To celebrate the release of his wonderful new book, Farewell Olympus (out now), SWNS steals an hour with the acclaimed novelist and former Berlitz travel guide author, Jack Messenger, to talk cockroaches in Washington, potatoes in France, and greyhounds in Nottingham.
SWNS: You know a thing or two about the world after editing several of the Berlitz travel guides. Where in the world do you like best (and why), and where in the world will you forever avoid (and why)?
Jack Messenger (JM): Berlin holds a special place in my heart. It was the first city I was commissioned to write about and I visited it shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. I loved its buildings, its histories, its cultures and its people. It opened my eyes to the possibility that a city can actually work and be a pleasant place to live.
I have a highly specific place I shall forever avoid. For three weeks, I was obliged to stay in a filthy, squalid, cockroach-infested apartment in Washington, DC. I shared the space with an insane cat whose monotonous whine drove me to the brink of madness. The awful smell from the apartment was detectable ten paces from the front door. I still have nightmares about it. More generally, Washington, DC in August is not a good place to be. At the height of summer the heat is unbearable. Even Washingtonians hate it.
SWNS: You lived in a particularly beautiful wine-growing region of France for ten years but returned to England in 2012. Why?! And would you ever go back?
JM: Our stay in France was wonderful and tremendously rewarding, but the time came when we knew it was right to leave. We had been practising self-sufficiency for some years, growing our own fruit and vegetables etc., but we still needed a viable Internet to do our publishing work. The Internet in our remote region was hopelessly inadequate and became more and more of a problem as technology changed. And speaking of change, we changed too. We hankered for city life and all it offers in the way of variety and culture. So we returned to the UK to live in an eco-house in Nottingham. We have gone back to Burgundy to visit friends, but it’s unlikely that we’d return there permanently.
SWNS: Your new book is out now. Tell us more about it.
JM: Farewell Olympus is the story of a naïve young man living in Paris whose life is thrown into chaos by the unexpected arrival of his half-brother. The book is about love and rivalry, ambition and morality, Armageddon and the quest for the perfect croissant. It will appeal to readers who enjoy a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns, bizarre characters, and, of course, humour. It’s available as a paperback and an ebook at all major online retailers, including Amazon, so there’s absolutely no excuse not to buy it.
SWNS: You have a rare afternoon free. How will you spend it?
JM: Relaxing on the sofa in conversation with Loulou (my precious greyhound), a pitcher of dry martinis within easy reach. Together, we’d cook up a scheme to break Aunt May out of jail and get her to a safe house in Rio.
SWNS: Who are your biggest influences in literature and what are your top five desert island books?
JM: My influences are too diverse and numerous to list them all. I have enjoyed discovering writers new to me, many of whom are women. These include writers from previous generations, such as Edith Wharton, Irene Nemirovsky and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as contemporary authors like Patty Somlo, Joe Treasure and Paul Hoffman. My top five desert island books? My answers would vary from day to day. Today, they are Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, Irene Nemirovsky’s Wine of Solitude, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers and Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music.
SWNS: The central character in your book is a young man who finds himself in a world in which he does not always feel comfortable. Is the character based on someone you know?
JM: Howard wasn’t consciously based on anyone I know, but I came to see that he had a great deal of me in him. When I was his age I also idealized the girls I adored and couldn’t understand why they found it suffocating. Howard shares my moral horror for cruelty and injustice, and sees approaching catastrophe just as I do. We don’t have the same taste in t-shirts, thank goodness.
SWNS: What’s next for Jack Messenger? Are you planning another book, or perhaps a sequel?
JM: I have an idea for a science fiction novel that I’d like to write under a pseudonym. It takes me a long time to come up with ideas, but I’ve had a lot of fun inventing a biography for my alter ego, and a title for the book. Many of the characters and incidents are already there, but one major thing still eludes me. If I can get that, I’ll start to write. I love stories set in confined spaces, so I am thinking of a space station or craft of some kind. In addition, I have other novels already written that I really should get around to publishing. Their characters keep badgering me to let them out.
Jack Messenger is a British author whose debut novel, Farewell Olympus, is a laugh-out-loud witty and intelligent farce about sibling rivalry, love and ambition set in the heart of Paris. It is out now through Greyhound Press on Amazon UK priced £8.99 in paperback and £3.99 in eBook.