He's also a total asshole.
Although Hughes has creative carte blanche over there, he isn't exactly respected. His fans are diehard, but most Brits seem to consider him a bit of a joke. On the back of his first novel, The Detainees (1997), one critic graciously compared Hughes to Martin Amis and Will Self. Hughes' writing is nowhere near that caliber. But that's all right, because you don't read Hughes to get the kind of polished English public-school product Self and Amis crank out. One wades through Hughes with the promise of sublime moments of brilliance, the times when he pops off a one-liner that has you laughing out loud, nodding your head in agreement and knowing for certain, if only briefly, that you are not alone.
I bought my first Sean Hughes book on a lark, but after a few days I didn't know how I'd lived without it. I stayed indoors that week and even slept with the thing. It was the same when I got a hold of the new It's What He Would've Wanted in London, right after I cornered Hughes in Kings Cross' Water Rats club and set up an interview.
At the BBC studios, Hughes' producer very politely told me to have a seat, where I listened to the last 10 minutes of his weekend radio program. After it was over, Hughes came into the control room and asked, "Shall we do a quick interview?" I nodded and followed him down the hall. He didn't look back or give me any indication of where we were headed, and I almost went straight into the men's room with him. He emerged, walked straight past me and out of the building, accompanied by two men who'd been guests on the show that day.
In the parking lot he strode over to a brand-new BMW, unlocked it with a remote, threw his bag in the trunk and opened the driver's side door. Looking over at me he asked, "Are you ready?" Taking that to mean "get in," I went round to the passenger side. He glared at me in disgust and shouted, "Not in the car! We'll walk to a pub!" My face turned red. Luckily no one noticed, because Hughes and his companions walked five feet in front of me.
At the pub Hughes ordered drinks for everyone but me. I, raised to be a lady, paid for the round regardless. We made our way to the back of the bar and he told the others he had to do a quick interview, which apparently didn't mean, "Give me a few minutes alone with the babe," but rather "Let's all sit around and stare at her intimidatingly until she fucks off." I got out my tape recorder and pushed record as Hughes, the two guests and five BBC lackeys looked on in challenging silence.
His first official comment was "I hate Americans," which he used as a springboard into his next big admission, that he hates "the media," explaining that the masses would be much better off without "the media" constantly leading them astray. That argument is never interesting, because it hinges on the belief that the general populace is too stupid to run their own lives. They need someone like Sean Hughes to personally oversee all the information that's fed to them. In other words, a fascist, but a fascist for good. I imagine Hughes is a big fan of Tony Blair.
I pointed out that with the radio show, the tv show and the occasional op-ed piece, Hughes is the media. He quickly changed the subject by saying how he never wanted to be in the limelight; how he never intended to be a celebrity. His two guests agreed adamantly, and it was only then that I realized they, too, were celebrities. Thinking it might be nice to mention them in the article, and not being terribly up to date on British celebs, I asked them their names. This had the same effect as walking into a cotillion and taking a shit in the punch bowl.
"Don't you know who these guys are?" Hughes screamed indignantly. I then put forward the notion that if they were all so desperately unhappy about being celebs, perhaps they should find it refreshing to meet someone who didn't know who they were. Turd number two had been launched. Turns out one was a comedian from Newcastle and the other was a Scottish musician.
Hughes told me he plans on writing a trilogy and then using his fourth novel as a forum for bringing all his characters together. This might be difficult, as every Hughes protagonist is the same person?Hughes. But therein lies his genius, because that Hughes persona is such an easy one to identify with. Tennessee Williams wrote the same play over and over, but goddamn is that one hell of a play! And what about Neil Young? He recorded the same song hundreds of times, but what a fucking sentiment!
Thus Sean Hughes' work is predictable, but in a nice, comfortable sort of way. For instance, you can always count on the main character being more pathetic than you. Consider this passage in which Shea from It's What He Would've Wanted wakes from a one-night stand:
In the morning I learned that I was a pathetic man first and a thinker second as we had sex again... Hazel went to work and I went to freshen up. It was ridiculous but I wouldn't use her toothbrush for hygiene reasons, even though some of her pubic hair was still stuck between my teeth.
I put it to Hughes that his main characters have no faith in humanity, and venture out of the house solely to prove it. In the beginning of the book Shea decides he needs a night out. While going through a list of phone numbers, he realizes he's let every relationship in his life slide. He hasn't talked to most of his friends in years. When he finally does get hold of someone, they decide to go to London's Astoria, and get beaten up by the bouncers. The next day Shea learns that the club has been burned down?his friend became an arsonist ages ago.
"Yes, yes, but in this book it's different," Hughes tells me. "You haven't gotten to the end yet. In the end Shea comes to terms with the evil thing his father has done and truly embraces life."
Hughes is correct. At the end of the book Shea, whose father kills himself within the first few chapters, learns that his semi-famous, seemingly normal dad committed a heinous crime in his youth that drove him to take his own life. By the end of the novel a morbidly depressed Shea loses almost everything, including his own freedom, yet is somehow able to finally appreciate his own existence.
Like The Detainees, It's What He Would've Wanted is the story of one man looking evil in the face, coming to terms with its ramifications and only then moving on with his life. "The thing is, everyone has that good and evil inside them," Hughes explains.
Somehow this understanding of the blurred line between right and wrong, and the ability to forgive and accept, is a feat Hughes can only achieve in his writing. During our second round he told me that a famous UK daytime talk show host should be "executed by public hanging." It reminded me of an interview Hughes did with The Independent last year, in which he told the paper he'd once dumped a girl after learning she was a regular viewer of a certain variety show, saying of the audience, "Those people...are just sheep. It's only one step away from the Nazis."
Shea describes himself as a "pursuer of truth," something I can see Hughes fancying himself as. But one wonders what would happen if he ever turned that magnifying glass on himself. I asked Hughes what his biggest ethical struggle was in life, and he told me there were too many to count. Has he considered the fact that he has his own crappy, mind-numbing variety show on tv every Friday night? He must have. He must have examined himself, and quite thoroughly. It's the only way to explain his obvious depression. The only time he smiles is at his own jokes, which invariably involve making anyone near him (on this occasion me) the butt.
I used to find it odd when a man as accomplished as Hughes had never married. In the "about the author" section of his current book, it says he lives with "assorted pets, a smoker's cough, and loud music." I asked him if he has plans for a family. He said absolutely not. After having met him, I think that that's wise.
In parting I thanked him for the interview. He told me that while walking through Southeast London the other day he'd seen a teenage girl in tattered clothes clutching a lottery ticket. I reminded him of the moment in the book where Shea explains why he only cries at movies, because "real life is maybe too sad." I was glad for this exchange, that I'd gotten to witness the compassion in Hughes the man that I'd found in Hughes the artist.
A few weeks before I flew to London I'd asked my friend's father, an analyst, how to approach meeting one of my idols. "Perhaps it isn't really so much him that you are attracted to, but what he represents. Think about those things you love most about his work and his personality. Maybe they're really just aspects of yourself."
I never dreamed our meeting would go so badly. At the bar Hughes and his two friends told me the thing they hated most about giving interviews was that the interviewer always knew how they were going to write the story before even talking with the subject. I can now assure them from personal experience that this is not always true. I did recognize bits of myself in Hughes, and now I am more determined than ever not to become a sad old bastard.