Oscar Coop-Phane: Feeling so Bohemian

A hip young voice of European literature, Oscar Coop-Phane serves up substance alongside his style. Here he talks about new novel Tomorrow, Berlin and the dark experiences which birthed it – binge and bust hedonism on the Berlin club scene.

Article by Alan Bett | 31 Aug 2015
  • Oscar Coop-Phane

With tousled, foppish hair, pushed frequently from his face, a dagger tattoo peering out from his left sleeve and inked star rising from his collar, Oscar Coop-Phane looks every bit the Bohemian. Although, as he cocks his head towards his webcam, any affected cool is countered by a warm smile. He is the award-winning author of two novels to tickle the underbelly of his adopted cities, Paris and Berlin. Yet, when he – as one might expect – lights a cigarette, the smoke exhaled from his window disperses into the Brussels night. His current home. A city very different to those two European capitals of counter culture, and one wonders how this change of scene will influence his writing. “I have a daughter, I’m married, so I have a completely different life here,” he says, comparing Belgium to those old stomping grounds. “I don’t know if it’s the way I live now or because of the city, but I think Brussels is more quiet and calm. And I need that now.”

There is an inescapable cultural chasm between this new home and Paris’s Left Bank, key setting for debut novel Zenith Hotel. It’s a great little book, that adjective offered without condescension – it is after all a mere 83 pages. In many ways a collection of individual portraits; disparate lives crossing over the central point of ageing prostitute Nanou. Where many writers might use cafés or bars for this critical function, Oscar chooses person over place. "I was really fascinated by prostitution and also how those girls or boys live with it... I was interested more with customers than prostitution. And it was also kind of fun for me to write as if I was an old woman who is prostituting herself… this writing challenge.”

Characters are drawn, to a large extent, from his everyday world. They have taken after-hours confession at the bars he has worked behind – opening themselves up to spill the secrets of their lives, as drinkers do. “I use their stories unscrupulously,” he confided in interview some years back, warning to “Never confide in a guy who writes.” This pool of inspiration is one he must drink from. “Because I don’t have a lot of imagination,” he admits today, candidly. “… So I have to work like this, you know? I’m very impressed by writers who can invent everything, but for me it’s not working like this.” This binds his prose to reality, yet forms the amusing image of Oscar – if his star continues to rise, with international fame and all its trappings – still, through creative necessity, working shifts in the local boozer. “Now it’s only one night per week, so yeah, I like it,” he says. “But, to be super honest, if I don’t need money I won’t work in bars." Then, seemingly endorsing the Bukowski method. "You can go there to be a customer. It’s working the same [for his writing] and it’s easier. And you can drink.”

Either side of the bar, there remains a need to be connected to these truths. To the barflies and the lushes, “…what we usually call losers,” Oscar suggests. “But the idea was not to say ‘this is a loser.’ I wanted to be tender with those people, because I am one of them.” While he may have rolled and swayed alongside them, raised his arms to the air during damaging sessions on Berlin’s club scene, this self-deprecation borders on outright deceit. He is an achiever. He started young. “In fact I started writing when I was a kid. But I start to do only that when I’m 19,” Oscar confirms in his French tailored English. “A few jobs also to earn money of course.” This early commitment to the craft suggests the carefree pluck of youth, or perhaps simply the act of throwing life’s dice. Of course, “First of all.” Oscar admits. “But it was so cool also, you know?” he then questions. “To be as free? I was working a little bit… but in fact reading and writing.” The pause, that Gallic shrug. “… and smoking cigarettes also, so yeah, it was complete freedom. I had a moped and it was great. After one year I think, OK, I love this life.”

...Of coffee and cigarettes and bikes and bars – classic motifs in both Zenith Hotel and the newly translated Tomorrow, Berlin. Elements loosely in line with the dead and largely forgotten French writers he reveres. Eugène Dabit, Louis Calaferte, Raymond Guérin, Georges Hyvernaud, Henri Calet and Charles-Louis Philippe. “I think the most famous one is Emmanuel Bove, maybe the greatest one… born 1898 and died in 1945. I don’t know if it’s translated into English. It’s completely amazing and very simple, very real also. Always the story of a guy who’s asking for money from guys in bars. It’s not, like, huge stories, but it’s real life.”

But that was yesterday, and looking forward? Tomorrow, Berlin. An intimate sketch of three lives: Armand, Tobias, Franz. Boys who are alternately struggling, striving, then barely surviving in a world of hard sex and hard drugs – of drinking, dropping, snorting, fucking. The murky edge of the Berlin club scene; extended weekends lubricated with illicit chemicals and bodily fluids. And of course, true to Oscar’s process, “if you don’t live anything you won’t have anything to write.” So, he bore witness, he indulged. “I used to live in Berlin when I was 20, 21. I think I moved there because…I still don’t really know…” he ponders. “Maybe I wanted to be hurt, so I was looking for that.” Which – to borrow from Burroughs, another traveller across life’s darker limits – begs the question of his philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavour. Especially in light of the author biog on his publisher’s website, which suggests that Berlin was ‘where he spent a year writing, reading Proust and toasting his neurons on the techno scene.’ “So, yeah, I took it very strong,” he says. “I was like, OK I can party a little bit… I wanted the dark part, you know? I was looking for that and so that’s why I’m talking about it in the book.”

Tomorrow, Berlin is a diminutive epic – while an increase on Zenith, it's still only 172 pages long. Creatively though, it is a leap, as if Zenith Hotel was written in training for this display of supreme confidence in brevity. He aligns his word count with that supposed lack of imagination. Yet it achieves, when required, the cold detachment of early Easton Ellis, rather than the souring rancour of Houellebecq or Celine, with whom he is occasionally compared. This jaded separation is hard to associate with one so young. Still only 26, but “Yeah… because of my childhood I had to grow up very young. I moved from my mother’s place when I was 16 and so had to earn money and stuff. I was thrown into real life kind of young.” 

He opened this interview by suggesting of Tomorrow, Berlin that “It’s kind of weird to speak about it, because I feel like I’m so far from it now.” Later adding that he “didn’t want to write about this scene, about techno, because I was really into 50s and 60s writers. More like Zenith Hotel, coffees and cigarettes and stuff. So I thought I can’t talk about techno in the book, but it was too present in my mind.” But hedonism is no modern movement, especially in Berlin. Switch up clothes and chemicals and much the same was witnessed during the sexual decadence of the Weimar period. “It [hedonism] can be universal and timeless…” Oscar realised. “I wanted to write about those three guys and people lost in the city. It’s in Berlin but it could be anywhere else, in the 50s or the 19th century.”

Yet his own era of hedonism ended early. “After a year [in Berlin] you’re like, I can live there and dance for 10 more years and one day it will stop… it was easy for me… I didn’t build my life there.” So, he moved towards a more balanced scene, his wife and daughter and Brussels. Where he now sits; smiling, smoking. Obviously, as before, the reality will feed onto the page. “I’m trying to write now, not happy stuff, but to be more…” A search for words, but this time none are found. “…Because a few times when I’m meeting people they’re like, you look so joyful compared to your books… It’s easier to write about melancholy and sadness and stuff like this… it’s easier to say, I’m so sad. Because there’s this romantic thing...” To prove this point, that Gallic shrug once more. “... Very French maybe.”

Tomorrow, Berlin is out on 17 Sep, published by Arcadia, RRP £9.99