Author Q&A:
Jonathan Coe

Mr Wilder and Me

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As she waves one of her twin daughters off on her first travels and helps her other navigate an unexpected pregnancy, Calista reflects on her own coming of age. In summer 1977 the naïve young Greek woman sets off on a solo backpacking trip across the US. When a friend she makes along the way asks her to accompany her to a mandatory dinner with one of her father’s friends in LA, Calista has no idea that the host is a legendary film director. Charmed by her inexperience, Billy Wilder invites Calista to work as a translator on a trip to Athens where he plans to make Fedora, a passion project he’s finally making with German money, after years of rejection from Hollywood. The experience marks the beginning of a career in film for Calista. Jonathan Coe deftly warns readers of the dangers of nostalgia while conjuring all the romance of a golden age.      

Mr Wilder and Me follows a fictional protagonist, Calista, on the real-life film set for Billy Wilder’s Fedora. Did fictionalising real events present new challenges to you or has writing fiction set squarely in the real world prepared you well?
Well, my Billy Wilder is a fictional character, of course. It’s true that I’ve always tried to be very meticulous about getting the historical detail right in my novels. But really, it was my experience of writing a biography of BS Johnson 20 years ago that made me decide to write a novel about Wilder. Very early in the writing of that biography I became aware that the Johnson I was creating was (inevitably) a fictional character, and that it would have been more honest, in a sense, to make him the subject of a novel. In the Johnson biography I did what I could to compensate for that, by trying to stretch the boundaries of the biographical form, but I didn’t want to paint myself into that corner again. Fiction is a more honest form than non-fiction, in the end, because it is quite open about its omissions, emphases and indeed outright lies.

On reading the story Fedora, Calista reflects that it never works when writers make up a character who is supposed to be really famous because the definition of a famous person is someone you’ve heard of. Was this your motivation for writing about Billy Wilder, rather than an entirely fictional Hollywood director?
Not really. My motivation was my longstanding fascination with Wilder himself, and my desire to do justice to the version of him I had been constructing in my head over several decades. But I would certainly never base a novel on an invented yet supposedly “famous” film director, writer, politician or any other such public figure, for precisely the reasons that Calista gives. It always rings false to me.

In our last interview in 2015 we discussed entertainment as a means of capitalist oppression in relation to your book Number 11. Mr Wilder and Me takes an altogether more romantic view. Did classic cinema break the mould somehow? 
I don’t want to make any starry-eyed claims for the politics of classic cinema, obviously. In 2015 we were talking about my novel Number 11 and specifically a section in which one of the main characters becomes a contestant on a reality TV show. The theme of that section was the cruelty, manipulativeness and dishonesty of reality TV. I don’t think it’s especially “romantic” to suggest that classic Hollywood movies, for all their faults, were better than that. The view I try to put forward in the novel is more nuanced. I’ve no idea what Wilder really thought of Taxi Driver (although on the whole he was a great admirer of Scorsese) but in my book he says that, however brilliant it is in many ways, he finds the violence and the darkness of its world view to be too relentless. In my imagination, this is an accurate reflection of his response. He came from a generation which, having lived through two world wars, felt there was no need to rub cinema audience’s noses in the horror of life, that one of the duties of cinema (and indeed all art) was to offer elements of hope, pleasure, even escapism as well: some light among the shade.

Most of your books provide state-of-the nation commentary and this one marks a change in direction for you, perhaps as Fedora did for Billy Wilder. Were you following Wilder’s direction – not to ignore tragedy but not to make it the main focus?
One of the things I like about Wilder’s filmography is that it’s so varied and unpredictable. Straight after The Lost Weekend, which is a harrowing study of alcoholism, he makes The Emperor Waltz, a fluffy operetta set in the Austrian Tyrol – starring Bing Crosby, for God’s sake! Straight after Stalag 17, a tough POW movie, he makes Sabrina, a swooningly romantic comedy with Audrey Hepburn. The ways Wilder has influenced me are many and varied, and some of them probably subliminal, and I think his reluctance to be typecast or pigeonholed is one of them. Like him, I like to try and confound people by following a political novel with a non-political one, switching between out-and-out comedy (as in Expo 58, say) to tragedy and melodrama (as in The Rain Before It Falls). It’s a slightly risky strategy in that it raises certain expectations among people who don’t know your work too well: some audiences laughed at the most serious parts of Fedora, for instance, because it was “a Billy Wilder film”, so they assumed it was meant to be something like Some Like It Hot. They didn’t know he had made serious pictures as well, in the past. But, as I said, I take inspiration from his body of work as a whole, and to be blunt about it, I would simply find it boring to write the same kind of book again and again.

Is the way music is now put to film reflective of a change in production standards in cinema over the decades? And does that mirror the way music-listening is now more throwaway in our lives generally?
I’m not a music critic or an authority on music in any way, so I can only remark – as an ordinary viewer of films and TV – that the music being written for film at the moment seems way more generic and predictable than used to be the case during the classic Hollywood era. One thing in particular sets my teeth on edge so much that I had to mention it in my novel: the way movies and TV shows nowadays routinely flag up “comic” sequences by having pizzicato strings in the background. (Of course, there are still some amazing film composers: the first one that comes to mind is Mica Levi, whose scores for Under the Skin and Jackie are incredible.) But I think your basic point is right – our ears have become dulled from constant exposure to music and we don’t really “hear” it any more to the extent that we used to (as predicted more than a half a century ago by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger – who also gets namechecked in my book).

After experiencing the simple joy of brie and red wine in France, Billy tells Calista: “Whatever else it throws at you, life will always have pleasures to offer. And we should take them.” Have you managed to heed this advice throughout the pandemic? 
I suppose so, although like most writers, I’ve not found lockdown especially hard to endure, as I lead a pretty solitary life anyway and don’t leave the family home much at the best of times. The thing I really miss is travelling. I usually make a lot of trips to France and Italy, for festivals and bookshop appearances, and I’ve been really missing that contact with my European readers. But of course, that just shows what a privileged life I lead these days – it’s nothing compared to the devastation lockdown has wreaked on many people’s livelihoods. Lockdown number two has been more difficult to take on the chin because we know that if the government had used the time bought by the first lockdown wisely and set up a proper test and trace system, using the UK’s genuine public health expertise instead of handing the contracts over to their cronies, we would probably all have more liberty at the moment. Why the public isn’t getting truly angry about this I don’t know. Our British fatalism – our shoulder-shrugging “mustn’t grumble” attitude – will be our downfall in the end.

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