The Books Interview: Tom McCarthy

Your first novel, Remainder, was fiercely contemporary, but C is set at the turn of the 20th century. What made you write a historical novel?
I don't see it as a historical novel. It's not a study of that time, of Edwardian London or Europe. Maybe you get some of that as a side effect, but I'm more interested in something that's at the same time very contemporary and very ancient, which is the relationship between language and technology and the human subject. But yes, the period particularly interested me because of the emergence of radio and the golden years of modernism. It's the time when "The Waste Land" and Ulysses were both written.

Was there pressure to write essentially a sequel to Remainder?
Not from the publishers, not at all. But this critic guy I know took me aside at a party and said, "Well done, Tom. OK, you've had great success with Remainder, but I'm going to give you a very important bit of advice here: don't do anything new. Write the same book again, and then write it again until you're 60, and that's how you'll have a career." He was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but my response was: "I've done repetition [the plot of Remainder concerns a man who is compelled to repeat everyday actions]." I do think that there are similar concerns to Remainder in C, though: it's about mediation and trauma.

The scenes set during the First World War are brilliantly described - but has it become a cliché for writers to "do" war?
I've always wanted to write something like that, about being up in the air in the First World War. But I'm plugging into something different from the Wilfred Owen view of war; I'm looking at it like Marinetti. He basically thought that war is great, war is pure poetry. I find the anti-humanist, avant-garde tradition more dynamic and also (though it might be provocative to say this) more truthful. When I listen to interviews with First World War veterans conducted in the 1970s, they start out saying, "War's terrible but I had to do my bit for king and country," but then ten minutes later they're saying how exhilarating it is to be roaring through space in a beautiful machine.

Both Remainder and C have strong narratives. Are you naturally attracted to good plots?
I love the bread and butter of plot. Literature is, after all, an engagement with the real. That doesn't mean that it's mimetic, but somehow fiction has to get messy and constitute the real - whether that be an object, a speech pattern, a smell, or whatever. Commentators and critics seem to want fiction either to be blatantly avant-garde and postmodern, or to be realist and 19th century; but really most literature is neither nor.

Would you refer to yourself as an avant-garde writer?
One has to be careful how one uses these terms. "The avant-garde" describes a specific historical moment that belongs to the early part of the 20th century. Certainly in C there is a huge amount of that moment behind the writing; the avant-garde is definitely embedded in it. But at the same time I think it gets used as catch-all term now for something that isn't retrograde, anything that's not a kind of nostalgic, kitsch version of the 19th-century novel, which is what much of middlebrow fiction right now is.

I grew up on Shakespeare; I love Donne, Marvell, Defoe, Richardson, Dickens and, of course, Conrad. But after that, British writing just peters out. From the mid-to-late 20th century there just isn't anything British that inspires me - apart from the work of J G Ballard, who was a genius.

So what went wrong with the British novel in the late 20th century?
I think Britain turned its back on modernism and isn't dealing with its legacy. You can't ignore it. You can no more ignore Joyce than you can Darwin. If you ignore Darwin, you're a creationist, and this is where I think the bulk of "commercial", "middlebrow" or whatever you want to call the mainstream, British novel is now: back in the 19th century. In fact, it's not even the real 19th century, as the 19th century was quite dynamic and innovative.

Are there current exceptions?
I've been told by people I respect that I should read David Mitchell. When I eventually do, I'll probably be proved stupidly wrong. I look forward to it.

Tom McCarthy's "C" is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)