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

The author on pranking JM Coetzee, his huge debt to Labour, and his new book about the twilight of careers for artists, writers and sportsmen

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!

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