Timothy Mo


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)


Desperado Literature

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What one wants to do is leave the novel different from how one found it and yet to contribute to the canon as well. 

Interview with TIMOTHY MO (born 1950), British novelist

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

© Lidia Vianu



LIDIA VIANU: You belong to two worlds at once. Your books revolve around heroes who are displaced and belong to several universes at the same time. Displacement is a major feature of contemporary literature. Exile is the condition of the third millennium, I should say. How do you cope with its alienation, excitement, weariness?


TIMOTHY MO: I’ll deal with personal issues in the appropriate format and length if I survive to write my autobiography


LV. Another major feature of the Postmodernist – or, as I call Postmodernism, Desperado – hero is solitude. Your heroes are apparently solitaries. You build a strange sense of defamiliarizing community around them. Where is your familiar community, where do you feel at home and what society are you actually describing in your books?


TM. I feel at ease where I can speak the local language and am efficient on the public transport system, although ‘system’ would sometimes be a misnomer. In practical terms, this means the obvious Anglophone and Francophone nations and the southern Philippines and Thailand. Although I feel rather more comfortable anywhere in Thailand than I do in Mindanao, I am unable to read bus destinations in the Thai script. The 74 letter alphabet is likely to remain impermeable to me with my total lack of visual acuity. However, Vietnamese and Philippine dialects are all romanised, so one is unlikely to get on the wrong bus in the hinterland.


LV. Sour Sweet is an elegy of Chinese loneliness and adaptation to another planet, as it were. You use tenderness, not humour. You wrote that book in the vein of Peter Ackroyd, Graham Swift and Kazuo Ishiguro – though not quite – as opposed to Julian Barnes, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge. You are both picturesque and scary in your descriptions of China and England as two separate universes colliding. Do you consider yourself an affectionate writer? Or rather cold, observant and detached?


TM. Both.


LV. Your narrative methods are varied. You enter the minds of your characters without a previous plan, you become an objective narrator when we least expect it, in short you do not conform either to realism or to Postmodernism. You are a nonconformist, which is what most contemporary writers aim at being but few succeed indeed. Is your dissimilarity deliberate or does it come naturally, because this is the only way you can write?


TM. I have always felt the distinction between the so-called experimental and the traditional novel or between post-modern and realist to be purely an invention of the academic mind. At the very best, it misses the most important distinction – between the original and the derivative. The phantastical South American, sub-continental, or indeed, Nigerian, novel can actually be rather more predictable or generic in its bombast than the simpler product of the English gentlewoman who finds herself wittingly or unwittingly the heir of Jane Austen. The important distinction to draw is between what is fresh in substance and  treatment, and sentiment, too, and what is just the product of received opinion and copied technique. I think radical orthodoxies, political or artistic, are actually the most insidious. What one wants to do is leave the novel different from how one found it and yet to contribute to the canon as well, so that it would be difficult to imagine literature  without that particular book. This is a squaring of the circle – the desire to be revolutionary and classic at the same time. I think it is mistaken to strive for this originality, however. The novel then becomes contrived and weak. If I had to pick a merit in my own contribution, I would say my books are strong – the strength coming from the uniqueness of the language, the characterisation, and the unusual but prophetic nature of the material. A book will also later be seen to have force if it was relevant, that is if it dealt with the pertinent issues of its day. Perhaps my material looked arcane and the characters obscure from the point of view of a New York yuppie fifteen years ago, or in 2004 for that matter, but I am absolutely confident that I am writing about the important things and that what appears marginal today will be central tomorrow. We live in an age of the mixing and violent reaction to each other of different cultures – you cannot hope to interest posterity in the unalloyed travails of Stoke Newington or Greenwich Village.


LV. How do you start a novel? With a feeling, a mood, a story, a thesis, a dream?


TM. Following on from the last, I start with the people. Creating life is the task of the true novelist. Sometimes I also start with a theorem – a posit for human nature which I have to prove – but this is part of the characterisation process really.


LV. How do you like to end your novels? Sour Sweet ends like an elegy. Nothing is closed, the sadness just grows inside the reader until you let it out by allowing one faint gleam of hope. Do you like to end a plot for good? Is the sense of closure something the novel needs (considering you run away from it so constantly)?


TM. I have very little interest in plot as a writer. As a reader I am as susceptible to its consolations as anyone else, with the proviso that any time the structure has run away with the characters and the ideas I find myself skipping huge tracts and never returning. On the other hand, I also do this with Indian and Latin American writers whose works are quite innocent of anything like a plot. As to a conclusion, I think it is possible to close very definitely or very inconclusively. Either way will do and either way is as old as the form itself. A definite sense of loose ends tied will satisfy the reader more but this is sometimes an abdication from the task of representing the complexity and immorality of the way things are in the world.


LV. Your basic mood is that of humour. You write with a sense of humour above all, and maybe this is what prevents you from using mere irony. You prefer sympathy. Ever since the Modernists, since Joyce and Eliot, irony has been the sacred tool of the writer. All myths have been debunked. It seems to me you are building the walls of the sacred again. Am I wrong? If I am not wrong, how do you bring the mystery of worship back to the written page (because I feel this is what you do)?


TM. I can’t imagine writing anything without humour of some kind in it. It’s the great puncturer of pretension and as a novelist I’m interested in how people actually are, not in how they present themselves. Having said that I do believe in the possibility of heroes and heroines: not born so but forced to become so by circumstance.


LV. I could not help noticing in your books the perfect use of landscape. Unlike most contemporary writers – even poets – who run away from old-fashioned realistic description, so totally discredited by Balzac and the rest, you make each landscape you describe into a small poem. Your novels are thus spiced with islands of lyricism. Do you acknowledge this use of landscape description as a deliberate tool, which connects yet disconnects you from the realistic tradition?


TM. It does apparently connect me to the realist tradition but not in actuality. I’ve never visited most of the landscapes I describe: I just invent them – e.g. East Timor. It came as no surprise  when Graham Swift mentioned to me years ago that he had never visited the Fens, much to the dismay of a TV crew hoping to be taken to a choice location by him.


LV. Do you read criticism about your work? Do critics’ opinions interest you? If they do, what kind of criticism do you prefer? Academic or (unfortunately old-fashioned but always so satisfying) reader-friendly texts? What should criticism do in order to be useful and justify its existence? In good old Eliot’s words, what should the function of criticism be?


TM. I’ve no interest in reading literary criticism and what has been written about myself is mostly risible but it seems to me good criticism has to be as creative as fiction, while still being bound by fidelity to what it illuminates. Then again there is no point in writing a novel that is not faithful to human nature.



22 September 2004