Rupert Thomson sees himself as the Martin Scorsese of the book world. Having been writing for more than 20 years— eight eclectic novels, which garner critical acclaim and award nominations, but no wins and middling sales—the comparison could indeed be apt.
Scorsese had, for years, produced classics ranging from "Taxi Driver" to "The Age of Innocence". But it wasn't until this decade that he moved away from his cult director reputation, with blockbusters such as "Gangs of New York".
"My problem with being a cult writer is that it's another way of saying 'no sales'," says Thomson. "I have always thought of myself as a mainstream writer. I have that feeling about my books, that people would love them if they knew they were there... I have had amazing reviews—I've never been short of critical acclaim—but that doesn't always sell books."
From cult to mainstream?
Thomson jokes that he needs his version of "The Departed" — Scorsese's first Oscar win and his highest grossing film— but does not fail to note the irony that this was a remake of the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs". "The Chinese film is much better," he says.
Granta is no doubt hoping This Party's Got to Stop will be Thomson's breakthrough book. The publisher has big plans, positioning it as the "superlead" title for 2010. As his first non-fiction publication, and his first title not to be published by Bloomsbury, it is perhaps the point at which his work could gain critical mass.
The book takes as its central point seven months in the mid-1980s, when Thomson and his brothers moved back into their parents' house shortly after the death of their father. Having lost his mother aged nine, Thomson and his brothers are left to deal with the practicalities of breaking up the estate while making sense of their loss through alcohol-induced acts of recklessness: destroying some of the furniture with an axe; setting fire to the rest of it; urinating on cinema seats.
As Thomson says: "If that was just a scene in a piece of fiction— at least, my kind of fiction—that wouldn't seem too extreme. But actually, if you think about it as real, it takes on a strange power."
Thomson kept "no diaries, and very few photographs" of the time, so describes the attempt at re-creating the time as "impressionistic", and the end result as a combination of "Withnail & I-style anarchic commune" and "some kind of surreal 'King Lear'".
From this, the book stretches to Thomson's attempt two years ago to meet with his long-estranged youngest brother, "Ralph". The two had barely spoken since the time they lived in their father's house, and it is their meeting which gives the book one of its most poignant moments, as they both realise their 20-year separation was little more than a misunderstanding.
"I liked that sense of me being brought up short—I really had no idea of what [Ralph and his wife, Vivienne] were thinking behind that locked door... They didn't give anything away at all."
Thomson jokes that the US audience may struggle to "get" the book— with its lack of cathartic showdown or even obvious resolution. Certainly what is most apparent is the sense of loss: loss of Thomson's father, of course, and the estrangement of his brother, but also his mother, of whom his memories are most confused, and whose only legacy is the tennis courts where she died, which have been made into a car park.
So could This Party's Got to Stop be Thomson's breakthrough?
"I have said this before," Thomson smiles. "I don't want to say it every time— I said that with Death of a Murderer, but it just didn't happen."
Death of a Murderer, his previous title, has sold just over 7,750 copies in both editions, having been shortlisted for the Costa, and the World Book Day Book to Talk About 2008. Thomson thinks it "could have gone wider", but believes the cover—a hand-coloured reproduction of the infamous Myra Hindley photograph— put off "women over a certain age".
"This is a huge book-buying market, the one I have never quite tapped into, and I thought Death of a Murderer was the perfect book to do that," he says. "I had all kinds of anecdotal evidence of women who had bought the book, because they knew and liked my work, but kept it in a brown paper bag so they wouldn't have to look at 'that woman' as they called her."
When it came to the paperback, Thomson says he was "determined" not to have the same cover image. "[Canongate publisher] Jamie Byng even told me 'if you have her on the front cover of the paperback, you will lose 30,000 sales'. And sure enough..." he tails off. "I'm not pointing fingers, but I was pleased with what I'd done, and I thought it could have gone wider."
Thomson moved to Granta earlier this year, shortly after his "extraordinary" editor Liz Calder retired. Although he is keen to point out how much he enjoyed his time at Bloomsbury, he is clearly anticipating a change in the scale of his book sales. "If Bloomsbury couldn't get me into the position I wanted to be after 22 years, they are never going to do it. Or rather, I just can't wait any more," he says. "[Including the memoir] there are nine books behind me, there might not be nine ahead."
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