Hugh Cornwell interviewd by Jim Drury
Tell me about the gestation of the book. What made you write it?
I had the fortune to be able to write an autobiography a few years ago, called 'A
Multitude of Sins', and I was able to do that without a ghost-writer. I stipulated
that and the publishers agreed, so I really enjoyed writing it. Having written lyrics
for so many years I thought it might be possible to do it by myself. It worked out
really well and I enjoyed the experience. It was so cathartic getting it all out, that
it seemed to be an indication to me that I could try something a bit more
Your lead character Jamie's quite a complex character. What can you tell me
about Jamie and his personality?
I think that a lot of aspects of him are definitely parts of me. I wouldn't say that my
behaviour is similar to his, but when you're trying to write fiction you have to draw
upon your own experience. It's written in the first person singular anyway, so it
was very easy and made it simpler to react to things a lot of the time as I would
A lot of his emotions and experiences are things that I've experienced and I'm
sure there are a lot of things that a lot of men have experienced. Whether we
actually turn out the way that he turns out is another matter.
I noticed that you gave Jamie your birthday.
That just fitted into the scheme of things as the story went on. I thought if I'm
going to have to give him a birthday why don't I give him one that is familiar to
I've spoken to you before about sociopaths and there's a sociopathic quality to
Totally, yeah. He is definitely a sociopath.
Could you explain why and how?
In our lives we construct cells in which we live and they are in fact prisons of our
own device. Jamie is a typical example of someone who's constructed this life for
himself and he's become a prisoner in it and he ends up fatefully pursuing a
course that he's constructed himself. He can't blame anyone for what's happened
to him. It's completely self-inflicted.
I think that it's something that most people do. They create this life within
themselves, with their circle of friends and a certain environment which they very
rarely get out of. They end up in a sphere of activity with distinct parameters and
borders. Most people live their lives like that and this is just an extreme version of
what can happen to someone in that situation.
He becomes completely consumed by the art of Katherine.
Yes. When we construct our lives it's almost like a bird in a cage. If you look at
any bird or gerbil or other animal in a cage, there's always a couple of little things
in there, like toys, to keep them occupied. I think we all try to include a couple of
those in our lives, be they hobbies or something else, and he's got one that's
completely consuming, which is her paintings.
If you go up to anybody in the street and you delve into their lives, you'll find
that most of them have their own reality which is totally separate from the general
reality of a body of people. We're all very insular and our truth is very different
from a truth as seen from anybody else's life.
It's a very gradual process, his mental disintegration. There are some landmarks
on the way, including a death early on when his reaction is quite surprising.
Yes, it's an emotional thing to happen. It seemed to be the correct moment for
him to change gear. It's about someone unwinding, unravelling.
Al the major characters are complex and multi-dimensional. I didn't feel I was
rooting for anyone particularly, which I liked. I felt differently about each character
in every chapter. Was that a conscious aim on your part?
As it's turns out they're all very stable people, except for Jamie. They all seem to
be carrying on quite happily and able to deal with life, which pinpoints how
difficult he's finding it. It was intentional that they were all strong characters.
Someone might have expected you to write a book about music. Why did you
write about the art world?
That was the obvious thing and I try not to do the obvious, for perversity. I almost
became a fine artist before I became a biochemist .I did Art at A Level and I was
toying with the idea of going to art school and becoming an artist but it didn't work
out that way. So I've always had a fascination with art and an interest in it.
I've ended up collecting art as well, so I know exactly how the art world works.
As an alternative to the music world it seemed the obvious thing to write about. I
always remember someone saying “Always write about something you know
about, otherwise you'll come unstuck.”
Does the art world fascinate you?
It is fascinating. I'm fascinated by its resilience in all climates political and
economic. The art world always survives. A Cezanne's always going to be a
Cezanne. There's no way that's going to go down in value, whether there's a
recession or not.
The story reflects a fair amount of politics in the art world.
Yes, absolutely. It's a business and there are people who buy and dealers who
sell and it's got a dynamic, and careers of artists have dynamics. Look at the way
Tracey Emin’s career developed. She's got a new retrospective out at the
Hayward and I've been reading a few critiques about it. Her career has been
fantastically engineered. It's superb how she's become a bastion of the English
art world in a very short period of time, in a similar way as Katherine has become
in the book.
A lot of artists only gain recognition in their advancing years. It's almost like
“They've been around long enough, let's champion them.” It's rather like when
Clint Eastwood said “If I find out I've been nominated for an Oscar I've got to start
checking my health” because he thought it meant he was close to death. So it’s
possible for someone like Tracey Emin or Katherine to have a dynamic career in
the art world.
Is Katherine based on anyone or is she a composite?
Visually, she’s based on someone I've known for a while but character wise I
don't know. When I have characters in books I really need to know what they look
like because if I can see what they look like I know what they're going to say or I
can guess how they're going to react. If someone doesn't have a face it's very
difficult to know how they're going to react.
That's why in dreams most people don't have faces. When you're having a
dream it's very hard to recognise people's faces and it takes a while to realise
who it is in the dream. Then once you can see who it is you can work out what
they're doing in the dream. Quite a lot of dreams in Jamie's life determine his
All the characters in the book I can visualise someone they look like but if
they're actually character-wise like those people it’s not intentional at all.
I know from the way that you write your songs you have an idea that pokes itself
into your mind and it may be five or ten years later that it comes out in a song. Is
that how you wrote this book? Did characters and the story line come into your
mind a long while ago? How did it come together?
I started writing the book six years ago, so it’s had a long gestation. I can't
imagine these writers who go off and write a book in six months. I don't know
how on earth they can possibly do that. I need a gestation while I'm writing it just
because I can't map it all out in my head up front.
Character-wise none of the characters really were formed before I started
writing. They suggested themselves. I do a lot of writing in Spain and where I
was staying there was a cafe down road called Reyes - The Kings. I'd seen it
every day and thought it would be a good name for a specific character I had in
There is some typical Hugh Cornwell humour in there somewhere.
I didn't want the book to be totally straight because there's comedy about all
tragedy. People laugh all the time hearing about other's misfortunes. When
things happen to ourselves, once we've recovered we relate them to other people
so they can laugh. People laugh at the most terrible things, so I wanted the
farcical nature of this guy to be portrayed, as well as the tragedy.
How do you think you're going to be accepted in the literary world?
Probably not at all, probably cast out because everyone likes to pigeonhole
people and I'm pigeonholed as an ex punk rocker who's still going, stalwartly
producing albums and touring the world against all odds for his own amusement.
That's probably what most people would consider me as, so they can't possibly
accept me as a novelist as well.
It's rather like certain film stars who've got rock groups and they're never
accepted. When models want to become actresses it's the same old thing. It's
very hard to get accepted and so I probably won't be accepted at all.
You don't feel that if you carry on writing recognition could come with time?
Well, I've almost finished a second novel now, and I think it’s better written than
the first, but it's a gradual process and I really don't care if they accept me or not
because there'll be a few people out there, maybe fans of my music, who are
intrigued enough to read the book, so that's probably enough.
Do you think that what you've done over the past 21 years justifies your decision
to go it alone?
To leave The Stranglers? Absolutely. Now I can do whatever I like whenever I
like. I'm not on a treadmill and I don't have to consider other people's lives when I
do it. I'm independent and when you're in a band you're never independent
because there are other people you're making joint decisions with about what
you do and when you do them. You can't possibly think for yourself totally.
I could never have written this novel or my autobiography. I would never have
discovered that avenue if I hadn't left the band.
Your still touring heavily and working hard on music. How do you feel the next
few years are going to go for you?
As long as I can keep my health, then I hope the next few years are going to be
productive. Fruitful I don't know, but productive at least. I've got a new album
ready to record, I've got various tours being lined up, I'm going to new territories,
places that I've never been to before, which want me to come back.
I want to write more. It's a fascinating process I find, writing fiction. I started off
writing this book as something to do when I was on holiday because I'd split up
with a girlfriend, my last long-term relationship. I thought I needed a break but I
was scared of going away by myself, because I thought I was going to get bored.
So rather than take books to read I thought “I've got this idea, maybe I should
just try and write rather than read.” I took my laptop away and came back with
about 15,000 words, so I thought this was fascinating and consuming.
I find I can't read any novels anymore, because whenever I go anywhere I'd
rather write mine than read someone else's. That's the same in music. Why read
someone else or listen to someone else if you can do it yourself?