21 Questions

‘I read so much P.G. Wodehouse as a child it changed how I spoke’: 21 Questions with Tom Crewe

The author of The New Life on Henry James, his unlikely childhood obsession with pro wrestling, and an unfortunate encounter with a certain famous chef.

Rachel Deeley
Image design: Victoria Ford / Penguin

Tom Crewe always planned to be an English student, not an historian. But one thing led to another, and it was his PhD studies in 19th Century British history that ultimately laid the groundwork for his impressive first novel.

The New Life has already been met with huge critical buzz, shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and earning Crewe a spot as one of Granta’s Best New British Novelists. It deftly weaves an historian’s expertise with immersive world-building that plunges you right into 1890s London – and the physical and social reality of the characters who inhabit it. Drawing from the real story of Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, who risked censure and imprisonment to author an academic study of homosexuality, he reimagines a chronology in which the two men’s lives and work overlap with another seismic event that changed the course of gay rights in Britain.

Our 21 Questions interview with Crewe, much like his novel, is brimming with eloquent and thoughtful observations. Read on to learn about what inspired him to write The New Life, how Middlemarch turned him back to reading fiction, and having an afternoon cigarette with Virginia Woolf.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I would always say Henry James – I've said that for years – because he's just such an artist. You feel you're spending time with the most intelligent person you can think of, and that's always very enlivening. The delicacy of his moral perceptions is incredibly admirable – and intellectually demanding, which is also quite a good thing to get out of a novel.

But recently, I've been feeling very admiring of Anthony Trollope, who I’m in awe of because I just think his range is colossal, both in terms of writing 48 novels, but also the areas those novels cover and the way they summon into existence a living world. They are often interconnected, and they really are a world – they somehow have a sense of ordinary life unfolding. I think that’s a very rare thing to achieve in a novel, and I’m still trying to work out how he does it.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

I read The Lord of the Rings when I was maybe seven. I don’t really know how much of it I was really understanding or taking in. I remember being – probably like some adults – quite bored by the songs, and the poetry, and I’ve never read it since, so my entire memory of Lord of the Rings (apart from the films) derives from this seven-year-old reading experience, but I do remember sitting in bed and the sense of excitement that I got to enter into this world on my own. It felt very grown-up, and it felt very magical. I can just picture my childhood bedroom, sitting there with this huge book in my hands; that to me is my first profound memory of that kind of solitary reading experience.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I got very into P.G. Wodehouse when I was a bit younger than a teenager. I just loved Wodehouse, I thought it was so funny, and again, that sense of a magical, almost self-enclosed world with its own rules and recurring characters, but I was also very drawn to the heightened formality of the language.

I really do think that I read so much P.G. Wodehouse as a child that it changed the way I spoke, because I was growing up in the North East and I sound different from my brother and sister. Even at the time, I thought it was something to do with P.G. Wodehouse. It certainly taught me a lot of words, and it helped me collect a lot of phrases. I was probably a complete arse –  I remember saying "Tinkerty tonk” for goodbye and things like that, which I got from Jeeves and Wooster. So yes, I was a Wodehouse addict.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

I always thought I was going to do an English degree, but I was swayed by an open day where I heard the university talk about their history degree. I just changed my mind, like that, on the flip of a coin, and went into history and then spent many years doing history. It involved sort of falling out of love with fiction, not reading any fiction – just reading history books.

I did that for a long time, reading history books for fun. Then, when I finished my undergrad, I read Middlemarch over the summer holidays. Something about that experience brought me back to fiction. Even though I then went on and did years more of history, I never stopped reading novels again, and it was always there in the back of my mind; my original ambition to write a novel came back to life the more I read fiction. Deciding to read Middlemarch, the summer of whenever it was – 2010? – was a significant moment.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I was a paper boy for many years, between the ages of maybe 12 and 16. Even though that's not a particularly strange job, it now seems to me that it introduced me to a very strange culture and world because it was the last age, I suppose, of the tabloids and the press being a huge force and actually shaping the news of the day, and reflecting back at the country the things that they thought we were interested in.

There's hardly a day that goes by when I don't think about some of the stories that I was exposed to in that period: the Iraq War, Charles and Camilla getting married, David Kelly, Sven-Göran Eriksson having his affair [with Ulrika Jonsson], Big Brother, that kind of horrible noughties lad culture.

It just feels like all these scandals and stories are always going around my head with a vividness that they wouldn't have if I hadn't seen them on the front page every day.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Lydia Davis said somewhere, when you finish writing for the day or you finish a session of writing, you should always give yourself a block of time where you don't do anything else. Don't think about anything else, don't move on to another task straightaway, just give yourself a space of time where the ideas of the work can still float around, unimpeded by other thoughts and concerns. Just let the subconscious do a little bit more work. That's a good tip.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Well, this is not an answer that I can give because I don't reread books. I would like to, because I'm sure you would get so much out of it – and people do get so much out of it – but I'm so fixated on time, and not having enough time to read all the books I want to read. The idea, when I could be moving on to the next masterpiece I haven't read, that I would go back rather than forwards makes me anxious. But there are things I would like to reread. I do want to go back to Jane Austen, for example, so I will do some more rereading, maybe when I calm down and feel like I've got a bit of the way into the canon.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Ulysses by Joyce. I feel very ashamed. It's one of those ones when, in conversations, I sort of nod along – I don't directly lie, but I'm prepared to give the impression that I have read it when I have not, which does feel silly because it's such a formative book, obviously. So I do need to get round to it.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I have a concurrent job because I'm an editor, but if I was to do something completely different, I always liked the idea of acting. I used to love acting at school, in sixth form, and a bit at university. It's complete egotism, and probably nonsense, but I always thought, "Maybe I could have done it. Maybe I could have done something with acting.” In a parallel universe, maybe I gave it a shot.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I was completely obsessed with pro wrestling between the ages of about 10 and 18. I read more wrestling magazines and wrestling autobiographies than I did fiction. It really set me back actually, educationally, as a kid, and it sort of went against the grain of my personality. In other ways I was such a soppy person and not sporty and not muscly and not anything, and yet it deeply appealed to me – I actually wrote something about it for the LRB once.

No one could understand why I liked it, but I did. I think it's because it was so theatrical, and because I was actually interested in the storytelling side of it. Considering I wasn't reading many books because of this obsession, I think it actually did very deeply involve me in thinking about storytelling and plotting and planning and drama and character. I know that sounds perverse, but I think it's true. Because it was fake, it was always like engaging with a big unfolding story.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

It's not a room, it's not a time of day, and I've only written one book, so maybe this will all change, but based on my experience so far: it is a certain point in the writing process where the thing you're writing acquires this solidity, or intensity, and it becomes a novel. It's no longer a desperate heaping up of words; it's acquired some organic integrity.

Once you're at that point, once the characters have established themselves, they've established their relationships, they sort of generate their own momentum. It's like pushing something uphill for ages and then the gradient shifts and everything from that point is just slightly downhill. Then, as you get towards the end, I think it gets steeper and steeper, because again, the momentum is just there. It's self-generating; the story pushes itself along. And that's not to say you don't get stuck, and traumatised in all sorts of ways, but there is that moment where things start to become easier, I think.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I was once at the same wedding as Nigella. She was the main attraction. It was very exciting. I was outside on the steps – I'd been drinking all day – and someone said, "Would you like to meet Nigella?" I was like, "Oh my God, yes, of course."

I went over to her, was introduced, and immediately it became clear she was about to leave. And I just gave her a really hard time for leaving, because the dancefloor had just started. I did what I would do with a friend at 1am in the club. I was like, "You can't leave, Nigella! It's just getting banging. It's gonna be so much fun. Do not go, that's crazy! Why would you do that? Your night's gonna be so boring now! What are you thinking?"

My friends hate that when I do it to them, so to do it to Nigella, the Nigella... and she didn't take it kindly, either. She was unimpressed; she found a way to get away from me very quickly.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

What’s your biggest fear?

It's a classic: death. I used to be very fixated on my own death, very anxious about it, to a morbid degree – and I think I probably still am to some extent – but I have definitely become more worried about other people dying, people close to me, rather than myself. I feel like I'm showing signs of emotional growth by giving a toss about other people, though maybe it's still selfish; maybe it's still about how that would make me feel. But yes, it's a constant fear.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

To pause time, or add a few hours to the day, because I could really do with a few extra hours just to get through my stuff. And then I could do more reading, as well.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months? 

I've been so worshipping Trollope this year, so I do feel like he deserves the honours, but I've already given him some praise. I would say The Egoist by George Meredith, just for its sheer sustained brilliance. It's a complete virtuoso performance.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

It's a yes for me. Not if the book was precious, but if you can risk it, why not?

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

I'm a tea drinker. I have one or two cups of coffee a day but about 10 cups of tea.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Traditionally, I've [always] said The Ambassadors by Henry James. It's so delicate in its moral perceptions, it's so finely worked and so densely thoughtful, but it also has a very beautiful story – and a very beautifully achieved story, I think, a kind of evolution of consciousness, or a realisation. The prose is, as ever, wonderful, and it has a lovely atmosphere. It's set in Paris and it's got this very light Parisian atmosphere, which is very beautiful. I recommend it.

What inspired you to write your new book?

I wanted to try and bring to life a particular historical moment, to explore what seemed to me an important, but not quite understood or appreciated, hinge moment when at the beginning of the 1890s you had all this excitement and optimism about what we would now call gay rights. There were people, including John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis – the bases for my main characters, John and Henry – who were interested in trying to change the law, change society's perceptions and actually thought that they could manage it.

We don't remember that because the Oscar Wilde trial just came out of nowhere, like a meteor, and blew that moment up and changed it forever. I wanted to dramatise that; I thought that was such an interesting shift, how that idealism, how that optimism ran into this terrible tragedy and crisis, and what would happen after that, what it would feel like, how it would unfold, and what these people would do next.

The New Life is out now.

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