The British author D J Taylor, who will be speaking at this week’s literary festival in Dubai, talks to James Kidd about his prolific 30-year career in letters.
Living by the pen
The last time D J Taylor attended the Emirates Festival of Literature in 2010, he couldn’t move for Martin Amis. Or should that be Martin Amises? “His rather saturnine-looking photograph was on the front page of The National. The paper was left on the door handles of the hotel I was staying at. As I came out of my room one morning, all the way down the corridor there was Martin Amis staring at me. It was like 1984, only it was Big Martin watching you.”
Amis Junior is not gracing Dubai with his presence this year, but Taylor is returning in a characteristic multiplicity of guises.
Indeed, D J Taylor (the initials stand for David John) is practically a one-man literary festival.
During a 30-year career, he has produced 12 works of fiction (novels and short stories), almost as many biographies and critical books, enough journalism to be considered a daily newspaper and regular radio broadcasts.
“I cannot understand the concept of writer’s block,” he says. “I cannot imagine how, faced with a piece of paper, someone can’t start putting words on it. There are people who take five years to write a book. What are they doing? What Flaubertian school of revisers do they belong to?”
This year’s festival attendees can find the 54-year-old discussing his last novel, The Windsor Faction, and participating in various events about non-fiction writing: the most intriguing is a panel on biography with Andrew Motion and Pam Ayres. For starters, Taylor will revive his role as the biographer of George Orwell and introduce Jeremy Bowen, who will deliver this year’s Orwell Lecture, Journalism in Dangerous Times. “The only remit is it must be on a subject about which Orwell would have taken an interest – which is virtually everything. If someone got up and talked about rose-growing or making a cup of tea, those are Orwellian subjects,” he says.
When Taylor speaks to me from the home in Norwich that he shares with his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, and their three sons, he cheerfully admits that there is a stark contrast between the solitude of the writing life and the public whirl of the modern international book festival. “A lot of people become writers to avoid human contact,” he says. “I like appearing on stage and communicating with my audience. It gratifies me enormously to find people who have read the stuff and like it. It’s a very minor version of being a rock star.”
In conversation, Taylor proves fluent and intellectually restless. A typical answer begins with a personal reminiscence before meandering into enjoyably encyclopaedic literary disquisition, such as memories of speaking at the Latitude rock festival armed with obsolete jokes from the New Musical Express or seeing the former US president Bill Clinton seduce the Hay Literary Festival audience with a brief history of book promotion. While authors performing in public is nothing new – he mentions the Sunday Times-sponsored book exhibitions of the 1930s – Taylor argues that the current hunger for live readings is a relatively recent phenomenon.
“I believe there’s a literary festival going on every week somewhere in England, let alone abroad. It has become a kind of spectator sport in a way that it didn’t used to be. I find it very amusing to imagine what would have happened 50 years ago if a publicity girl had rung up Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell and asked them to read at a festival. Anthony Powell wouldn’t even sign a book for anyone he hadn’t met.”
Taylor’s entire career has been shaped by comparable forces: the differing agendas of literature and the business of literature. “The point I always labour is that I live entirely by my pen. Unless I keep putting the words on the page, the children don’t get educated. It’s like the old ZZ Top song, I Gotsta Get Paid.”
He follows a tradition espoused by the subjects of his towering biographies, William Makepeace Thackeray and George Orwell. All three worked prodigiously across various literary fields to make writing pay. But like Thackeray and Orwell, Taylor doesn’t only write to earn, he earns to write. “Writing books is serious. Journalism by and large is not – no disrespect to the people who commission me. I remember A S Byatt telling me that reviews do themselves on the screen. Whereas the books are much more considered and revised.”
For the first decade of his writing life, however, Taylor funded his literary ambitions with distinctly un-literary jobs. First at a public-relations agency in the West End of London. “It was enormous fun. It wasn’t a proper job. I had a very sympathetic boss who would say: ‘The important thing is that David finishes his novel.’” From there, he transferred to the City of London (“The money paid better”) and the world of corporate communications. “I wrote chairmen’s speeches and articles about insolvency legislation. When you have had to compile publications like Insolvency News for Ernst and Young, the most trivial book review is like manna from heaven.”
Marriage and children kept Taylor in London’s Square Mile for much of the 1990s. “I was quite shameless. I worked three-and-half days, but was always able to finish my work in a third of that time. The rest of the time I used for writing. Towards the end, the City was changing and this became more difficult. People got less pleasant as the 90s went on. By the end, they would ask: ‘What are you typing?’”
Beyond subsidising his fledgling efforts, the City left little impression on Taylor’s prose. “I thought it was going to provide material and human life. Unfortunately, it was so boring, so mind-numbingly tedious, that I got material for about half a book – my novel English Settlement. That’s all it ever gave me.”
Taylor became a full-time writer in 1997. Once again, the competing demands of art and capitalism shaped his career trajectory. His first five novels were, for the most part, personal and set in a recognisably contemporary Britain: Taylor’s speciality was English provincial life. These have been superseded by a series of historical novels: the pre-war “what if” narrative of The Windsor Faction and a brace of Victorian pastiches, Kept and the Man Booker long-listed Derby Day.
Historical fiction suits Taylor down to the ground: his work exhibits a keen sense of the traditions that formed their creator.
But the shift in emphasis was driven by commercial considerations. He recalls a meeting with his publisher, shortly after completing the Orwell biography. “I said to my editor, I could write another one of my deracinated provincial books or my Victorian one. Before I had even finished the sentence, she said: ‘Write the Victorian one.’”
There are moments when Taylor sounds downbeat about the fiscal realities of the book trade: “There are the kind of books you want to write and the kind of marketplace you exist in. The sad fact is that far more people are interested in buying a novel like Derby Day than they are in buying the kind of stuff I used to write.”
At the same time, he is realistic and inventive enough to capitalise artistically on art’s capitalist necessities. “I have always wanted to write a work of literary criticism about the Victorian novel, but no one would ever pay me more than fourpence,” Taylor says. “Part of what I was trying to do in Kept and Derby Day was put forward ideas about Victorian writing by writing like a Victorian.”
Taylor sounds cheerfully optimistic about the novel’s prospects in a world seemingly dominated by other forms of popular entertainment: sport, cinema, gaming, television, the internet and shopping. “I remember 30 years ago, publishers giving talks not about The Future of the Book, but asking: Does the Book Have a Future? Books weren’t selling because everyone was playing Pac Man. Given some of the funereal orations over the book in the 1980s, I think it has survived wonderfully well. Books work on your imagination in a way that no other medium can do.”
Taylor points to his own enduring success as proof of literature’s tenacity. Over the next year or so, he will publish a collection of his short stories, and complete two very different projects: a novel about British politics in the 1970s and a study of literary culture of the past century.
“Here I am, 30 years after I started, making a living out of this. It still strikes me as absolutely remarkable that people are prepared to pay me money for giving my views about a book. The idea that I don’t have to get on the Tube and sit in some bloody office is extraordinarily liberating.”
James Kidd is a regular contributor to The National.