Edward St Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels, speaking at the Wheeler. Drawing: “Teddy,” thinking.
Posh English child whose ancestors date back to the Norman Conquest is sexually abused by his father, becomes a teenage heroin addict, decides to kill himself if he doesn’t finish his novel (at 28), and has his family home given away by his dying mother. Swapping therapy for writing he channelled it all into the five acclaimed Patrick Melrose novels. I guess that explains briefly why I have not and don’t care to read the books.
But I counted fourteen friends and acquaintances at the Wheeler Centre last night, where St Aubyn talked about his life and art to a full house. I was there because Constant Gardener is a big fan; St Aubyn is: “sharp, incisive, bitter and very funny; among the funniest books I have read.” In the event St Aubyn’s languorous ease carried the willing crowd without any help from the somewhat overwhelmed interviewer. (I found it excruciating: but that was from trying to suppress a hacking, unshakeable cough.) You can hear St Aubyn’s low, lulling tones on Late Night Live.
St Aubyn at the Wheeler:
Fiction over memoir: It’s [about] what tradition has impressed and moved you most.
I’m rather keen on telling the truth. Why should I regret it?
I was trying to understand a mystifying situation … I was actually discovering the truth at the same time as the reader.
With tragic characters, they have a lucidity (like Hamlet).
Those are the only things worth writing about — impossible things. It had to seem very nearly impossible to do it to be worthwhile.
Dialogue is written down once but everything else is written again and again until it sounds natural. There’s no point writing down what people actually say, how they actually talk. (This sounds contradictory, but isn’t: his “dialogue” is not reportage.)
Some people don’t need to change. They’re already nice.
Quoting advice: “The function of style is interest.”
On his style: I used to sound out the sentences, I was a painfully slow reader. Maybe I imagine my sentences read out?
On reading: I decide very early if I like it, within 2o pages. Once I commit I’m carry on doggedly. (He remarked about the satisfaction of throwing a book across a room, like a frisbee.)
I just finished a novel a week ago. I wondered if I could enjoy myself writing — the answer is, Not entirely.
Audience member: Did you get help (therapy)?
St Aubyn: I don’t think that is a literary question.
Audience: You don’t have to answer it.
St Abyn: I know.
On children speaking: They see everything for the first time and if they can articulate it, it’s amazing. But … you don’t want to make a cult of it because they’re often boring and limited.
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When I expressed my agnosticism after the show, I had three people pressing me to convert, to read his books. Patrick Melrose/St Aubyn is a fabulous creature, no doubt; he has his cult. Got the taste? — the English have done sterling interviews with “Teddy”: Telegraph; Guardian; Independent.