Greg Baxter: A Way of Being

Photo: Anja Pietsch

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 4 June 2015.

With his first novel, The Apartment, Greg Baxter established himself as a unique and important voice in contemporary fiction. This reputation has only solidified after the publication of his new novel Munich Airport earlier this year. The book is narrated by a young marketing executive, stranded in the titular airport with his retired and disaffected father. They remain there for days on end, waiting for the release of the body of the narrator’s sister, Miriam, who appears to have died of anorexia. The novel flashes back to various episodes in their lives, and Baxter balances the angst and pain of the novel with a dark sense of humour and moments of genuine pathos. This is not a light book, but it is an incredibly rich and rewarding one, and has been met with much praise in the literary press. Baxter was kind enough to meet with me to discuss the novel, as well as the intense experience of writing and the necessity of road trips to good fiction.

Our conversation opened with the novel itself, as Baxter told me what had inspired him to write it. “That’s kind of a long story. But the short version of that is that I ended up ending breaking my ankle in Romania, and ended up twice in Munich airport for eight hours, and thought that I would have to do some good with that experience so that the experience wouldn’t be forever just a miserable one. I just thought that was an interesting place to be, and at the time I had this idea about a guy stuck in an airport and I wasn’t quite sure how to turn that into anything longer than a one or two page story. And then I got quite ill with some strange infection, and didn’t eat for weeks. There was a sense of intrigue, a strange empowerment when I got better and started to study the idea of what it was like not to eat, to withhold appetite. So these things kind of came together, these ideas sort of coalesced into the possibility of a narrative. And finally I settled on the one that came out.”

The novel deals heavily with psychological issues around anorexia and self-harming. What made Baxter want to tackle such sensitive subject matter? “The issue of starvation came about, physically, from within. I felt like there would be an interesting combustible relationship between this sense of starvation and having a marketing executive narrate – this idea of consumption vs. denying appetite. So I thought that these two things might have worked well together. But I don’t entirely set out with a certain intent. Really, it seems like a possibility, it seems like something that’s there, and then you kind of see what happens. I’m the kind of writer who will get going on a book for a little while, see if it works, give up on it after thirty, forty, fifty pages, and start something new. The idea is to see if it really holds together as a narrative.”

How did he find the experience of writing such an intense book? “I wrote it over a period of about a year. I think the first draft I wrote in about seven months or so, gave it to my editor, and he wanted it bulked up a little bit, because it had been more spare than it originally was. So I took some time and off, and then spent the summer revising it, and that was it. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a really imaginative type of writer. I don’t conjure these big stories and plots and find a way to invent things that I myself have not experienced. I’m a sort of method writer – I have to become the person who is the narrator. I think like him and act like him. I get quite involved in it. So writing it almost feels like second nature when it’s going on, and then afterwards there’s a period of time in which you hope to come back to reality a little bit. That’s always a very difficult process, stopping writing. The next book isn’t going to come because I’ve dreamed something up. In the same way that Munich Airport arose out of a set of circumstances, out of a sort of way of being, a sort of inner transformation. So you kind of have to wait for that again. For me, something has to change. The pattern of life has to alter in a significant way that sort of transforms me from within and allows me to become the next narrator.”

Why did Baxter choose an airport for his setting? What is it about an airport which makes it such a perfect venue for existential angst? “I’d written my first novel, The Apartment, and I was quite annoyed. Unbeknownst to me, I was accused of doing something called ‘Psychogeographic Writing’. So one of the appeals to me about an airport is that they wouldn’t be moving anywhere. There was nowhere to go, there’s no journey they could take, and they were stuck. The novel is about, almost every page, is about confined spaces and that comparison of confined spaces and the nightmarish feeling of inescapability. The airport is just one space that sort of echoes everything else. The hotel rooms, the basement he goes down to in the museum, the art gallery that he sees. It felt like a natural place to explore this sense of confinement. There’s two things airports do. One of them is to move you along to wherever you have to go, and the other is sell you things. I don’t know, it seemed like a really appropriate place to put all these people, I guess.”

The novel deals with a global family; a father living in America, a son in London, a daughter in Germany. Did Baxter feel that the scattered nature of this family was important to the story? “On a practical level, yes. There had to be a distance, otherwise, you know, the father could have just driven to see the daughter at any time. So the distance was important, just to make it slightly impractical. I think the father and the brother do want to see Miriam. Over and over again, they live confused lives partly because of her absence. In one way there’s a respect for that absence and an attempt to understand it, but when it finally leads to her death there’s this sense of profound shame and confusion over the fact of not having done what it would have taken to go see her. But also a sense of helplessness, that even if they had, there was nothing they could really do to change it. The book is really about their reaction to it, and the process they go through over three weeks, when they go to Berlin. The first week being a sense of being confounded, unable to even process their grief. On the second week they go on this massive party binge, all around the Rhineland and the Ardennes. And the final week they go back, and the only way they can begin the grieving process is to start starving themselves, which is also inadequate, but it seems like a last resort.”

Was there anything that surprised Baxter when he was writing the book? “Writing is a learning process for me. I had two obsessions during the time when this idea was forming in my head – Charlemagne and the Middle Ages, and Schoenberg and twelve-temp music. I don’t know that I would write books if I didn’t have these sort of peripheral obsessions. Without the challenge of having to put them into the story, it wouldn’t be worth it for me. And then [there were] things like halfway through, the story had started to bog down, and I realised that the father and son really needed to go on a road trip. So I just got in my car and drove around. Essentially, everything that happens to them happened to me. What draws me to writing is that every page involves a certain sense of learning something surprising, and dealing with the challenge of trying to fuse that with whatever else is going on.”

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