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Interview: Joe Dunthorne on Wild Abandon, sexuality and coming-of-age

The scenario could have belonged to my own teenage years: I have this boy's number and I'm a little bit nervous about calling him up. And then more nervous when it's not Joe but rather Mr. Dunthorne who answers. It hadn't occurred to me that I'd been given the number of his family home in Wales where he was staying for a visit. Mr Dunthorne calls Joe to the phone, and the next moments are delightfully analogue, the old-school picking-up of one extension and the exchange instructing the other to be put down ("I've got it, Dad." "Have you got it?" "Yes, I've got it.") For the next half an hour or so, Joe Dunthorne, author of Submarine and the recently released Wild Abandon, talks classic adolescent angst and how his characters see each other across the generation gap.

Season Butler: This might just be my bias, but I feel like I can think of more classic young adult protagonists (Holden Caulfield, Ishmael, Becky Sharp, Sal Paradise, the Lisbon sisters...) than classic elderly characters (and even Ebenezer Scrooge has his Tiny Tim). Do you think adolescent characters have a particular appeal for readers? Is it just nostalgia, or something else at work?
Joe Dunthorne:
Yes, they do to me. A lot of people, for whatever reason, are fond of teenage characters. I think in young people you get zones of immaturity and zones of expertise, which makes them really fascinating. They're so wildly irrational and then suddenly rational, and wildly given to fun, slangy language. All these things are such a pleasure to use in a piece of writing. It's easier to kick back with a younger character; maybe that's why they're so enjoyable to read.

SB: You seem interested in the intersection or transformation between infantile sexuality and adult sexuality. This is especially interesting, I think, in Kate and Albert's relationship, both in terms of their difference in age and in gender. Is this fair? Any thoughts?
It seems to me that sexuality is such a fluid thing, particularly when you’re a teenager. You just can’t apply the usual sorts of moral judgements, particularly to people between 10 and 15; you’re just an animal really. You’re functioning on a very chemical level.That’s what I was exploring in Oliver [the 15-year-old protagonist in Submarine]. And with Kate and Albert [11 and 17 respectively in Wild Abandon] – he’s entering puberty and she’s entering adulthood. I like to explore how even though they’re not that far apart in age, their sexual mindsets are almost a world apart. So it seemed like an interesting one way mirror.

SB: The relationship between young people and their parents is a running trope in your novels. Is this a natural part of growing up and trying to employ more agency in the world?
I often write about the two vacuum sealed worlds of adult relationships and adolescent relationships and they view each other from afar. I think the children in my books think adulthood will suddenly allow them to control and affect their reality, but when you get it from the adult perspective it’s clear that everyone is flawed and adults are no more able to control their lives than children, really.

SB: How do parents respond to your characters' tendencies?
When my mum read Wild Abandon, she texted saying she really enjoyed it but asked me not to write about parents any more. My parents certainly have taken a fair bit of stick from their friends who assume they’re the couple in Submarine. Even though they’re not at all like the parents in WA, they still get tarred with that brush.
Often, parents come up to me and say, "Please tell me this isn’t really the inner life of my children."

SB: Do you feel that writing your second novel is part of your own coming-of-age, professionally speaking?
This was the first time I’d written in third person, used multiple narratives, messing about with time a bit. It’s certainly part of my coming of age and it was a great challenge.

SB: What kind of feedback do you get from your younger readers?
My youngest readers are probably about 14; I find them really cool and enthusiastic. Many of them have come to Submarine through the film. And I’m always nervous of meeting readers the same age as my characters because I think they’ll call "bullshit" on the work. But I don’t think any 15-year-old thinks that all 15-year-olds are like Oliver. I hope it’s refreshing for them to read a voice that feels close to their experience. I remember the thrill when I was young of reading something close to you, like Holden Caulfield [in The Catcher in the Rye], and the unthrill of reading something (like Adrian Mole) that always seemed to be written by a middle-aged woman. Not only do I not  know anybody who thinks this way, he’s also nothing like me. I think I want to try to get this right.

At 7pm on Sunday 20th November Joe will be at the Orange Tree Theatre as part of the Richmond Literature Festival to chat about his award winning debut novel, Submarine as well as his new novel for 2011, Wild Abandon - click here for details.

Richmond Literature Festival
3-27 November 2011

Joe Dunthorne
Follow on Twitter @JoeDunthorne

Want to buy Wild Abandon or Submarine? Link to Joe's website, or, better still - do as he suggests and pick up a copy from a book shop.
Interview by Season Butler.

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