Talk to Me #12: David Layton

Jun 25, 2017 by

Talk to Me #12: David Layton

Where you learned to love.

I imagine that love, like all our other emotions, is an instinct we are born with, but learning how to love is a lesson I’m still studying. I was recently at a playground with my sister’s child and watched as my wonderfully kind and generous three year old niece ripped a plastic shovel out from the hands of another child. She refused to let the little boy or anyone else touch it. And the stubborn, scrunched look on her face! She meant business even after her mother began to patiently explain to her that she needed to share. My sister was kind and calm but utterly unwavering, and so my niece reluctantly relented and she and the little boy began to play together, both of them holding the shovel to dig the sand out. Such are the beginnings to many a romantic encounter. So I have to say it is my mother who taught me how to love, asking me to share shovels long before I knew about love.

When you first realized you would die.

My first taste of death came with an understanding that the food I ate came from the flesh of animals. I can’t remember how old I was but I do recall the moment when I understood that the “chicken” on my plate was actually the same thing as chicken, the animal. We ate living things.

That was my hint that life, including mine, could end, although… I still haven’t realized it and never will.

What impacts your life more: love or death?

Eros and Thanatos are so intricately twinned that it’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends. Death is a final, inescapable force. Love, however, is optional. A life devoid of love is not necessarily full of hatred. And those who love are often not devoid of hate. So it’s the implacable force, the one that kills love and life itself, that seems to have more impact. But knowing what’s waiting for me at the end of the road helps focus my decision as to what path I choose to get there. And as that’s the only choice I’ve unfortunately been given, then I have to say that love is what impacts my life more.

Your favourite literary romance.

The Greek myth of Zeus and Hera, the King and Queen of the Olympian gods. Here’s a small, but telling story about the two of them. Zeus and Hera were arguing — a not uncommon feature of their relationship — about whether men or women received more gratification from sex. Each thought the other found it more pleasurable. The number of women and young men that Zeus alone had slept with would leave any mortal exhausted, and yet clearly he believed that his enjoyment was, as a man, less intense than a woman’s, that essentially he was on the losing side. And yet Hera was convinced otherwise. What does that tell you about the two of them? Being gods and this being ancient Greece, they solved the problem by asking the great seer Teiresias, who promptly told them that a woman’s pleasure was nine times that of man. For that piece of information, Hera blinded the seer.

This relationship should tell you all you need to know about my opinion on romantic love.

Your favourite book on death.

Celine’s Journey To The End Of The Night. Here are the last lines of this sprawling, epic and stunning novel:
Far in the distance the tugboat whistled; its call passed the bridge, one more arch, then another, the lock, another bridge, farther and farther…It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and the sky and the countryside, and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too — and that would be the end of us.

The influence of love on your work.

Love, so far as I can tell, has had absolutely no influence on my work. Leonard Cohen once told me that love was the only force in the universe and I remember finding his statement very disappointing. What was this obsession with love, I wondered? It was a 60’s ideal, one that had to do with flowers inserted into gun barrels, sexual liberation, open marriages and freedoms that when enacted by couples were often horrendously toxic to their offspring.

The influence of death on your work.

The knowledge of mortality is probably the single most important influence in my work for the simple reason that there wouldn’t be any if I knew that I was to live forever. I’d have all the time in the world to do…nothing. What would work and love mean without death? We can’t seriously contemplate being with the same person for eternity. So love would cease to be singular and exclusionary, and after your thirtieth long-term partner, love would become nothing more than a habit. So would work. How many times could you sit down and start another book? And why start one now when you literally had all the time in the world. Our entire civilization is structured around death to the extent that our very humanity is attached to it — or it to us — but that’s no reason for its continuance. As the billionaire tech guru Peter Thiel says, “I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death.” Death is an intolerable fact that we have lived with for far too long — and when that day comes for its eradication, I can assure you that such a future civilization will have no need for or understanding of my work.

Is there an ideal love?

My ideal love is to leave ideals out of it. Ideals and love are best left to the young. It’s what makes them so insane, unhappy and horrifically obsessive. Having said that, love is an utterly irrational trick to help you overcome your natural revulsion at another person’s untidy habits.

Is there an ideal death?

Yes, quietly and in your sleep. Either that or follow Achilles into battle and choose a glorious but short life over a long and inconsequential one.

Your greatest regret in love.

That I’ve too often been fearful and even hostile towards it. It’s such a powerful, binding emotion that I’ve found myself acting out my own personal Appointment in Samarra, except that instead of fleeing from death only to find him waiting for me in Samarra, I’ve tried to flee from love, only (thankfully) to find it waiting for me at the other end.

Your greatest regret in death.

My greatest regret is death.

Your advice on breaking up.

Be clear, straightforward and don’t be a coward. And whatever you do, avoid being such an arsehole that you force the other person to do all the work for you.

Your advice on making love last.

Never take anything for granted. Not a person’s love for you or your love for them. Without being aware of holding such assumptions, I must have believed that I would always find people who would love me and that I would love them back. But why should that be? Am I so wonderful? And why should I have been given the capacity to love some other person, year in and year out? It’s entirely possible to go through life loving others without being loved in return. It’s also possible to be loved by others without ever feeling such love for them. I’ve sometimes wondered, if one had to choose, which would be better — to be loved or to love. Having experienced both propositions, I have come to believe it is better to love then be loved. I think one of the reasons I used to run away from those who I believed loved me was the recognition that, like the argument between Zeus and Hera, they were getting the better bargain. We all want to be loved, but one can only experience love if we feel it towards someone else.

Your advice on facing death.

Being blessedly inexperienced when it comes to my own death, I can offer myself no serious advice. When it comes to facing the death of other people, I’ve learned that we are all just one tugboat whistle away from the end.

David Layton is an award winning writer whose latest novel, The Dictator, has just been published by HarperCollins.

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