Lord of the Kraken

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RUSSELL HOBAN, THE AMERICAN author of Riddley Walker, The Mouse and His Child, The Medusa Frequency and a clutch of other highly-acclaimed experimental novels, ushers me into his London home. He steers me towards a comfy chair that sits like an island in an ocean of books and CDs. An amiable host in a hand-knitted plum-coloured jumper, he pours me a glass of red wine and furrows his brow when I ask what, poised at the beginning of his ninth decade, he has left to accomplish.

"I keep seeing things that I haven’t tried yet; better ways of telling a story, better ways of developing a character," says Hoban, munching on a pretzel. "There are all kinds of technical things I haven’t really gone into as far as I might." At an age when most writers are turning to their memoirs or their gardens - he turned 80 last week - Hoban is hard at work, fine-tuning his narrative skills. A romance, Come Dance With Me, is his 13th and most recent novel. He has already delivered his next manuscript, Linger Awhile, and is 40-odd pages into writing another.

Yesterday Hoban was at his computer from early evening to midnight. "The material just kept coming and I had to keep up with it," he says. "And things kept hooking up in ways that seemed right." He brushes off questions about the source for this deep urge to write, calling it his addiction. "I’m very superstitious, I don’t want to make too much of whatever it is I’m doing."

But if Hoban fears exposing his writing to scrutiny, his readers think otherwise. This weekend, to celebrate Hoban’s 80th birthday, his fan club The Kraken - named after the mythical Greek sea monster who appears in his 1987 novel The Medusa Frequency - have organised a get-together to celebrate his works. They will gather at Russell Square Underground station to visit sites in London and Canterbury that have meaning in his fictional world. They will also drop favourite Hoban quotes written on yellow paper in public places to bring attention to his writings. (Hoban’s 1974 novel, Kleinzeit, featured a hospital where inanimate objects such as a mirror, the Tube and Yellow Pages are given a voice.) Participants are advised to "bring a favourite Hoban novel of your choice and a good pair of walking shoes".

"They’re a nice bunch, the Kraken," says Hoban, whose past birthdays they have celebrated by sending him gifts and posting goodwill messages on a dedicated website. "Some of them are librarians, history professors and all kinds of people who are smarter than I am." Among them is Eli Bishop, who has annotated the broken, post-apocalyptic speech in Riddley Walker in a work which, alongside another bibliographic project, is longer than the original novel.

Hoban regards all of this attention as flattering since, he admits, "I don’t get a lot of commercial encouragement." His best-selling work to date is a series of witty children’s books published in the 1960s about a precocious badger, Frances, who learns life’s lessons.

BORN TO UKRAINIAN-JEWISH immigrant parents in smalltown Pennsylvania in 1925, Hoban showed a talent for drawing. "My parents got it into their heads that I was going to be a great painter and that was on my back for a long time," he says.

His mother, Jennie, persuaded him to study at university, where he lasted five weeks before he became a "proto drop-out". A brief stint at art school introduced Hoban to his first wife Lillian Aberman and they married before he enlisted in the US army. He was sent to Italy but says his war experience would have little effect on his writing. "I still couldn’t say if it made me older or wise, more idealistic or cynical. I didn’t use any of my war experience." When Hoban returned from active service he was awarded a Bronze Star and a GI pension of $125 a month for self-employed artists. But he felt guilty about the money and did about "20 low-level jobs" before he broke into advertising via his ability to draw without reference. When times got hard he taught a correspondence course at a "famous artists" school in Connecticut. Hoban would receive a painting through the post, read his critique into a Dictaphone and send back a demonstration painting. Then he became a full-time illustrator.

Eventually, as his reputation and salary grew, he was able to climb out from beneath his parents’ ambition for him to become a great artist. After illustrating and writing a number of factual children’s books, he began writing a book about a mechanical mouse. While still holding down a day job as an advertising copy-writer at a top Manhattan agency, Hoban would commute from his Connecticut home an hour earlier than his office colleagues, work through his lunch hour and put in more time after everyone else had gone. "That’s how I got most of The Mouse and His Child done."

After its publication in 1968, Hoban, who had been inspired by such British writers as MR James, Joseph Conrad and Dickens, decided to move to London. Leaving the US meant he could break away from his reputation as an illustrator and teller of children’s stories. "This is where my grown-up novels started happening for me," he says. It was a fresh start but it also signalled the end of his marriage to Lillian, with whom he had three children. In 1970 he met a German bookseller, Gundula, who became his second wife.

Ten years passed, Riddley Walker was published and he received front-page reviews and praise from the likes of Harold Bloom, Anthony Burgess and Harold Pinter. Set in a bombed-out Kent of 2000 where the inhabitants have returned to an Iron Age existence, Hoban invented a new language for his eponymous hero.

Hoban says Riddley-speak, which is reminiscent of Old English, "gets simpler when read aloud". In the dark days at the tail end of the Cold War, Hoban stood in front of the Legend of St Ustace in Canterbury cathedral and imagined England after a nuclear holocaust. There was another moment of inspiration in Kent’s Wye Valley when he was climbing a mountain with his young sons and Gundula. He looked down , saw crows circling around an ancient farm and "had this strong feeling of watchers from way back".

Hoban had a similar experience in Israel where he had gone on holiday with his daughter Esme and her husband Moti. "They took me to a place called Montfort which was a stronghold of the Teutonic Knights," he says. "You could feel the savagery and the Jew-hatingness of it." Out of this experience came the character of Pilgrimann, a narrator born of that time who moves freely through time and space.

His most recent novels, however, are far more grounded in the here and now, exploring the conundrum of contemporary relationships. In Come Dance With Me, Christabel Alderton, an ageing rock chick, bonds over an old German ballad with Elias Newman, a diabetes consultant. Christabel has left a succession of dead men and even a son. Elias reverses the spell and dispells her obsession with death.

Hoban says that in the last few years his writing has focused more on character, less on plot. The novel he is currently writing involves a couple who meet at a tango class in the crypt of St James’s church in Clerkenwell. "I think the characters are more real than other characters I’ve done, especially the woman," he says. "She’s full of contradictions, she’s a strong person, yet very vulnerable." He sighs and looks into the gathering darkness of London beyond his window. "I keep thinking I’ll do just one more novel and then I’ll stop. But for some reason, I can’t."

The Kraken will be pleased.

• Come Dance With Me by Russell Hoban is published this week by Bloomsbury, price 15.99

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