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David Means interview

David Means interview

David Means tells us he’s especially pleased to bring attention to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and how he interviewed veterans from both the Vietnam War and World War II whilst researching for his novel Hystopia.

This is part of our series of Man Booker Prize 2016 longlisted author interviews. 


What has it been like to be longlisted? 

I’m incredibly honoured to be selected among such an amazing, varied group of writers.  And with the nomination of Hystopia, I’m especially pleased to be able to be able to bring attention to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome— the need to share stories of trauma is, I feel, a subject that transcends all boundaries.  All wars change national cultures, and the impact of the Vietnam War and, more recently, the Iraq War, is ongoing.  On top of that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much it means to me to be part the long history of the prize itself—the great controversies, even the wagering—that to me seems to reflect the important place that fiction can still hold in the world.


What are you working on next?

A new collection of stories, The Mighty Shannon, and a new novel.


What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished At Last by Edward St. Aubyn.  His Patrick Melrose novels are incredible—they show masterful, funny, dark exploration of the aftermath of personal trauma in the life of one character.  


What is your favourite Man Booker-winning novel?

I’d have to say it’s a tie between Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and How Late It Was, how Late by James Kelman.


Hystopia is set in an America where John Kennedy was not shot and the Vietnam War did not stop: history itself is strange so what is the allure for you of counterfactual history?

It seems to me that history is, one way or another, often slightly counterfactual—as we filter our sense of the past through the contemporary moment, bending it slightly with our desires, our urgent concerns, our sense of our particular place in the chronology, trying desperately to locate an individual relationship to a larger continuum, to root ourselves as we stand on the quivering ground between the past and the future.  As I was writing Hystopia I didn’t feel that I was creating counterfactual history. I simply tweaked a few major facts and let them be, and I didn’t try to connect all of the dots to see how it would play out because my narrator, Eugene Allen, as I imagined him, was writing his novel out of his own trauma, and for that I tried to be as true as I could to the primal, mythical aspects of trauma itself while also, of course, trying to see it through his eyes.   By destabilizing history slightly, I allowed a drug to be created that could submerge, or ‘enfold’ traumatic memory, and in retrospect I see that this gave me a chance to allow the eventual grace of sharing of a common story between the characters.  At the same time, I researched deeply and interviewed veterans from both the Vietnam War and World War II and probed as concisely as I could into the ‘facts.’  Fiction can’t really provide precise answers, but it can expose the deeper mysteries of human existence.  The historical dreamscape of the United States, and the Vietnam War years in particular, is much stranger and more dramatic and tragic and even, in some ways, hopeful, than anything my narrator, Eugene Allen, could ever create, but to understand his own condition and historical moment he resorted to what might’ve been called, in the Sixties, a ‘cosmic trip.’






David Means