It would be fashionable, I suppose, to sit here and stew over what, exactly, to write about Geoff Dyer, how to accurately reveal the pleasure that comes from reading his work. But let’s say this: over the course of 14 books and frequent forays into essays and journalism, Geoff Dyer is a joy to read, whether he’s writing about jazz, photography, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, D.H. Lawrence, drugs, or anything else in the world. He has a gift for making the world seem more strange and mysterious, and his work makes the reader curious. So much of the world is structured so that you don’t have to think at all, ever; Dyer’s work is a corrective.
In Dyer’s newest book, Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, he is an Englishman lost in an American sea, spending time on an aircraft carrier in an artist’s residency of sorts, a cockamamie scheme dreamed up by Alain de Botton and Writers in Residence. Dyer is very funny on the American optimism that classifies the day-to-day life of the ship (lots of underlining and writing “so British,” in my copy), and photos within show the author as a lanky exclamation point, skinny and pointed in comparison to the square-jawed, thick-necked rectangles of the military. The average writer would make this disparity into fish-out-of-water commentary, but Dyer starts there and then goes off into space, spinning his observations into something profound and beautiful that socks you in the gut.
I had the chance to speak with Dyer while he was in New York, at the Maritime Hotel. He’s currently living in Los Angeles, thanks to his wife’s job at the Saatchi Gallery. He likes the sun and Venice, and he hates the traffic, a sort of “Robert Moses tradition.”
Flavorwire: In this book, you’re sort of stressing the cultural differences (of being English versus American) so you can see what the culture actually is like on the carrier. How do you make that funny on top of what you’re writing? And do you stress about writing funny?
Geoff Dyer: It’s funny. I tend not to like those bits in films, where they’re very obviously comic films and quite often I’ll be sitting there stony-faced when everyone else is sort of laughing like mad. You know, I much prefer a kind of humor which doesn’t reveal itself to be, where it takes you a while to really — I always think of Lars Von Trier, where it took me ages to realize he was funny because he just seemed like a sick fuck.
But with this one, it is more overtly funny. And I guess the other thing is that I’ve been happy with sort of satire and I never liked writing where you’re just… it’s a very British thing, I think, to make other people just look stupid. There’s a sort of tradition of it, really. So I feel that the person who has to come out of these things worst is me, or is the protagonist or narrator or whatever you want to call it.
Then the other thing is, there is… I mean I always liked that thing whereby you make a serious point and then you turn it around with a joke or the other way ‘round, actually. Your joke turns out to be a serious point. That’s quite like the way I would be sort of interacting with the world and talking anyway. It’s all pretty deadpan.
I wouldn’t want to be labeled as a comic writer. One wants to be able to do serious stuff too. And it’s axiomatic that the humor can enhance the seriousness and those serious bits make the funny bits funnier.
In the process, what sort of — because a lot of your writing is sort of very meta about process —
Very meta, did you say?
It’s the way that you approach getting into the topic.
Because of various other sort of inadequacies like storytelling and observational stuff, the churning going on in the head… that’s providing certain amount of traction in a way that the story might be expected to in other kinds of writing.
Yeah, process about process, if you will. The reader is coming along with you on the ride of the thing that you’re writing. Just sort of curious about what route do you take with reporting and editing?
Well, this book was the first one I think I’ve ever written where while I’m at Heathrow… I think I say this, I had to buy a dictaphone and I did. What that meant is that it wasn’t just literally transcribing the interviews, which I didn’t do — just out of laziness — but this book, out of many others, was boring to write at first because it was just transcribing experience. I had my amazing free holiday and then I had to write a book to sort of justify the free trip. I had this amazing time. I knew what I thought about it.
There was nothing that there normally is in the writing process to make it enjoyable: to find out stuff, to discover what it is about photography or what it is about this. It was literally a labor of transcription, and it was really boring and then it just didn’t become any fun to me until I got to work on the language and alter things and all this kind of stuff. Normally, it’s not so boring at the beginning. It’s difficult at the beginning, but not super boring like that.
Maybe that’s because it was required, I guess?
Yeah, it was the nearest I had to come to do any sort of reporting. I guess the book started to become fun in the writing when I could get back to the way about its failure to be reporting. You know, not surprising, the bit that I most enjoyed writing was writing the “Beachbelly” [riff]. That was really a lot of fun, and all the fun in writing comes quite late in the day. Initially, it was just a question of getting it down. And then I realized the inadequacy of all my notes. You know, all this stuff. I was really learning as I went along, to be a reporter, and it took me quite a few days before I realized I had to take a photograph of the person, to let them speak their name. But when The New Yorker ran the extract, I realized here were all sorts of people, I didn’t have their names or their ranks.
Did you have to get fact-checked?
Yeah, but in a moment of genius, if you’ll forgive this bit of self-praise, I just referred the fact-checker to my friends at the Navy.
Did the Navy have to approve the book?
Oh, there’s no way that I would ever go along with something on that basis. But as it is, you know, they can’t complain. They were never gonna have any say over that. In the same way, you can never really enter into any kind of book which requires the approval of the subject, unless you’re a total hack. Then you just can’t do it.
Otherwise you’re one of the people trying to write about Sylvia and Ted.
Yes, exactly, yeah. You’re just their sort of fluffer girl, really, aren’t you?
It’s interesting to see how writers create tension when you’re talking about life, which is not always tense. What were your expectations going in about American military, and what did you kind of get out of it?
I knew I was going to like them, partly because all these books you read about Iraq and Afghanistan — whatever people think of the policies, the soldiers, and whatever they’re implementing, I always end up admiring what these people are putting up with. I was well disposed towards it because it was an American thing, so I’m always comfortable in an American setting, and I knew I wouldn’t have wanted to be on a British aircraft carrier.
Is it more dour?
I think it would just be that the class structure of the Royal Navy is so overt. The U.S. Navy is every bit as hierarchical. But, as was exemplified by that lovely Admiral Nora Tyson, it seems to me that there’s virtually no chance of somebody like the equivalent of her in the Royal Navy. It would be a straightforward, old-style representative of his class.
Who did you think was the most impressive?
I think Nora Tyson, the admiral, was pretty amazing. Partly because it was so mindblowing that she was an English major. And then that whole dynamo, down-home Kentucky manner that she has, and she’s running the whole fleet or whatever it is. The guy I was spending all that time with, Paul Newell, he was really cool, actually. Even though he was this religious nut, too.
What was it like to encounter religion on the plane?
Well, initially they led me to believe it wasn’t religious. But I don’t think he was sort of misleading me. I think they just didn’t realize how religious it was…
Because it was so part of their everyday?
Yeah, it was funny. I didn’t find it objectionable, but of course one is always thinking when one meets someone who believes in God, “Why are you so stupid?” And I didn’t have that reaction because… I don’t know why I didn’t. I was as much a hardline atheist, I wasn’t going to concede personally. But I didn’t sort of find it objectionable the way that I normally find something like that.
A lot of stuff that you write, clearly it’s infused by passion, you’re working something out, how do you get to do that as a writer? It seems economically difficult.
How do you get to not do it? You know, for me, writing has always been this thing of ongoing, self-funded education. It seemed to be the most viable way to continue that education, so, yeah.
I’m thinking more, say, the photography book. That was really just like a school project, you know. Go away for a year or two and then hand in your homework about photography. And yeah, came to the end of that book, and I emerged from it a kind of recognized authority on photography.
How did your book on the movie Stalker [ Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room ] come about?
I was commissioned to write this book on tennis and then I didn’t want to. And I was really in despair and then just started summarizing this film as sort of a distraction from that. Not with a view to publishing it, but just to not be depressed about being unable to write about tennis. Gradually, I thought, well, god this is a book — which no one will want to publish, or maybe they will want to publish it. To their great credit, even though nobody at the British publisher had seen the film, they did publish it. I was able to say to them, you know, because obviously in many ways it was a totally unfeasible book, especially in these times, and I was able to say all over the world there are people for whom this is not just a film but an almost religious experience. I’ve been proved right. Without question that is my greatest achievement as a writer. That was, I think I say it in the book somewhere, people talk about success as a writer, which typically means selling lots of copies. But to be able to publish a book like that, that was exactly the kind of success — sort of beyond my dreams, you know.
Yeah, you’re very idiosyncratic as a writer.
Yeah. Don’t try this at home, but as a career path it’s not advisable. But it was really, that was a very, very happy… Yeah, it was really, it all turned out nicely.