Born and brought up in Swansea, Joe Dunthorne’s debut novel, Submarine, won the Curtis Brown Prize and has been translated into ten languages. It was later made into a critically-acclaimed film by the director Richard Ayoade and is currently playing at U.S cinemas. Joe’s second novel, like Submarine, is also set in Wales.
What’s your latest book, Wild Abandon, about?
This is the part where I have to give the perfect pitch! It’s about a commune in West Wales collapsing and key relationships around it also falling apart – the marriage of its founders, Don and Freya, and their children, Kate and Albert, who both try and escape – although Albert is convinced the last day on earth is coming.
You’ve had success with your debut novel, Submarine, when thousands of other writers struggle to get published. Have you made it look a bit easy?
I have (laughs). I’ve been lucky, there’s no doubt about that. I know my luck is going to run out at some point though.
A lot of musicians suffer from second album syndrome after a successful debut. What challenges did you face as an author writing a follow-up to your debut?
There were definitely bigger challenges to face in writing a follow-up to my debut. I was initially worried about what themes would be involved in the novel and had several inner arguments with myself. I finally got to a point where I had enough of a good idea to write about for three years.
Who were your literary heroes growing up?
I wasn’t a big reader when I was growing so only Terry Pratchett and the writers of (BBC sitcom) Red Dwarf appealed to me. As I got older, I began to read a lot more (Albert) Camus and (Franz) Kafta.
When did you first realise – "I’m quite good at writing, I want to do this for a living."
I started writing at about the age of 14 but didn’t realise I had a talent until I was accepted for a creative writing course at the University of East Anglia when I was 19. That was a huge thrill for me, having confirmation my writing was good enough to get on the course.
What was it like growing up in Swansea in the 90s?
I loved it. Looking back there were some grim aspects, like being labelled the car crime capital of the UK, but there are some great people and places throughout the city. I loved going down to the Gower with my mates and I’m still friends with a lot of people from school.
Is it true you write from a disused tube carriage that’s next door to a massage parlour? Does that boost creativity?
You really have done your research (laughs). Yes, it is true. There used to be a full blown brothel next door but that’s shut down and become a massage parlour. I couldn’t tell you anymore than that as I’ve never been inside, although I do see I lot of guilty looking people walking out of the place. The area where I write is a very nice community and full of writers and artists – it’s a great place to talk and share ideas.
Have you been surprised by the wide-appeal Submarine has received?
When I’m writing I often think about what I like and find funny rather than other readers. Oliver Tate is a very modern type of boy and some may even say he has few, if any, redeeming features, so the appeal of Submarine has surprised me, undoubtedly.
Submarine has drawn a lot of comparisons with Catcher in the Rye. Why?
Lazy journalism I guess (laughs). Both the main characters are male and young, that’s all I can see – although I do love Catcher in the Rye.
Nick Hornby said he never wanted to visit a film set again after his book, Fever Pitch, was brought to the big screen. Were you present for any of the filming of Submarine?
I can see why he’d say that. I was present for two days filming and that was enough. I think (Cardiff author) Jon Ronson said, “The first day visiting a Hollywood film set is the most exciting day of your life. The second day is the most boring of your life.” I could definitely relate to that with Submarine. The weather, set and cast on the first day were superb but on the second day the weather had turned and we were stood in the rain shooting for 12 hours straight. I’d had enough after that.
The film is currently showing in America. Do you think American audiences will understand the Welsh humour?
Interestingly, the American producer for Submarine, Harvey Weinstein, has made a slide featuring Oliver Tate (played by Welsh actor Craig Roberts) which is shown before the film begins, explaining where Wales is and a little speech from Oliver thanking the Americans for not invading us. I think Americans sometimes struggle with subtlety in comedy.
How do you think Swansea will get on in the Premier League next season?
I’m scarily hopeful and I think they’ll do OK. We’ve brought in some decent signings, not huge superstars, but I think we’ve already got a good squad that plays quality football. We need to turn the Liberty Stadium in a fortress and give it a Blade Runner-esque atmosphere, like Port Talbot.
Your Twitter account says you were the Under-9s heading champion. Maybe you could help them out?
I could’ve done at the time – I’ve would’ve been all over it (laughs). That’s still my proudest achievement to this day.
Joe Dunthorne’s latest novel, Wild Abandon, is out now.
Michael Took was asking the questions.