Made in Britain

by HRM on December 8, 2011

Interview with Gavin James Bower, by Lauren Elkin
Gavin James Bower, photo by James Harrison

Gavin James Bower, photo by James Harrison

A few years ago, Gavin James Bower made quite a noise in the English literary world with his first novel Dazed & Aroused, based largely on his experiences in the fashion world; in The Independent, Lee Rourke called it “an insightful debut from a novelist who already shows an ability to cut through the hype and reveal the dark heart of everyday life.” Then, this year, he published his second novel, Made in Britain, which similarly draws from a milieu Bower knows well: teenage life in an average town in the north of England, which Bower simply refers to as Every Town. Hayley, Charlie, and Russell take turns narrating their stories, as they hurdle forward towards disillusioned adulthood, their voices clashing and clattering over each other in an attempt to get out: out of their town, out of their lives, out of the book itself. The Guardian described the novel as “visceral”: “Showing us as it does a world of closed factories and stinking canals, of sex in the school loos, of knives and drugs and moral and economic disintegration, this novel could have been one enormous cliché. It isn’t, though. While not excusing, or attempting to excuse, its protagonists, it manages to explain and humanise them.” Bower himself great up in Burnley, in Lancashire. Here, he tells us about growing up in the north, method writing, and why he’d never write a book in the third person.

Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of your new novel, Made in Britain? There’s a movie, right? Which I haven’t seen.
The eponymous film’s by Alan Clarke, starring Tim Roth, and was made in 1982 – the year I was born. There’s not much in the way of similarities, beyond it being about disaffected youth – whatever that is. The late Fred Dibnah, a legendary steeplejack, had a more recent TV series of the same name anyway. That’s more of an influence, I’d say.

Made in BritainThere’s an obvious slight on the policies of de-industrialisation in my choice of title, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about that. It was serendipity really, my being up north for one winter, the book deal for Dazed & Aroused having been signed, and writing about growing up in a post-industrial ‘every town’. That, plus I talked to my dad a lot about Burnley’s industrial past. Some of the best lines – ‘business has gone for a burton’, for instance – are down to him.

How do you see Made in Britain fitting in alongside other representations of lost English youth (from Look Back in Anger to “Skins”)?
They’re all about thirty in Look Back in Anger, right? And Skins is about pills and generally being middle class, I think.

In all seriousness I didn’t write MiB to fit alongside other representations of ‘lost English youth’; I wrote it because I struggled to fit in growing up, and only recently felt able to write about that time in my life, and the experience of living in a place where you don’t feel like you belong. It demanded distance and time, and is a love-hate relationship I wanted to tackle. I think anyone growing up somewhere like that, anyone who struggled to fit in and belong, can empathise. They don’t have to be Skins fans, because I’m certainly not.

Is Britain broken?
I’ll let Charlie [a character in Made in Britain] take this on…

‘The match is on and we’re all sitting in Lee’s front garden, which is really just a few square feet of flags. He’s put the TV on top of an old Ford Escort, the extension cord stretching through the house. There’s music blaring from inside – that mind-numbing happy hardcore shit – and it must look a bit daft to anyone not from round ’ere, but it’s open-air theatre to us.

I keep seeing all that stuff about those murders on the news, and hearing how we’re not right round ’ere – that we’re the underclass and the reason Britain’s broken. Well y’know what, I think, finishing my beer. Fuck ’em.’

Your first novel, Dazed & Aroused, was based on your experiences as a model; to what extent is this new book based on your experiences growing up in the North?
was really about landing in a city like London, and finding it hard to empathise – to be happy, too. Modelling just provided a backdrop.

With MiB my whole childhood informed the writing, but I didn’t want to make it a 90s novel. It needed to be contemporary, manipulated through the eyes of someone no longer of age and set in the here and now. The plot’s almost entirely made up, save for a few allusions to real life incidents – some comical (the Gordon the Gopher money shot, for example), and some not so (the headless bodies).

Can you tell me about your affinity for writing in the first person? What does it do for your work that the third person doesn’t?
There’s an obvious immediacy to it that appeals to me, because I want urgency and prejudice and paranoia and alienation to infuse the writing – and the character’s narrative to be taken as is. I don’t feel comfortable writing from the perspective of an omniscient character that’s only partially revealed to the reader, even though there are clear opportunities for landscaping denied, on one level, to a first person narrative. With the latter there’s a vulnerability available, but also the chance to get under the skin of characters – to become them. It’s draining and demanding, but rewarding too. Which is why I write that way.

You shaved your head not long ago. Claude Cahun, who is the subject of your next book, also shaved her head. Did you do it out of an attempt to get closer to your subject? How’s that going?
There was a touch of the meltdowns about my decision to cut all my hair off, as I was going through a transitional period in my life and wanted to exert some semblance of control over it.

Still, I reckon I’m the only novelist in the world to describe myself as a method writer and actually mean it.

How did you get interested in Cahun?
One of my first pieces of journalism, for FLUX, was on a small exhibition featuring her work. I did a lot of research, being a bit green and wanting to do a good job, and got totally immersed in the history of her life and art. I was hooked, and have been a fanboy ever since. I’m not an expert like Leperlier. I’m a fan.

There’s such variety in your subject matter. Tell me, is there any kind of book you wouldn’t write?
I wouldn’t write a book in the third person.

You’re going to be spending some time in Paris early next year. What are you planning to do while you’re here, besides write?
I’m writing this book on Claude Cahun, but also learning French and trying out ‘je suis célibataire’ as a chat up line. I’ll let you know how I get on.

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