‘Experimental novelist’ kicks the regular rulebook into touch

by Richard Freeman

During a recent tour to Guam, members of the Tsunami Teetotallers (a Japan-based ad hoc rugby team) were left speechless when, during prematch introductions, their scrumhalf Richard Beard declared himself to be an English “experimental novelist.”

Born in 1967, Beard graduated from Cambridge University and worked as a teacher before enrolling in Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 1994.

His first novel in the experimental vein, titled “X20 (A Novel of Not Smoking),” was published in 1996, and was followed in 1998 by “Damascus” — which will be published in Japanese by Shogen-Sha in June. Meanwhile, “The Cartoonist” — an anticonsumerist political novel originally set in EuroDisney but rewritten to be located in “a theme park near Paris” to conform with copyright and libel laws — hit the shelves in 2000 and this February saw publication of his latest novel, “Dry Bones.”

In between, Beard wrote a book that was in stark contrast to his experimental novels, all of which were influenced by the ideas of the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature). Known as OuLiPo, this approach to writing was formulated in 1960s Paris by a group of writers and mathematicians — including Raymond Queneau, Claude Berge and Italo Calvino — and it requires writers to impose a number of strict, restrictive — but arbitrary — rules on themselves.

Beard’s “break” from the experimental is called “Muddied Oafs, The Last Days of Rugger” and Beard declares on his homepage that it is “my gesture of enduring love to the sport of rugby, the greatest outdoor team game on Earth.”

Currently working and living in Tokyo, Beard — who lists his favorite three books as “Life — A User’s Manual” by Georges Perec, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and “Shogun” by James Clavell — last week talked with The Japan Times about life as a writer.

What exactly are you doing in Japan?

I’m in the British Studies department at the University of Tokyo, where I teach anything to do with British life and culture. We’ve already done James Bond and we’ll be looking at the social history of British sport, Harry Potter, all sorts of things. The university has a tradition of employing creative writers, beginning in 1924 with the war poet Edmund Blunden, who later came back to Japan as a cultural ambassador. In fact, his best-known work, “Undertones of War,” was written here in Tokyo.

Where do your book ideas generally come from — and has being here given you any in particular?

Tokyo is certainly not Shepton Mallet [the town near where he used to live in rural Somerset, southwest England], and a change is as good as a rest and helps to refresh ideas. So I do have a gem of an idea formulating. “Dry Bones” came about when I was in a cemetery in Switzerland and noticed all these gravestones of famous people. I wanted to come up with a way to connect all the famous people who had come to Switzerland at the end of their lives and who had died there. The character in the book adopts the personalities of the people whose bones he comes in contact with — so those of Richard Burton turn him into a drunk womanizer, and those of Charlie Chaplin see him falling down manholes and being chased by police.

Your novels are based on OuLiPo methodology. Doesn’t that make life as a writer more difficult?

It would seem so, but in overcoming the constraints and rules I set myself, the text almost writes itself. For example, if I ask you to write a story . . . you might find it almost impossible to do it. But if I ask you to empty your pockets on the table and write a story that includes every object on the table, it is much easier to write a story. So the rules generate the text. In “X20,” which follows the first 20 days of its character’s attempt to quit smoking, the total number of words equals the number of cigarettes he smokes during the time described in the book — that was one of the rules. And one of the challenges is to end up with a book which the reader doesn’t realize was generated by these kind of constraints.

George Perec’s novel “La Disparition (The Void)” doesn’t contain the letter “e,” and some critics read that book without realizing it.

In “Damascus,” I only use nouns that appeared in The Times of Nov. 1 1993. How does this work? In one paragraph some children are racing to the sea and one of them wants to say — “Last to touch the water is a donkey.” But there’s no “donkey” in the paper, so they end up saying, “Last to touch the water is a walrus.” So you end up with some quite interesting and novel linguistic formulations.

It sounds perfect for Japanese writers; following a rule in order to be creative.

Yes. Good thinking. Following a Japanese instinct to get a non-Japanese result. One of my students told me about Yasutaka Tsutsui, who wrote some constraint-based novels. In “Zanzou ni Kuchibiru wo (Kiss the Afterimage),” kana [letters] gradually disappear the longer the story gets, and as the letters disappear, characters, things and places whose names contain the lost letters also disappear.

So what constitutes a normal working day for an experimental writer?

Now I am working it is different, but for seven years I tried to do office hours. If things didn’t go well my office would be open 10-2, but once you get going it could be 8-7. First draft is in longhand. And if an idea doesn’t come, I sit there looking at the paper. The last book took me nearly four years. I probably wrote about 200,000 words — all of which I scrapped. Some writers bring back failed drafts as short stories, but I don’t do that. It’s either right or wrong and if it’s wrong I throw it away.

With advances in technology, among other things, do you believe the novel is still a viable art form?

The novel is as vibrant and varied as ever. It’s still the one art form where a person can develop an idea alone, and follow the course of an individual life. In that sense, it insists on the importance of the individual in a globalized world. The Internet has meant information is more easily available to the writer than ever before, and the Internet offers new structural models and possibilities to all novelists.

How was it studying under Malcolm Bradbury?

Studying in the loose term. There was no tuition. Bradbury used to sit in a chair and act as the chairman of the board. But he was very positive and very tolerant. He was tired and the 12 of us in the class all thought we were William Shakespeare. Basically my time at UEA was like a gift. A year to do nothing but write and make contacts, without having to live in London. I think I would have been the same writer if I hadn’t gone there, but it would have taken longer.

Have you been tempted by Hollywood?

“Damascus” [in which the two main characters relive key moments in their lives, from birth to first kisses and family bereavements, all on Nov. 1, 1993 -- while yearning for a "Road to Damascus" moment that will move them on] is being made into a movie, but someone else is writing the screenplay. Whatever type of film they make of it I will be happy. I think people can differentiate between films and the books they are based on. “Schindler’s List” was very different from the original novel and people understand that.

And finally, if “Muddied Oafs” became a movie, who would you have play you?

Oh I don’t know. Jude Law looks like he could be a writer, or Hugh Grant. Either way I’d love to see them get tackled by a big No. 7!