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Russell Hoban
All My Soups. Russell Hoban talks to us about inspiration, a sixth sense and his new novel.
When you've known and loved characters from a favourite novel, you can't help feeling you'd like the author too. And we weren't disappointed with Russell Hoban. We met him a couple of days before his 78th birthday and, though physically frail, we were struck by his intellectual energy, warmth and wry sense of humour.
He agreed to meet us in his London house and there we sat surrounded by books, videos and CDs on shelves, on the floor in piles almost to the ceiling, while he told us a bit about his life, how he writes and where he gets the inspiration for his extraordinary novels.
Hoban was born near Philadelphia in 1925. His parents had emigrated from Russia to America fourteen years before and, he says, his parents belonged to a self-improving generation whose ambitions for him were "a burden like a stone on his back". Because he drew well they decided he should become a great painter and he started off as an illustrator before he began to write.
He first made his name with children's books, illustrated by his first wife, Lilian. He said that when he decided to write adult books he wanted to write about men and women and not wind-up toys, yet, as we pointed out, his recent novel, The Bat Tattoo, features some very grown-up toys. He smiled wryly and said yes, he does like machinery. Like many writers of his generation, the machine is a central image in many of his novels. He lived through the era when technology became the new religion - as loved and feared as any god - and the way he writes about it reflects this ambivalent attitude towards mechanisation. The fascination with modern technology apparent in many of his books is constantly undermined by a narrative that emphasises its social consequences. In his post-holocaust novel, Riddley Walker, the hero's father is killed when a huge rusty crane falls on him - a powerful image, that he tells us was inspired by Breughel - which symbolises the destructive power of technology that has outgrown its human creator.
Although widely different in theme and narrative, he says that all his "soups have the same basic ingredients". Apart from the perceptive portrayal of character that is evident in all of them, there are the common threads of love, loss, art, the future impinging on the present and the past on the future and, despite the aloneness that pervades the souls of many of his characters, there is the sense of connectedness: the possibility that our lives are linked by something other than that which we perceive with our five senses. The protagonists of Amaryllis Night and Day can get into each other's dreams and William and Nearea in Turtle Diary independently and simultaneously make the same plans to free the sea turtles in London Zoo. When we asked about coincidence, a recurring motif in his books, he told us a story from the time when he was researching Riddley Walker. He had been thinking about Punch and Judy, a central image of the story, when he went into a book shop in search of inspiration. The first book he pulled at random from the shelves was a book about Weymouth Sands by John Cooper Powys and there on the first page was a description of a Punch and Judy show.
Although many of his ideas come at random, from an image, a phrase or music (he listens to everything from Dowland to Portishead), he researches a subject carefully. When he was writing Riddley Walker he took his family all around Kent in a camper van and, after a visit to Canterbury Cathedral, the story just came to him. "The book took five years to write and the first two years and 500 pages I knew it wasn't it." So he scrapped it and started again. This time he started writing in the distinctive dialect of the book. He realised he had to invent a new language since "they wouldn't be speaking BBC English two thousand years hence" and it needed to reflect the fragmentation of society following the nuclear holocaust. The result is a muscular phonetic poetry that takes the reader into another world.
Hoban doesn't read much contemporary fiction because there are few writers that he can read without interfering with his own writing and tells us he learns more about story-telling from watching videos. For a film to be successful he says he needs to care about the characters and needs to want to know what will happen next. Although he says it's easy for him to forget the 'page-turning element' when he is writing and claims he is not strong on plot, we have found his books hard to put down.
For his new novel, Her Name was Lola, which is being published this month, he has turned to mythology for inspiration. This time the story is based on the Shiva myth and is about a woman whose lover has made her so angry she finds a way to wipe herself from his memory.
Lulled by the warmth (it was snowing outside), several glasses of wine and his soft mid-atlantic accent, we could have stayed all night, but the smells of supper cooking downstairs reminded us it was time to go.
Hoban is producing a book a year at the moment and, as we are leaving, he tells us he is already working on his next novel, Come Dance With Me, though it's not coming easily. He keeps rewriting the first thirty pages but, he says, characteristically, he's "always hopeful".
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Russell Hoban

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