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Mat Osman: ‘I wanted to write about a dirty, dangerous, working-class London’

Mat Osman: ‘I wanted to write about a dirty, dangerous, working-class London’


Osman, together with Brett Anderson, co-founded and is currently a member of the music group Suede. He has also written two novels. The Ruins, which was released in 2020, is a contemporary mystery about two estranged brothers. His most recent work, The Ghost Theatre, is set in Elizabethan London and focuses on the real-life Blackfriars Boys, a group of child actors who were often taken from the streets to perform in popular plays of the time. The story also follows Shay, a young female “Aviscultan” who communicates with birds while evading her enemies by climbing rooftops in the city. The book has received widespread acclaim and was chosen by The Guardian as one of its top novels of 2023. Osman is the older brother of TV presenter and fellow author Richard Osman, and resides in north-west London.

This book is not what one would expect from a musician’s writing.

I sincerely hope that statement is accurate. The subject of my debut novel was a musician and focused on the relationship between brothers, drawing inspiration from my own personal experiences. With The Ghost Theatre, I was consciously aware of my desire to create a story without relying on any pre-existing material. My goal is to be recognized as a writer, rather than a musician who happened to write a book.

From where did the idea originate?

While researching, I discovered a tale about a young child who was abducted and forced to perform on stage in 1601. Numerous children were taken from the streets to entertain audiences. The theatre was a popular form of entertainment in London at the time, and these children were famous for their performances, even being showcased for the Queen. However, they were also treated as possessions, being bought, sold, and exploited. My curiosity prompted me to wonder about their experiences, but as I delved deeper into the story, it evolved into an exciting adventure, straying from my original intent to explore the historical backdrop.

Where did Shay and her community who worship birds originate from?

During a conversation on a tour bus, the topic shifted to religions that worship animals such as cats and bulls. It was noted that there does not seem to be a religion dedicated to birds, which seemed odd considering their heavenly presence, ineffable nature, and blend of beauty and cruelty. Despite our lack of understanding, birds could make for perfect deities.

The book is a declaration of love for London. What was your initial encounter with the city, having grown up in Haywards Heath?

The first time I visited London was with my friend and his father to attend a Simple Minds concert. I believe it was at Hammersmith [Odeon], as I remember crossing Hammersmith Bridge. I had always been enamored with London, even before I arrived. I consumed anything related to the city, from bands like the Sex Pistols and the Jam, and had a musical vision of London in my mind. I have been living here for 35 years now and still adore it. However, I wanted to write about the gritty, dangerous, working-class London, instead of the romanticized version. It may surprise you, but I was considered the wealthy one in Suede since my mother was a teacher. When our band first started, none of us had much money. Music was seen as something working-class people could pursue, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

Could you suggest any other books written by musicians?
John Darnielle is a highly skilled individual, known for being the lead singer of the American band, the Mountain Goats. He has also authored two exceptional books, “Wolf in White Van” and “Universal Harvester”. The latter has been described as a mature version of “Stranger Things” and would make for a fantastic film or television show, in the event that anyone from Netflix or Amazon is reading this.

Who are the authors you consistently go back to?

I admire authors such as Michael Chabon, Michel Faber, and Iain Banks, who inspired me to pursue writing without restrictions in terms of style. I appreciate writers who challenge genre boundaries and whose ideas transcend traditional classifications. The limitations imposed by the publishing industry can be frustrating, as I did not want my novel The Ghost Theatre to be confined to the historical fiction category. Instead, it is simply a work of fiction that takes place in that time period.

Can you tell me about your upcoming book?

A billionaire in the tech industry and his employees are confined to a bunker following the end of the world. I have been preoccupied for the last half-year, examining the subterranean shelters being constructed by those invested in our future.

Which of the books in the Thursday Murder Club series by your brother Richard is your favorite?

The final installment in the series, “The Last Devil to Die,” stood out to me. I enjoyed all of the books, even though they aren’t typically genres I gravitate towards. However, when I read the first sentence of the first book (which the author had sent to me six months before its publication), I immediately knew that the author was skilled in storytelling. The most recent book was especially well-written, with poignant depictions of dementia and the challenges that come with it. It had moments of sadness, but they were not overly sentimental, which is difficult to achieve.

He stated that your books have a dark tone with a mainstream touch, while his are the opposite. Do you concur?

“I agree. This has always been the case. When we were children, he enjoyed watching Saturday night television and playing golf and snooker – he has always had a preference for mainstream interests. It’s not a pretense. He genuinely has mainstream preferences, while I was more preoccupied with things that were considered cool. That’s why many people start a band – not for the reasons that are important to me now, like a sense of community and connecting with others. It was because I wanted to be cool.”

What makes the Osmans exceptionally successful?

I am unsure. Occasionally, we are amazed by our relationship because if you had met us at 15 years old, you might have doubted our future success.

Source: theguardian.com