Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Matthew Sperling

Author Matthew Sperling speaks to Nothing in the Rulebook's Christopher Barkley about writing, literature, and football...
Matthew Sperling’s latest book, Viral, was published in September 2020

Matthew Sperling’s first novel, Astroturf, was published in 2018 and longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize. His work has featured in Apollo, the Guardian, the New StatesmanProspect, The White Review, and Best British Short Stories 2015. 

Born in 1982, Sperling is a lecturer in English Literature at UCL. Here, he has continued writing – with his second novel, Viral, published in September 2020.

Following the lives of “internet entrepreneurs” Ned and Alice, Sperlin’s latest book has been variously described by critics as “outrageous, sexy and funny”, and “a brawn cocktail that nails the zeitgeist”.

On the eve of the publication of Viral, Nothing in the Rulebook’s own Christopher Barkley caught up with Sperling to talk writing, literature, and football…

INTERVIEWER

Tell me a bit about yourself, where you live, and your background / lifestyle?

SPERLING

I was born in Kent in 1982. My mum’s American, and she worked as a children’s librarian, while my dad worked as a primary school headteacher, and I grew up in a village outside Gravesend, where I went to school. A Thames Estuary upbringing. I went to the grammar school in Gravesend – and my dad had been a grammar school boy before me, the first person in his family to go to university and so to move between social classes – then I went to Oxford for university. I was in that fortunate last generation who didn’t have to pay fees for university, and then, after short periods post-university working on dictionaries at an academic publisher, and messing around making devised theatre with some friends, I got funding to come back and do graduate studies, which set me on the path to becoming an English Literature academic. Alongside this though, I started trying to write fiction with some dedication in around 2006. Ten years later, I finished the first draft of Astroturf during a year of unemployment when I lived in Berlin. During that year I got married as well, and then in a fairly short space of time, I got a job at UCL that brought me back to London, and Astroturf found a publisher at riverrun. By the time it came out in August 2018, I was almost a year into writing Viral. I now live in Highbury.

INTERVIEWER

And would you say writing is your first love, or do you have another passion?

SPERLING

Writing probably runs in parallel to football, as my first love. Sometimes in dreams they seem to merge into each other. My earliest literary work combined them: it was a graphic novel I wrote aged 8 called Ghostly Rovers, the story of a football team made up of ghosts and ghouls. The players were mainly named after players from World Cup 90, with a Gothic twist on them. Peter Shilton became Peter Skeleton, Mark Wright became Mark Fright. Ian Wright also became Ian Fright. And so on.

INTERVIEWER

Ghostly Rovers! Perhaps a project for the future? I’d read it. Yes, from Astroturf, I can sense your knowledge of the physical / sporty realm. It gives a solidity to your work, and as a sporty person myself, it’s refreshing to read someone who knows about that side of life. Are there any other writers or artists whose work inspires you?

SPERLING

In my late teens I became a modernist, in a way that’s very predictable for an intellectually ambitious, provincial teenager, but seemed to me at the time very unique and powerful: so I was reading Joyce, Woolf, Eliot and Pound, and making what felt like a discovery in their work about the estranging power of language and its capacity to seem charged with energy on the level of word and phrase. That fed through into what would become my academic interests, and for a while I was trying to write poems somewhat in the vein of late-modernist writers like Geoffrey Hill. But more important, or more useful discoveries for my own writing came a bit later: reading Patricia Highsmith for the first time in my mid-twenties was a sort of breakthrough, and I have her books continually at my side while I write my own. Among contemporary writers, there are lots of people whose new work I will immediately acquire and read, and whose example I find useful and useable and challenging for my own work: writers like James Lasdun, David Szalay, Ottessa Moshfegh, Frances Leviston, or Will Harris.

INTERVIEWER

Your first book, Astroturf, has been described as ‘a snapshot of contemporary masculinity.’ What does contemporary masculinity mean to you? And what would you say to the young man, perhaps reluctant to venture into a bookshop?

SPERLING

I’d prefer to swerve that question: if I was able to say what it meant to me, I wouldn’t have needed to write the novel. Actually as I wrote the book I wasn’t really aware of writing about masculinity as such: I was interested in success and confidence, and how they flow into and out of bodily and social life; and in what the political extensions of them are, how they interact with ideas of self-improvement and optimization, and with relationships and working life. Then I sent the book off into the world and everyone came back and said it was about masculinity, so I guess it must be true. I don’t know what to say to encourage young men to read more. Literary publicists have been trying to crack that one for years, without much success, I think.

INTERVIEWER

In Astroturf, and the upcoming book, Viral, Ned and Alice become embroiled in some shady schemes and legal grey areas. In Astroturf it’s steroids; in Viral, the unhinged amorality of startup culture. What interested you in those worlds?

SPERLING

Good question. It must be that I like these shady areas because I feel a bit shady myself. It makes me think of the lines from Browning that Graham Greene liked to quote as the epigraph to his novels: ‘Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things: / The honest thief, the tender murderer, / The superstitious atheist…’ But with those specific worlds, it’s also the allure of finding subcultures that have their own detailed structures and vocabularies and ways for people to relate to each other. And finding phenomena that seem to me to speak very directly to new formations and pressures and impulses in contemporary life.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of those pressures and impulses? Do you find they affect your creative process?

SPERLING

One thing that runs through both Astroturf and Viral, I think, is the sense of people being caught in this moment – the neoliberal moment, we might say – in which all aspects of private experience, selfhood, and bodily life, are becoming quantified and technologized and marketised, and there’s hardly any remnant in personal life that can’t be recruited as a kind of work. Lifting weights is interesting in that sense, because on the one hand it’s a purely pointless, self-delighting or self-punishing practice, and on the other hand it immediately becomes a regime and a form of self-regulation. Making yourself into a subject quantified into goals and reps and volumes. And maybe that’s why, in those two books, when people take drugs, they take anabolic steroids or modafinil: drugs that enhance your performance, that optimise your capabilities, but not party drugs. As to whether this affects my creative process, it does: I very much work through measuring out short-term and medium-term goals, getting into the habit of repetitive exercise, trying to keep track of my gains from week to week. I don’t know how I would write books otherwise. It’s that structure, for me, that allows the moments of total absorption and joy that happen during the writing.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, I’d venture to say it’s about finding balance. Acknowledging the use of regimented work and how it can be fulfilling in the long term, but also recognizing that not everything is an optimization game. Viral, I think it’s safe to say, has a few unbalanced characters, who find themselves in quite a bit of trouble. At times it feels like a thriller — what are your thoughts on genre?

SPERLING

I’d be very happy if an audience of thriller readers enjoyed Viral, and certainly I wanted it to create suspense in its patterning, and to hit its mark, in a Highsmithian way, at building and accelerating momentum from a slowish start. In truth I’m not an experienced reader of genre novels but I think the division between them and literary fiction has pretty much vanished, or at least it doesn’t seem important to me. I read Mick Herron with as much enjoyment as some of the writers I named above as influences.

INTERVIEWER

Your new book, Viral, comes out on the 17th September; what’s next for you and your work? Are there any other exciting projects in the pipeline?

SPERLING

I have a few ideas for the next book, but I haven’t properly started it yet. I substantially finished Viral in the middle of 2019. This year’s events have got in the way of starting on another book, but I might be readying up now. I won’t give anything away except to say that the internet will play no role in it.

INTERVIEWER

Grand! So, game for a few quickfire questions?

SPERLING

Yeah!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

SPERLING

The Talented Mr Ripley.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

SPERLING

I’m happy to be both.

INTERVIEWER

Underrated writer?

SPERLING

I think James Lasdun is very underrated in this country.

INTERVIEWER

Overrated writer?

SPERLING

This is an unhealthy topic for me to think about because the literary world and prize culture and social media are so set up to induce crazy envy and paranoia about other writers. I wish them all well.

INTERVIEWER

A lovely answer! Spirit animal?

SPERLING

My favourite animals are dogs. They have a real way about them.

INTERVIEWER

Any hidden talents?

SPERLING

I don’t have enough to keep any of them hidden.

INTERVIEWER

Something of which you’re particularly proud?

SPERLING

I’m especially proud, having just got the finished copies of Viral, at how thick the spine is.

INTERVIEWER

And lastly, what would be your advice to an aspiring writer?

SPERLING

‘In the destructive element immerse.’


Matthew Sperling’s latest novel, Viral, is published by Hatchette Books

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