- 19 Oct 18
Kill ’Em All, the newest black comedy novel from John Niven, sees the return of infamous music industry exec Steven Steflox, whose psychopathic greed and misogyny are perfectly suited to the Trumpian times we’re living in.
”There’s a boring, preachy novel to be written about current political events. This isn’t it. It seems to be much more fun to write a novel from the point of view of someone who thinks Brexit is hilarious and Trump is fantastic.”
So says John Niven, speaking to Hot Press from the Penguin Random House offices in London. In Niven’s new novel Kill ’Em All, former A&R man Steven Steflox has emerged from the ‘90s Britpop era and the noughties reality TV era with millions of dollars – all of it earned from 20 years of fucking people over in the entertainment business.
He’s in the 1% now, and laughs pityingly at the hysteria around Brexit and Trump. He tweets #MAGA and #TakingOurCountryBack from anonymous troll accounts, and his only thoughts on either of these world events is to gleefully marvel at how easily people can be misled. He loves fake news, and in particular the idea that telling complete lies over and over can be so effective.
Naturally, when Steflox is asked by an old friend in the music industry to help out in covering up the actions of a paedophile rock star who’s being blackmailed by the parents of one of his victims, he sees an opportunity to put his shameless, psychopathic proclivities to the test. With him being a scurrilous, manipulative bastard long before it became fashionable – with the likes of Trump, Farage, Johnson et al – Steflox has really come into his own in 2018…
“It’s very much his time now,” Niven nods. “One of the things this book is about is ‘The Big Lie’ – manipulation and disinformation. It’s kind of Putin’s world that we live in now, the world of an ex-KGB operative who’s able to convince people that black is white and white is black.
“In the book, the premise of Steflox’s idea for solving this paedophilia blackmail thing is, ‘Right we’re gonna fake this musician’s death and then we’re gonna bring him back and pretend that he never died. And we’re gonna make loads of money too.’
“He has everyone around him saying, ‘Are you crazy? No one’s going to believe that!’ And he’s just able to point to Trump on TV saying how his inauguration was the biggest in history and say, very seriously, ‘We can do anything now. There’s no responsibility. No comeback. You can make something happen by just repeating lies.’”
I put it to John that the depravity of Kill ‘Em All makes it the furthest thing from a morality tale. He disagrees.
“I hope it kind of is a morality tale,” he counters. “I like to think that the first book was a morality tale too. Just because you hold these things up in a certain gleeful manner and have characters who are like this, it’s not me saying, ‘This is the way things should go.’ Hopefully, these ideas are horrifying to someone with a normal, right-thinking mind.”
Is there a virtue in writing a character who just wants to fuck everyone over?
“Well, the main thing is that it’s huge fun,” he laughs. “It’s a character that you can use every ten years as a repository for every awful thing you’ve heard, read, thought or suspected. You can put it into their mouth. There’s something in that. Whether it’s Malcolm Tucker or Steven Steflox or whoever, these people are always the most fun to write. Deeply cynical, damaged people.”
Aside from making light of the fears around Brexit and Trump, Steflox also belittles the seriousness of the #MeToo movement. It’s dark satire, but did Niven fear that there’d be pushback for his style of writing? “It crosses my mind,” he admits. “We were invited on the Simon Mayo Book Club recently and then they pulled the invitation two days before we were due to go on, because they had deep misgivings about the fact that one of the characters was a paedophile. They thought the novel was inappropriate for their audience.
“That kind of blows my mind. That we’re living 50 years after Lolita and 15/20 years after Brass Eye, and to say that those issues can’t be the engine for a black, black piece of art, is outdated. I think you can use whatever subject matter you want. It’s just how you deal with it that’s important. I’ve said that, in terms of the balance, this book is deeply moral.”
The aforementioned paedophile in the book, Lucius Du Pre, is a washed-up rock star who was abused by his father at a young age. He is constantly being over-medicated, is beloved by millions but past his prime, and also lives in a mansion – which doubles as a theme park – constantly surrounded by children… How careful do you have to be writing a character who sounds suspiciously like a certain ‘King of Pop’?
“All my novels, especially the Steven Steflox novels, go through very robust legal processes,” explains Niven. “With this one, there wasn’t really a concern about Jackson so much, because he’s dead. But, you know, the real Jackson did have a father, and the real Jackson did have a doctor, and the Du Pre character has a personal physician. There was a worry that one of those guys would come after us. But thankfully…
“Not to speak ill of the dead, but Jackson’s father died while the book went to print. So that was a worry taken off. Then as for Michael Jackson’s doctor… Like, Jackson’s doctor was literally giving him a general anaesthetic every night, you know? So I think he’d have a hard case to make saying that we’d defamed his fine medical practice. I think he did a pretty good job of that himself!”
The darkly comic style of writing is clearly something which has always appealed to John.
“It is. I wish I wasn’t like that sometimes. I mean I do very well for myself, I sell hundreds of thousands of books, but not millions. I’d love to sell millions but I’m just not wired with that popular touch. I guess if I was a musician, I’d be Mogwai or Spiritualized or something, rather than someone writing top 10 hits for Rihanna.
“See the stuff I write would maybe offend seven people out of 10 in a room, but the three who get it – they really get it. When I was writing the first book, I didn’t have a publishing deal. There were voices in my head saying, ‘Is anybody going to want to read this? Are they gonna get my humour? Is this commercial enough?’ But you have to just ignore those voices and hope that the right people get it.”
They did. 2008’s Kill Your Friends, which first introduced us to the character of Steven Steflox, was turned a into reasonably successful, albeit critically unpopular, film. Would John like to see the sequel get the motion picture treatment?
“It’s always difficult,” he considers. “It’s always nerve-wracking because as a writer you have so little control over how the movie might go. It’s a director’s medium. I work as a screenwriter out in LA, where I’d do a lot of rewriting studio movies. It gives you a thing that you can never get in a book, which is that you can sit in a theatre and see people react in real-time to something you’ve written. That’s quite a rush. That’s a lot of adrenaline. And, obviously, yeah – there’s financial benefits to these things being made into films… So we’ll see.”
Kill ’Em All is out now, published by Penguin Random House.