About The Author
Sam Byers was born in 1979 and is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing in the University of East Anglia. He has published fiction in Granta, Tank and Blank Pages. He regularly reviews books for the Times Literay Supplement.
His first novel is Idiopathy, set during the outbreak of a mysterious disease in cattle tha recalls the recent BSE and foot and mouth crises. Katherine and Daniel have split up. Daniel's new relationship isn't working much better either: his new girlfriend is keen on 'self-improvement' and her eco-activist friend Sebastian pickets the lab where Daniel works on a daily basis, making for some confrontational dinner parties.
Meanwhile Katherine, consumed with self-loathing, has resorted to sleeping with men she's really be better off avoiding. Their best friend, Nathan, has wmerged from a stint a psychiatric institution only to find that his mother has become a Twitter and daytime TV celebrity for her tales of hardship bringing up her troubled son. Katherine, Daniel and Nathan decide to meet to heal old wounds.
It's a scabrously funny novel about a generation too lonely to love and obsessed with self-image, self-help and the planet's imminent doom. In this excusive interview with Foyles, Sam talks about writing a comic novel inadvertently, the pros and cons of Twitter and the difference between who we are, who we think we are and who we think we should be.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @byers90
Questions & Answers
Your characters find themselves in unsatisfying relationships or resorting to desultory affairs. Do these disappointing liaisons reflect a society that is falling short of unrealistic expectations brought about by ideals portrayed in the media?
Partly, yes. For various reasons, our expectations about the people we are supposed to be are rather disconnected from our sense of how to be. All of the characters in the book are struggling, in some part, with how to exist at quite a basic level, and a lot of their discomfort stems from a deep difficulty interacting with each other. This has, of course, been greatly exacerbated by media portrayals of some unsubstantiated 'ideal,' but I was also interested in how a lot of these issues go back to the sixties, to the beginning of the so-called 'me' era, when the injunction went out to express our feelings and deal with them in a certain way. Much of what we've inherited from that generation has been positive, but I think there has been a shadow side, too, and that's a recurrent thread in a lot of what I write.
You tackle many serious issues amidst the humour. Was Idiopathy always intended as a comic novel?
Well, no, is the short answer, and there was a brief period of time where if I'm honest I was slightly put out that it had become one. It became clear quite quickly that humour was basically going to be inevitable with the portrayal of Katherine, because her manner just naturally results in a lot of awkward and therefore grimly amusing situations, which I had a lot of fun with. But I was quite reluctant to explore that much further in the other characters. It was my PhD supervisor, Giles Foden, who said, 'Oh, you're writing an English comic novel,' to which my response was something along the lines of 'uh-oh.' But then I started reading Evelyn Waugh - a writer I had always thought I would loathe, and my feelings about humour just completely changed.
One of the great delights of your novel is the banter between antagonistic characters. Did you find that you needed to speak these conversations aloud or even act them out?
I don't really have much of a sense of what I write off the page, if you see what I mean. I'm very concerned with how it looks and scans as text. So a lot of what I did with the dialogue centred around it as a reading experience as opposed to a listening experience. It took a while for that banter to emerge. It came, in many ways, from just getting to a place where I felt I knew the characters a bit better and therefore knew what they were going to say. It was also important to me to try and capture that thing I think we're all familiar with of two people who just know, through years of experience, how to push each other's buttons.
The mystery disease of cattle in your novel presumably owes something to the recent outbreaks of BSE and foot and mouth. Is this an inevitable consequence of the industrialisation of agriculture?
Yes. Absolutely. I think during the BSE crisis in particular we all learned a lot of things about how cattle were being reared that we were all very happy not to have known up to that point, and that's happened again recently with the horse meat scandal. Again, there's quite a serious disconnection at play between the people we think we are, or think we ought to be, and the people we actually are. We all aspire to this goal of 'healthiness,' be that emotional or physical or both, and yet we have no idea where to begin because we're bombarded with information. Food is a fascinating example. If you google 'healthy eating' or whatever, you'll find enough advice to last you a lifetime, but at a fundamental level, we have literally no idea what's even inside anything that we're eating. Likewise, none of us like to think of ourselves as 'cruel.' But of course we are. The lives we enjoy are a product of cruelty, be that cruelty to animals, or cruelty to each other.
The mother of Nathan, who emerges from a stint in rehab, has generated quite a following on Twitter and published, having shared her supposedly traumatic experiences of being a mother. Why do feel we've developed such a need to share publically what would only recent have been seen as private matters? And how are you finding Twitter?
I think validation is a big part of it. I read a fascinating article recently about how our 'digital self' is essentially just a convenient way of constructing a self that is readily verifiable by both ourselves and others. And again, there's a link back to this cult of emotional expression that we have inherited from the sixties. Actually telling each other how we feel is difficult. It has consequences. It makes us feel exposed. However, if we are unable to tell each other how we feel it makes us feel guilty. People who are not judged to be 'open' enough are usually talked about as if there is something profoundly wrong with them, as if they are in some way failing at being a fully adjusted human being. Because we erroneously think of the so-called digital world as being a separate world from our everyday physical and emotional experience, the opportunity arises to express ourselves with a greatly reduced level of embarrassment and discomfort because, or so we tell ourselves, we're not really there, and nor are the people listening to us. Whether this turns out to be quite a useful little lie to tell ourselves or the beginning of a rather grim mass delusion remains to be seen. I suppose we've got to try it to find out.
As for me, well, I quite like Twitter. There are people on there I feel I 'know' in some strange sense. And it's absolutely inarguable that I have read more interesting books and listened to more exciting music as a result of other people sharing stuff. But at the same time I do find the level of outrage often reaches a slightly ridiculous pitch. Some mornings I open up Twitter and just think: no thanks, I'll let this blow over.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on at the moment?
Er, no, not really. Sorry. I struggle enough with talking about books I've actually written, let alone ones I haven't written yet. I side with Walter Benjamin, who I think said that if you talk about things too much the urgency in communicating them (i.e: the urgency that fuels a book) is diminished. The other, slightly less philosophical, answer, is that in the early stages I like to work in as chaotic and unruly fashion as possible, so if I told you now what I have so far you'd just say, 'well that sounds awful, and mad, and it doesn't even make any sense.' And here you see the difficulty, because even in saying that, just now, I have caused my brain to say 'actually, you know what? Maybe he would say that because it IS awful and mad, and maybe it DOESN'T make any sense,' which is a sure-fire sign that I have banged on enough already.