By Jackie McGlone

“I HAVE MET SOME very unsavoury people,” says James Lasdun, with an ironic laugh, when I suggest that dramatic events seem to be attracted to him like iron filings to a magnet. In 2005, he and his family were subjected to death threats and abuse in an online hate campaign aimed at destroying his reputation.

“How James Lasdun Was Haunted by a Cyberstalker” is the way one headline summed up the ordeal to which a former student subjected the British-born, America-based, award-winning poet, novelist and screenwriter, threatening to murder him, his American wife, the writer Pia Davis, and their children. Their son was seven, their daughter ten at the time -- they are both college students now. “Nasreen,” as she is known, bombarded the author and his family with malicious anti-Semitic emails -- Lasdun is Jewish -- and accused Lasdun of plagiarising her work.

Acclaimed as “the literary descendant of Dostoevsky and Patricia Highsmith” by the Boston Globe, Lasdun (60) is a gentle-faced, sensitive, softly-spoken man, tall with a bookish stoop. We have met twice in New York but today he is speaking, about his compelling new book, Victory, from his home in the Catskills where blizzards threaten.

On entering the Manhattan hotel room where we met in 2009, he asked if I minded if he could look out of the window onto 57th Street, nervously peeking behind the curtains. He explained that he had a feeling he’d been followed. He told me an online stalker, an Iranian-American, was sending hundreds of taunting, ranting, malicious emails. “She’s recently been seen in a coffee shop I go to,” he confided.

He asked me not to write about his stalker -- it was a police matter. Eventually, in 2013, he wrote a superb memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, about the trauma he and his family suffered over many years.

More recently, Lasdun gave the headline writers another gift: “Appointment With Death”, or “My Dentist’s Murder Trial.” In a piece for the New Yorker, in March 2017, Lasdun -- who is the son of architect Sir Denys Lasdun, who designed London’s National Theatre -- covered the upstate New York trial of his dentist, Dr Gilberto Nunez, who was charged with killing a friend by getting him “to ingest a substance that caused his death.” Nunez had posed as a CIA agent, allegedly telling people he was authorised to implant tracking devices in patients’ teeth. He was found not guilty of murder but sentenced to two-and--a-third to seven years in prison on forgery charges.

“You’re right, stuff does seem to happen to me,” agrees Lasdun, who has described himself as an anxious pessimist. It is inevitable then that his disturbing story, Afternoon of a Faun, will be read as a literary response to #MeToo. After the stalking, he is certainly qualified to bring a unique perspective to the debate. His fine novel, which is being published here in one volume with the stylish novella, Feathered Glory, tells of the fallout from an accusation of historic sexual assault against an English journalist in New York.

Lasdun’s UK publishers chose to pair the two. In the States, where he has lived since the mid-eighties, Afternoon of a Faun is coming out as a standalone novel. “My American publishers felt it would have more impact on its own. I feel I’m having it both ways, which is unusual,” he says, adding that he actually started writing Afternoon of a Faun before the floodgates opened on the torrent of allegations of sexual harassment against influential male media figures, as well as President Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, the timing is serendipitous. Joyce Carol Oates is quoted on the dust jacket: “Like all James Lasdun’s work, it is meticulously written and intelligent, both a novel of ideas and a cautionary tale for the #MeToo era.” Lasdun is delighted with her comments but says: “Well, I guess that’s the way Joyce sees it and I think many people will too, but I actually began Afternoon of a Faun at the beginning of 2017 long before #MeToo had started. I was just coming to the last section when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, then #MeToo took off just as I was finishing it.

“I certainly hadn’t been writing a #MeToo novel but suddenly this story had a new frame around it. I wasn’t sure what effect that would have on the way it would be read but also it gave it a certain timeliness. Using the months leading up to Trump’s election as the setting was a definite choice. I really wanted to write about that time and what we keep discovering about him and how little his supporters care about all of that. It’s very, very scary. He’s invaded everybody’s psyche.”

A classic He Said, She Said scenario plays out in Afternoon of a Faun, which examines the nature of truth and asks whether the onus of belief must always be on the believer, spooling between past and present. Marco, is accused of committing a sexual assault in a memoir written by an old flame. He confides in a boyhood friend, the English narrator of the story, the son of a well-known architect, a writer and teacher of creative writing in New York, who lives in upstate New York, and whose sympathies shift constantly as the riveting story unfolds.

Lasdun, who has written three novels, four collections of poetry and four books of short stories, has often used fictionalised biographical material in fiction but why do so in this novel?

“Well, the narrator is somewhat like me. Not completely! I wanted the book to read like non-fiction although it is completely made up. There has been this long-standing desire to write about the world I grew up in -- London in the Seventies. I’ve been trying to work out possible approaches for a long time. An accusation which comes out of the deep past struck me as a way of opening up little passageways into my past.”

Are filmmakers fighting for the rights to Afternoon of a Faun? “Well, not exactly since the book’s not out yet but, yes, that would be a bonus,” he says. The title story of his short story collection, The Siege, was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci (Besieged) and, with Jonathan Nossiter, Lasdun co-wrote the films Sunday, which won several awards at Sundance, and Signs and Wonders, starring Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgaard.

Has the torture he underwent during the cyberstalking influenced his novel?

“Somewhat. I think it made it emotionally urgent in all kinds of ways but I was interested in this subject matter before my whole stalking saga. My first novel, The Horned Man, deals with similar matters. Whether I would have written this novel the way I have if the whole stalking thing had never happened is doubtful. I would still have wanted to write it, however, but I would have written it differently. I do think some of the discomforts felt by various characters are ones I felt, so I worry about how things are going to be read and interpreted.” The stalking ordeal has changed him as a writer. “All really intense experiences do. This was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had and it went on for a very long time.”

Happily, he no longer hears from his stalker. Does he fear she may re-emerge when this book comes out? “She might, she might not, although I have since published a thriller, The Fall Guy, which has a stalking element, and she did not react to that so I’m hoping she’s moved on. On my website I have something she wrote where she kind of acknowledges everything that she did.”

In Afternoon of a Faun, the narrator mentions a new phenomenon among students: a growing reluctance to discuss anything to do with sex. “They fall into an embarrassed silence whenever I raise the subject, which is problematic, since that’s what drives most of literature.”

Does Lasdun have this problem? “Definitely! I was teaching a literature seminar all through the period when #MeToo broke. Every week I’d go in and some guy had been exposed doing terrible things. I was teaching Chekhov’s story The Lady With the Dog, a classic adultery story, but it was very weird teaching it in that atmosphere -- an older guy, a younger woman -- and suddenly it started reading as this tale of a predator which I don’t think was Chekhov’s idea at all!

“So this movement is putting a vast amount of literature in a very new perspective. It’s really, really interesting.”

Victory, by James Lasdun (Jonathan Cape, £14.99).