Geoff Dyer: ‘I’m convinced Roger Federer and I could become great friends’

Geoff Dyer, 63, grew up in Cheltenham and lives in Los Angeles. His 19 books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, and Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. In the words of the New Yorker, Dyer “delights in producing books that are unique, like keys”; for Simon Armitage, “he’s a clever clogs, but he’s one of us at the same time”. His new book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, reflects on the nature of endings, with reference to Bob Dylan, DH Lawrence and JMW Turner, among other artists.

What led you to write (a bit, eventually) about Roger Federer?
He’s so gorgeous to watch, and it’s very satisfying when the most aesthetically beautiful way of playing a sport is also the most efficient. Those of us who loved Roger have only loved him even more in the twilight of his career as he became that crucial thing, a gracious loser. He just seems so nice; if we met, I’m convinced we could become great friends. I asked my agent to drop his agent a line for an endorsement, but an endorsement from Roger starts at upwards of about a million dollars. Because he’s a busy guy, I’d even suggested a blurb – something along the lines of “I thought there might be more about me in it”.

This isn’t the tennis book you once planned to write…
No, I felt I could only use the title if the cover made clear it wasn’t a tennis book. I was writing about endings just as the world itself came to an end, conveniently. Before the pandemic, I had a young sort of life – lots of travel, loads of fun – then suddenly I got catapulted into a glimpse of old age. Writing this book got me through [that period]. What’s on offer here is a dive into a person’s consciousness – mine – with no introduction and no chapters, so you have to start thinking, what’s going on? The task of structuring it really preoccupied me: I hit upon the idea that I could make the book exactly 86,400 words, a word for every second in the day, which became a real nuisance at the proof stage.

Did you feel you were smuggling these typically free-range reflections under the guise of a book on Federer?
I think in the last 10 years or so this kind of writing has been sort of legalised, like marijuana. When I was first doing it [in the 90s], these weird books of mine got kicked around the bookstore, getting more and more dog-eared as they were moved from section to section. Now this uncategorisable cross-genre hybrid stuff has become a category of its own. Far from smuggling, I turn up at customs and say, here it is!

One footnote talks about the danger of sounding “like a bit of a ponce”, something your work often seems keen to avoid. Why?
That particular bit about the “ponce-ometer” comes when I’m talking about listening to a Beethoven late quartet in Tuscany – I could sense hackles rising – but it’s related to the hostility I have to people talking from on high. [My style] is all bound up with that English kind of tone that alternates between jokey and serious. I had a line that said [the Hitler biographer] Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back was by Andy Kershaw. I love to think of readers thinking, “Oh, what an idiot he is!”, and the longer they think it, the better; a footnote 150 pages later made clear I was joking. But it had to go: the book’s coming out in America and no one there has heard of Andy Kershaw.

This is your
eighth book since you last published a novel. Have you given up writing fiction?
Pretty much. I’ve written all these books with an incredibly wide range of subject matter, but my novels can be summarised in a couple of sentences: guy goes to a party, meets girl with a group of friends, falls in love. That’s all I had. What I like the idea of doing next is an English version of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, to record some aspects of my very ordinary 1960s childhood in the working-class, semi-rural world that formed me, and which seems to have disappeared.

The book touches on the role of education in your life…
I know the arguments against the grammar-school system, which is that its real purpose was to make sure enough people failed the 11-plus to keep a flow [of workers into] factories. But for me the postwar settlement meant that, without any conscious effort on my part, I could ride an educational escalator where your life opportunities are amplified enormously. I happened to be in London at the last election. A Tory came canvassing and I told them I owe everything to Labour. Even though Labour at that time was Corbyn’s no-hoper Labour, it was still inconceivable that I could vote for anybody else.

What have you read lately?
Tessa Hadley’s Free Love was amazing. I’m always joking with her that it’s got the best description of a penis to be found outside the work of Alan Hollinghurst, when the main character’s lover is getting dressed and she sees it “buoyant and slick”.

How did it feel to prank
JM Coetzee? [At a books festival in 2010, Dyer joked that it was an honour to be introduced by a Booker-winning South African Nobel laureate… “because Nadine Gordimer is my favourite writer”.]
Going viral isn’t as easy as one thinks, and that’s the nearest I’ve ever come. On the footage he looks so stony-faced; I was worried I’d pissed him off, but I was more happy that the Australian audience [at a books festival in 2010] liked it so much. I next saw him in Japan and in Cartagena and he couldn’t have been friendlier; I think he’s just not a big laugher. It was a classic gag. It came to me 10 or 15 minutes before we were going on stage and I quickly asked myself, dare I risk it? Whenever there’s something like that when I’m writing, and I’m thinking, Oh God, will I get in trouble if I write this?, that moment of consideration always ends up a sort of push towards, yeah, do it.

The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings is published by Canongate (£20) on 9 June. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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