Stories and digressions: Geoff Dyer with Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker Festival

Geoff Dyer

When you have a literary crush on a writer, going to see him or her at a live event is a fraught undertaking. There’s always the chance that my reader’s fantasy, gleaned over hours of intimate and silent time spent in the author’s company, will be tarnished by the physical reality of the author in person. Their umming and ahhing, their stilted reserve in front of an audience, their inevitable tiredness at the end of a book tour, can have fantasy-shattering effects.

Not so with Geoff Dyer yesterday at the SVA Theatre on 23rd Street, not far west of the Chelsea Hotel. In conversation with Rebecca Mead as part of The New Yorker Festival, Dyer was relaxed, thoughtful, articulate, charming, and sartorially splendid to boot. In fact he seemed much more relaxed than Mead. (By the way, she has expanded her excellent piece on her relationship to George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch into a book soon to be released.)

One of the  many reasons I admire Dyer’s writing is his control over the structure and arrangement of his marvelous prose as he seems to digress endlessly from and around the topics of his respective books (of which there are now about 12, with a slim volume on Tarkovsky’s film Stalker to be released in January). He was adamant yesterday that he is “not interested in stories and plots” but is “genetically predisposed to be digressive”. I also found interesting his contention that “it is more difficult to do without the scaffolding of chapters”, and that it “takes enormous effort to arrange the material”. The result of all this effort, of course, is to make his work seem effortless.

Here’s a video snippet of yesterday’s event – warning, sponsor’s message precedes it – where you can access a video of the complete event, which can be your viewing pleasure for about $9.95.

As someone who has struggled mightily with the form of my current first-person nonfiction project, Dyer was encouraging to listen to. “Each book finds its own internal form,” he said, citing the tone of his unique book Out of Sheer Rage as the guiding structural principle in its case. I’m sure many editors would groan at such an idea, but if you’ve read this book you will know that it rings true.

After a brief reading from the forthcoming Stalker (during which I copied down the great phrase “the labors of a minimum-wage Hercules”), Dyer attentively and carefully answered a series of excellent audience questions: (New Yorkers! Careful readers asking actual questions! Bless you!)

  • On the question of the relationship between Dyer himself and the Dyer who is his narrator, he said that they “share a voice, but it’s pushed a lot, extrapolated for effect.” (He assured us, by way of example, that he was not as “crazy” as the narrator in Out of Sheer Rage.)
  • On the question of whether his first-person approach could be seen as self-involved or self-indulgent, he countered that he can only write by seeing through “a particular optic”. He has found that, far from being self-indulgent, being faithful to his own personal take on a subject has the effect of connecting with others’ responses to the same subject.
  • When asked about the relationship between music and writing (his book But Beautiful is about jazz), Dyer responded that what interested him was the “basic incompatibility” between the two, particularly with regard to jazz improvisation; he contrasted the “freshness” of improvisation with the “working-over, the polish” of writing.

So nice to hear a writer genuinely enjoying what he does, not whingeing about the state of the publishing industry, and just getting on with the business of making living purposeful by writing about what interests him.

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