GRAMeoff Dyer, 63, grew up in Cheltenham and lives in Los Angeles. The 19 books of hers include Jeff in VeniceDeath in Varanasiwhich won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Fiction, and Zone: a book about a movie about a trip a quarterin Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film stalker. In the words of New YorkerDyer “delights in producing books that are unique, like keys”; for Simon Armitage, he “is a clever clog, but at the same time he is one of us”. His new book The last days of Roger Federerreflects on the nature of endings, with reference to Bob Dylan, DH Lawrence, and JMW Turner, among other artists.
What led you to write (a little, eventually) about Roger Federer?
It’s so beautiful to watch, and it’s so satisfying when the most aesthetically beautiful way to play a sport is also the most efficient. Those of us who loved Roger only loved him even more in the twilight of his career when he became a pivotal, gentle underdog. He seems so nice; If we met, I am convinced that we could become great friends. I asked my agent to drop his agent a line to get an endorsement, but an endorsement from Roger starts at over a million dollars. Because he’s a busy guy, I even suggested a blurb to him, something like “I thought there might be more about me in it.”
This is not the tennis book you once planned to write…
No, I felt I could only use the title if the cover made it clear that it was not a tennis book. I was writing about endings just as the world itself came to an end, conveniently. Before the pandemic, I had a young life: a lot of travel, a lot of fun, but suddenly I was catapulted into a glimpse of old age. Writing this book helped me get over [that period]. What’s on offer here is an immersion into one person’s consciousness, mine, with no introduction and no chapters, so you have to start thinking, what’s going on? The task of structuring it worried me a lot: I got the idea that I could make the book of exactly 86,400 words, one word for every second of the day, which became a real pain in the testing phase.
Did you feel like you were smuggling these typically free reflexes under the guise of a book on Federer?
I think in the last 10 years or so this type of writing has been legalized, like marijuana. When I was doing it for the first time [in the 90s], these strange books of mine were kicked around the bookcase, getting more and more battered as they moved from one section to another. Now, this uncategorizable cross-genre hybrid material has become a category of its own. Far from smuggling, I show up at customs and say here it is!
A footnote talks about the danger of sounding “kind of silly,” something his work often seems to want to avoid. Why?
That particular detail about the “ponce-meter” comes up when I talk about listening to a late Beethoven quartet in Tuscany (I could feel my hair stand on end), but it’s related to the hostility I have towards people speaking from up. [My style] everything is linked to that kind of English tone that alternates between joke and seriousness. I had a line that said [the Hitler biographer] by Ian Kershaw to hell and back It was from Andy Kershaw. I love to think of readers thinking, “Oh, what an idiot he is!”, and the more they think about it, the better; a footnote 150 pages later made it clear that he was joking. But it had to go: the book is coming out in America, and no one has heard of Andy Kershaw.
This is your eighth book Since the last time you published a novel. Have you stopped writing fiction?
I’ve written all these books on an incredibly wide variety of topics, but my novels can be summed up in a couple of sentences: a guy goes to a party, he meets a girl with a group of friends, he falls in love. That’s all he had. What I like the idea of doing next is an English version of Annie Ernaux. The yearsto record some aspects of my very ordinary childhood in the 1960s in the semi-rural, working-class world that shaped me and that seems to have disappeared.
The book touches on the role of education in your life…
I know the arguments against the elementary school system, which is that its real purpose was to make sure enough people failed 11-plus to keep a flow. [of workers into] factories. But for me, the postwar settlement meant that, without any conscious effort on my part, I could step onto an educational escalator where life’s opportunities are greatly amplified. I was in London for the last election. A Tory came campaigning and I told them I owe it all to Labour. Although Labor at the time was Corbyn’s hopeless Labour, it was still inconceivable that he could vote for anyone else.
What have you read lately?
tessa hadley Free love it was great. He always jokes with her that he has the best description of a penis outside of Alan Hollinghurst’s work, when the main character’s lover is dressing her up and she sees it as “floating and slippery”.
How did it feel to make a joke? J. M. Coetzee? [At a books festival in 2010, Dyer joked that it was an honour to be introduced by a Booker-winning South African Nobel laureate… “because Nadine Gordimer is my favourite writer”.]
Going viral isn’t as easy as you think, and that’s as close as I’ve ever come. In the pictures it looks so stony; I was worried that I had pissed him off, but I was happier that the Australian audience [at a books festival in 2010] I liked him a lot. Then I saw him in Japan and in Cartagena and he couldn’t have been nicer; I think he is not much of a joker. It was a classic joke. It came to me 10 or 15 minutes before we went on stage and I quickly asked myself, do I dare to risk it? Whenever there’s something like that when I’m writing, and I think, my God, am I going to get in trouble if I write this? That moment of consideration always ends in a kind of impulse to, yes, do it.