He writes novels in a tube carriage. Critics compare him to J.D. Salinger and Adrian Mole. Joe Dunthorne shows Oliver Shah around his unusual office.
High above Great Eastern Street, a tube train has somehow landed on a rooftop. Tucked inside one carriage is the writing workshop of Joe Dunthorne.
Dunthorne’s carriage is one of four, each brightly painted and renovated as artists’ studios, that are bolted to the roof of a massage parlour on the corner of Great Eastern Street and Shoreditch High Street. In the next car down a team of tailors cut and stitch clothes destined for Hoxton’s expensive boutiques. Further along the rooftop, a couple of actors quietly pore over stage directions for tomorrow night’s performance.
“I went to one that was just amazing,” he enthuses. “They had their own orchard, their own cider press, their own steam powered log cutter for chopping wood. There was a group of kids running about making mud pies, wearing beautiful flouncy dresses. It was idyllic.”
Tales of apple bobbing with tie-dyed West Country folk are Dunthorne’s way of explaining, with characteristic modesty, that he is researching material for his second novel. At the age of 27, he is already an award-winning author: his first book, Submarine, won the Curtis Brown Prize from the University of East Anglia (UEA). With his follow-up work taking shape and an anthology of poems in the pipeline, he is quickly becoming Hackney’s hottest literary property.
When asked how it feels to be showered with plaudits and have his work compared to the likes of J.D. Salinger or Adrian Mole, Dunthorne smiles and raises his eyebrows in bemusement.
“It feels great,” he begins. “It’s very exciting, but it’s incredibly… not strange, exactly, it’s just that everything seems a surprise. When I was starting out all I wanted to be able to do was write for a living in any format. It just so happens that I managed to do the exact thing I most wanted, and I feel blessed and lucky about it all.”
Submarine was written while Dunthorne was finishing a Masters in creative writing at UEA. It traces the fortunes of Oliver Tait, “a typically sex-obsessed 15-year-old boy who lives in his own world”, as he goes on a mission to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity. The ensuing cocktail of adulterous Capoeira instructors and pimply coming-of-age humour caught the attention of an agent, who swiftly bagged Dunthorne a book deal.
“I wish I’d had a bit more of a struggle, to add texture to my writing journey,” Dunthorne says. “But it all happened very quickly so it involved very little hermitage or anything like that, and very little impoverishment – although I was impoverished when I was writing the book as a student, so I suppose I can say that.”
The deal rescued Dunthorne from a job “in the world’s most depressing call centre in Norwich” and tugged him into the heart of London’s writing scene. Despite his initial reluctance to settle down in the capital, within weeks he found himself living on one of the loudest streets in Hackney.
“My main concern about moving to London was I didn’t want to go through the process of finding a house,” Dunthorne remembers. “I was really scared of it. I just thought, ‘God, I can’t handle this huge city with all its possible places to live and all its traps’.
Since then, Dunthorne has become a fizzing dynamo of activity. Last week he performed a stand-up poetry skit at the trendy South of the Border bar in Old Street to celebrate the discovery of Shakespeare’s first playhouse. His brief was to remix a Shakespeare play with a Hackney twist, resulting in the unforgettable image of King Lear howling drunkenly on his hands and knees outside the Brick Lane bagel shop at three in the morning. Dunthorne also runs his own monthly night, Homework, at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club with a few other likeminded bards.
Among his other escapades, he has also moved to a new home in Dalston, started writing in his studio in the sky and managed to get half his new book finished. As yet untitled, the novel centres around a Welsh family who start up a commune.
“Basically, the mother has a visitation from a voice on high and believes the world’s going to end,” Dunthorne grins. “It’s about how they deal with that.”
But the book won’t offer the same cheeky comedy that led critics to compare Submarine to Adrian Mole. “It’s not as funny. If I can put a joke in I will, but the voice doesn’t carry jokes in the way Submarine did. I’d say this one is a bit more witty than funny. It’s a bit toned down.”
At the end of the rooftop the actors are still puzzling over their lines. Dunthorne nods to them. The sense of community aboard the tram helps keep his morale up when his workload gets heavy, he remarks.
“You get to speak to people, you get to say good morning and drink tea in the sunshine and chat and stuff, which I think is really important.” he says. “I’m not convinced how well I would flourish in the shed at the bottom of the garden.”