The author of Submarine follows up his first success - which was also turned into a movie - with the novel Wild Abandon.
The author Joe Dunthorne talks about tackling that difficult second novel
When Joe Dunthorne started to write his second novel, he found that something had changed from the first time around. The vast success of his first, 2009's Submarine - recently turned into a widely praised film - weighed heavy on him.
"It was the classic difficult second album situation," he says. "I was so aware that I was positioning myself with my second novel. I spent a year going down a series of dead ends.
"Ultimately, I realised that you can't write on those terms; you can't write with some grand plan for how you will be interpreted. It's not easy to write something as long as a novel, and I had to just go with the material that was going to keep me excited right until the end."
The result is Dunthorne's second novel, published last month. Wild Abandon follows the fortunes of a commune in Wales as the relationship at its heart - the marriage between founders Don and Freya - falls apart, and others, including their children Kate and Albert, watch, and try to hold the community together, or find their own version of freedom.
As with Submarine, this novel is infused with a warm, wonderful affection for the people it depicts, and can boast a quality rare among fiction of any kind: it is genuinely, and frequently, funny. It lends further credence to the idea - brought to life by the success of Submarine - that Dunthorne is one of Britain's most promising young novelists.
Dunthorne's office is in a disused London Underground train carriage; it sits on a site called Village Underground in east London, which is itself a kind of commune, providing working space for local artists, designers and writers. So what drew Dunthorne to communes as a site for his fiction?
"That was twofold, really. First they just seem an inherently rich vein for fiction. You have families in the commune, but also an entire mini-society, and all the power struggles that happen at the top, and you get all this on a manageable palette for a writer. So, without having to paint a picture of an entire society, you can deal with all these themes.
"Second, a friend of mine grew up in a commune in Wales. Her parents, who are amazing people, set it up with a load of fellow Oxbridge graduates in the 1970s. The place is still going, but the couple who set it up have split and with that they kind of ripped the community in two."
For research, Dunthorne went to Wales and gained a first-hand insight into communal living.
"I think what happens with communal living is a kind of perspective shift," he says. "You start out thinking: perhaps this way of life won't present all the same problems as conventional living; perhaps this really will be different. But slowly the veil falls, and all the usual mundane, technical problems start to emerge."
Over and over again Dunthorne deftly captures the humour and the pathos of that process in Wild Abandon. Take Don's friend and fellow commune founder Patrick, who builds himself a dome to live in only to find that conventional, flat furniture will not fit snugly against the dome's curved walls. Or Kate, Don and Freya's eldest child, who wonders how she can reveal her unconventional way of life to her boyfriend.
Now that Dunthorne is two books into his career, some Dunthornian themes are already becoming visible: Submarine orbited around a troubled adult relationship as seen through the eyes of its narrator, Oliver Tate, and now Wild Abandon presents us with the failing relationship between Don and Freya. What's more Don, as with Oliver's dad, is painfully, hilariously awkward. It would seem Dunthorne has a fascination for awkward fathers.
"Yes, the awkward dad thing," he smiles. "I'm sort of aware of things like that, but I don't really feel a huge amount of choice when it comes to what I write about. Ultimately, you have to give in to what really interests you, and it turns out some of that is consistent across time. I'm not embarrassed about the fact that I keep writing about families: that seems an endless vein for fiction.
"I very much admire a writer like David Mitchell, who genre-jumps and has a mastery of every mode he works in. But that's not easy. Still, my Mum did text me after reading this book to say: 'Can you maybe not write about parents next time?'"
If some of Dunthorne's interests are consistent, so is his brand of warm, acutely observed humour.
"It's not that I ever think, 'this page needs a joke', and decide to put one there," he says. "I think there's something hollow if you're just made to laugh, and then at the end you can't remember what it was all about.
"If a situation has the potential for comedy, I'll probably be drawn to pointing it out. It's just the natural way I write. But I hope that the jokes are in service of something larger."
Dunthorne sped towards the completion of Wild Abandon while the hoopla around the film release of Submarine was in full swing. The film was directed by Richard Ayoade - best known as Moss from Channel 4's IT Crowd - and Dunthorne declares himself delighted with the result.
"My expectation was that it might be a disaster," he concedes, "but as soon as I met Richard I knew the film was in good hands. I couldn't be happier with it."
Critics and audiences felt the same: the film received excellent reviews and solid ticket sales.
All this acclaim - the success of Submarine as book and film, and, now, excellent notices for Wild Abandon - surely means that the competitive streak that Dunthorne has spoken about in past interviews is assuaged, if only temporarily.
"You might think that," he smiles. "But a truly competitive person will always find more to compete for."
And so he is writing again.
"I don't know if it will become a full-length project yet, we'll have to see. This time around, I'm so much more relaxed than I was after Submarine.
"And so far, it doesn't have any parents in it. So I'm keeping my promise."