Making History came out in 1996. What inspired you to write it?
The genesis of the story really goes back to when I was 10 or 11. I was playing in my parents’ house and I came across an old photograph. It had a huge group of children in it, and I recognised my grandfather in the middle, surrounded by all kinds of people looking fabulous in furs. I took it to my mother and I said, "Who are these people with granddaddy?" and she said, "Oh, they're his family, they died in the war". I said, "They were soldiers?" And she said: "No, Hitler killed them."
And so of course, as a child does, I imagined Hitler himself was personally responsible; I pictured that man with a moustache, whose image I knew, with a dripping knife in his hand, stabbing at my family. So one of the things I wanted to explore was the obvious question: if that particular sperm had not hit that particular egg, would my family be alive? It seems reasonable to suppose they would. But that's an amazing contingency on which to swing all of history.
What are your memories of writing the novel?
It was a very difficult time for me. The year before I had been in a West End play which I had left, rather embarrassingly, and fled to Europe, causing rather a stink. I'd imagined it would result in a small quarter-inch column in the arts diary of one of the newspapers, but it was splashed all over the place and it all became rather a cause célèbre, I suppose you'd call it.
Sometime later, I made a documentary about mental health breakdowns [Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, 2006]. But at the time, I was still dealing with it myself. I was very lucky to be able to get myself an apartment in New York – because I thought maybe Britain wouldn't accept me anymore – where I could write.
I wrote the novel in quite a frenzy. I was thinking very hard in that period about the difference between Americans and English, and about where I came from, particularly my Jewish roots. It was clearly very much a novel of ideas and high concept – and quite a risky one.
In what way did it feel risky?
It’s a dangerous tightrope to walk, making anything to do the Holocaust have a comic spirit. Now we know from the Benigni film [Life Is Beautiful] and Jojo Rabbit and various others that it can done. I think the major mistake I made at the time was that I didn't put it all over the book that I'm Jewish. And most people back then didn't know that. I remembering thinking it would be rather sort of cheating to say that I was Jewish, as if that gave me a special right – but of course, in a sense, it does.
I know that a New York Times reviewer, who gave me a savaging for the book, had no idea I was Jewish and thought I was just a clever English white man, playing games with something as wicked as the Holocaust. I was at a party in New York when that review came out, and Bret Easton Ellis came up to me and gave me a big hug and said: “I'm so happy that someone now has the worst review I've ever read. Up until now it was American Psycho.” I said: well, I'll take that because I think American Psycho is a work of genius!
How did what was going on more widely in that era influence the book?
As I was recording the audiobook I was thinking how good the world essentially was in 1995 – despite my own flicker of unhappiness, and so on. The Berlin Wall had come down. Apartheid had ended in South Africa. It really looked as if we were moving towards the millennium in a period of peace and prosperity, with huge, benevolent technological advances that seemed to have no downsides. It was a kind of golden era; Britpop and Blair's ‘97 victory just around the corner. The right wing was in abeyance, and there was a consensus that in politics there might be this third way, between left and right. We had no idea the wheel of fortune would turn and put all of that at the bottom.
The second half of the book makes that point, I think. What is so apparent is that the world Mikey leaves behind, in which Hitler lived, is a much happier place than the one that happened without him, in which America, of all places, is still stuck in a kind of Eisenhower period of cookies and crewcuts and "gosh" and "swell", where you can't be gay and you can't be this and you can’t be that. I put the gay politics in Making History, obviously because that’s a personal thing, but also because, in 1996, it felt so apparent that [being gay] was not an issue.
How do you place Making History amongst your other books?
It’s very different to the others – a little island, really – because it is more of a genre book, a kind of science fiction. I think the hero, Mikey, is rather innocent and feckless and charming; likeable, in his own way. I should say, one thing I am indecently proud of is that I invented the iPad 15 years before it arrived. In the novel there are voice-controlled pads that contain information. Obviously, Richard Curtis stole the idea for Yesterday from me as well – Mikey literally sings Yesterday at another character because there is no Beatles in this new world. So I've got lots of suing to do.
The author of Go Big on the book that influenced his Labour manifesto, falling for Douglas Adams and making up bedtime stories for his kids.