Without an apartment in his native London, Ned Beauman has stopped for a time at an Airbnb in Brooklyn on his way to Mexico and Southeast Asia. “I can write anywhere, and it’s cheaper to live in Thailand or Mexico than in London or New York, so I treat it as a self-imposed residency,” he says. “I’ve done writers’ residencies with other people, and they drive me a lot crazier than being on my own. For me, this is a really nice way to write. I have nicer places than I could afford in London, and I don’t have to cook because the food’s amazing and doesn’t cost anything, and there are no distractions. I can get loads done.”
Beauman, 32, has already gotten loads done as a writer. Madness Is Better Than Defeat, which Knopf will publish in February, is his fourth novel in seven years. The first, Boxer, Beetle, was published when he was 25; the third, The Teleportation Accident, was longlisted for the Booker in 2012. Prize givers and critics were quick to recognize a wildly inventive talent whose fiction is both existentially complex (Beauman studied philosophy at Cambridge) and as plot driven as a commercial thriller.
Madness holds true to form with the story of rival expeditions, dispatched to take possession of a Mayan temple in Spanish Honduras in 1938, and a CIA operative writing a self-justifying account of his own involvement with expeditions (plus a nearby black-ops group) in the 1950s. Lesbian lovers, unwitting half-brothers, an evil businessman, a power-hungry gossip columnist, a fugitive Nazi, and a hallucinogenic fungus also feature in a plot that careens towards a bizarre but oddly charming finale.
“I want my books to be pace-y and suspenseful,” Beauman says. “When I’m writing I’m thinking a lot about films. There’s a degree of slackness and longueur in the conventional literary novel that wouldn’t be allowed in film, at least not in an American film; you have to keep things moving, and I prefer to have that kind of pace. Also, a lot of it goes back to The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon, which is the best example I can think of, of a novel which has all the literary satisfactions you could ask for but is also gripping. That’s always been my model.”
Also, Beauman says, he draws inspiration from real-life events. “I’m interested in the production histories of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo,” he says, referring to two famous instances of movie companies that, like the fictional one in Madness, spent far longer than anticipated filming in jungles under increasingly surreal circumstances. “Also Fordlandia, the rubber plantation town built by Henry Ford in the Amazon that had to be abandoned after a few years. And the construction of the Panama Canal, where they did a similar thing: built a North American town in the tropics, trying to create a simulacrum of their so-called civilized community back home. In both cases, they were run a bit like a movie set, very hierarchical and enclosed, so I thought writing something in and around all that would be very interesting.”
Like his novels, Beauman’s conversation makes unexpected connections and displays formidable erudition. He credits his parents, Nicola and Christopher Beauman, with nurturing a love of literature in him and his four older siblings. “My mother has written four books, and she was working on her biography of E.M. Forster while I was growing up. My father is an economist and has yet to write a book, but he’s an incredibly dedicated reader, has read everything, and reads more than I do. It was definitely a house in which books and writing were regarded as one of the prime things to dedicate yourself to. One of my sisters writes history, and one of my brothers writes children’s books; it’s that kind of family.”
Nicola Beauman is also the founder of Persephone Books, a British publisher that reissues neglected, out-of-print works. I ask Beauman, whose novels reveal an authorial fondness for out-of-the-way bits of knowledge, if he inherited that taste from her. “Me and my mum enjoy different types of arcana,” he replies, smiling. “But both my parents are very devoted members of the London Library, which is this storied, members-only library in Mayfair. My first two books could not have been written without the London Library, because I developed this method which was based on its possibilities. It’s got an enormous collection, organized by very granular subject-matter shelves; they’ll have a section on clowns, or elevators, or whatever. It’s all open stacks: you can browse in a section, get a stack of as many books as you can carry, take them to the reading room and quickly flip through them, taking notes. You couldn’t do that at the New York Public Library, because you have to order each book individually.”
This idiosyncratic research produces fiction dense with information about a dizzying variety of fields. Glow, Beauman’s third novel, is typical: the protagonist’s obscure sleeping disorder, the manufacture of illegal drugs, and software that can manipulate social networks are all explained in intricate detail leavened by Beauman’s effortless wit, as when describing “one of those white polypropylene slatted-back chairs that colonise faster than rats, lying there in the incredulous posture of an object that is almost impossible to knock over but has nonetheless found itself knocked over.”
Beauman says that he “likes having a palette of as many different colors as possible in one book, rather than having a single tone or milieu.” He adds, “I like to vary and juxtapose, take a couple of things from history and then combine.” As for the humor, when asked if it’s as effortless as it seems, he responds: “I think I’m a relatively agile joke writer, although a lot of those lines can take a whole morning. Certainly, that is some of the most satisfying material to write: a line like that makes you feel you’ve done a good morning’s work, even if it has been a couple of hours. Other things are definitely harder; I really struggle with describing faces or rooms, or people’s demeanors, stuff like that.”
Beauman is also disinclined to give readers tidy conclusions. “That would have been impossible with Madness—there are so many loose ends,” he says. “I would have liked to give a proper conclusion to a lot more, but then the fourth part would have been five times as long.”
Working on the manuscript simultaneously with Gary Fisketjon at Knopf and Drummond Moir at Sceptre in the U.K., Beauman says, meant “the high-priority stuff got resolved, and the other things I had to leave.” Even with this triage, “editing with two editors was such a big commitment that I felt it was folly to start a new book.” He adds: “Normally, as soon as I finish a novel I’m straight on to the next, but I’ve not had a novel in progress for over a year, which is probably the longest it’s been since I was 18. I am going to start another one, hopefully early next year.”