Interview: Sam Leith, writer

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IT WAS such a great line that Sam Leith borrowed it. "A journalist friend who asked me to write on the subject of literary editors who write novels said, 'You're not really a poacher turned gamekeeper, you are more like a gamekeeper turned pheasant.'"

Leith was the Telegraph's literary editor until being, as he puts it, "freelanced".

There's no denying that it was traumatic, but Leith had already inked a deal to write his first novel, The Coincidence Engine, a book so hotly anticipated even before its release that it won him a spot on the Waterstone's 11, an initiative created to champion the best of debut fiction.

Given some of the scathing reviews he's delivered as a critic, is he paranoid about sending this ambitious novel of his into the world?

Was it brave, or crazy, to write about the kinds of wild coincidences that, when they occur in real life, prompt people to say, "You could never get away with this in a novel."

Leith is both philosophical and self-deprecating. "Yes, I've been horrible about people, so I deserve everything I get. But I haven't gone around kicking unknown writers to death.

"I tend to attack people who've got a considerable literary reputation, in that showy-offy way that you do when you're a young critic.

"I don't entertain the idea that writers of that stature are going to be asked to review a first novel. It would be churlish to complain if I got bad reviews, on the grounds that you take your lumps. If you get reviewed at all, with a first novel, you need to be damn grateful."

The Coincidence Engine unfolds at velocity amid the sprawling highways and byways of a loosely interpreted America, a place where a hurricane can assemble a passenger jet out of junk yard waste, where a man with no imagination weeps inconsolably over his toothbrush each night, and where, it seems, everything and everyone is connected. Or are they?

It's also a hymn to mathematics, a subject impenetrable to Leith, despite receiving a stellar education ("mainly in English Literature - no mathematical rigour at all") at Eton and Oxford University.

"I was hopeless, but one of my best friends went on to be a maths PhD. A lot of our shared history has been me going, 'How does that work?' and him explaining, and me not understanding.

"Embedded in the text is a profound maths envy. I've got the sense that here is something extraordinarily interesting and powerful and abstract, that leads to all sorts of interesting discoveries.

"One of the things my friend told me about was the cardinality of infinities - the idea that some infinities are bigger than others. This is something even I can grasp. There's an infinity of whole numbers, and by definition, that's got to be smaller than the infinity of fractions.

Leith continues, "One of the book's jokes is that my character's called Banacharski. There's something called the Banach-Tarski Paradox, which proved that you can take a sphere of a given volume and chop it up into a finite number of pieces with very wobbly edges, and reassemble it to make two spheres with the same volume.

"This makes no sense to me at all. Apparently you can prove it. That makes me go, 'Oh my God, this is gripping.' I wanted to recreate my astonishment at this world, which is so fundamental, but which very few of us understand."

The notion that everything is random was another inspiration. "In real life, chance governs absolutely everything. But fiction, which is one of our most powerful ways of representing reality to us, can't contain chance at all.

"Everything is invented, and there seems to be a kind of weird unexplored disjunction. Plus there's a cheating aspect. I thought that if anything could happen, I'd be totally free to do absolutely anything.

"But then there's that old clich about playing tennis without a net. You're playing without a net, or rackets, or balls. Rather than making it much easier, the danger was, if anything can happen, why should anyone give a damn what does?"

Well, I say, I was certainly drawn in by the premise of a man with no imagination. He laughs. "Probably there was a danger that my ideas would take up too much time, at the expense of my characters. But I liked wondering, 'What are the implications of a character who can have emotions but can't imagine anything in the future?'

"He can't be afraid of anything or have any great hopes, so he's really sad. You can't desire something you can't imagine. He can't make the present go away, but he's got a past. He can want things in the past, but by definition, they're always things he's lost."

Even if his wildest dream comes true, and the novel's a roaring critical and financial success, Leith is unlikely to abandon journalism entirely. "Becoming a critic was pretty much always the goal. I was an English student, and spent my childhood hiding behind a curtain reading books. My little brother claims that until he was seven he thought his name was 'F*** off, I'm reading.'

"But wanting to be a novelist is different from wanting to write a novel. I can't claim that I had this dictate from my muse that couldn't be ignored. And I really like journalism. The short deadlines keep you ticking over, and it's nice to see your work in print."

The Coincidence Engine, Bloomsbury, 12.99

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 17 April, 2011