Congratulations, Max, on being in the Green Carnation shortlist – ‘Children of the Sun’ is a tense, taut and not always comfortable. Did you find it hard writing it?
Thank you for nominating it! It certainly wasn’t a breeze to write, but I doubt many first novels are. The writing was certainly a harder process than the research.
Despite the darkness and disturbing nature of the book there’s an undercurrent of dark humour to the novel. Was it difficult to find the right style to tell these individuals’ unusual, often disturbing stories? Did you want the contrast of dark and not light exactly but slight release?
I’m glad that you say that. I was certainly under the impression that I’d put a reasonable number of jokes in there. Apart from anything else, it seemed to be one way that some of the characters, and some of the book’s own ostensible strategies, could be made to undermine themselves. And there’s plenty that’s ridiculous about the far right in particular.
It’s based on factual incidents, which of course makes it all the more shocking in parts, how much research did you have to do for the novel and was it easy to find these real stories?
I did a ton of research – far more than I ended up using directly, though because it was all part of the writing process it’s hard to say whether that means any of it was unnecessary. Certainly my research notes reached a far higher word count than the final novel.
The vast majority of material was in the British Library, supplemented by a few specialist collections elsewhere and – obviously – the internet. That doesn’t mean it was all straightforward to locate: my facility with the BL’s catalogue system improved significantly over time. But the process of finding material that I could more or less directly use really relied on processing enough of it that, on average, serendipity had to strike every now and again. Half the time I really didn’t know what I was looking for until I read it.
Did you ever think it was a risk writing this book as your debut novel?
Writing a novel at all felt like the biggest risk. Beyond that, your question can be read a number of ways – and I must have wondered about all of them at some time or another, but never enough to decide not to write it, or to write something else. Ultimately, unless you both intend and are able to do it commercially, writing is far too big an investment of time not to take fairly seriously for its own sake.
James has aspirations toward being a screen-writer and ostensibly his peculiar research is destined for a dramatisation of Nicky’s story. Are you disdainful of film and tv dramas of the past, by contrast to novels and fiction?
Not remotely. Film has always been a fairly central concern for me. As for TV dramas, the best achieve far more than 95% of contemporary novels. (The converse is also true. Well, probably.)
What would you nominate as a ‘lost Green Carnation’, a work by a gay male writer that deserves wider recognition?
I’d say Rodney Garland’s The Heart in Exile, which I read earlier this year – but I see Rupert got there first. Which leaves me a little stuck, because I presume a lost Green Carnation has to be a novel, and most work by gale male writers that I’ve read recently has been memoir.
Um. Neither of these are remotely recherché, but … I thought Nothing to Be Afraid of, Will Eaves’s second book (and I’m only assuming he qualifies because of his first one) deserved an even wider readership than it seemed to get. And it can never be the case that more people shouldn’t read Dennis Cooper.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Alembic, by Timothy d’Arch Smith, which I would commend to any reader of this who bothers to look it up and likes the sound of it. I’ve had Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones by my bedside for a while now – that I haven’t yet finished it is entirely my own failure, and not his, and I’ll get there in the end. So far, it’s distressingly brilliant, and fully justifies my general self-imposed ban, post-Children, on nazi subject-matter.
As to the future, what are you working on at the moment?
There’s another novel in the works, but I can’t say much about it yet – other than don’t hold your breath, and I hope the wait will be worth it.
More about the novel…
Children of the Sun
A novel by Max Schaefer
Published by Granta
What’s it about?
1970: Fourteen year old Tony becomes seduced by the skinhead movement, sucked into a world of brutal racist violence and bizarre ritual. It’s a milieu in which he must hide his homosexuality, in which every encounter is potentially explosively risky. 2003: James is a young TV researcher, living with his boyfriend. At a loose end, he begins to research the far right in Britain, and its secret gay membership. He becomes particularly fascinated by Nicky Crane, the leader of the movement who came out as gay before dying of AIDs in 1993. The two narrative threads of this extraordinarily assured and ambitious first novel follow Tony through the seventies, eighties and nineties, as the skinhead movement splinters and weakens, and James through a year in which he becomes dangerously immersed in his research. James starts to make contact with individuals on far right websites. He starts receiving threatening phone calls. And then the lives of these two very different heroes unforgettably intersect. “Children of the Sun” is a work of great imaginative sympathy and range – a novel of unblinking honesty but also of deep feeling, which illuminates the surprisingly thin line that separates aggression from tenderness, and that gives us a picture of a Britain that is strange and yet utterly convincing.
What they say
‘A very original debut and a very compulsive read, it had me hooked from the first page to the last’ – David Peace
Sometimes he thinks he is already living in the future.
It is Monday, 31 August 1970. It’s a bank holiday, he is fourteen, and his erection is tugging him across ground dazed by the sun. Grass barely twitches in the motionless air. The heat is amplifying: flies thud about a dog shit whose stench has overgrown it hugely, like a hothouse plant.
You can buy Children of the Sun here on Amazon