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Author Ian Thornton: ‘Celebrate in splitting an audience’

Author Ian Thornton

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

The plot of Ian Thornton's first novel, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, hinges from one man's inability to drive a car in reverse. The man in question happens to be the chauffeur for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is the thing. Europe in the 20th century is the backdrop for Thorton's recent release. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

John Kennedy Toole, Nabokov, Wilde, Salinger, Dickens, Waugh, Stephen Fry, Morrissey, Tom Waits, Emeric Pressburger, Bruce Robinson, and of course the last four are predominantly known as screenwriters or poets. Who's had the most profound effect on me? Pressburger by a Hungarian country mile.

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Did you imitate any of them?

God, I hope I didn't try. Fry was my imagined reader, but I hope there was no discernible imitation. Mild influence perhaps, but attempt to imitate those masters at one's folly.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

I have a quite unique, pompous and verbose uncle in England, who a) provided the inspiration for certain characters and an underlying obsidian comic tone and b) introduced me over the years to the rich and vibrant arena of mid-century cinema; the worlds of Charles Laughton and David Niven, Bette Davis and Sydney Greenstreet. Along with the films of Mankiewicz, Powell and Lean, these tours de force formed the bedrock of Johan's century.

Of course, the main way to escape influence is by not reading when writing. I have to say I've broken this rule when writing my second book, as there is a young street-thug-gangbanger-rapist-murderer who is obsessed with Nabokov. So I am reading Lolita and The Original of Laura. It is a controlled experiment. With my first novel I abstained from reading. My only possible influencing voice would have been the cricket correspondent of The Times.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

Trying to please everyone. In the brilliant manifesto that is the preface to Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, "When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself." Revel and celebrate in splitting an audience.

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Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality with your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

My writing influences come just as much from the world of cinema as from books. So I would say that Johan is the deviant offspring of Big Fish, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (for me the greatest screenplay and film of them all), Withnail & I, The Fisherman and His Soul and The Illywhacker.

Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?

Back in England, Martin Amis. In Canada, Margaret Atwood.

Who do you wish were more influential?

Will Self. He is brilliant at pissing people off.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Nabokov. They are fresh in my mind right now. When I read Lolita the first two times, it was not from the point of view of a novelist. The difference this time is marked. What was compelling before has taken on remarkable new dimensions, scary and inspiring in equally vast measure. "Redolent remnants of day suspended,… at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges." And English was his third language.

And of course John Kennedy Toole for raw laughter. It is bloody difficult to beat a full-on, jack-knifing, spittle-emitting convulsion, which A Confederacy of Dunces delivers with a truly beautiful frequency. If only there had been more.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a character in Mr. Thornton's novel, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, as the chauffeur to Archbishop Ferdinand. The reference should have been to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in 1914.

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