“I still can’t quite believe that’s what happened and I always have a vague notion that I’m on the verge of getting a proper job. To be honest, I still want to be a footballer .”
The Londoner’s latest novel, Jerusalem, concludes the loose trilogy that began with Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko and the Whitbread Award-winning Twelve Bar Blues. The three novels offer a multifaceted exploration of Africa. Musungu Jim focuses on a hapless English gap year student and fictional sub-Saharan banana republic on the verge of revolution. Twelve Bar Blues spans three continents and two centuries, centering on a New Orleans jazz musician and his search for his lost stepsister.
So what is Jerusalem about?
“About? Do you mean about about? I mean, on the one hand it is a far-flung tale of three generations of a family rooted in the English establishment; on the other it’s a broad satire of colonialism, postcolonialism and neocolonialism,” Neate says. “I find it hard to say what my books are about; not because I think I’m so clever but because my pen can be a bit of a blunderbuss!”
Neate says that the trilogy was completely unplanned, and “just tumbled out . that way”.
“The trilogy is very open-ended, in that you don’t have to have read any one book to read another. The main narrative connection is two key characters who have more or less significant roles in all three novels.”
Another connection between the novels is obviously Africa. Neate says he first went to southern Africa as a kid, and has been going back, frequently by mistake, ever since.
“I’ve found my temperament is well-suited to places like Zimbabwe and Zambia for some reason.”
He was inspired to write Jerusalem after reading about Cecil Sharp (Nov. 22 1859 – June 23 1924), popularly regarded as the founding father of the folklore revival in England.
“I have always been fascinated by mythologization and the creation of identity, but had never turned that critical eye on the English before. I thought it would be fun…”
The 30-something has a knack for creating characters that are both humorously stereotyped and three-dimensional, from Rastafarian witch doctors and impotent dictators to embittered pigeons and cricket-loving private investigators.
He says that none of the characters is based on anyone specific, but each one is an amalgam of people he’s met.
Similarly, his diverse array of settings and periods, from early 20th century New Orleans to contemporary London, immediately feel familiar and tangible.
“I think the trick is to do your research but not too hard and then let your imagination take over. And you have to be confident. It’s amazing what people will believe if you sound like you know what you’re talking about!” he says.
Neate’s other novels are The London Pigeon Wars, which offers a pigeon’s perspective on present-day London, and City of Tiny Lights, a noir-ish detective thriller, also set in London. He has also written several short stories, poetry, articles, reviews and a screenplay. Of all these forms of writing, Neate prefers the novel.
“I consider myself a novelist, so I guess it has to be the novel which has, I think, the most freedom; both for writer and reader. That said, the formality of poetry and screenwriting frequently appeals. I suppose they’re like different forms of exercise. Even runners occasionally fancy a swim.”
Jerusalem is the work that he is currently most proud of, as it’s the most recent and he feels he has to cling to the idea of improvement.
“That said, I have a real soft spot for The London Pigeon Wars . a novel I wrote that was, I think, rather misunderstood,” he says, referring to the work described as both a “frustratingly ramshackle chronicle” (The Sunday Times) and “strikingly imaginative” (Metro).
He’s currently working on the screenplay for City of Tiny Lights. As for the future?
“Yikes. frankly, I struggle to plan past next week.”
Neate also cofounded and continues to host Book Slam, a monthly “literary nightclub” in London, where you can enjoy takeaway Thai food and cocktails to poetry performances, book readings and live music. He says the event is a protest against the way books are often divorced from mainstream culture and how mainstream culture is often regarded as the lowest common denominator.
“I don’t see why the mainstream can’t be smart and literary. Hence, a literary nightclub. Fortunately, there seem to be enough people who agree with me to make it work.”
Book Slam’s guests have included singers Adele and Kate Nash, and multi-award winning authors Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth). The Website describes the alumni as “superheroes of under-the-counterculture”, although, judging by the enduring and current success of many, Book Slam seems to be an excellent place to catch those on the verge of widespread recognition in a fairly intimate environment.
Neate is obviously a regular fixture at Book Slam, and is approachable if he’s not occupied with hosting duties. He also personally updates his Website and has a Twitter account, and is thus, reasonably accessible to his readers. As with his other achievements, he says he didn’t set out to be accessible.
“I mean, I just started writing a blog and people wrote to me, so I replied . it can be a bit challenging these days. I get hundreds of emails via my Website and people get vexed that it takes me a while to respond. But the fact is, I read everything myself and if I replied to every email I’d never do anything else.”