What did you do before you were a writer?
A ridiculous number of jobs. A security steward, a travel writer, an overnight guardian, an ice rink attendant, a bookseller, a post boy, an odd-jobs man for a failed mineral water company and an editor in legal publishing. The last one was the worst one. The best one (other than my current job) was probably being a travel writer. Though I did quite like giving people their post.
When did you know you wanted to write?
I can tell you the exact moment, in fact. When I was a kid, maybe eight years old, we had a (mandatory) book-lending club at school. Basically, you had to bring in a book and read out the first page. If people liked it, they’d put their names down to borrow it. I was nervous because I hadn’t really been in London all that long and my English wasn’t perfect, plus I was a shy kid anyway. So reading out loud was obviously daunting for me. In the end I brought in my favourite book at the time, Dinotopia by James Gurney, about a land where humans and dinosaurs live in peaceful interdependence. When the day came, I read out the first few pages: a father and his son are shipwrecked on a beach, then they hear strange noises coming towards them through the jungle. At the end of the page, I turned the book round to show the illustration of these massive dinosaurs breaking through the foliage. To this day, I remember the faces of my classmates, eyes wide, mouths open. They were completely transfixed. In that moment I remember realising that someone actually got to do that for a living, it was actually their job to create those feelings. Looking at those gawping little faces, that’s when I thought: ‘Yeah, that’ll do, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.’
Where do you live now?
Los Angeles. It’s quite trippy because ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by it and now I live here. But as a writer, it’s a great place to be, not least because the book I’m writing is (half) set here. Mind you, whenever I tell people back in London that I live in LA, they tend say things like ‘ohhh, hark at you’ and ‘you’ve come a long way from Kentish Town.’ I think, perhaps, because they’re imagining me doing yoga on rooftops or rubbing shoulders with celebrities. But that’s a bit like saying you live in the UK and people assuming you own a pack of corgis and ride around in a horse-driven carriage on your way to tea. Of course, LA does have the juice cleanses, the celebrities and the over-conceptualised coffee houses and whatnot. But that’s just one little slice of what is a vast, strange, almost indefinable place with just so many beautiful and ugly things. It’s not quite home yet - that will probably always be London -but I definitely feel like an adopted Angeleno. That said, I do miss Prêt à Manger and hearing the word ‘mug’ used pejoratively.
Who is your favourite fictional character and why?
I grew up loving Philip Marlowe and Clarice Starling. Also, I remember being fascinated by Alex from A Clockwork Orange as a teenager — the idea that antagonists can still somehow be empathetic characters, even when they’re almost irredeemable. But if I had to pick only one, I’d go for Frank from Ryu Murakami’s book, In the Miso Soup. It’s about a young Japanese ‘nightlife’ guide for foreigners, Kenji, who is contracted by Frank, a strange, plastic-faced American who wants to explore Tokyo’s hostess scene. I think anyone who has read the book will understand my choice — he’s terrifying, pathetic, fascinating, compelling. In a word, unforgettable. The sort of character that you find yourself thinking about from time to time, years after reading.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera.
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow.
I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos.
Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juárez: Challenges to Militarization by Kathleen Staudt and Zulma Y. Méndez.
Basically, lots on Mexico and dogs, it seems.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and what would you serve?
Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, and Mariano Rajoy. I’d serve Semtex soufflé followed by arsenic arrabbiata. No, I’m kidding… I’d never serve soufflé with a pasta dish. To be honest I don’t think I’d make a great dinner host — I don’t actually have a dining table. Interesting fact for you, though: Marine Le Pen isn’t really called Marine. But both she and John Wayne have the same real first name…
Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…
I’m quite decent at accents? Lately, I’ve been trying to do Bostonian, which is really hard. Though my pièce de résistance has to be my impression of my dad which, if you can imagine it, is basically a perfect cross between Antonio Banderas and Danny Dyer. Oh, and I retain pointless trivia about eighties action films like you wouldn’t believe. What else? I once had a go at David Cameron on Spanish national radio. I’m not sure if it was very good? But it was pretty blistering. He probably still wakes up in the middle of the night sweating about it.
Where do you write?
The Los Angeles Public Library, my flat, a few cafés throughout the Downtown Los Angeles area. Sometimes in the garden of Cafecito Organico near Silver Lake, my favourite little spot in town. Free tip for writers: cafés where you have to give your name when you order are great places to pick up character names!
Do you have any writing rituals?
I start writing at around 9am. Then there’s the daily period of self-doubt and existential crisis at around 11am, which I solve with coffee and pictures of dogs looking intrepid. I get back on it and go till 7pm. No, I suppose my only real rituals are reading a lot, a thorough research period, and a detailed writing plan before I begin drafts. Otherwise it’s like that nightmare where you announce to a room that you’re going to juggle and immediately you realise you’ve never done it before. But those aren’t really rituals, are they? Oh, I know one. I write better without any socks on.
How would you define the role of the writer?
To make people feel things and/or think about things. Ideally, to do that well.
What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?
“It doesn’t really matter so much what it’s about - it just has to make me care.”
Shout out to my GCSE English teacher on that one.
And finally, what’s the one question you wish someone would ask you?
Er, would you like tickets to see Stewart Lee?
Answer: Yes please.
Mind you, I suppose the Union Chapel in Islington is quite a way to go these days.