Interview: Joe Dunthorne

Acclaimed Welsh poet and journalist makes his first visit to China

With Joe Dunthorne making his first visit to Shanghai, Time Out speaks to the author about his interest in mundane hippies and his lack of love for Adrian Mole

‘You could almost smell the rubber as joyriders flew down Constitution Hill,’ says Welsh author Joe Dunthorne, talking about growing up in Swansea in the 1980s. ‘There was a house at the bottom that had to have bollards put up in front of it by the council because cars kept coming through their window.’

Thirty-year-old poet and novelist Dunthorne grew up in South Wales, at the time a bleak, post-industrial area ravaged by the privatisation and coal pit closures of the British Thatcher government. His neighbourhood was immortalised in Kevin Allen’s cult film hit Twin Town (1997), in which brothers Julian and Jeremy (Llyr and Rhys Ifans) steal cars and sniff glue to pass the time.

Dunthorne has come a long way since then. This month he makes his maiden trip to China for the Shanghai Book Fair. But his childhood is pertinent. Both the author’s award-winning novels to date, Submarine and Wild Abandon are set in Wales; and both involve young, coming-of-age male protagonists, who have drawn comparisons to JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole.

His debut novel, Submarine, later adapted into a successful film by director Richard Ayoade, delves into the mind of Oliver, an angst-ridden 14-year-old from Swansea who spends his time obsessing over his virginity, his parents’ failing marriage and the English dictionary. Dunthorne’s latest work, Wild Abandon, which won the Encore Award 2012 and the Wales Book of the Year Award, is another dark comedy. Set in a hippy commune, it tells the story of delusional Albert, 11, and restless Katie, 17, whose attempt at rebellion means conforming to mainstream suburbia.

So, does he get bored with th comparisons? ‘I don’t get bored of the The Catcher in the Rye comparison but I do get bored of the Adrian Mole one,’ he says. ‘I’ll happily take The Catcher in the Rye till the day I die.’

Despite Swansea’s problems, Dunthorne had a happy childhood. ‘I loved it, I loved my school, I loved my friends,’ he tells us in a watertight London accent that’s absorbed the trendy lilt of his home base in Hackney. But since leaving for university in East Anglia Dunthorne has only returned to Wales to visit and in his books. (Both novels are set in South Wales).

So, is it easier for the author to write about the places he knows? ‘Yes – but the second novel was not always going to be set in Wales.’ For research, Dunthorne spent months visiting communes across the UK, from Findhorn in the northeast of Scotland to Tinker’s Bubble, Dorset, on the south coast of England. But the community that left the biggest impression was in his home country.

‘I discovered my friend grew up in a commune in western Wales. I went to see her community and met her mum, a really amazing person, who lives in the woods in Pembrokeshire with no electricity or running water,’ he says.

‘I wanted to write something that represented an un-clichéd and much more common version of communal reality... I wanted to capture something more mundane that isn’t even that different to “normal” life.’

Dunthorne’s favourite character in the book is Don. ‘Even though he's an asshole of the highest order, I think he’s brave in strange ways. Although he's egotistical and probably not great to live with you can't have these grand projects without an ego at the centre,' he says. ‘You need someone with that level of self-assured arrogance to carry it off.’

So does Dunthorne, who also writes for liberal newspaper The Guardian, see it as an anti-establishment story?

‘I prefer ambiguity and a sense of complexity than tub thumping on anything. If I feel a political message coming through too strongly in something I’m working on, I try to quieten it if possible,’ he says. An echo of the style used by his literary heroes Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace and the poet David Berman, whose Left-wing sentiments aren’t always overtly manifest in their fiction.

Despite the success of his novels, Dunthorne is currently more concerned with poetry. Last year Faber and Faber published a chapbook of his poetry in its New Poets series. The project, which was co-funded by Faber and the British Arts Council, sprung from the burgeoning performance and page poetry scene in the UK. It paired eight young poets with eight mentors – Dunthorne’s was Nick Laird – and provided sponsorship to help get them off the ground.

Dunthorne insists his poetry career complements rather than conflicts with his journalism, novel writing and script editing. ‘Lines from poems become lines in novels and bits of novels become poems and short stories. I always try to find a home for each thought,’ he says.

In the pipeline is more poetry, along with a potential story about his grandfather, his third novel and a second film – Wild Abandon has been optioned by the same production company as Submarine. But in the immediate future Dunthorne is excited about his imminent trip to China.

Submarine was produced very beautifully in simplified Mandarin and it’s always been my favourite edition of the book. There are readers here that I don’t get to be in contact with. I am intrigued and’ – much like his protagonists – ‘a bit naïve.’

Joe Dunthorne speaks at Glamour on Saturday 18 August. See event listing for more details.

The Shanghai Book Fair runs from Wednesday 15-Tuesday 21 August.