October 2011

Julian Gough


“You should have a literary persona that is capable of anything, including murder, rape, heroism, spiritual enlightenment. Never admit there’s a drug you haven’t taken. Never admit there’s a sexual position you haven’t tried.”
People to whom Gough’s Jude trilogy might appeal:
Teenage death-metal fans
Retired semiotics professors
Gough’s mum

I knew I wanted to interview Julian Gough—“rhymes with cough,” he says—when I was about halfway through his essay “Divine Comedy.”
There, in the May 2007 issue of
Prospect magazine, he railed against the modern literary novel in all its desperation and seriousness, and urged a return to funnier roots. “You may think that to praise The Simpsons at the expense of Henry James makes me a barbarian,” he wrote there. “Well, it does, but I’m a very cultured barbarian.” In that essay, he examined the death of the Greek comedy, the surge of tragedy in the Middle Ages, the few-and-far-between funny writers of the modern era, and the culpability of universities in our collective tragic literary leanings—all with a terrific combination of admiration for and irreverence about literary tradition.

At the end of the essay, I read that Gough had recently won the National Short Story Prize (now known as the BBC National Short Story Award), the biggest award in the world for a single short story. Then, soon after reading “Divine Comedy,” I heard that he had moved from his home in Ireland to Berlin. Based on the content of his essay and the scant biographical information I had, I assumed he was some sort of rebellious mad genius privileged enough to have the kind of expensive European education most of us could never sit through, let alone afford. No doubt he spoke five languages and was flush with family money, the foundation on which so many writers have built their grand literary musings, which would also explain his ability to move from place to place at his leisure—internationally, even!

It wasn’t until well after reading his novels, Juno and Juliet and Jude: Level 1, that I became acquainted with the real Julian Gough: an incredibly intelligent, often-broke writer (educated at the National University of Ireland, Galway) who moved to Berlin after being evicted from his place in Ireland, a onetime singer for a “literary rock band” called Toasted Heretic, and a very funny man loaded with some very serious literary ambitions.

Gough participated in this interview—over his own objections, at times—in fits and starts over what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the busier months of his life, as he completed rewrites on his overdue third novel (Jude in London, now available in the UK) and a play for the BBC that was already behind schedule. Though he wished to delay our conversation for several months, he was kindly receptive to my pleas that we carry on for just one more question. And another. And another.

—Drew Smith


THE BELIEVER: How have you gotten by?

JULIAN GOUGH: I spent the 1990s on the dole in Ireland, learning how to write. After ten years on the dole, I thought, That’s enough, you’re good enough, sign off. So I signed off, and nearly starved. But then I sold my first novel just in time. I’ve survived on my writing for the past ten years, with brief periods of wealth and brief periods of homelessness. But I don’t want to lead young writers off a cliff here. Sometimes putting the writing first leads to moral and financial catastrophe. There were two years, late into obsessively writing Jude, when I earned absolutely nothing at all, and I survived on money that I acquired by means so shameful and humiliating that I’m not going to discuss them with you. But it wasn’t by writing. And it wasn’t by working.

In the good years, prizes help, readings help. I used to be in a band, so I love doing readings. I probably earned more from them than from the books last year. Berlin is very cheap, and everybody’s broke, so I fit in.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Drew Smith is a writer living in Austin.

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