I am Radar: Reif Larsen

I am Radar: Reif Larsen

Event: Reif Larsen and Audrey Niffenegger with Alex Clark

Venue: Foyles, Charing Cross Rd

Date: 8th April, 2015


‘I’m going to mess it up tonight,’ says Reif Larsen with a dangerous smile. What on earth is he going to do? Jump on the table, shouting profanities and tearing out pages of I am Radar savagely with his teeth? He stands slowly. I try to resist curling up in the up in a foetal position and covering my head. ‘I’m going to read from the middle of the book,’ he says. He’s not going to read from the opening chapter? This is breaking all number of rules.

After a few chuckles (and sighs of relief) from the audience, Reif begins by setting the scene. Radar, the main character of the book, is a 30-something year old man living with his parents in Jersey who is ‘more comfortable with machines than humans.’ Then he starts dating and worries that ‘something has gone wrong’.

‘So explain a bit about this book,’ says Alex Clark, former editor of Granta magazine, and host of this evening’s event. ‘It’s very hard to boil it down to a little juicy nugget!’ he admits. There’s a pause and he tries again. ‘It begins with an extraordinary birth scene: Radar is born black to two white parents in 1975 New Jersey. So the first part is trying to figure out what happened. This search begins to subsume the explanation: the search for the answer becomes the answer itself.’

The discussion moves on to the equally tricky topic of realism. ‘There are not many things I’ve written that would pass as social realism,’ Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveller’s Wife, admits. ‘In fact, I think I’d be arrested!’ She goes on to explain that she’s currently writing an essay on ghost stories. ‘It got me thinking about the impossible… about loneliness and loss.’ She pauses then says with a wry smile. ‘I sit around thinking about death a lot!’

‘Do you feel constrained by literal plausibility?’ Alex wonders. ‘You can change [your writing] in quite implausible senses,’ Reif suggests, ‘but with conviction the reader with follow you with great delight. You’re allowed to change one thing about the world but as soon as you start tweaking too many things, then there’s too much interference.’  Audrey agrees and suggests that you need ‘some psychological realism – otherwise people won’t recognise it’.

‘You can change your writing in quite implausible senses but with conviction the reader with follow you with great delight.’

‘I’m writing a kind of realism,’ Reif argues, cautiously. ‘What is it you’re trying to explore?’ Alex asks. ‘I try to avoid the “T-word”,’ he says. ‘If you think: “How do I explore this theme?” I’m trying my darndest to tell a story.’ He recounts the day he read an article about Susan Sontag staging a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the besieged Sarajevo in1993. ‘My first reaction was, “Oh my god, really? What arrogance! To say, ‘What you really need is some Beckett!’ But it was also, “Wow this is kind of crazy and beautiful; people risked their lives. It was beautiful and terrible and arrogant. It was something I wanted to explore: what is the role of art in war? Is it a necessity or a luxury?’

He continues: ‘A story is all about the context; I’m interested in that. The nest of where you put the story is as important as the story itself.’

The conversation then moves on the importance of pictures in books. Reif feels that images could do ‘a lot of emotional heavy lifting more elegantly’ and endorses ‘a dance between text and image’. Audrey says that that kind of combination can be ‘anathema to some’. ‘I don’t understand why,’ Reif retorts. ‘We read some very sophisticated picture books. Why as adults do we not read books with images?’ However, this is changing with the growing popularity of graphic novels. Audrey remembers holding a copy of Maus in a bookstore. ‘It looked gorgeous,’ she reminisces. ‘I thought, “Yes! This is the beginning of the revolution!’”

‘What is the role of art in war? Is it a necessity or a luxury?’

She continues on the thread of the visceral nature of books. ‘We all have a deep desire to hold our books – it’s like someone has just handed you your first born baby. Books are made to correspond to the human body. They have a spine and a head and a foot: they’re us.’

Reif draws comparisons with the internet. ‘The web is infinite in so many directions. The genius of books is that there’s a beginning and an end. How do you create that “boundedness “on the web which is… unbound?’

It’s time for questions from the audience. Often, at such events, a steely hush creeps in and people stare at their toes. But tonight the audience is rampant.

There is a great question about how the authors would feel about others using their work. Reif’s most profound experience of this was having his first book made into a film. ‘There were people with walkie-talkies arguing about the minutiae of the book. I was like a kid on an acid trip!’ However, towards the end, he had a ‘moment of deep regret’ and felt he had perhaps relinquished some sense of ownership. ‘Is this my story?’ he asked himself. Even still, he asserts that our greatest capacity is ‘to hear a story and want to retell it’.

‘Books are made to correspond to the human body. They have a spine and a head and a foot: they’re us.’

Audrey concurs. ‘People can and should do whatever they’ve wanted to do… you’re talking to the woman who hasn’t seen the movie.’ There is a universal gasp. Audrey is referring to the film of her novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife. To have not watched it, even once, out of morbid curiosity is not far from extraordinary.

A far cry from blockbuster films, Audrey says some people do also email and ask: ‘I want to do a puppet show’ or ‘I’m making a quilt; can I put some of your words on it?’ ‘It’s good of people to ask… there is this thing called copyright.’ There’s the glorious irony again.

Another audience member asks if the authors have a writing process. Audrey started The Time Traveller’s Wife with the last to scenes and then ‘the scene where Clare loses her virginity – just for kicks’. Obviously.

Reif had written sections on The Balkans, Cambodia and The Congo but was unsure how they all ‘fit together’. He had visited most of these countries and made notes whist there – except Belgrade, which he wrote about before he went. ‘I then compared the real Belgrade to the fictional and was more interested in the fictional. I was writing about a shadow of Belgrade.’

The whole process, fictional or not, gave Reif ‘permission to write about these complex cultures.’ He adds: ‘You owe it to go to these places and ground to some kind of real.’ ‘I certainly didn’t go the easy way out with this book,’ he admits. ‘I didn’t go from A to Z. I’m not one of those writers who can map my book beforehand – I wish I could. Part of the problem is I always leave room to be surprised in the middle of a sentence.’

Meanwhile, Audrey is writing the sequel to her first book, something she never thought she’d do. ‘I’d always said, if you ever see me doing this you can tell I was broke!’ She explains that a friend, who had started up an eBook company, asked her for ‘any extras’ so she wrote a 25-page story. ‘Those 25 pages are out there – if you can find it!’ ‘So when are we set to see the sequel?’ Reif asks her. Another five years, apparently. We wait with anticipation.

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