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Authors: Rupert Thomson

Dreams of Leaving

BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
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Praise for
Dreams of Leaving



‘Brash, cynical and wildly eccentric . . . the prose is as dazzling as a firework display . . .
Dreams of Leaving
is a remarkable first novel, by a stunning new talent'
Evening Standard


‘The writing is extraordinarily elegant, evocative and funny . . . Thomson has the talent to become a major novelist'
The Times
Books of the Year


‘A rites-of-passage novel, a love story, a political satire and a sourly comic thriller . . . Gnawing at the edge of Thomson's text is an unsentimental knowledge of pain which lifts him out of the rank of mere fantasists . . . A real achievement'
 Literary Review


‘A strange but strikingly original novel . . . A disturbing tale for the 1980s' FSM


‘What makes this book different is the skill with which Thomson modulates its light and dark moods, and the generosity he shows his characters'


‘Thomson's writing is inventive and lyrical, studded with sensuous metaphors . . . This delight in language enhances a story already rich in its observations on the nature of apathy, freedom and the ambiguous allure of home'
New York Times Book Review


‘A humdinger of a first novel'
Publishers Weekly


‘High hallucinatory imagination, the ability to discern real menace and a magical way with words . . . this book sparkles with a wild ebullience . . . on almost every page there is a sentence or a short passage which startles and delights the reader because it is so vivid, so seemingly effortless and so right . . . A tour de force'
Melbourne Age


‘Startling writing and original vision . . . One can only recommend' Patrick Gale,
London Daily News


‘Beautifully descriptive writing . . . Constantly surprising . . . Thomson is an inspired storyteller and an author of great promise'
Time Out


‘Buoyant, assured and very funny'








Strange Time for a Drowning (1956)

The Building of Many Colours

Unfinished Histories (1972)

The Bond Street Mandarin

Peach Incognito (1980)

Injury Time

Rockets in July

Talking to Horses

The Return of the Native

Crime is Order

Sudden Death

The Wooden Triangle

A Note on the Author

Also by the Same Author



I tried to write a novel when I was twenty. I was living in Athens at the time, in an apartment that was, quite literally, unfurnished. I produced 160 self-conscious, introspective pages on a table made of fruit crates, then ground to a halt. Back in London, I started work at an advertising agency, but the desire to write never left me, and in November 1982, after four years as a copywriter, I decided to try again. I resigned from the agency, moved a friend into my council flat, and gave my ancient, rusty Vauxhall Viva its first ever service. As December approached, I drove south, making for a village in Italy. After a lengthy interview with a well-known comic actress, during which we covered subjects as various as kleptomania and homosexuality, I had secured the job of winter caretaker for her converted Tuscan farmhouse. In return for painting walls and treating beams for woodworm, I would be able to live rent-free until the spring. I remember standing on the deck of the ferry and watching the stained, off-white English cliffs recede. I was wearing an ankle-length brown coat, red tartan trousers, and a pair of battered Doc Martens. My hair was dyed orange. I was twenty-seven. I had drawn a line through my life, and everything was going to be different from now on. I would write and write and write, and perhaps, in the end, something halfway decent would emerge. I breathed the cold, salty air of what felt like an entirely new existence.

There was no heating in the house, and I worked in the kitchen, huddled against a free-standing gas stove. I typed on sheets of yellow foolscap, using a maroon Olympia portable I had inherited from my last agency. I was disciplined about the hours I put in: I would start at three in the afternoon and finish at one in the morning. The routine felt natural, comfortable, even seductive. At that early stage, and influenced, I think, by Machado de Assis, I restricted myself to short chapters with titles of their own, some of which – ‘Strange Time for a Drowning', ‘Crime is Order' – eventually made their way into the finished novel. With its irreverent, fractured narrative, that first draft felt like a distillation of the life I had been living for the past few years, and it came as no great surprise when a friend later claimed I had written his biography.

For several weeks I saw almost no one. My only companions were birds, stray cats and vermin. The first Italian words I learned, much to the amusement of the man who ran the village shop, were ‘trappola di topi' – ‘mousetrap'. Then, in February, I met an American couple who were renting a farmhouse further down the track. Richard Wertime, an academic, was also trying to write a book. We became friends. In return for the occasional dinner, I would drive him to places he couldn't otherwise have seen, and it was during one such expedition that I outlined my novel to him. Apparently, I talked non-stop for forty-five minutes, all the way to Siena. Three years later, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, I gave Dick my manuscript. When he handed it back, he told me he felt cheated. ‘Where's the book you described on that drive to Siena that had us all so riveted?' he said. ‘This isn't it.' I knew he was right. That autumn I began work on a new version in a friend's bedroom in Tokyo, and it was in that city that I teased out what would become the book's central metaphor, the idea of a place no one can leave because no one has ever left.

The novel was written over a period of about four years, its progress often interrupted by the need to earn money. At last, and back in London, I felt it was finished. What to do next, though? The only person I knew in publishing was Nigel Newton, but I had hardly seen him since leaving university. In September 1986, I made eight copies of the manuscript then drove round the city, dropping half of them off with agents, the other half with publishers. One copy went to Nigel. Another went to Liz Calder, the only editor I had ever heard of. Like many writers starting out, I probably put too much into
Dreams of Leaving
. This was partly inexperience, and partly the irrational but compelling fear that I might never write again. Twenty-five years later, though, I can still feel a kind of electricity on every page. It's the charge that's given off when someone is putting down sentences for the first time, when someone is in the grip of what will turn out to be a lifelong passion. Even so, I steeled myself for rejection. To my amazement, three of the agents showed an interest in the manuscript. Meanwhile, in an outrageous piece of serendipity, Nigel and Liz had joined forces to set up a new publishing house called Bloomsbury, and by Christmas 1986 I had a deal.

Dreams of Leaving
was published on 25 June 1987. The book achieved an instant notoriety, not least because the title and the name of the author could only be found on the back cover; all there was on the front was a painting by a girl I used to go out with. The launch was held at a friend's house in the East End. Once owned by a silk-merchant, its walls shimmered pale-blue, and its bare wooden floorboards dipped and sloped. The power had not been switched on yet, and as dusk came down it became difficult to see. No one had thought to buy candles. The party ended in virtual darkness. A group of us spilled out on to the street and walked through the summer night to a restaurant on Brick Lane. My first fan letter arrived a few days later. Written on sheets of dark-blue paper, it was signed by Budgie, the drummer of Siouxsie and the Banshees, a band I had seen at least three times.

When people mention books that changed their lives, they are usually referring to books they have read, but
Dreams of Leaving
was a book I wrote, and it changed my life forever. In March 1988, some nine months after publication, I received a phone-call from a Hollywood director. Like Alan Parker, he was making the transition from commercials to features, and he thought
Dreams of Leaving
had the makings of a memorable film. Landing in Los Angeles a fortnight later, I was collected from the airport in a steel-grey stretch limousine. I stayed on Sunset Boulevard, at the Mondrian, then in a house at the foot of the Hollywood Hills that had previously belonged to Michael Mann. I was offered $50,000 to write a first draft of the screenplay. Predictably, perhaps, the idea of a village that no one has ever left proved problematic I remember a meeting with an influential producer in Century City.

‘I don't get it,' he said. ‘Why don't they just walk out?'

‘It's psychological,' I said.

His shrewd look masked a total lack of comprehension.

‘It's never been done before,' I went on. ‘The barrier's in people's minds.' Feeling I was losing him, I tailed off.

The producer leaned back, deep in thought. ‘Maybe if we gave the policemen guns . . .'

Later that summer, as we drank white wine on his yacht off the coast of Malibu, he told me that the screenplay was ‘too European', and not long afterwards the project collapsed. I wasn't too bothered. I had spent a couple of unforgettable summers in Hollywood, and the money I had been paid would finance the writing of my second novel.

But another twist was still to come. On returning to London in September 1988, I met the director's English girlfriend. It was she who had first read and loved my book. It was she who had suggested it might make a feature film. By October, we were seeing each other. We have been together ever since.

Rupert Thomson


Strange Time for a Drowning (1956)

It was a hot day to be wearing black. The coffin-bearers counted themselves fortunate. The coffin resting on their shoulders measured less than four feet in length. It was also empty. The child's body had never been found.

Very few people had turned out for the funeral. A gaunt bearded man, an ungainly blonde woman and five police officers. Two men in shabby black suits took up the rear of the procession. One of them, Dinwoodie by name, wore a sling on his right arm. He had pale swivelling eyes and long hair that was prematurely grey. The other ran the village greengrocer's shop. Their heads tilted sideways and inwards like two halves of a reflection so they could hear each other without raising their voices. They had allowed a small gap to open up between themselves and the five policemen. That they were linked, as if by an invisible cartilage, to the main body of the procession was obvious from their conversation.

‘So what do you think?' Dinwoodie spoke in a hoarse whisper.


‘About the baby. Do you think he really drowned in the river?'

The greengrocer squinted into the sun. ‘Well,' he said, ‘that's the story that's going round.'

‘That's not what I'm asking.'

BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
9.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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