that it’s clear to the reader, but it’s not actually acknowledged in the world of the book. What I quite enjoy doing is writing things which really press up against the membrane of the fourth wall without actually breaking it. I like seeing how close I can come to being explicitly self-referential while still not breaking any of the rules of the ontic coherence of the narrative world.
If The Teleportation Accident had a soundtrack, what would it be?
The music that Drabsfahren writes is meant to be very much from that atonal Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern school, as are the soundtracks to Loeser’s place. There’d also be a lot of scratchy Thirties dance hall music. If you were trying to be a bit more multi-levelled you’d presumably put in The Big Pink or some comparable East London band of the 2010s to get the Dalston aspect. I didn’t listen to anything in particular while I was writing it, but my new one is set in London in the present day and is more explicitly music-influenced. I’ve been listening to a lot of Burial, Koreless and Holy Other.
Did writing your second novel feel like going back to square one, or were you better equipped this time around?
I definitely felt better equipped. I’d had an extra 80,000 words of practice at the technical stuff like sentences, characterisation and structure and so on. It was different though in that it didn’t come together quite as easily as Boxer, Beetle did. I didn’t really know what it was going to be about and I was very ambivalent about writing another novel about the Thirties. It doesn’t have a strong central relationship so I wasn’t sure what the emotional core would be. I’d resigned myself to people not really liking it so I wasn’t sure what my incentive was. It felt like more of a chore to write than the first one, until the end where I cut loose a little bit.
Which film has inspired you?
Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s second film. Malick’s an incredibly philosophical filmmaker. Arguably Tree Of Life is the most extensive presentation of his metaphysics and Thin Red Line is the most effectively articulated, but Days of Heaven is just the most beautiful, wordless painting of what he believes about God and the world. It’s ceaselessly beautiful.
You have a flair for writing similes. Do you collect them?
Not really. I collect a few when I see a particularly weird face or sunset or whatever, and I’ll occasionally put them in a notebook, but more often I have to come up with them while I’m writing. The simile has to match the tone of its surroundings and has to be like a little joke. Writing a simile that isn’t funny on some level is quite hard. A better writer wouldn’t use as many similes as I do – if possible you want to subsume your similes in metaphor. The major 20th Century stylists like Nabokov and Updike don’t use “as” or “like” as much as I do. They have a much more fluid way of bringing in comparisons, but I also like the Proustian approach of making a simile 500 per cent as long as the thing it’s describing. It’s kind of disingenuous – you as the narrative voice put in a simile under thepretext that you’re helping the reader to understand better what something looks like or feels like. In fact, it’s just an excuse to put in a little espresso shot of what you hope is lyrical beauty. It’s like putting a little flower arrangement in the sentence.
Can you recommend a good book?
I just read this great novel called Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. It’s from the late Eighties. It’s about the last surviving woman on earth. David Foster Wallace said that it was the high-water mark for experimental fiction in the US. It’s really funny, as well as being bleak and deep. It’s quite Beckett-y.
What’s the best advice you’ve everreceived?
Somebody told me to start wearing earplugs and it completely changed my life. On planes, in the library, trying to get to sleep, on trains, when your flatmate’s playing the guitar, all the time. There’s never a bad time to put earplugs in. They’re the kind of thing you can reject as a bit lame, but somebody told me to do start wearing earplugs and it turned out to be great advice.
Are you good at holding court in the pub?
No, I’m not. I’m reasonably good at talking onstage, but actually holding court in a pub is all to do with power dynamics which I don’t think has anything to do with fiction. The most fun I’ve had in the pub with my books is people trying to read out the sex scenes from beginning to end without giggling or having to stop. I’d have no problem with doing it but some people find it surprisingly hard. The gay sex in Boxer, Beetle really makes people blush.
Originally published by British GQ.