Toby Litt is best-known for writing his books – from Adventures in Capitalism to (so far)King Death – in alphabetical order; he is currently working on M. His story ‘John & John’ won the semi-widely-known Manchester Fiction Prize, and his story ‘Call it “The Bug” Because I Have No Time To Think of a Better Title” was shortlisted for the notoriously lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. He is a Granta Best of Young British Novelist. In December 2013, Vertigo DC launched Dead Boy Detectives, a new monthly comic written by Toby, based on characters from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
1) Which writers influenced you the most?
Before books came The Beatles. The bright lyrics to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and the opaque terror of ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’ zipping off into the fairground void. The most important writers, for beginning-me, were world-makers and world-changers. So, SF with Chris Foss covers. And Dune. The Glass Bead Blah. But I’ve given this answer too many times for it to be true. At the moment, the important writers are D.H.Lawrence, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Kafka, and always always Emily Brontë. Anyone who seems to want to be live, and to want their reader to be live. Hello, Jack Kerouac, unscrolling the roll version of On the Road.
2) What is your favourite short story?
Is this piece of writing of psychic use? Does it think it can change you? Those seem to me worthwhile questions, when faced with a page or a screen that’s made up of words. If something’s just there for entertainment, fine – I can be entertained. If it’s journalism, fine – I can learn things I didn’t know. But take, say, Henry James, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. He seems to want to make his readers capable of greater subtlety, capable
3) What is your favourite short story collection?
of more interesting humanity, than they ever were. And, because I find its default settings quite objectionable, I like having my mind altered by writing. Give me instead a James-head, a Bronte-head. It seems strange that writing can do this, as opposed to, yes, drugs, music, surgical intervention and sex, but – despite the other distractions – proper structure-change still seems possible, via words. I’ve been affected in ways I am still trying to understand by D.H.Lawrence’s longer short stories, those collected in Three Novellas – that’s ‘The Ladybird’, ‘The Fox’ and ‘The Captain’s
4) Which current UK writers are exciting you?
Doll’, but also ‘St. Mawr’. So, I would have to choose some kind of bulky and untransportable collection of Lawrence’s not-quite-novels that I’d forgo in favour of glue-crumbling orange-spined Penguin editions with Yvonne Gilbert’s overreal paintings on the cover. You’ll find these in almost any pile of abandoned, unwanted books. The bottom fell out of the David Herbert Market in about May 1979. He’s too ambitious; in a way Joyce wasn’t. There aren’t many current writers who seem to want to climb in through your eyes and rearrange the furniture, perhaps setting fire
5) What are you working on at the minute?
to the settee. Niall Griffiths is definitely one. Ali Smith is another. But aren’t we all too modest about what we do? Facebook-friendly. Isn’t it better to set-ludicrously-sail-for-wherever and end up in Pseud’s Corner, rather than to stay in your own little corner, having painted yourself there with your first publication? I’ve been gathering is what I’ve been doing. Putting stories together under the signs of M and N. The next book is Life-Like, but was completed a while ago. That’s stories about the middle years. Also, My Mother’s Seven
6) Describe your own writing habits?
7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of?
Spirits Demand Justice, a novel. And ongoing for the moment is Dead Boy Detectives, a comic. I have been thinking of giving up on writing novels, but seem to be writing one all the same. I am writing it by trying to avoid writing it, on a regular basis. Other things, I write in the way that seems to suit their rhythm. Say, splurge then ignore then splurge again. Or jigsaw, scatter, remake. Or plod. There’s a lot to be said for plodding, particularly as opposed to plotting.
8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
There’s a lot to be said for plodding, as opposed to plotting. And dwelling as opposed to word-processing. As long as you chuck out everything ploddy once you take flight. And don’t dwell on success. But mostly, if you want to be a writer then being a writer is probably the worst thing you can be. You’ll start out with the likeable characters in the balanced sentences saving the cat, and you’ll end up
9) Best advice you have ever received?
envying poets. Poets seem to be doing the real work. And by poets I mean poets rather than Robert Graves’s ‘journalists in verse’. However, there are a few things I’ve written that I think are okay: ‘The Hare’ and the first section of Journey into Space and ‘The Monster’ and ‘Call it “The Bug”’ and also the essay on ‘Sensibility’ and the one on ‘Kafka’. If I felt they had got through to someone, and done for them what the writing I love has done for me, then that would be the best I could hope for. In some ways, trying to do better, it’s been approval rather than advice that’s helped. Muriel Spark said she liked reading what I wrote. Just a general feeling that you’d managed to amuse someone worth amusing. But I had an art teacher at school, Mr Cox, who sometimes became so passionate speaking about a picture
10) Top tip for writing a story?
that his speech impediment, a stammer, overtook him. His nickname was Mr C-C-C-Cox. It was mortifying, for a public schoolboy, to stand next to someone who was struggling to express passion – passion about a painting of apples, for fuck’s sake. Mr Cox would curl his fingers up in front of his screwed up face and try to get across to you – smirking, black acrylic blazer, looking forward to lunchbreak – that you were a smug little cunt and that Cézanne wasn’t. Sometimes Mr Cox worked on a painting for years, then destroyed it. At one time, his house burned down, including most of his work. He wasn’t our only…
11) Top tip for editing a story?
..art teacher. There was an equally influential one, Mr Lynch. Whereas Mr Cox was a Low Protestant (perhaps even a charismatic Christian), Mr Lynch was a Catholic. Apart from Cézanne, I think they disagreed on most things – and they disagreed utterly on how they saw Cézanne. Mr Cox looked like Frank Auerbach and, I think, might have painted like him if he’d been able to stand impasto. Mr Lynch looked like James Abbott McNeill Whistler but shorter, squatter and with a beard and moustache that – if ever twisted into points – were only twisted into points at the weekend (in Bedford). Mr Cox was all about expressiveness; Mr Lynch was all about control. Mr Cox was grace, Mr Lynch, guilt. Every mark – for Mr Lynch – had to be considered, tonally, in relation to those marks directly adjacent, and to the painting as a whole. No line could flow. It must stitch along, tentatively, like a Euston Road sewing machine trying not to have a nervous breakdown. The art room, with Mr Lynch in it, was the 1950s. His was the passion of suppression – and, if you wound him up the right way, Mr Lynch would rush off into the supplies
12) Top tip for submitting a story?
cupboard and curse.
Current work: Lecture on ‘Swing’:
I said earlier that I was really talking ‘to the you that writes your first drafts. The you that performs your relationship to time onto the page.’
So, now I’d like to say some useful things to that you. I’m going to speak about being a jazz musician, which you can translate as you please.
In order to master an instrument, you first need to do it dutifully – you need to obey the rules and play the foursquare scales. You need to begin slowly; impatience will be punished by having to go back and unlearn bad habits. Often, you’ll need to be stupider than you are, slower than you can be. Stories of Mozart sitting down at the keyboard and just being able to play won’t help. You need to find a way of enduring being bad. Then, after a while, a certain fluidity will enter your playing. You’ll make mistakes, but there’ll be moments in between the mistakes where it seemed to happen without you doing very much. Then, you’ll have a basic mastery of your instrument: you’ll be able, most of the time, when you’re not pushing it too much, to get it to do the things it does for most other people. You will be a competent player. And this is an easy level to get stuck on, because becoming more and more competent can seem to go on forever. Your playing can become smoother and smoother – the playing of a session musician (a bad session musician) who hits all the notes with technical correctness but doesn’t need to emotionally connect. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where the issue is not the instrument but the expression. What do you have to say, now that the technical means of saying it are within your compass? You’ve heard people saying similar stuff before. All this is very familiar. And the familiarity of it may be your downfall. You can’t learn by other people’s mistakes. You have to have the gumption to make them yourself; you have to have the ego, the lack of ego, the anger, the mischief, the sadness and the scrupulousness to be bad in a good way. Then, when the time comes, because all this has been woodshedding, you will have the chops, you will have paid your dues. The fingers will do, and out-do, what the mind and soul require of them. To get to this beyond-competence, you’ll need to take the kind of risks with time that Louis Armstrong did when he started scat singing. You’ll be able to dance along the edge of your own internal precipices; you won’t freeze at the drop – you’ll treat the narrow ledge as roof, the rope as floor. In other words, you’ll swing. You’ll delight in your disobedience to how things formally should be done. Those looking on will see daredevilry, but you’ll know the height is irrelevant. You will wish you could go higher. All art is and has to be a high-wire act. And the risks have to be almost beyond the capacity of the performer to cope with, to bear. But by making your art in a swinging way, you’ll be doing the highest thing art can do – appearing to create energy from nothing, appearing unconstrained by time.
‘Litt impresses and hits hard with images that are rooted firmly in reality. He constructs throughout perfectly imperfect little worlds. At times you may think Litt is a bit sick in the head. But dig deep and you’ll lose yourself. For these worlds are the new exhibitionism.’ – Zulfikar Abbany, The Observer,
Toby Litt’s New Collection of Short Stories – ‘Life-Like‘
These twenty-six stories begin with Paddy and Agatha, an English couple last seen in Litt’s Ghost Story. Following the stillbirth of their second child, their marriage has gently begun to collapse. Paddy and Agatha both meet someone else. First, Paddy meets Kavita, and Agatha meets John. Then each of these four engages with a different new person—and so on, through a doubling and redoubling of intimately interconnected stories. The remaining short stories exemplify Litt’s impressive, unflinching prose.
‘Life-Like’ at Seagull books:
For UK Sales:
Visit Toby Litt at:
Check out out Mr Litt’s Lecture on ‘SWING’: