Alan Moore: "I've disproved the existence of death"

The comic book author talks about writing a 750,000 word prose novel about Northampton.

Alan Moore can't be accused of playing it safe. In his 40-year career, he has written a genre-busting superhero comic (Watchmen); a graphic novel in which the hero is a terrorist (V for Vendetta); and one of the most beautiful -- but scandalous -- pieces of pornography ever produced (Lost Girls).

Since 2008, he has been occupied largely with writing his second novel, Jerusalem, due for publication next year. It could easily be the oddest novel ever written. Ostensibly a history of Moore's home town, Northampton, it features his favoured technique of appropriating characters from other literary works; the author describes its middle section as being like a "savage, hallucinating Enid Blyton".

Its wider purpose, Moore says, is to "disprove the existence of death" -- but that is if he can get it into print at all: it will clock in at 750,000 words, making it longer (by far) than Vikram Seth's hefty A Suitable Boy and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The book is so long that the only printers who might be able to tackle it are Bible-makers.

“It is a very big book -- but it's very readable," he assures me when I call to ask how it's going. "Apart from the Lucia Joyce chapter, which is completely incomprehensible." How so? "It's all written in a completely invented sub-Joycean text. I read it through again and I can actually understand most of it -- well, all of it. But it's the only way I could have written that stuff. It's an experiment."

Then there's chapter 29, composed in the form of a stage play by Samuel Beckett, based around one of the times the playwright visited Northampton to take part in a cricket match. (I'm not making this up: the 1925 and 1926 matches appear in Wisden, which records that Beckett was "a useful, left-arm, medium-pace bowler".) While his team-mates took off in the evenings to patronise the city's pubs and prostitutes, Beckett decided instead to go on a "church crawl". It is this event that Moore is restaging.

Apart from these literary jeux d'esprit, the main thrust of the book explores Moore's belief that time doesn't work the way we think it does. "I've come to think that the universe is a four-dimensional site in which nothing is changing and nothing is moving. The only thing that is moving along the time axis is our consciousness. The past is still there, the future has always been here. Every moment that has existed or will ever exist is all part of this giant hyper-moment of space-time."

Confused? Moore puts it this way. "If you think about a standard journey in three dimensions -- say, being in a car driving along a road, the houses you're passing are vanishing behind you, but you don't doubt that if you could reverse the car, the houses would still be there. Our consciousness is only moving one way through time but I believe physics tells us all those moments are still there -- and when we get to the end of our lives, there's nowhere for our consciousness to go, except back to the beginning. We have our lives over and over again."

Moore is friends with (and revered by) several leading physicists -- many of whom will gladly tell you there are probably more than three spatial dimensions. He is particularly taken with the pop-star-turned-TV-populariser of science Brian Cox, and asked him recently: "How do you square the second law of thermodynamics with your earlier assertion that 'Things Can Only Get Better?'" (This joke is very funny to only a very small number of people.)

Surely Moore must be worried that, in the age of Twitter and rolling news, no one will ever finish his super-sized masterpiece? "As long as I finish it," he says. "Although I have doubted that people will even be able to pick it up. I'm not averse to some kind of ebook, eventually -- as long as I get my huge, cripplingly heavy book to put on my shelf and gloat over, I'll be happy."

That said, he does worry that while his first prose novel, Voice of the Fire (published in the mid-1990s), took 300 pages to cover the county of Northamptonshire, Jerusalem uses 750,000 words to explore an area of Northampton about half a square mile across. "So the next one will be several million words and it'll just be about this end of the living room."

Moore says he hopes never to write anything as long as Jerusalem again but he won't countenance scaling it back. "Any editor worth their salt would tell me to cut two-thirds of this book but that's not going to happen. I doubt that Herman Melville had an editor -- if he had, that editor would have told him to get rid of all that boring stuff about whaling: 'Cut to the chase, Herman.'"

One question remains: how do you celebrate finishing a 750,000-word novel? Moore pauses. "I'll probably have a bit of a lie down."

The full Q&A with Alan Moore will be published tomorrow.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.