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Interview With an Author: Mat Osman

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Mat Osman and his latest novel, The Ghost Theatre
Author Mat Osman and his latest novel, The Ghost Theatre. Photo of author: David Emery

Mat Osman is a musician, songwriter, bassist, and founding member of the British band Suede, as well as a composer for film and television. His writing about art and travel has appeared in the Guardian, Independent, and Observer and more. He lives in the UK. He is the author of the novel The Ruins, and his most recent novel is The Ghost Theatre, which he recently talked about with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Ghost Theatre?

As with everything I've ever written, there were multiple inspirations, but the thing that fired the starting gun was a documentary about a court case in 1601. A father (well-to-do, gentlemanly) went to court to have his son returned from The Blackfriars Theatre. The boy had been kidnapped to work as a performer at the theatre and at masques for the Elizabethan court. I was instantly fascinated. I knew very little about the children's companies of actors but discovered that at the turn of the century, they were a sensation—Shakespeare even has a little dig at them in the introduction to Hamlet—and the combination that they embodied, of powerlessness and fame, was something I wanted to explore. I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to write a novel in which something like the punk movement of the 1970s happened further back in history. It was only once I began to read about these child actors that I finally found a way into that story.

Are Nonesuch, Shay, Trussell, Blank, Alouette, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

All of the Blackfriars Boys' names, bar Nonesuch, are taken from records of that time. I used the names as a small way of honouring them, but we have no records of what their lives were truly like. So my Blackfriars Boys are instead based on friends and performers that I know. I'd always wanted to use the name Nonesuch—it turns up in quite a few London place names, and I loved the ambiguity of it. It means 'unparalleled' but could also be read as 'non-existent'. Nonesuch is based, in general, on lead singers I've known (but not on Brett, the singer with Suede). Blank was inspired in part by stories in Miranda Kaufmann's excellent Black Tudors book, which looks at the lives of the many black citizens of London during the Elizabethan times. Shay just dropped from the heavens, for which I'm eternally grateful. Everything about her is made up, but it was only once I'd finished writing that I realised that her profession—messenger—was, in fact, the only full-time job I ever had before the band took off. I was a runner for the BBC's subtitling department.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

It's pretty unrecognisable from the book which I started. That was a much drier, more psychological thing, which was almost entirely focused on Nonesuch and what it meant to be an actor. But as soon as I started to write about Shay, the book changed in tone. It became more of an adventure, and the pace of it really opened up. I'm a very spendthrift writer—there are tens of thousands of words worth of scenes I discarded, including a whole back story for Blank that roamed from Africa to South America to Scotland. I loved writing it, but it took focus away from Shay (and would have made the book dauntingly long). I may return to it one day.

How familiar were you with early 17th-century England prior to writing The Ghost Theatre? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?

Not very, is the honest answer. That whole period is constantly referenced in British culture, so I had an idea of the general shape of the times, but I wanted to try to get into the grit of the era, the smells and sounds, and complications. Luckily, virtually no human being has had his life so painstakingly pored over as Shakespeare—so I spent long hours reading books on his life looking for the little everyday details that I could pick up in the background. Often, it was tangential information that was the most interesting. There was a very slim volume of The Fashion of the Elizabethans that revealed so much about their faddishness and social strata.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Oh, a million things. That children were routinely stolen to appear on stage. That Londoners were moaning about gentrification and foreign laborers 400 years ago. That there were bears so famous that Shakespeare wrote about them. That a ship full of spices could be worth more than a good-sized town. The more I read, the richer Elizabethan London seemed.

Nonesuch’s plays performed by The Ghost Theatre seem reminiscent, to a contemporary reader, of current-day "flash mobs"? Did people present performances like this in the 1600s, or did you create this in this period to tell the story you wanted to tell?

As far as I know, nothing like those performances ever happened. But it's interesting how quickly the theatre began experimenting with form. Within years of the first Tudor playhouse opening, we had plays within plays, fourth-wall breaking, audience participation, unreliable narrators, and current events being smuggled into the work. I don't believe that people change that much so I'd be willing to bet there were young people trying to subvert popular culture and creating work that was about their true-life experiences—there always are.

Similar questions regarding Cockaigne and Birdland. Are either of these based on real period places/occurrences, or are they your own creations?

Cockaigne—a land of milk and honey where chickens fly, already roasted, into your mouth, and the streets are lined with gold—was a common myth at the time, and although most people would know it was unlikely to be true it seemed like the kind of utopia that would be a good metaphor for a gang of rebel performers. I'd been writing a book about English art and the national psyche with Stephen Ellcock and he was really knowledgeable about the cults and rebel bands who opposed order, and I combined a few of them into the Cockaigne troupe.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Some manga—I find it's perfect last-thing reading—and some PG Wodehouse for if I wake in the night. Bottle of water. Reading glasses. Hayfever tablets.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

It changes by the hour, but if I was on a desert island with the works of Michael Chabon, Patricia Highsmith, Michel Faber, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and JG Ballard you wouldn't hear me complaining.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. A man who succeeds through the power of his mind alone and ends up with a central London pad where he plays violin and solves crimes? Sign me up.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I don't think so. They had all that kind of racy 1970s stuff—Harold Robbins et al—that they really should have been hiding from me.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Not recently, though I'm certain I did as a student. Nowadays, I'm more accepting of the fact that there are huge gaps in my learning. I didn't study Literature past the age of 16, so I find that I'm much worse read than many authors. It's great, though. It means that I'm constantly being recommended classic books that an ex-English student would already know. I hadn't read a word of Jean Rhys until six months ago!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I just bought the Faber Editions reprint of Sven Holm's Termush, because I loved the cover, and now I feel like I should get the whole set.

Is there a book that changed your life?

I don't think so. The one-two punch of Michel Faber's Under The Skin followed by The Crimson Petal and the White was the thing that made me feel that there was a way of writing really different kinds of a book each time while still staying true to oneself. That was really important to me in thinking there was a kind of writer that I could be.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

It's hard because people's tastes are so wide that there isn't really anything that I think everyone would like. But if a friend asks for a recommendation and I don't know their taste then I often plump for Francis Spufford's Golden Hill because it's such a perfect mix of plot, character and setting.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. I remember being just floored by the twist that is the hinge at the centre of that book. I can see myself sitting there fuming because there was no one around who I could talk to about it.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I went to see Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem with Mark Rylance for the second time when it was revived, and it's still the truest thing written about Englishness in my recent memory. No matter how many times I read the script, I can't really tell where it is that the magic seeps in.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

It's very boring, but it would be a morning in the recording studio, writing something that turned out to be beautiful and unexpected, and then dinner with my wife in a restaurant by the sea.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been?

What was it like winning the Pulitzer three times in a row?

What is your answer?


What are you working on now?

A book that works backward from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Weimar cabaret scene. Someone once told me not to write about things I know but to write about things I'd like to know so that the research wouldn't be a chore. I'm up to my ears in actresses' memoirs, and I'm loving it.

Book cover of The ghost theatre : a novel
The Ghost Theatre
Osman, Mat