Co Arts Editor Barney Evison met Adam Mars-Jones, established author and reviewer of books, films and theatre for The Guardian, London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. He has lived in South London for 15 years, and is nearing completion of his critically-acclaimed John Cromer trilogy.
On the day we meet in a small cafe in Dulwich, Adam Mars-Jones is dog-sitting a small, extremely excitable Schipperke called Morris. Our conversation is punctuated by squeaks and scuffles as Morris ties himself in knots around various table, chair and human legs. While the dog noisily enjoys a bowl of water, I ask Adam how work is going on the final book of his trilogy. The first and second books – Pilcrow (2008) and Cedilla (2011) – were met with a positive reception from critics and readers alike, despite their substantial length.
“I’m not intensively working on it at the moment,” says Adam, looking slightly weary at the mention of it. “The whole trilogy will be a million words by the time I’ve finished it.” He seems a little overwhelmed by the enormity of the project, and at the same time doesn’t want to come across as self-indulgent. “It sounds so worthy. It sounds so impossibly dull.”
The subject matter, in Adam’s words, “is not sexy.” The protagonist’s chronic arthritis leaves him immobile and largely dependent for most of his childhood and adolescence. Yet John Cromer’s first-person monologue is far from dull. The books sparkle with Adam’s dry wit, and what to the uninitiated may sound like heavy going – a hyper intelligent disabled man’s struggles to lead a fulfilling life in ‘60s and ‘70s England – is told in a way that is entertaining, compelling and touching.
Adam’s trilogy is epic in scope – in his own words, “it’s a big book about a little guy.” Instead of focusing on the well worn epic tropes of travel, war and romance, Adam chooses to explore the trivialities of life for someone who struggles with the slightest of physical challenges. “All lives contain the same things,” Adam explains, “childhood, sex, work and death – with a bit of love in the middle if you like. Every life is epic, if there are enough difficulties, which there always are.”
I wonder whether the constraints encountered by the main character have been at all limiting for the author. “Constraints are entirely productive in art,” Adam tells me, “any creative artist is like Houdini: the more locked-up, the more free.” He has a firm understanding of how to let himself be the best writer he can be: “Your talent is not like olive oil that you drizzle over everything, it’s only produced by certain circumstances. The more rules I set myself, the freer the play can be.”
As we leave the cafe to take Morris for a walk in Dulwich Park, I ask Adam if he worries that his experience as a novelist can cause him to be over-sympathetic as a reviewer. “I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of that,” he answers. Indeed, Adam won the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award last year for his surgical demolition of By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, a prize reserved for the most acid-sharp and incisively critical book reviews.
Adam is grateful that journalism has sustained him financially since 1986. He’s never had to publish a book that he didn’t believe in. “You can’t afford to have a bad book out there with your name on it,” he insists. Twenty years ago, when literary culture was more mainstream, this wasn’t such a problem: “When I first had a book out, libraries would take 2,000 copies of any novel that had been well reviewed. Nowadays, a first novel selling 2,000 copies in hardback would be felt to be a triumph.”
Born and raised a North Londoner, Adam now lives in what he affectionately calls “the grotty part of Herne Hill” and is a regular shopper at Brixton Market. His move south of the river came when he realised that he was commuting to walk a dog in Dulwich, and he has now been seduced by the markets of South London. Initially a Peckham Market enthusiast – for the oysters apparently – he is now a Brixton convert.
Adam has also been a regular and extremely eloquent reader at the Brixton BookJam, a free book reading event held at the Hootananny every three months. When I ask him what he thinks about literary initiatives like the Book Jam, he admits that his usual cynicism for such things was dispelled by the success of the event. On the basis of his latest reading, somebody immediately bought Pilcrow: “I was thrilled. I always feel that writing is such a dwindling activity so anything that suggests otherwise is brilliant.”
By this point, Morris has managed to tie himself in a knot with a nervous-looking Schnauzer, who is looking unsure about his forced proximity with the furry ball of energy. I decide it’s time to let Adam focus on exhausting Morris so he can get some peace for the rest of his dog-sitting session, and head back to Brixton. I’ll certainly be looking out for the third and final John Cromer novel, and hoping to see Adam on stage soon at a future BookJam.