One of the most inventive and unorthodox writers working today, Tom McCarthy is the author of the novels Remainder, Men in Space and C, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The British writer's latest novel, Satin Island, about "a talented and uneasy figure" named U "pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London," was recently published.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
It's actually my own, although I can't take any credit for it. Miranda July (whom I've never met) related the following dream to her friend Sheila Heti, who relayed it to me: "My dream last night was in the form of an e-mail from you – you wrote me about how when you were in your early 20s you and your boyfriend and your best friend spent a summer writing letters to the author Tom McCarthy. You were trying to figure out how to be writers and wanted advice from him. Eventually he began writing you back. This was the advice he gave: 'If you want to write more, buy more paper. If you want to write better, buy better paper. And most importantly, the first sentence of the book should be indented.' Then he described how he loved to take a pencil and trace the invisible line from the first letter of the first sentence to the upper left corner of the page. I was thinking how I found that last part sexy and then right then you Skyped me [something we did all the time] and said you found that part sexy. I said I did too."
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
Anything by Thomas Hardy. I must have read all his novels three times and they get worse each time. People think it's profound because it has this clunky, blatant symbolism. In Jude the Obscure they buy this kid (called Little Father Time) some flowers, and he goes, "Nay, prithee buy me not flowers, for in the morning they shall be dead" – and dumb critics go, "Wow, that's symbolic!" His work is also deeply conservative: While the great adventures of modernism, urbanism, experimentation, the avant-garde et cetera are taking place, he retreats into some kitschy pastoral English idyll: Wessex, country fairs and all that crap. And his poetry! He rhymes "call to me, call to me" with "the one who was all to me" – and "listlessness" with "wan wistlessness." It's so bad it's funny.
If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?
Which books have you reread most in your life?
Hergé's Tintin books. I've probably learnt more from them about narrative technique (doubling, splitting, leading false trails etc.) than from any other writer. He was a genius: There's an incredibly sophisticated set of concerns and subtexts being played out in those books: family secrets passing down generations, anxieties about inheritance and illegitimacy, musings on counterfeit and inauthenticity (be it in the field of currency or blood or art), on technology and politics – the whole 20th century is there. And – best of all – a seven-year-old can read them with as much passion as a 45-year-old.
What's the best death scene in literature?
In Georges Bataille's erotic masterpiece Story of the Eye. Bataille was a dissident surrealist, denounced by Breton for being too vulgar and irreverent. He was a numismatist (coin expert) at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and developed theories of economics and literature which were hugely influential on later figures like Derrida. He was well-versed in anthropology, and was particularly interested in rituals of sacrifice. So in Story of the Eye we have a scene at a bullfight (held beneath a relentless Spanish sun) in which the heroine Simone has purchased, from the butcher's counter in the stadium itself, the testicles of a bull killed in a previous fight; while the current fight takes place she bites into one testicle and inserts the other into her vagina. As she reaches her orgasm, back in the ring the new bull's horn plunges into the matador's eye, and he's killed on the spot. It's an almost religious moment, tied to what Bataille calls "a vision of solar deliquescence."