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The Books Interview: Michael Frayn

"I don’t think I shall ever write anything again."

Your new novel, Skios, is the first time you’ve tried farce in fiction rather than on stage, isn’t it?
There’s a certain amount of farce in Headlong but I think this is the first straightforward farce I’ve done as a novel. I see it as experimental literature. This is not entertainment, it’s a serious attempt to see if you can do farce in the form of a book. In theatre, farce works because you’ve got an audience and hearing people laughing around you licenses you to laugh yourself. Whether you can ever do that with just one person reading a book – an audience of one – I don’t know.
Is it easier or harder to do farce in fiction than in the theatre? Is there a different threshold of plausibility in the novel?
In a sense, it’s easier in the theatre because it’s harder. You’ve got to end up with something that living human beings can actually do in front of your eyes. I have to say that a lot of actors have hurt themselves doing my play Noises Off! But in a novel, of course, you can not only fall downstairs, you can fall off a cliff. In a way, the more freedom you have when you’re writing, the harder it gets – because to write anything you rely on pushing against the constraints of the form. In a novel, it’s harder because it’s easier. 
Are there ways in which this novel resembles Noises Off?
Yes. Like Noises Off, it’s partly about how human beings use their own imaginations. In Noises Off, the actors are set an impossible problem in the first act: how to continue with the play. And they have to use their invention and imagination to do it. I suppose I’ve gone one stage further in this novel in that the plot depends on just one person using their imagination absolutely arbitrarily. 
Much of the comedy of farce lies in the slow dawning of comprehension on the part of the characters. Is that where the fun comes for you as a writer?
I think that’s absolutely right. When people are rude about farce, and about plot in general, it’s because they think it’s something mechanistic – that it’s like suggesting that human behaviour is like a piece of clockwork. 
In fact, almost no plots work like that. Plot works on the basis of what people perceive has just happened. Even in the most simple 19th-century plots, it’s not just because someone has written this clause into their will, or whatever, that makes the thing happen; it’s because people reading that clause are infuriated by it or moved by it – it’s what people believe to have happened that makes them behave as they do.
The tendency of humans to mistake mere succession for causality is one of the themes of this novel, too.
As I said in The Human Touch, all these things are a matter of our putting interpretations on it – causality doesn’t just lie out there in the world, it’s our understanding of the way things work that makes a causal reading of the world possible. 
Scientists have to see the world that way. But, as I quote Richard Feynman as saying, any good physicist knows four or five good explanations for the same phenomenon. 
Feynman was a populariser, as is the protagonist of Skios, Norman Wilfred. Do you enjoy popular science writing?
I’m all in favour of scientific popularisers. Science is increasingly an esoteric subject that is only accessible to people with mathematics. As Feynman says, trying to explain physics to someone who doesn’t have mathematics – although he made enormous efforts to explain physics to lay audiences – is like trying to explain music to the tone deaf. 
I’m incredibly grateful, since I don’t have any mathematics, to scientists and science writers who do try to make the subject accessible to a lay public. Everyone must admire Richard Dawkins, for example, partly because he writes so well and his books are so absolutely compelling. And I’ve always enjoyed reading Feynman, because he’s very provocative. I’ve enjoyed reading Werner Heisenberg, too.
What are you working on next?
I don’t think I shall ever write anything again. I’m going to go out to a clockmaker’s, buy a clock and present myself with it.
Michael Frayn's "Skios: a Novel" is published by Faber & Faber (£15.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master