Geoff Dyer interview: Anyone for Venice?

LET'S IMAGINE YOU ARE GEOFF Dyer. You hear the doorbell and rush down two flights of stairs from the study in your Camden terrace house, because it's probably the postman and he's probably delivering books and the letter box is just the normal size and they never fit and usually he doesn't hang around.

Instead of which, a journalist. Damn. You'd forgotten that. Still, off with his shoes, up to the living room, and sit on the sofa underneath the 360-degree picture of the Burning Man Festival. You tell him about the five times you've been there, to the Nevada desert, and you can sense he knows it's important to you but he probably thinks it's a marathon druggie orgy and is afraid to ask.

In fact, this could be embarrassing. Because he says he's only read the new novel. Oh, he's probably read in the cuttings about Keith Jarrett saying yours was the best book on jazz ever written even though you don't play a note. He's probably read all the reviewers who said exactly the same thing about your book on photography even though you don't have a camera. Not read any of them himself, of course.

Oh, so that's why he's really here. The Lawrence book. The one that A Great Read picked twice on Radio 4. He caught the second broadcast, last November, when Sukhdev Sandhu said Out of Sheer Rage was the funniest book he'd ever read at the same time as being a serious study of DHL too. Thought that sounded intriguing. And he hasn't read the book on John Berger, but he'd like to because the cuttings tell him that was important to you and he remembers reading G half a lifetime ago. Christ, where do you begin with people like this?

He's got his tape recorder out. He asks if you've ever done interviews yourself and you say not really and he says he thought you must have because of that passage in your new novel when your man says the best interviews are when the interviewer is such a klutz that the interviewee takes pity on him. He says it usually works for him anyway.

"Off we go," he says.

"Look," you say. "The red light isn't on yet."

"Oops," he says.

Anyway, you've only got an hour, so back to basics. Trot through the past. The working-class childhood in Cheltenham, typical scholarship boy, inspirational English teacher, scholarship to Corpus Christi. Then, and much more important, on the dole in Brixton.

He looks up at you in surprise, almost as if you were a cartoon, and for a moment you wonder if he's one of the Daily Mail type of hacks with a reflex twitch about dole queue scroungers. But no, he just wonders why that was more important than the dreaming spires of Oxford and you tell him that's when you did most of your reading. Not Derrida and Lacan, but the homegrown theorists: Raymond Williams, John Berger. Oh, and Foucault, Barthes too. But mainly Berger, because ... well, he's the greatest person you've ever met, he frees your mind, he shows you that you don't need to have stories and plot to be a creative writer, and that was such good news because, as you've always said, you were never any good at those.

Another thing you get from Berger is that each book has to have its own form. It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, you've got to write it in the way it demands to be written. You do all the research, find out all the angles, then work out what its unique form is. Every book's got one. It's just a matter of working away and finding it.

"Let's take this novel," you say. He shuffles on the couch and reaches into his bag. "Can you sign it, please?" So you do.

IT'S THE FIRST ONE. "FIRST OFF THE press. Best wishes, Geoff Dyer." I read that on the Tube later on the way to another interview. Kind of him. Maybe when he's dead or I'm dead it'll be worth something. GEOFF DYER. "Quite possibly the best writer in Britain – Daily Telegraph," it says on the cover underneath his name. Big red letters flecked with gold. Not flecked but ... you remember when you were at school and you blew ink out of a straw at an empty page? The gold on the red is like someone's done that. Classy though.

There's a burning candle on top of a bed of marigolds on what looks like a small paper plate and it's floating on water. The water goes right to the edges of the cover and though it looks still there must be some current underneath because above the smaller capitals for GEOFF there are the inverted reflections of two figures and the water's moving so one can't tell whether they're people or figurines and whether or not they are holding hands. Then the title, in apologetically smaller letters: JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI.

You know what, I'm half inclined to go on like this and review the cover because a) it would be quite a good joke and b) I've never read anyone doing that and c) Geoff is good at jokes no-one else ever does, not that you're ever left clutching your belly but you still think fair play to him, he writes what he sees in a different way to everybody else; everybody else would just think a cover is a cover and Geoff can just slow the page right down and you think no, there's more going on in it than that. And here it would be those small things like life and death and love and (because of the water) Venice and Varanasi, centre of the Hindu world, where the gods are supposed to meet the rest of us and where, even if you're a cynic about religion, when you get there you just can't help wondering.

Then you turn over the book, and there's still the picture of the water, with words on it from David Mitchell, William Boyd, Michael Ondaatje and Zadie Smith (because all the stars come out for a Geoff Dyer novel), who do a better job than I can of describing its contents. Put them all together and you get something like "Wholly original story of a cynic's ascent into redemptive love" (that's the Venice section) and "post-modern national treasure stoner's descent into madness" (that's the Varanasi bit). Which, I think, would do the job perfectly.

Except that officially what I'm here to do is switch on my tape recorder (oops) and find out what he has to say and tell you what he looks like, which as it happens is rather like Woody in Toy Story. Except he's not wearing a cowboy hat, obviously. But long of body and long (unlugubriously, though) of face and long of patience and politeness and, above all, massively long of limb.

Which makes me think he'd probably be a great tennis player, even now at 50; that he'd just be able to stretch out an impossibly long arm and return a shot whizzing past the tramlines and already beyond the reach of almost any other tennis-playing writer you could imagine.

Yes, I should already have mentioned the ten (ten!) cartons of tennis balls on the floor of the living room, and the fact that when I rang the bell I interrupted him writing his next book, which will be about tennis, although he's still stuck on finding its unique form. But you don't always notice things in the right order, or at least I don't.

So, the novel. "It was that great heatwave in 2003 and I was at the Venice Biennale with my wife. On the third day, I thought I could do a version of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, only set during the Biennale. I was writing my photography book at the time, so I didn't do anything about it. Later that year, we went to Varanasi. We went down to the ghats. And within four hours of being there, I thought, 'Yeah. It will be two books. Venice and Varanasi. Because they're both so similar."

For a while he wondered how he'd link them. Then he decided he'd just leave it like that. The reader wouldn't be sure whether the man in the second story in Varanasi was the same as the man in the first, and some of them would be wondering what happened to the woman he fell in love with when they met at the Biennale. Some of them would doubtless whinge that the book was just two novellas, but stuff them: he'd put enough links into the text – about 50 of them if you look – between the two.

Because, like he said, he doesn't do plot; never has. He's not bothered about writing books that are wholly fiction – or wholly non-fiction – and regularly mixes them up.

And if that all sounds a bit confusing, it's not – because when you read Geoff Dyer, as you must if you haven't already, you see that beyond all those demarcations, everyone else's orthodoxies, the one thing he always gets right is tone.

Beyond tone, honesty. Beyond honesty, originality. And if he wants to take a few risks with form, what's wrong with that?

&#149 Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, is published by Canongate, priced 12.99.

Not being ambitious: At Oxford, I knew pretty much what I wanted to do, which was to sign on the dole. Bear in mind it was the 1980s, so the welfare state was still intact, and there was this quite welcoming dole scene culture which supported a whole generation of would-be artists, musicians and dancers. So rather than the rather pointless specialism of the PhD, I'm glad that I went on this route of reading widely and being interested in lots of different things.

Not being a slacker: It's a dated, American term. Why can't one spend 365 days a year doing what one wants? Of course that doesn't mean that one just wants to put one's feet up and watch telly – that's just a recipe for suicidal depression. But work – doing stuff that really tests you – is part of doing what I want to.

Not just being a novelist: I'm adamant that there's no difference between my fiction and non-fiction. For me it's all just writing. It's certainly not the case that there are the novels which are my personal vision, and then the non-fiction which is somehow secondary. The non-fiction books are every bit as inventive as the novels.

Not being a story-teller: Story does absolutely nothing for me. It's all about tone.