Can you hear that sad sigh? I’ve just finished Ian Gregson’s The Crocodile Princess and I feel it has so much more to give. One excerpt on my blog is not enough. The book’s definitely got its place on one of the Got To Read Again shelves in my study. I say shelf but it’s actually a bookcase each time and I have five main categories:
- a Got To Read Again shelf
- a To Read shelf (I bought over 30 books one afternoon at a local book fair last year and am still working my way through those tho the Lord knows, my To Read shelf wasn’t empty before that)
- a Was Good, You Can Pass It On to Someone Else shelf
- an Academic shelf (books relating to my PhD)
- a For The Flea Market shelf
And then there’s a whole pile of homeless books wandering around and ending up in the most unlikely places. Librarians across the globe will be rolling their eyes. What do I care.
Here’s another taste of The Crocodile Princess for you.
Keith thanked the pedaleur but said that he had urgent business to attend to at the moment, but the pedaleur said that he would return later in the day and take him to visit some girls, and all of them would be congenial and lovely, and there would be a choice – there would be some Cambodian ladies, but also some Vietnamese, some Chinese and some French (…)
Keith was suddenly shocked by the thought that such a visit might actually be wise – because sex was an activity he needed to learn and this, when no emotion was involved, might in fact be the wisest place to learn it. He was unnerved by the idea that the wisest course could possibly be so thoroughly the opposite of conventional wisdom. But a woman would certainly expect a man to be confident and competent and he couldn’t be either in a field of action he had never entered. (…)
Keith was made aware of the long silence between them when the pedaleur said that he also knew boys who could be of service to him. When they arrived outside Peter’s apartment, the pedaleur looked Keith solicitously in the eye and said that he, too, could be of service, and Keith registered the man’s gold-capped teeth, and his dark skin, the skin of a rural Cambodian, and his powerful arms and shoulders. With that sudden intensity which Keith had noticed before in Cambodians, the pedaleur said that he and Keith could go to a place he knew where, for half an hour, they could be heureux, and then he would pedal Keith tranquilly along the river, so that he could be quiet and peaceful. And this would cost only one American dollar. Keith remembered it was Sunday morning, and thought how different this was from the church-going Sundays of his Lancastrian upbringing.
(once inside Peter’s apartment, he is surprised to find a married woman there, Edith. Surely those two weren’t… were they??? This is me, Joan, paraphrasing the section I’ve omitted. Keith takes in the compromising scene, then…)
Several desperate words which hated women, which he had heard used mechanically, obsessively, during his national service, and which he had found himself using then, during that time, crowded into his head and shouted.
- Ian, would you say that every writer is willingly or unwillingly also a politician?
All literature is inevitably political in its implications, but some forms are more explicitly political than others. In lyric poetry the politics is only implicit; the short story also has a tendency to occupy a personal rather than a political space. The novel is the most political of literary forms and the greatest novels (by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Toni Morrison etc) evoke a whole society.
- some believe that it is impossible to teach creative writing. What’s your stance on this?
I taught creative writing for a long time so I’d have to declare an interest there. It’s certainly possible to teach writing techniques connected eg to narrative voice. I’d also hope that, as you teach such things, you instill a love of literature in general.
- how do you feel about commissioned writing?
Nice work if you can get it, though these days I wouldn’t want (much) of it.
- what was the hardest aspect of writing The Crocodile Princess?
Inventing comedy ideas that were appropriate,and good enough, for Peter Cook to speak.
- to which extent does the final book correspond to the original you had in mind before you started writing?
I had a broad outline in mind which the novel does fulfill, but it developed a lot on the way and that’s one of the most gratifying aspects of writing.
- where would you place yourself along the continuum of novelist-types: meticulously planned before I sit down to write — start writing then go with the flow?
I’m somewhere in the middle of that – I have a general idea and quite a number of specific ideas about plot and character and individual scenes, and images,etc, but the great joy is moving along through those and finding it expand and acquire its shape.
- literary criticism: science or art? and why?
It’s a combination of the two. I do think that novelists and poets should be aware of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan etc because that’s among the most important thinking of our time.
- why Cambodia: what is unique to this setting regarding the requirements of your novel?
It’s fascinating, beautiful place which got caught up in some major political events.
- Crocodile Princess. two versions of the story; the Cambodian (princess swallowed up by a crocodile) and the Dagenham version. The theme of secrets/masks, origins, double/parallel identities, public/private faces (Yuri, Dudley, Joe smoking opium to retreat from his mundane life, Edith). Unreliable surfaces, déjà vu, illusions/magic. Dialogical identity. There is a lot antagonism/tension caused by these clashing identities and their individual objectives within the plot; also:pieces of information like poker chips, owned and coveted and passed around by means of your mischievous literary style. No one seems truly happy; all trapped in their own identity crisis. dreams, illusions, nightmares… is the title of the book symbolic merely of the ‘paranoiac petty-mindedness’ of the diplomatic community, or of the human condition in general, in your view? To which extent is the novel a mask YOU wear to play beak-a-boo with the reader?
Well these are the bits and pieces we all work with as novelists aren’t they? And the most important thing is that they are ambivalent and polyphonic so that they can say a wide range of things at once and so go some way to evoking the beautiful mess that we live in.
- in the novel, we hear more than once about the inadequacy of rationalism to do justice to the intricacies of human thought or to bring about some form of inner (dare I use the word: spiritual?) peace. What is your personal take on this issue? how satisfactorily are you able to function and connect to other minds in/of Western culture? Have we been led astray? How does rationalism affect you as a writer AND critic?
I don’t regard rationalism as separable from other kinds of cognition: it’s a label we give artificially to a form of thought that is thoroughly intertwined with other forms and works alongside them to help us understand our experience.
- humour: Do your students ever get the chance to laugh in your classes?
I’d really want them to laugh but I’m not funny enough to make them laugh as often as I’d like.
- What’s on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet? Do you have plans to do it yourself or will one of your characters see to it for you?
Really that’s my current project, where I’m combining different literary forms, – poems, short stories, flash fiction, and an essay in a sequence focused on a single subject (in this case about advertising).
The Crocodile Princess. The description on the back cover fits so I won’t try to outdo it, I’ll simply repeat it:
Fast-paced, witty, full of intrigue, misdirection and set in the heart of Phnom Penh in an extraordinary moment of history, The Crocodile Princess is a gripping read from the highly accomplished author of Not Tonight Neil.