How much does place shape an interview? Geoff Dyer is sitting in his luxury hotel room in Adelaide; I am in a drab office building in Melbourne. I am at what people refer to as their ‘day’ job, although it is slowly creeping into the evening. I am nervous about speaking to someone I admire, someone who is so admired by other writers. I check my boss isn’t around, and dial his number.
Interviewing someone by phone is disorientating: you can’t read their body language, you hold your breath as their voice travels down the line. Adelaide is half an hour behind Melbourne, but when I call he is still on Los Angeles time.
Time and space are central themes in Dyer’s latest book of essays White Sands; rather explicitly so in ‘Space in Time,’ and ‘Time in Space’. In both these essays he travels to sites of American land art; respectively Walter De Maria’s ‘The Lightning Field’ and Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’. The landmarks are impressive, Dyer writes, but they never quite live up to their famous photographs. It leads him to expound on the idea of travel – the anticipation it excites, the impression it leaves, the disappointment it rouses. Travel is at once mind-altering and mind-numbing.<! data-preserve-html-node="true"-- more -->
He answers the phone, and we conduct the usual pleasantries. He sounds nice. I don’t know what I was expecting. Most likely I was expecting the Geoff, or ‘Jeff’ of his books – the pompous ladies’ man.
“The very first place I ever came to in Australia was Adelaide,” he tells me. He was last in Adelaide six years ago, to promote his ‘novel’ Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. (Anyone who’s ever read Dyer will understand that inverted commas are typical when describing the genres of his books, which sit somewhere between fiction and nonfiction; biography and autobiography; criticism and travelogue.) “I’m such a creature of habit,” he says. “I remember having a wonderful breakfast at the market. So I went back there yesterday and today. The exact thing I liked wasn’t there because the guy who makes it was on holiday,” he says, disappointed.
My mind starts to wander. I too am the sort of person who would go to a restaurant and automatically order the same thing I had last time if I liked it. What does that say about me? More importantly, what does that say about Geoff? And what does it say that I am thinking about what that means, rather than my next question?
He interrupts my train of thought with a question of his own. “What is that beeping by the way?” The line at my end is clear and I tell him I can’t hear anything, but apologise if he can. I’m using an app to record the conversation. I’ve never used it before. I’m quietly terrified it’s not working properly. The image of me hanging up, hitting play, and hearing dead air loops in my mind. I keep thinking of that scene in Jeff in Venice, when main character Jeff gets stoned with a notoriously prickly woman he’s interviewing and forgets to press record. I’m obviously not stoned but I tell myself that if such an event were to occur it would be okay, because then I’d have the perfect frame for the piece – I too, in some miraculous art-mirroring-life scenario, would walk away empty-handed. It wouldn’t be dire, it would be Dyer. I’m already drafting it in my heard. I could just make all the answers up. It would be the perfect marriage of fiction and nonfiction. It would be so meta.
Of course, this would hardly be an original move on my part. Dyer, who writes across a wide range of genres and subjects, is routinely asked to comment on whether his work is fiction or nonfiction. Perhaps, anticipating this, he opens White Sands with the prologue:
Like my earlier blockbuster, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, this book is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction … The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line—a line separating certain forms and the expectations they engender—it is assumed to stand. In this regard, White Sands is both the figure at the centre of the carpet and a blank space on the map.
It’s a cryptic statement, but Dyer’s writing often asks more questions than it answers. In the opening essay of White Sands, ‘Where? What? Where?’, Geoff travels to the islands of French Polynesia to follow in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin. The trip is a farcical disaster, forcing Dyer to ponder the philosophical questions of travel Gauguin had inscribed in large capitals on his famous painting of Tahiti: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’. Dyer is somewhat more blasé about travel when speaking on the phone:
Sometimes I’ll go to a place that I’ve read quite a bit about and it won’t be that the place is disappointing, it’ll just be that nothing much happens there, that lends itself to writing… There’s no relation between a place’s reputation, let’s say, and the chances it will result in a great story.
In the past Dyer has said that his writing is deliberately disappointing, in that it doesn’t behave as it should. He repeats this sentiment during our conversation when I ask him to discuss an essay he is particularly proud of. He singles out the short, sharp ‘White Sands’. The essay—about driving through New Mexico and picking up a hitchhiker who may or may not be an ex-prisoner—is not the most formally innovative or conceptually interesting of the collection, but definitely one of the funniest.
It’s not for nothing that the book is called White Sands. That piece seems to me sort of central in that it’s both a story and an essay. Reading it you can’t really tell exactly what kind of writing it is, I hope, you know, it doesn’t behave properly as an essay is expected to, or as a story. As I say in the preface, that’s like the pattern at the centre of the carpet, it seems to me it’s emblematic of a lot of what’s going on in the book as a whole.
From its early aristocratic days, the consumption of travel literature has been limited to a privileged strata of society. While the travel writers of bygone eras might have focused on the conquest of land, Dyer often focuses his gaze on women. In White Sands, the essay ‘Forbidden City’ is typical of this: ‘Geoff’ recounts a trip to Beijing where he falls for a beautiful guide who leads him around the titular, suggestive sounding landmark. Going solely by his books one might assume his life is nonstop leisure – indeed nonstop pleasure. On the contrary, his work output is formidable. White Sands is Dyer’s fifteenth published book, not to mention the many essays and articles he writes in-between.
Over the years I’ve kept a folder on my computer of travel writings that could potentially become a book. I wanted White Sands to be more than just a random collection of pieces – it had to have some sort of aesthetic form of its own.
One of the obvious differences to me is there’s so much drug taking in Yoga and there’s no drugs at all in White Sands. The similarities are quite striking, there’s still the physical journeys but always there are these quite easy moves into the metaphysical. Similarly, in form, the pieces have the same combination of being both fictional stories and being sort of essayistic.
On the page, Dyer is full of puns and non sequiturs; he is deft at repetition and establishing in-jokes. A sense of humour though, is like taste in literature: you’re either going to warm to it, or not. You’ll either consider Dyer a biting satirist or a massive egotist. A crude thematic summary of his ‘travel writing’—and many of his essays are crude—is such: Geoff goes to Paris and smokes skunk. Geoff goes to Thailand and takes ecstasy. Geoff goes to Amsterdam and trips on mushrooms. Geoff pursues a beautiful woman. Geoff sleeps with a beautiful woman. Always a beautiful woman.
On the phone he doesn’t sound like this Geoff. He sounds nice, affable. Or maybe this is his façade? Either way, I am not doing his essays—or the man—any justice by these descriptions. Labelling his essays in White Sands ‘travel writing’ may also be a slight misrepresentation.
I never feel like I’m sitting down to write travel or any other kind of book really. I’m always just writing about… it’s always just writing. (I picture him throwing up his hands in a shrug motion.) I tend not to read travel writing as such. I’m conscious that some of the books I’ve most liked have been books by people who have travelled and who have written about places.
I’d even go so far as to say that in a way my book about photography, The Ongoing Moment […] was a travel book even though the only travel I did was to go upstairs from the kitchen in the morning to my study. But then I’d go to this other world, this place that I was trying to explore and understand and get to know, and that place was American photography. It was really exciting and a different world and I had to learn its language in a way that people do when they travel. So for me, it’s place that’s so important.
Reading about Geoff Dyer I end up reading a lot about D.H. Lawrence. The subtitle of White Sands, ‘Experiences from the Outside World’, comes from the essay by Lawrence. Many of Dyer’s books focus, in some way or another, on the renowned English author, most notably his ‘biography’ of Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. Lawrence believed certain places like Taos Pueblo in New Mexico possessed a kind of ‘nodality’ and Dyer circles around this concept in White Sands. Lawrence writes: “When you get there you feel something final, there is an arrival.”
This idea is also explored through artwork in White Sands; a print of Elihu Vedder’s 1863 painting, ‘The Questioner of the Sphinx’ is included. Echoing Lawrence, Dyer views the image of a lone wayfarer in Egypt’s desert as “trying to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.” It’s this sense of nodality, this sense of wonder and awe Geoff writes about throughout White Sands which strikes me. I tell him that sincerity is the wrong word, but his essays in White Sands feel sincerer than those drug-addled ones in Yoga. He respectfully disagrees.
I would respond by quoting a line in another book of mine, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, where, in part two, he talks about arithmetic. An important mathematical theory for him is that it’s possible to be one hundred per cent sincere and one hundred per cent ironic at the same time. That’s quite important too. In a sense I would reject the claim that you made because sincerity and irony are not incompatible modes, if you like.
What does this mean though? It isn’t until I’m transcribing the conversation afterwards, my fingers darting over the keyboard, my foot on the audio pedal, skipping the conversation backwards and forwards, that I take a moment to properly consider this. Was this in fact a sincere statement? He says something similar in White Sands, writing “Seriousness is not the opposite of funny.” Much of Dyer’s writing is funny, which is why it’s so fun to read. But ironic? Irony suggests a doubling of meaning which is antithetical to sincerity’s straight-forwardness. Was he simply being ironic in his sincerity? Or sincere in his irony?
There’s a self-deprecating Britishness to his humour. Dyer describes himself in Yoga as “Long and skinny as an old branch,” and later, when I see him on stage at Melbourne Writers Festival, he hunches in his small chair and crosses and uncrosses his legs while joking about his lankiness. He is an erudite man, eloquent, and skilled in the art of conversation, which makes him the perfect artist to program at a writers’ festival. In all three sessions I attended, he had the audience right in the palm of his hand as he moved from serious reflection on his craft to amusing anecdotes from his career. Unlike the main protagonist Jeff in Jeff in Venice—a delicious satire about the excesses on display at the Venice Biennale—he doesn’t appear to turn his nose up at the art world, he is a willing participant. Once, again I remind myself of the obvious: he is not his characters.
I remain incredibly grateful that I do get asked to go to [festivals]. You can be the kind of writer, like me, who just loves going to these things, and loves doing it, and I think, that’s probably the majority of writers, or you can be the kind of writer who says “No, it is a drain on my time, I like just sitting at home on my own, writing my books and that’s it.” And that’s fine as well. But what I can’t bear are these writers who say “Oh, you know, my publisher forces me to do it.” And they just sort of do it begrudgingly as though they’re fulfilling some sort of hideous contractual obligation. And my response to them is: “Fuck you, stay at home, there’s plenty of people who’d love to be doing this.”
We share a laugh and I end the conversation by mentioning the failed interview scene in Jeff in Venice. I’m curious if it’s a true story; it’s the interviewer’s greatest fear that the interview didn’t record. It’s a fiction, he tells me. Interviews are something he enjoys doing but not conducting. “I’ve actually done so few interviews. I did a few at the start but it’s something I was never really good at.”
I hang up and look at the timer on my phone. We’ve been speaking for less time than I thought – the flow of an interview always incites a strange temporality. I worry there won’t be enough to write this up. In Jeff in Venice, ‘Jeff’ muses that
He had been doing this kind of thing for long enough to realise that there was no need to spend hours conducting an interview. You could cut it down to twenty minutes and still have enough quotes to cobble a half-decent piece together—and half decent was still twice as good as it needed to be.
Fearing failure, I put off listening to the recording for weeks afterwards. It isn’t until I listen back that I can hear the beeping he mentioned. It interrupts our conversation every 30 seconds or so. I wince at every beep. My disappointment lingered for weeks afterwards. In the end, I’m strangely buoyed by something he repeats throughout our conversation: “It’s all just writing.”
In the best possible way, White Sands is a failed travel book – a book about the disappointment of travelling; its failure to take us places in the superior presence of our imaginations. “The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment … was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it,” writes Dyer in White Sands, consoling himself about his miserable trip to Tahiti.
Emily Laidlaw is a writer and editor from Melbourne. Her writing appears in Seizure, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue.