Author Joe Dunthorne’s first novel has been adapted into the acclaimed movie Submarine by Richard Ayoade. Here, he tells Catherine Bray about borrowing from his own life, changes to the novel, and Richard Ayoade’s bedroom.
Do you remember the first germ of an idea for Submarine?
I didn’t really write it like that. I was studying creative writing and I was just experimenting really, writing in lots of different voices and perspectives, just trying to find something that worked, and I wrote a short story which was more or less the first chapter in the novel, in Oliver’s voice. That chapter is about him going to see a physiotherapist and that was just something I’d happened to do recently when I was a student – I had a bad back and I went to see the physio.
The voice felt natural to me, and more than anything I’d written before like it was coming out fully formed, so then I just ploughed on. I don’t want to say the book wrote itself, that’s a bit of a cliché, but as much as a book has ever written itself, it was pretty natural. I say this at the end of the second novel, which has been absolute murder, so this really was a different experience.
How personal was the novel of Submarine – and did that cause any concerns when adapting it into a film?
It’s interesting. Lots of writers, including me, use their own life for their first novel. The novel of Submarine is a substantially altered version of my own growing up – there are various things that are real from my childhood and various things that are made up – so after that one remove you’ve already lost like, 50% of your real life. And then you get the second refraction in the film. But there are a few things that are still quite true to my growing up. My father is the father in the book, essentially, and if you put my dad and Noah Taylor side by side, they’re not that different, at least in terms of their facial hair.
And Richard obviously brings things from his own life and childhood into it, like the bedroom in the film, Oliver’s bedroom in the film, is a kind of mix of what Richard would have loved his own childhood bedroom to be like, with all the obscure film posters, and a mix of things that he actually did have in his room.
The plot is largely made up. Certainly the over-arching plot: the love story and the family, is all made up, which is slightly disappointing to some people when you tell them that your parents never almost divorced or whatever.
How did your Dad react to reading the book?
My Dad has been extremely good humoured the whole way through, which I think you get some of through the book. I hope in the book it’s a kind of loving portrait. It’s not a character assassination; it’s a warm thing and he seems to have taken it with good humour. Maybe you get a bit more of a lighter touch in the book, he’s got more jokes, anyway – I suppose there’s just more time to develop someone in a book. I think actually he enjoys his mini-celebrity as a film and book character.
What did you imagine would change when it was adapted into a film?
My expectation was that, for it to be turned into a film, it would have to be radically altered, simply because of the internal quality of the book. It was hard to imagine how you could make something that’s a 300 page monologue into drama. I was very much warned by people, my agent and publishers, that if it were to be made into a film I should brace myself for emotional trauma as my story got torn apart, so I never felt any pangs really. Plus I just love film so much, so that helps.
Was Richard Ayoade’s a name that was there from the very beginning as a possible director?
Yeah, it was. The whole thing was blessed with this very smooth development. Richard was the first idea that Mary Burke the producer had for a director. We met, we got on really well, we started watching loads of films in his attic. Then we went down to Swansea for a few days and I showed him all the places that I thought he’d use and he used none of them. And then when we found Craig it made total sense, and the same with Yasmin.
The whole thing just barreled along on a lot of momentum. I guess that’s the kind of freshness thing, it just never got stagnant. It happened really quickly. I hope it carried that freshness with it.