Interview with By George author Wesley Stace
Wesley Stace leads a schizophrenic life as a novelist and singer-songwriter. Doug Johnstone finds it unsurprising that a ventriloquist’s dummy narrates his new book
Ventriloquism is creepy. From traditional vaudeville acts and their scary wooden schoolboy dummies through to Keith Harris with his hand up Orville’s jacksie, there’s something distinctly unsettling about this mostly defunct form of entertainment. So why base a novel around it? For Brooklyn-based English writer Wesley Stace, the initial trigger was an old dummy of his grandfather’s which was still kicking around the family home.
‘I started thinking that ventriloquism is really what writing fiction is all about,’ he says. ‘Novelists are really ventriloquists. So many novels over the last 100 years have been about narrative voice and dodgy narrators, it seemed surprising that there weren’t any books based around ventriloquism. Why isn’t there a novel that strips that metaphor away and makes ventriloquists the main part of the novel?’
Well, now there is. By George spans 70 years and four generations of the Fisher family, a showbusiness-obsessed clan full of secrets and lies, and tells the story of George, the family dummy, as well as the life of the put-upon son, also called George. With half the book narrated by the dummy, it’s an ingenious way of examining the schizophrenic psychology that lies at the heart of not only ventriloquists, but all of us.
‘On one level, obviously I want people to be engaged,’ Stace explains. ‘But there’s also a greater psychological truth about why the dummy is talking at all, and that’s to do with people needing a mouthpiece to say things they couldn’t normally. As Freud pointed out, the dummy is the ventriloquist’s id, he’s the one who says the nasty things. Just think of Rod Hull and Emu. When you strip away the dummy, you’re left with a person doing violence upon himself; it’s himself that he’s fighting with, locking in a box, saying rude remarks to.’
By George is Stace’s second novel. His debut, Misfortune, received widespread acclaim on both sides of the pond upon publication in 2005, winding up on the Guardian First Book Award shortlist and becoming a bestseller in France. Set in the 1830s and based around the adopted child of an eccentric lord, it shares a similar theme of familial dysfunction. ‘I love family melodrama, and I’ve always loved writers like Dickens, Fielding, Trollope and Thackeray, and there’s something about heritage and family that runs through all their work.’
Stace has something of a schizophrenic double life of his own. When he’s not bashing out great romping historical novels, he has a successful career in the States as John Wesley Harding, making offbeat folk-pop since he moved there in the early 90s. Having toured with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and duetted with Bruce Springsteen, he’s recently finished his 17th album, recorded with members of REM. His most famous moment, though, was probably having his song, ‘I’m Wrong About Everything’, feature on the High Fidelity soundtrack. Where does he find the time for it all? ‘The guilty secret about music is that it just doesn’t take up very much time,’ he laughs. ‘Doing 50 gigs a year and writing 12 songs for an album doesn’t take long. I don’t worry about finding the time for both, I just go to my office and work.’
By George is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 18 Oct.