I got a present the other day; a signed copy of The Crocodile Princess by Ian Gregson; novelist, poet, critic and Oxford Professor of Poetry nominee. I had only ever met Ian once in person before. That was five years ago, when he gave me his personal copy of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and told me to consider writing my next novel in the first person. I did more than consider it, I took up the challenge, one which, for years, was marked more by cursing than by anything I would care to call satisfactory progress. Now the novel is finished. Thank goodness. Now I can get back to reading for pleasure.
A pleasure I wish to share with you. Below is the opening of Ch2 of The Crocodile Princess. I love it for so many reasons. I’m sure you will find your own.
THE CROCODILE PRINCESS
‘No no you’re not going to catch me,’ shouted Joe Keane, the American ambassador in Cambodia. He stared in the face of Norodom Sihanouk looming on a billboard above him, Sihanouk dressed all in white and with a shaved head, saintly Buddhist, his serenity a rebuke to Keane’s desperate, breathless driving forward of his cyclopousse, his bicycle rickshaw, his pedalling ever more frantic because the finishing line was a huge jacaranda tree only forty yards past the billboard, and Peter Cook was gaining on him, now only fifteen yards behind, and calling to him, taunting him with his growing nearness, about how he would imminently overtake, about the superiority of Cook’s own cyclo, about how Joe’s contraption was wonky, about how Joe himself – worst of all, this, as Joe was gasping more and more for breath – was an old man, was past it… and Joe was dizzy now, standing up on his pedals, then sitting down again, and the cyclo was so unwieldy, and four times heavier than a normal bicycle, and he could feel his head sicken, where dazzling white enormous Sihanouk in the silver of the nearly-full moon was swimming in his eyes above him – or no, too bright for that, because in fact lit from below by a carefully placed lamp, so now, as he approached, Joe could see lizards running all over the god/king… lizards (and he thought this ludicrously, even painfully, given what he needed to concentrate upon) attracted by the insects on Sihanouk that were, in turn, attracted by the lamplight… and then he thought about that thought and knew he was observing his thought self-consciously still because of the opium he had smoked earlier, at Madame Chhum’s, the opium whose pungent taste even now lingered between his teeth and inside his tongue, somehow both sweet and bitter, the opium that made his thoughts wrap themselves around each other, twist inside each other and open passageways that led past tens of doorways which might open at any moment and lead down other passageways… and it was being too deeply inside that thought that led him not to notice he was veering to the right, not to notice so that now he had to wrestle the cyclo leftwards, still half-hoping to go forwards as well, still somehow to win because the tree was only twenty yards ahead, but it was no good, the front wheel was pointing left but the weight of everything behind it, the hooded seat and the wheels and Keane himself, was dragging it still to the right, so that his back right wheel was slipping more and more into a shallow ditch, and he made a final effort, standing on his pedals feeling that his breath was squeezed hard as though his lungs might burst, but no, it was no use, and he slipped further into the ditch and the whole ungainly contraption toppled onto its right side, and he saw Cook go flying past him to the jacaranda where he stopped and jumped out of his cyclo and danced about him with his arms in the air.
I’m not quite halfway through the book but already have loads of questions. Here are a few:
- Ian, do you have any personal experience of the diplomatic service? If not, what kind of research did you do in order to portray this particular social group so convincingly?
I’ve never worked as a diplomat, but I think it’s important that the novel tackles political questions and if you focus on a diplomatic community you’re involved in politics straight away. In particular, it’s important for British writers to explore the colonial experience, especially given the extent to which writers in colonized countries have focused on that history from their perspective. So I researched the lives of ambassadors and other Embassy staff, and read memoirs of diplomats, including ones that described that life in the time and place of The Crocodile Princess.
- How long did it take you to write the book and did you use any time management software to help you? (What do you think of such software in general?)
It took me three years – some days I only wrote about two hundred words, and I revised the first draft extensively. I’m not even aware, to be honest, of what time management software is!
- One of the things I adore when reading The Crocodile Princess is the way you weave in witty observations that make the characters immediately come alive in a line or two. I also have the impression that it is at times a very thin line indeed being drawn between humour and disdain. Why did you decide to give characters this edge and have you personally ever been at the receiving end of such treatment?
The focus on comedy arose from the element of alternative history, where I invented an alternative life for the comedian Peter Cook. I wanted this component to throw a defamiliarising angle on the politics. I love the idea of the novel as a polyphonic form that incorporates multiple voices and languages. So I conceived of the satirical comedy as a language which would be a source of imagery – as in the references to the domino effect, for example. The element of disdain in it might be connected to the class aspect, of Cook’s upper-middle class origins (his father worked for the Foreign Office in Nigeria). And that might also indicate that I wanted some distance from Cook, which was why I invented Waldo Vaughan as an angry left-wing Welsh nationalist comedian as an alternative which unfortunately never occurred.
- Another thing I admire: the philosophical remarks which lift the plot beyond the mere happenings within the diplomatic circle yet without rendering the book too high-brow or know-it-all. Are any of these opinions ones you share or were they attributed to your characters much in the way you would choose the colour of their hair or select for them the right spouse?
I agree with some of them and not others. One of the things I wanted to depict was a kind of ideological norm for 1962 – people being racist, sexist, homophobic, and snobbish – but above all casually, as part of a set of unquestioned assumptions. Hector Perch, the left wing journalist, is the character whose views I would most naturally share, but – partly for that reason – I wanted to show him being alarmingly wrong in his political diagnosis of Cambodia. One of the ready resources you can draw upon in a novel set in 1962 is the ironies that arise from having characters have perceptions which readers – from their knowledge of subsequent events – realise are shockingly wide of the mark.
- A critic whose name unfortunately escapes me said that a novel in verse is an abomination. You write novels as well as poetry. How useful do you find the distinction between poetry and prose in contemporary literature?
I wouldn’t want to write a verse novel because the form of poetry, to my mind, would be too awkward. But the idea of poetry being dialogic and novelized, as theorized by Bakhtin, is very important to me. And my own poems have always invented characters who speak the poems, and they have overlapping points of view where voices collide. And I like to think that in my fiction I call upon forms of imagery which I’ve learned from writing poems.
- Tell me more about the cover.
Adam Craig at Cinnamon designed it. He came up with several alternatives, but I thought that the understated reference to Angkor Wat was cool and laid-back in a way that appealed to me.
- What’s something the readers don’t know about one of the protagonists: something you had in mind when writing the book, but which didn’t make it into the final version?
It’s not so much a character thing. A pun on ‘backwater’ haunted me: that word is repeatedly applied to Phnom Penh. It’s important that the city was patronised in that way, because it means that outlandish stuff could happen there that wouldn’t have been tolerated in Paris or Moscow. But I also thought of the word as referring to the astonishing yearly event in the city, when its river reverses its flow. That image was connected for me to the central themes of the novel’s ‘alternative’ nature – its focus on systematic disorientation, of a deep-seated bewilderment which I hoped would express how little in control people are of what is underlyingly shaping their lives.
- What are you reading right now and why would you recommend it?
I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, which is a novelised version of the lives of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk. Based on facts but extending what is known through fictive speculation. I’d recommend it because it does what I most admire – it is beautifully, accessibly written so you feel compelled to keep reading, but it also asks fascinating, complex questions.
The same can be said of The Crocodile Princess. Definitely. Thanks, Ian, for sharing your views with me. Some people think the author doesn’t count and that we should approach the book as an autonomous work of art. I’m not one of them. Ian’s answers allow me to get so much more out of reading his novel. And I hope they make you interested in finding out more.