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Interview: February 15, 2002

February 15, 2002

Mental illness is a tough subject to build a novel around, but in Geoff Nicholson's novel BEDLAM BURNING he features a creative writing class in a mental hospital with comic consequences. When the author was interviewed by's Chuck Leddy, he had some definite opinions on writing a satire and the public's perception of mental illness, as well as the whole idea of banning books.

TBR: What is it about satire that attracts you as a writer?

GN: Well, I don't think there was ever a moment when I woke up and thought, "Oh boy, I think I'll become a satirist." In fact if book reviewers hadn't told me that I was a satirist I probably wouldn't really know that that's what I am. This may sound disingenuous but I actually just write what I write and the decision about what it actually is remains with other people. Having said that, there's a passage in Northrop Frye that says satire requires "fantasy, a content recognized as grotesque, moral judgments (at least implicit), and a militant attitude to experience." And yes, that sounds pretty much like what I do. Especially the militant attitude to experience --- I think that's really important.

TBR: How'd you come up with the tenets of "Kincaidian therapy"?

GN: I thought it seemed like a pretty decent idea actually. Kincaid thinks that people are being driven mad by exposure to too many media images. So he keeps his patients away from them. Sounds reasonable to me. Of course Kincaid is doing this in the early seventies. He doesn't know the half of it.

TBR: Why does Smith agree to go along with the whole bit about impersonating Collins? Is he simply shortsighted about the potential consequences?

GN: I think he's just trying to make his life interesting. He's fed up, he's bored, he's lonely, he has a job he hates, he thinks his wonderful Cambridge education should have delivered him something better than he's got. I guess he, too, has a militant attitude towards experience.

TBR: A silly question, but I have to ask it. Do author photographs, those put on book jackets, really matter as much as Collins thinks they do?

GN: I have two words to say --- Liz Wurzel. Would that gal really have a writing career if she looked like Lilian Helman?

I actually don't really object to this. I'd be very happy if In Style magazine was full of nothing but photographs of novelists. Richard Ford on the cover of Vanity Fair? Cool. Ain't gonna happen though, is it?

The only small consolation for a novelist is that the longer you survive the better class of photographer you meet. The author pix for my first couple of books were taken by some doofus who worked in the publisher's art department, the current ones are taken by Jerry Bauer.

TBR: Did you have to do a lot of research about mental illness? What was that like?

GN: I did a certain amount "at source." Don't really want to talk about it.

TBR: Do you think the public and press tend to glamorize mental illness, especially as it relates to the arts? Would DISORDERS have received the same rave reviews if it were written by sane beginning writers?

GN: I do indeed. I think the idea that madness and artistic creation are somehow the same thing is just stupid. Creative types go mad, of course they do, but then so do plumbers. Madness doesn't help novel writing any more than it helps plumbing.

TBR: Book burning is a repeated theme in BEDLAM BURNING. Could you talk a little about why people like Bentley and Kincaid burn books?

GN: Bentley is obviously a man who knows his history --- they start by burning books and end by burning people. As far as he's concerned it's a right wing pose. He does it to piss off the liberals. Pissing off liberals has it's attractions but then you see these idiots burning Harry Potter in Almogordo last month, weren't they? Don't they know ANYTHING?

Of course in one author's view it's quite flattering for an author to have your books burned because it proves that somebody thinks they're important enough to be worth burning. In England we politely ignored our writers to death. I once got so annoyed with Conrad's LORD JIM that I put it in the toaster. It didn't burn though, only singed.

TBR: A question taken right out of the book: Who are the writers you admire, other than Shakespeare and Jackie Collins?

GN: Nobody else, just those two.

But seriously --- a pretty mixed bag; Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Anthony Powell, Raymond Chandler, Anthony Burgess, Harry Matthews, Pepys, Aubrey, Perelman.

TBR: The film rights for BEDLAM BURNING have been sold to New Line Cinema. Who do you see in the roles of Mike Smith and Gregory Collins?

GN: You know I've always thought that John Cusack is the man who could play the lead character in almost all my novels, though he seems to be aging faster than anyone can actually turn one of my books into a movie. He'd be fine as Mike. Ashton Kutchner would have the looks but I'm not sure I can believe him as a literary dude. When it comes to ugly nerds Jack Black and Philip Seymour Hoffman seem to have the game pretty well sewn up.

TBR: What's next for you? Are you working on another novel?

GN: Yes, always. The new one's about contemporary Hollywood and the history of taxidermy, and that's all I'm prepared to say.

--- Interviewed by Chuck Leddy