In Booker shortlist week, BookBrunch talks to Daniel James, whose crowd-funded The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas has been shortlisted for the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize.
Congratulations on your Not the Booker shortlisting. What does it mean to you?
Thank you. It means a lot to me, particularly because the first three books on the shortlist were voted for by readers. It was the readers of the book who made this possible and I'm incredibly grateful for their support. I feel very lucky to have such supportive friends, family and followers generally. The novel has been building momentum throughout the year thanks to excellent reviews by book bloggers and reviewers and a very enthusiastic following of readers online. I owe every single person who voted for Ezra Maas my heartfelt thanks and I'm very grateful to the Guardian for the opportunity. The nomination is also important of course, because it's the first time the novel has been featured in a national newspaper since its release. It feels like a turning point in many ways and I've already noticed a huge difference in media coverage and attention since the shortlist was announced. It has helped introduce Ezra Maas to a much wider audience and that's invaluable when you're an unconnected debut author from Newcastle, working with a small, independent publisher.
What was your experience of the crowdfunding model with Dead Ink?
I think crowdfunding has its pros and cons. I wouldn't necessarily recommend going down that route unless you have to, because it's a risk in many ways, but if it works, it can help you build an audience from day one that not only wants to read your novel, but who feels invested in its success. This clearly helped with the Not the Booker Prize, because all those people who helped make the book a reality in 2017 returned a couple of years later to support it again, and not every book has that kind of following.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a mind-bending merger of fact and fiction. What drew you to this story?
One of the questions at the heart of the novel is, can we ever really know the truth about someone else's life? We all tell stories about our lives and everyone has their own personal mythologies. Just think about how subjective memories are and how we reframe them to support our own narratives. Is it possible to unravel this to reach the truth? This becomes even more complex when you're dealing with the cult of celebrity and a person who exists in the public realm as well as privately. Identities and personas begin to fracture and multiply. Who gets to choose which one is real?
Considering all of this, I had the realisation that all biographies are fiction. Once you acknowledge that they are just another kind of story - a story about someone's life - it opens up a lot of possibilities for the form and leads to some very interesting questions about truth and language, history and identity. Exploring these kinds of questions is where my real interest lies as a writer, and the life of Ezra Maas was the perfect subject matter.
What drew you to the form?
There is a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett about the need for writers and artists to find a new form that admits and acknowledges the chaos. I wasn't necessarily trying to create something "new" (if that is even possible), but I was trying to find the form to match the content - in this case, the life of an enigmatic and reclusive artist, a visionary and radical who was once famous and is now forgotten, a life of secrecy and endless contradictions, lived in the space between fact and fiction. A multidisciplinary, mixed media approach seemed like the only way to do justice to a life like that.
You have the biography itself, but you also have chapters set in the present day, which are written in the style of a literary detective story and follow my investigation into Maas's life as I search for the truth about him across Europe and the US. There are other sections influenced by the New Journalism, by literary theory and art history, and experiments with a range of other techniques and genres. Between these chapters, there are letters, newspaper clippings, emails, phone transcripts, diary entries, official records, oral testimonies, and more, with further material online for people to discover. I wanted readers to feel like they were right there with me, searching for the truth about Maas, trying to separate fact from fiction, and slowly, surely, becoming lost in the hall of mirrors, the labyrinth, that is his life. As a result, several reviewers have used the same phrase: "It is more than a book, it's an experience."
The novel is unlike anything else. But might aspects of it remind one of other writers? Thomas Pynchon perhaps? William Boyd in Nat Tate vein?
I don't compare myself to other writers - that's for readers and critics to do I think - but I've been in love with literature my entire life, and because the novel is essentially my mind turned inside out and put on display as a book, it is naturally full of references and connections to other writers and artists. I've been very flattered by some of the comparisons that reviewers have made between my novel and books by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Beckett, Paul Auster, David Lynch, and others, because they are writers and artists whose work I love and admire.
Just as the novel resists classification, so do you, judging by your CV. Is that a fair assessment?
Ha. Possibly... At the same time, I'm just a writer. Nothing more and nothing less. I have had a colourful career so far though, and I have a feeling the most interesting years are yet to come…
Photo: Daniel James
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas will be reviewed and discussed in the Guardian on Monday 16 September as part of its Not the Booker Prize 2019 coverage. The winner of the prize will be announced in October.