I'M MEETING the elegant Geoff Dyer at his elegant flat in Kensington (where else?) and I'm early. The man Zadie Smith described as "a post-modern Kingsley Amis" doesn't just loathe lateness.
He "really loves" punctuality. I know this from his collection of essays called Working The Room, which cover everything from the photography of Martin Parr to the joy of sex in hotel rooms. Some are scholarly, others irreverent and one, about growing up an only child, is very sad indeed.
I feel I know a lot about Dyer from reading this book. I know he loves F Scott Fitzgerald and jazz music, that he narrowly escaped a car crash in the autumn of 1997 and was fired from his first proper job in the early 1980s and hasn't had another since. I know that when he said in his diaries that he was going to see the London Symphony Orchestra he was actually going to take LSD, and that he is obsessed with a particular kind of New York donut. Working The Room is as close to autobiography as essays can get. And in his ability to write about anything and everything, what comes across most of all is his love of writing. "It's a job for life," Dyer writes in the introduction. "More accurately, it is a life."
"I like that this book is not exactly autobiography but is an account of what I've been up to since 1999," he says over camomile tea. "I'll be writing essays long after I've stopped writing fiction. There is this unusually broad range in the non-fiction but if you look at what I'm capable of as a novelist I'm more limited. The only thing that changes in my novels are the locations."
There isn't much you can say about Dyer, 52, that he hasn't already observed about himself in prose. He is very open in his writing and his estimation of himself, which can seem arrogant but he gets away with it precisely because he is self-aware. "The non-fiction has been highly original," he says of his writing, then starts laughing. "Perhaps I overstep the boundaries of what the interviewee is allowed to say. But I believe it... so I'll say it."
He has never valued one form over another. Dyer's non-fiction books about travel, the history of photography, or the First World War are as freewheeling and imaginative as fiction. He usually purports to know nothing about his subjects and instead operates from a position of curiosity, passion or even anger. He wrote a book about not being able to write a book about DH Lawrence and there is an essay in Working The Room called My Life As A Gatecrasher about his insatiable magpie eye. Dyer perfectly embodies Susan Sontag's description of a writer as someone who is interested in everything."Why, in all modesty," he writes, "would anyone be interested in settling for less?"
In one essay Dyer describes James Salter as a writer's writer: "at once the highest accolade and a tacit admission that he has never enjoyed commercial success". I wonder if he feels this could be a description of himself. Writers often gush about him being a true original. Readers often haven't heard of him.
"Once you've published a few books you drag around this ball and chain of a back list," he says. "All the evidence of how few you've sold is there. I think a lot of writers my age have this strange experience of going from would-be to has-been. What about the intervening bit? But I didn't wait to achieve a certain degree of success to do my own thing. I've done it from the word go."
He is also fed up with being called a slacker. "I suppose I should take some of the blame," he says. "I've always banged on about never having a job. But however I'm described - whether as humorist, travel writer, photographic historian - it bugs me. I would hate for my last book (Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi, which won the PG Wodehouse comic fiction prize] to be just a comic novel. Who wants to write one of those?"
His perpetual delight at having never had a job comes from his upbringing. Dyer grew up an only child in working class Cheltenham, his background "so super-ordinary that there was almost something unusual about it". His father was a sheet metal worker, his mother a dinner lady. On Being An Only Child is a melancholy essay evoking Dyer's lonely boyhood and sense of being an anomaly in both his own family and class. While his parents were obsessed with saving, he craved urbanity. While they wanted security for him, he wanted to be on the dole. Still, the book is dedicated to them. "They won't read it," he says. "They've never been readers. It means I don't have any embarrassment about some of the stuff I've written."
The only time Dyer becomes inarticulate is when he speaks about class. Talking about the impact of his working class background, he can barely finish a sentence. "The experience has been... extensive," he begins. "It's strange. Ridiculous. I mean... I just can't bear to be class-identified... You can see by the way..." Dyer stops altogether. Perhaps we have to let his writing, the activity that liberated him in the first place, do the talking for him.
Dyer has always been vocal about not having children of his own and seems horrified by the idea of the conventional family. "I don't know where the strange, unnatural urge to have children comes from," he says. "It just seems perverse to me. Awful. It's not the kids I mind. It's the parents." v
• Working The Room, Canongate, 20