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Mark Piggott
Why did you decide you wanted to write “Out of Office”?
As someone from a very left wing background, I sometimes feel disorientated by the way society seems to be heading. I don’t even know what left and right mean anymore. The certainties are dissolving. And I’m concerned about how politics impacts at a personal level. I wanted to try and express this confusion, explore themes that have always interested me in both my fiction and journalism: alienation, economics, sexual politics and class. If that all sounds a bit worthy I’d better emphasise it’s also a thriller.
The central character, Chris Hook, rails against political correctness and what he sees as the stifling mores of the middle classes (I’m thinking in particular about the dinner party scene). Are you much like him?
I hope not! Unlike me, Hook is a Londoner, who briefly went to public school, though I suppose like me he’s sort of unclear about where he fits in. Most of my characters seem to be on the edge – I don’t just mean crazy, but in terms of their politics, sexuality, class and even geographical background; they’re all misfits who don’t really belong anywhere and are ambivalent as to whether they want to belong. Having said that, five days after the novel – about a former journalist working at a local authority in the East End – was launched, I went to work – at a local authority in the East End. It did seem rather a case of life imitating art; hopefully the parallels between Hook’s life and my own stop there. I also feel an overwhelming compulsion to tell you that Hook’s fetish – one I picked for being very unusual but also fairly harmless, giving him something else to feel isolated about – is not one I’ve any interest in. Honest. It’s funny, people always remark on the graphic sex in my books, but there really isn’t that much of it; it’s just that the sex there is, is usually a bit weird. I think that’s partly because it’s easier to write. As for that dinner party scene – I made it all up. I don’t get invited to dinner parties. Ever. Now this book’s been published, I guess it’s even less likely I’ll get invited to any. Especially if sweetcorn’s on the menu.
Your previous novel, “Fire Horses”, was very different but had some similarities to “Out of Office” – particularly a central character who isn’t always pleasant. What makes you want to write about flawed personalities?
I wouldn’t be the first writer to find them more interesting than people who are either classic heroes or all-out baddies. My feeling is that we’re all capable of good and bad, it’s the constant struggle within you about how to be that’s fascinating – especially now religion, at least for those of us brought up in the west, is no longer the arbiter of what is “good”. I think pretty much everyone likes to think they’re intrinsically good – but what happens when the pressure’s on? When I was doing my MA (Piggott took an MA in novel writing at Manchester under novelist Martyn Bedford) he identified that as probably my greatest strength and biggest weakness as a writer – the likeability or otherwise of my central characters. You have to pitch them just right, and I like that high-wire act.
You’ve written in the Independent about “state of nation” novels and why they tend to be overlooked by the media and major prizes, why do you think this is the case?
I meant English state of nation novels really. Recently there do seem to have been some brilliant writers who seem to have wanted to write historical fiction, which is fine (I’m sure Hilary Mantel will be relieved to get my blessing), but there are good writers writing about the “here and now”, it’s just they rarely seem to get reviewed for some reason. My publisher (Legend Press) publishes lots of books set in an England I recognise, and I’m sure other publishers do. However, I do think as a whole the publishing world follows certain trends, and moves very slowly. It’s an incredibly conservative industry yet many of the people within it are pretty radical.
The London portrayed in the novel is instantly recognisable, but also seems to be set in the near future. Did you have a specific time in mind when writing the book?
I do love this city, and I like writing about places that are real, but what I really like is mixing fact and fiction, and that includes places. When I was writing the book I set it roughly in 2010 – there’s a World Cup on, and the Olympic site is unfinished – but events sort of overtook me. First there was the economic crash, which made the Canary Wharf backdrop much more relevant; then we got a coalition government. None of this was exactly unpredictable. I also wanted a failed terrorist campaign to be happening – this just seemed more believable than a successful one. Funny words, success and failure, in this context… Now I’m thinking of spreading a false rumour that a sea monster’s been found under the Atlantic; that should shift a few copies.
Would you say you are a political writer? What writers do you admire?
Politics are central to my novels, but not as important as characters and their relationships. All books are political in that they’re products of their time, but in terms of writers, I like Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, and currently I’m reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is truly inspirational. In terms of fiction I really like the great Americans, the Roths and Updikes and Kerouacs, but also some writers who are grossly under-rated (Dermot Bolger springs to mind). Bolano’s 2666 blew me away. I think I admire all writers as writers, if not necessarily as people. I’ve got a sort of weird, half-baked theory that there’s no such thing as a good or bad writer; any writer can only use the words that appear to them at any specific time. Maybe that’s just my excuse for not being top of the charts…
What are you working on now?
I recently finished a very different book, a comedy called “Life’s too short (unless you’re a jellyfish)”. I have a whole series mapped out; my career “plan” (if that’s not too grandiose a term) is to write one serious book, then one funny. My new book, the one I’m working on now, is very dark, very serious. It’s called “emptiness” and I can honestly say it’s a very strange book. Some familiar themes emerge – rootlessness, sexuality – but it’s quite unlike anything I’ve written – or read – before. Where will it all end?
Here. Thanks.
Hang on, I haven’t finished y--
Mark Piggott

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