INTERVIEW: James Scudamore on repression, boarding school and ‘English Monsters’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author James Scudamore on the research process behind his novel English Monsters (Jonathan Cape, 2020).

I’d like to begin by asking how you approached researching the English boarding school system. I know that some of Max’s experiences in the novel reflect some of your own experiences of being educated in this environment, but I wondered what research you undertook to help reflect on, contextualise and apply your experiences to the novel. How did your memories feed into the narrative design, and did you find a tension developing between your wider research and the truth of your own experience?

As you say I had powerful memories of my own to draw on, but given the subject matter of this novel – abuse, repression, denial – I also wanted to investigate the act of remembering, and how it evolves. I think people are always in negotiation with their pasts, haggling out a version of events that explains the present, and I seem to have been exploring this phenomenon since I started writing. All four of my novels have ended up being concerned in some way with the ongoing revision of individual memory, and with how collective memory is fixed, challenged and revised.

This may have something to do with my own experience: my memories of the boarding school I attended between 10 and 13 were overturned completely about a decade after I had left when it emerged that sexual abuse had been rife there. I found myself seeing past events that had puzzled me for years in a completely new way. And this was such a momentous process for me that I guess I wanted to dramatise it in English Monsters. But I was also very conscious of the need to get beyond my memories, and my school. For one thing, as I am constantly trying to impress on writing students, ‘just because something happens to you doesn’t make it interesting’. For another, I wanted to make absolutely sure that anything I wrote didn’t infringe the privacy of any of my former classmates or their families. So I read the work of leading psychologists in the field of ‘Boarding School Syndrome’, much of which contains powerfully compelling first-hand accounts. And I did a lot of research into the psychological effects of abuse. And I made stuff up.

As to whether there was a tension between that research and my own experience – no. Anyone who has been through the system depicted in the novel will recognise the experiences it describes. They’re very universal across different establishments (within a very narrow social milieu, of course), which is why the tropes of the ‘boarding school novel’ have become a set of such instantly recognisable clichés. A more interesting tension perhaps is between the reader who hasn’t been through that system and this writer who has. The challenge I set myself was to try to get beyond all those received ideas and communicate the sheer strangeness of that environment and its customs. To put it under the microscope by stepping back from it and defamiliarising it. That, at any rate, was the goal.

It feels to me as though your treatment of the boarding school system, particularly of its rituals of cruelty, has a bearing on our understanding of our current Eton-educated politicians. Do you feel there may be a connection between the roots of the systemic cruelty and violence in English Monsters (alongside the secrecy that underpins it) and the government’s attacks on research into historical abuse allegations and colonial violence?

One of my primary concerns when writing the novel was to resist binaries as much as I could. For example, I was struck by the notion that someone who hadn’t been abused by a teacher who then subsequently turned out to have been abusive to other pupils might have perfectly intact, fond memories of that teacher. What does it mean when that teacher then turns out to have abused someone else? Does it invalidate those fond memories completely? Perhaps. But I wanted as much as possible to avoid painting characters as archetypally good or bad, and inhabit the grey areas of different individuals’ divergent memories and experiences.

With all of that in mind, I think it’s too sweeping to suggest that there exists a deliberate establishment-led ‘attack’ on research into abuse allegations or colonial violence. I choose to hope that the pushback isn’t as concerted as that. Nevertheless, if you personally have done rather well as a product of the system, as so many of these politicians have, then you are going to find it that much harder to find the empathy to interrogate that system on behalf of those who didn’t. And I absolutely think that the privately-educated tribe is capable of breathtaking insouciance when it comes to reckoning with serious historical wrongs – consider the Prime Minister’s ‘spaffed up the wall’ remarks about money spent on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, for example (this from someone who attended a prep school with a well-documented history of sexual abuse) – and that it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that some of that attitude derives from a feeling of protectiveness over the system that formed them.

I do think it would help a lot if some people didn’t feel so personally attacked whenever the past is questioned in this way. I find that phenomenon so odd. Why is there this default to hostility and insecurity? It’s the binaries thing again, I guess. This polarising tendency that despises nuance and complexity, and places defending the tribe above the reasonable desire to make a better world. I can’t bear it.

I wonder if there’s a link there between that lack of nuance and the proliferation of repression or self-denial, which feels to me like a very English phenomenon (‘No sex please, we’re British’). I’m curious as to whether, while researching for the novel, you began to speculate on where some of the cultural origins of our sexual repression might lie? To what extent do you feel sexual repression is a specifically British hang-up, as reflected by a number of the characters in English Monsters? Is there an extent to which the abuses described in the novel can be attributed to this kind of repression?

My dictionary defines repression as ‘the action, process, or result of suppressing into the unconscious or of actively excluding from the conscious mind unacceptable memories, impulses, or desires.’ I don’t think that’s a specifically British or English trait. It takes different forms in different places. I remember being struck by the pervasiveness of the British version having spent years being educated in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean that a version of it doesn’t exist over there (for example) – look at Bolsonaro’s attitudes towards homosexuality, or towards the historical mistreatment of indigenous people.

But I do think that Britain did an incredible job in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of founding institutions that enshrine and perpetuate it. The sexual repression is just part of a larger picture which is so familiar we almost don’t need to go into it. All the ‘stiff upper lip’ stuff. The way we responded to the trauma of two world wars by telling people they just had to put on a suit and wear a poppy. The hardwired belief that you’ll only be successful if you learn to sever yourself from your emotions, or that empathy is a sign of weakness. The list goes on. I think it’s changed quite a lot in the last twenty years or so. That was one of the reasons why it felt like the right time to write this book. The emotional landscape it depicts feels like history to me now (which isn’t to say everyone has caught up).

Also, don’t forget that there are advantages to repression for many. One of the darkest things about the worst perpetrators of sexual abuse in schools is how adept they were at weaponising shame to their advantage. My hunch is that they were so familiar with it themselves that they became very adept at bringing it out in others. Which is why telling anybody what had happened to them became so impossible for so many victims, and why the truth of so much sexual abuse suffered in schools remained buried for so long.

I think that hints at interesting connection between causality and the extent to which behaviours are learnt and adapted. I feel there’s an extent to which Simon and the other characters are painted as products of their environment, as the almost inevitable conclusions of cause and effect (reinforced by the repeated motif of computer programming). I wonder if this is a view of human beings that you share as an individual, and whether you found that this idea was strengthened or challenged while you were researching and designing English Monsters.

I wanted to explore the different effects of certain experiences on different personality types. Simon is affected in a more debilitating way by what happens to him than another character like Luke might be under the same circumstances. Luke is portrayed as a ‘successful’ product of the system in that sense, because he takes the fight to whatever is thrown at him. Which, paradoxically, makes him less ‘programmable’. Simon internalises things a lot more, so on the surface, appears more susceptible to grooming. But of course it turns out to be more complicated than that.

There’s a line in the novel – ‘children don’t analyse, they only experience’ – which you might say encapsulates my view of why physical or sexual abuse of the young does quite as much damage as it does. Children simply don’t have the tools to step back and evaluate what has happened to them. And I wanted to find a way to communicate the sheer incomprehensibility of suddenly finding yourself the object of adult sexual desire when you are a child. The monstruous unfairness of that abuse of power. Simon takes refuge in computers because they offer a reassurance that combats that incomprehensibility, and all the terror that comes with it. He says of them: ‘I like that when you program them correctly, they do exactly what you want them to. And if they don’t, there’s always a reason why.’

There’s so much more to discuss about the moral questions raised by English Monsters, but instead I’d like to close by trying to contextualise the novel within the broader framework of English literature (more specifically, literature about England) to which it belongs. The novel is replete with intertextual references, from its Shakespearean title through to the ‘boarding school novels’ you referred to earlier and on into the English ghost story tradition. What I’d like to know is whether you approached English Monsters with the intent of writing into a space created within English literature, a void perhaps reflecting our inability as a society to deal with internal trauma.

That’s a generous question, and I think that if I were to say ‘yes’ to it I might be guilty of criminal self-aggrandisement. But I didn’t shy away from those intertextual references, and they did end up peppering the whole novel. And I did feel that I had something to say about trauma, and how unaddressed it goes in some circles.

I alighted on the title quite early, though I initially wanted to quote more fully from the Shakespeare and call it These English Monsters. I liked the way that that seemed to communicate an almost gossipy tone, and how it possibly hinted at my desire to avoid seeing things in a binary way as discussed above (we went for the snappier title in the end). The quote is from Henry V and is used by one of the teachers in the novel to try to inculcate an unshakeable sense of loyalty in his pupils. From there I thought of all the other ways in which literary texts are used at schools and on curricula in order to try to form people, or their attitudes. And yes, I brought in school stories, war poetry, fantasy, ghost stories. T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is another touchstone – it is being put on as the school play in the novel, which I liked because of all its references to the inexorable turning of the wheel of fate. And the fact that it’s about people going out to commit a murder based on something they’ve overheard (a reference which will only make sense if you’ve read the novel).

There was another reason too, which is that I remembered how integral my early reading was to the experience of getting through boarding school. How certain novels were indispensable friends to me at that time. And I suppose I wanted to pay tribute to them. Reading books like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Gray at school gave me my first inkling of the way that the alternate worlds of good novels can not only provide escape hatches from the real world but also more resonant and truthful representations of it than anything more documentary.

James Scudamore is the author of the novels The Amnesia Clinic, Heliopolis, Wreaking and English Monsters. He has received the Somerset Maugham Award and been nominated for the Costa First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Man Booker Prize. His journalism and short fiction have appeared in Zembla, 1843 Magazine, Condé Nast Traveller, Prospect, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time Out and Tin House. He has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the City University of Hong Kong, and is currently on the faculty of the International MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Sharon Duggal on home, Rohinton Mistry and ‘Should We Fall Behind’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Sharon Duggal on the research process behind her novel Should We Fall Behind (Bluemoose Books, 2021).

I’d like to start by asking how you approached researching homelessness, one of the core themes of Should We Fall Behind. It is of course a sensitive subject as well as a prescient one, and I wondered what challenges you encountered when looking into it, both as a researcher and then as a writer, translating what you learnt to the page. Did you find the research taking its toll on you, either emotionally or creatively, as I’ve found researching and writing on the same topic?

When I started out writing this book my intention was to write about home and belonging as a main theme – what home might mean to a disparate set of people who all live in the same area but have arrived there as a result of very different trajectories. It was through reflecting on this that homelessness almost inevitably emerged as a connected thread.

I hadn’t planned it that way and thinking about it now I realise the book is a result of an accumulation of  experiences, my own and those of family, friends and acquaintances, rather than the other way round. So, I didn’t set out expecting or intending to write about a homeless character and start researching from that point – in fact, I think I would have found the whole process quite uncomfortable if I had done it like that. Instead, this myriad of experiences propelled the theme into emerging in the way it did, almost organically, specifically through the character of Jimmy Noone.  For example, I’ve spent some time working as a volunteer in a cold-weather shelter for rough sleepers and in other settings working alongside people who’ve experienced varying forms of homelessness.  Additionally, my time as a writer in residence in a mental health recovery centre led me towards writing  about the precariousness of life – about how any of us could find our lives spiralling out of control as a result of some unexpected but devastating incident. It was by exploring the idea that the course of a life can be altered so drastically without warning that the theme of homelessness became more fully developed.

Fragments of encounters with people I have met, including in the particular situations I describe above, have over time become mingled with other more personal stories around themes of immigration, displacement, leaving a home or a homeland, disconnecting and finding reconnection elsewhere, and somehow these hybrid stories have made it onto the page in the form of fiction.

Just to add, as Should We Fall Behind progressed, the research process also evolved, taking  me down more traditional research routes towards exploring primary and secondary texts in depth. This more formal research was essential, enhancing both my understanding and my creative response to the various threads in the story, including those of what it means to be home or to be homeless. Ultimately, research in terms of this book and this theme was a dynamic process but most definitely helped shape this particular (and other) storylines.

And yes, of course, there were many personal challenges for me in both emotional and creative terms – ultimately though, I hope I have approached the subject sensitively and with respect.

That process of using the ‘myriad of experiences’ around you to develop a multi-faceted approach to your themes reminds me of my recent conversation with Heidi James on how she handled the disparate character designs of The Sound Mirror. Should We Fall Behind delves in intimate detail into the lived experiences of characters from various social backgrounds, as you point out, and I wondered how your research might have fed into this. Did you feel whilst researching different historical contexts that your characters developed in unexpected ways? Did you find your attitudes to them changing as you delved deeper into their past and present choices?

I am not a planner so the whole process of writing a novel is an unexpected journey for me. To some extent I have to be open to being led by the characters as they develop. My work starts with a strong sense of who a character might be. This is followed by an internal interrogation to discover (decide) what it is that motivates them – basically what it is they want. In this way, whole lives begin to form in my head.

With each of  the characters in Should We Fall Behind, I started by wanting to say something about how we are all made up of complex layers built up over time as a consequence of our own actions, but also as a result of things outside of our control – random experiences that can change a course of a life in an instance or, like Rayya and Nikos, historical contexts which can alter the course of whole generations of lives. So yes, as I delved deeper – for example, into Ebele’s experiences of being let down by a series of people close to her or Jimmy’s complicated relationship with his father – their characteristics and their trajectories changed in ways I hadn’t necessarily planned for. To be honest, as this book developed, not one of the main characters (except perhaps Tuli) turned out as I first imagined them.

In terms of developing characters, research was crucial around getting exterior detail right – landscape, dialogue, cultural references, local knowledge, historical context –  as often this is the stuff that lets writers down and leads to characters becoming unbelievable. The other stuff to do with character development – physical descriptors, tone, voice, flaws, strengths etc,  is part of the more creative process rather than the research process given that the work is fiction.

I’m intrigued by that linking of historical context with research and characterisation with the creative process, and where we might find crossovers between the two. Author Alice Ash recently shared a story with me about George Saunders, and how he came to realise that the characters he considered ‘assholes’ were complicated by considerations of their pasts. This reminded me especially of Ebele and Nikos in Should We Fall Behind, and that made me consider whether you feel the central question posed by your novel regards our attitudes to that process of cause-and-effect. If there is a central question, even a research question, behind Should We Fall Behind, how closely would you say it relates to that idea of people being a product of their experiences?

Interesting, and I think I have touched on this in the previous answer,  but I am not sure I would say this was the central question of the book, although I think it is one of the main questions.

For me the book is mostly born from the idea that many of the fundamental experiences that shape us all are the big universal human experiences of love, death, birth, friendship. But, social and historical contexts lead to constructs whereby some stories are more invisible than others, and some lives are deemed less important, less valuable or less interesting as a result. Confronting this falsehood, this imbalance in what kinds of stories get attention, is partially what drives me as a writer.

Yes, I see that, and I think that leads me quite nicely into my final question. There are numerous references to the act of reading throughout Should We Fall Behind, as an act conducive to learning, coping, healing, connecting. In particular, the tradition of Indian literature (seen touchingly through the act of Rayya reading to her husband) seems like something you want to celebrate through your own writing. I’d like to ask what influence the books referenced in Should We Fall Behind had during its composition. To what extent does it enter into dialogue with them, both as a work that is partly about reading and as a novel in its own right?

When you read a lot as writers do (or should do)  books become part of your  subconscious in a similar way to how everyday encounters and conversations do. Over time they become part of your being, inspiring and influencing in ways we don’t realise or expect.

Since publication, a number of people including the writer and academic Preti Taneja have likened Should We Fall Behind to the work of Rohinton Mistry –  this is a totally unexpected but huge compliment as I love his writing and A Fine Balance is a book I rate very highly (which is why it is one of the texts Rayya and Satish read). However, I haven’t read that book for years and I honestly didn’t think about any direct influence it may have on Should We Fall Behind when I was writing it. It is only in retrospect that I see there is in fact a similarity in theme – about life being a balancing act which can very quickly fall off kilter.

More directly, I am very influenced by multi-perspective narratives in both books and film, and particularly like the idea of one event or situation being seen differently depending on the viewpoint.  This was something I wanted to explore in both Should We Fall Behind and in my first novel The Handsworth Times, and I think this stems from a rejection of the concept of a singular story, especially when it comes to particular groups of people.

Reading as an act weaves through the book as you say; it is important to Rayya and Satish but also to Jimmy and Tuli, so no, it wasn’t an intention to celebrate the tradition of Indian literature in particular but rather the act of reading itself. Similarly, there is a thread of music which runs through the book which, like the act of reading, connects to memory and how that impacts on our relationship with the past and with the present. This is something I am very interested in exploring more in my next novel too.

Sharon Duggal grew up in Birmingham as part of a large Indian family. Her debut novel, The Handsworth Times (2016) was The Morning Star’s Fiction Book of the Year 2016 and Brighton City Reads 2017. Her short stories appear in anthologies including The Book of Birmingham and Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks. Her second novel, Should We Fall Behind was published in October 2020 by independent small press Bluemoose Books to wide critical acclaim – it was chosen as a Prima Magazine Book of the Year 2020, selected as one of 6 new titles to be featured on BBC TV book club, Between the Covers, broadcast in May 2021 and shortlisted for the prestigious RSL Encore Award 2021 for best second novel.

Sharon is one half of long-running The Ruben and Sharon Show, the UK’s only regular radio show with a mum and son presenter team, which plays out weekly, live on FM. DAB and online via Brighton’s Radio Reverb. She has an MA from City University and an MPhil for University of Sussex.

INTERVIEW: Stephen Reynolds on family, memory and ‘The Layers’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Stephen Reynolds on the research process behind his novel The Layers (Valley Press, 2021).

The complexities of how writers exploit real world material is something that has come up repeatedly during this series, mostly recently in my talk with author Graham Mort, who pointed towards that ‘flux of apprehension and memory’ that underpins incorporating real events into fiction. I wondered if this resonates with your experience of researching and designing The Layers, as indicated by its opening dedication. How did you manage your own memories in relation to the narrative?

I find blurring the lines of fiction and reality fascinating. I first became aware of the idea in literature in Bret East Ellis’ Lunar Park, where the narrator is an altered version of the author and the book begins with: ‘Regardless of how horrible the events described here might seem, there’s one thing you must remember as you hold this book in your hands: all of it really happened, every word is true.’ With The Layers the idea was to use the technique as a tool to ensure the characters were believable. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend on the reader’s emotional response to the ending, I think. And for the ending to pierce the skin, you have to be invested in the characters. So, to add flesh to their bones I fed them the characteristics of people in my own life. In the end, it meant writing the book was a more personal experience than I’d intended. Maybe. Although one of the central themes is loss, so it was always going to be a personal endeavour, I suppose.

My own memories are untrustworthy at the best of times. I’ve mismanaged them for many years and it wasn’t that difficult to distort them further, so that they no longer belonged to me. There’s a story that the Grandpa character tells, where he’s attacked by a billy goat. A version of that happened in real life. To me, I thought. It’s been my memory for most of my life. I’ve owned it. If I close my eyes, I can see the angry animal charging at me. I’m there, it’s happening to me. I’ve told it anecdotally to many people over the years. Then one day I mentioned it in the company of my brother and mother and they told me that it isn’t my memory at all. It happened to my brother. I wasn’t even there, I don’t think. At some point I’d stolen his story and lied about it so many times that my mind eventually created a detailed memory to go with the lie. The colours, the smells and the fear. All are impostors. For better or worse, we’ve all rewritten our own lives a thousand times.

I have similar experiences with my brother, with the two of us debating whether events happened to me or him. I think that’s an inherent part of family life, that kind of collective experience that comes from sharing so many memories. To expand on that, I’d like to delve a little further into the family aspect of The Layers. The opening of Anna Karenina provides perhaps the staple maxim on the theme: ‘Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ though for me, The Layers constitutes a departure from that. ‘Family’ in your novel is essentially characterised by love, unity and collective happiness, not by Shakespearean power struggles. I’d love to hear about your feelings on the representation of the family in literature, the novels that have fed into that feeling, and how The Layers interacts with that canon.

We view the family in The Layers via the memories of the narrator. When we lose someone, they become – to an extent – whatever we want them to be. They are rose-tinted versions of themselves. We miss them desperately, so we naturally focus on the good times. Until everything else fades away. Or at least that’s true for me. If you love someone, you still love them when they’re gone. But without the reality there is only the love. So, the love runs riot and remoulds.

That being said, the conscious decision to portray them as a loving, happy family was largely a reflection of how I feel about my own family. As I get older, the unconditional love I have for my family continues to deepen. It is a pure and uncomplicated thing that represents the best of me. I don’t see that echoed in literature very often. Not exactly anyway. Kate Atkinson writes about family beautifully in Life After Life and A God in Ruins. She has a sympathy for her characters and an understanding of humanity that translates into the most fulfilling and moving prose. Her apparently limitless skill as a writer means she can expose the flaws in her characters, no matter how dark, and still leave us in no doubt regards their ultimate beauty. I can’t do that, to be blunt. So I needed to ensure there was no ambiguity. The complexities of the family in The Layers are missing because the reader must see them as the good and sweet natured people they are. That has to be the take away. For the narrative, and to reflect my own idea of love of family. Jon McGregor in So Many Ways to Begin conveys the love between a mother and son with heart-breaking authenticity. Understated and powerful in equal measure. He explores adoption and themes of identity to challenge what it means to be a family. That book had a huge impact on me and it influenced The Layers. The ‘It’s not about names or blood or anything else like that’ speech being an example.

I’m not sure I’ve answered your question exactly. My instinct is to say that The Layers brings something new to the representation of family in literature. But I’m conscious of how arrogant that may sound and that it’s almost certainly untrue. So, I’ll caveat it heavily by adding that I’m a relative stranger to the genre of family saga. I wanted to create a family that echoed my own experience of family life, without simply recreating my own family.

That makes perfect sense to me, and I think the treatment of your ‘uncomplicated’ love for (and memories of) your family comes through clearly in the novel – at an emotional level. I also think that reflects quite succinctly another theme in the novel, that of nostalgia. Whereas nostalgia is often portrayed as an unhealthy, retroactive emotional space (Gatsby at his extreme), the nostalgic elements of The Layers seem heartfelt and uncritical. Did you make a conscious decision to examine nostalgia uncritically, if that’s even fair to say?

It is fair and it was certainly a conscious decision. It’s again the idea that the reader is being given a rose-tinted highlights reel of the narrator’s life. Which is not to say he’s an unreliable narrator. The story is his truth. It follows on from the idea that gave the novel its name; that we all have many different versions of ourselves, unique to the relationships that fill our lives, but that each one is nonetheless a true representation of who we are. The nostalgic view of his own past and the blemish-free depiction of his loved ones are his justification for self-destruction. How can I not fall apart when this is what I’ve lost?

In some ways I’m a nostalgic person by nature. I don’t look at my younger self with envy though. Quite the opposite. I tend to be very critical of my own past behaviours and honestly couldn’t think of anything worse than being a teenager again. But from a pop culture perspective, I never really left 1995. I also have that ‘Coupland itch’ to reference musical artists, TV personalities and brand names in my writing. In my case it’s a childish urge, akin to insisting the entire family listens to your selection of music on the long car journey. Which I also still do.

I’m interested in how you define the narrator’s story as being ‘his truth’, especially as he anchors his identity so firmly outside of himself, largely on other people. I’m especially interested in the potential consequences of that, particularly those attachments (or loss of attachments) that lead people to remove themselves from their support networks, retreat to the margins of society, to ‘give up on themselves’. I wondered how your research into the experiences of these people, particularly marginalised communities such as street-sleepers, influenced your handling of analogous themes in The Layers?

It’s an interesting question and not something I’ve consciously thought about until now. I’m a terrible people watcher and nearly all of the void interludes in the novel are explorations of moments I’ve witnessed whilst wandering the city. The ground beneath each of us is full of cracks and it’s down to little more than luck as to whether we fall through one of them or not. There is no attempt at representation in these passages and, in truth, I didn’t research the experiences of others beyond my own observations and the influence of other works. There’s a spoken word piece on the most recent Suede album, titled ‘Dead Bird’, that first gave me the idea for these vaguely dystopian vignettes. The people therein are seen through a fog of despair. The detached observations of a mind that’s shut down, or the narrator’s grief made flesh. There is some suggestion that the marginalised reveal the price we pay for our disposable, gluttonous culture… But really, it’s just the narrator’s search for sadness, I think.

I see that. It feels as though no matter how much the narrator anchors his identity to others who he is, his internal world, is still inescapable. To close, I’d like to pry into what you may have found about yourself while writing and researching The Layers, both on a personal and creative level. The Layers is of course an introspective text – retrospective also but still exploiting a familiar Bildungsroman structure. I’d simply like to know how much of you is in this novel, and in general how much of an author you feel may need to be present in order to achieve a sense of verisimilitude and authenticity of feeling.

In some ways too much of myself is in the novel. People who know me well, when reading early drafts, reported that they could ‘see the joins’. That’s hopefully not the case with the final edit though. As the characters, including the narrator, developed throughout the writing process, they resembled me and the people I love less and less. My inability to cope with loss is the most personal thing that remains. That’s the only thing I couldn’t bring myself to manipulate. It’s a weakness I’ve had my entire life and it’s been a therapeutic experience to write so openly about it.

I think the art that’s had the most meaningful impact on my life has usually been introspective. If executed badly introspection can be the most tedious thing to consume, of course. It’s very difficult to phrase this without sounding pretentious, but I think the author is always entirely present. The process of writing fiction is such that the author cannot do anything other than reveal themselves. Perhaps that’s naïve. I’m a relative novice after all.

I think it’s true to say that writing The Layers has helped me be more comfortable with my own tendency for sentimentality, in life and in my writing. I’m grateful for the people I have in my life and writing this book has certainly encouraged me to celebrate them. They are the light.

Stephen Reynolds was born in West Sussex in 1978. Since then, he’s lived in Brighton, Portsmouth and London. He now lives in Bristol with his partner. Over the last few years, he’s written and published a series of successful non-fiction books about long-distance hiking. His debut novel, The Layers, is about the disparate versions of ourselves – and what happens when we lose them. It’s published by Valley Press in June 2021.

INTERVIEW: Kate Smith on carelessness, Kierkegaard and ‘The Negligents’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Kate Smith on the research process behind her novel The Negligents (Valley Press, 2018).

The Negligents is structured around a legal negligence claim, with a framework of legal notation guiding us through the narrative. I know you worked as a barrister and solicitor for many years, and I wondered about your feelings as to the proximity of your legal background and your fiction. How did legalistic thinking, legal language and your memories of the profession feed into the novel? What interactions did you uncover, if any, between fiction and the process of law?

I knew with this book that I wanted to write about a relationship, a friendship between Grace and Polina going wrong, and that I wanted to set this somehow within a legal context, but without writing a courtroom drama. For me, my relationship with law is an odd one, a kind of push/pull. When I was practising as a lawyer, I think I yearned for more creativity in my work, more nuance, more room to call a spade something other than a spade, and that’s when I started to see the possibilities and dualities in the areas of law that I specialised in. If Negligence is just legal speak for carelessness, then doesn’t it apply to all of us? Haven’t we all been careless in our friendships with others? How might we explore that idea in a ‘non-legal’ way? It helped that Negligence breaks down into a number of elements a claimant must prove, and all of them I felt would have resonance for lay people (lay people? Discuss) – the elements being loss, duty, breach, causation, remoteness and defences.

And now I’ve escaped from the law, (I still teach, though) I sometimes miss its precision, its nailing down of concepts and ambiguities, which to me can bring its own satisfaction. The book is some attempt to reconcile both parts, the freedom and the precision, the loose and the tightly wound, and to use those as the vehicle to examine a relationship which by its nature, being human, gets mucky and rule-less.

I’m drawn to connection with personal, ‘non-legal’ notions of Negligence, which I think ties in with the recurrent theme of culpability that runs through the narrative. Causality, fault and blame are all repeated motifs that help question the extent to which we can be blamed for the unforeseen consequences of our actions. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of the moral root of the novel?

I’m not sure that there’s really a moral root to this novel, or maybe it’s not so much a root as an off-shoot, and not really part of my motivation directly when I was writing it. But yes, you’re right about blame and causality running through this narrative. I’d say my preoccupation was with the notion of ‘truth’ and how we can get hung up on that. In law there’s no truth, not really. There’s a version of the facts that the Judge prefers and we call that the truth, though they’re not, I would say, one and the same thing. I’m fascinated by the way we, as the public, as people, will tend to prefer fact over fiction when searching for a universal mythical truth, as if it is somehow a more reliable narrator, and as if fact and fiction can be that easily separated and easily identifiable as one or the other. This novel is partly my attempt to look at that, to hold a version of events up to the light and ask whose perspective here is the more real? And what does that mean? Is it meaning-less? If we can’t blame others for what happens to us then who is to blame? I wanted that to be an uncomfortable and ultimately unanswered question.

Also, I should perhaps insert a note in terms of structure here, my other preoccupation. With a Negligence claim, the claimant will tend to come to you, their lawyer, at the end of their story. Everything has happened to them. They’ve been hurt by someone else. The hurt was the last thing that happened in the sequence of events but the first thing we see. Ah, so you’ve broken your leg in a car crash? Tell me how that happened. We therefore work backwards from the end to sort out the beginning. That’s also how we tend to make sense of our lives, of course (cf. Kierkegaard), and I wondered how that notion might play out in this book. It allowed me to explore the stories organically, I suppose without trying to impose order on them as I went along, trusting they would make sense in the end. Another way of saying that is that I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I wrote scenes out of order and then afterwards grafted them together to make a picture that made the most sense to me.

I may be fishing here, but perhaps that approach to structure is what motivates your penchant as a writer for the minute, telling details that characterise the human experience (as I read it), those grafted ‘picture-pieces’. Aside from your terse observations on human behaviour, the prose really hones in on the moment-defining minutiae of a scene, the kind of crucial details which in real life we might take for granted. A few potential writing-influences spring to mind for me, but who do you draw upon in terms of that highly synecdochical attention to detail?

I would say that the writing I love most manages to ‘hone in’, as you say, on the minute detail of a scene, making the tiny details beautiful, and then can sometimes pull back to reveal the whole. So many writers do that so well and I’m so drawn to it, I guess it’s inevitable I’d want to try and write like that. I think it’s also the way I see the world, in that cinematic way. It’s hard actually to single out a few writers who really do it for me on this level, but I’d say those who’ve had a real impact would be Rachel Seiffert, particularly in her short story collection Field Studies, (beautiful detailed, spare writing) Jennifer Egan, especially in Black Box, Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated, Carol Ann Duffy, especially in The World’s Wife collection, David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, Don DeLillo in nearly everything. In terms of screenplay, which I know feeds into the way I write, I’ve never really got over The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. I feel like everything I write is part homage to those.

Since we’re speaking about other writers I feel I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t ask about your feelings on Fitzgerald. One of the epitaphs from The Negligents comes from Gatsby, a line from Nick’s narration that describes the moral carelessness of Tom and Daisy, the way they ‘smashed up things’ and let others clean up the mess. In broad terms, has Fitzgerald been a big influence on your writing? What do you feel is the relationship, if any, between The Negligents and Fitzgerald’s trend of building complex moral structures within his work?

Honestly, no, Fitzgerald hasn’t been a conscious influence on my writing. I enjoyed The Great Gatsby, its deftness,* and that sense of injustice, of the rich getting away with it because they’re rich, has maybe never been more relevant to us than it is now, living, as we are, through an era in politics where everything is upside down, where fair is foul and foul is fair. I’d like to write about that, actually, about corruption permeating our morals and our politics and our language and the way we view the world, but at the moment I’m so perpetually angry about it that it would be too on-the-nose. I probably need to simmer down.

*Back to the question…I do think Grace embodies that sense of carelessness without consequences that Gatsby explores so elegantly and shockingly. For a while I think it serves her, or she believes it does, but superficially, like charm, like she’s charmed. But it doesn’t last, not because of (I hope) some moral deus ex machina popping up at the end but because she grows up and tries to take responsibility, and doing that will only ever be messy.

Finally I’d like to ask what I’ve been asking many of my interviewees for this series. I’m interested in exploring the idea of the novel as an act of research in and of itself, as a question which needs a novelistic framework in order to be articulated and explored. In that respect, do you feel The Negligents has a core question at its centre? And if so, to what extent do the experiences of Polina, Grace and your other characters contribute to answering that question?

I think this is a really interesting idea. For me, I didn’t so much begin with a single core question that I wanted to answer, so much as a number of preoccupations that wouldn’t go away. I’m sure someone once said that sometimes the only way round these things is through them, and I tried to write through them. Which, as it happens, made me realise that it takes some guts to do that. It’s much easier to skirt the difficult bits. It might sound rather thin, but at its heart I wanted this to be a story about friendship and love and family, especially as to what it takes to ‘do’ all of them. If I had a question at all, perhaps that was it. This wasn’t something I was looking for or needing my characters to answer, though they gave their version of events.

Kate’s first novel The Negligents (Valley Press) was written as part of her MA in Creative Writing from MMU, for which she achieved a distinction and the Michael Schmidt prize. She’s working on the next, and also writes non-fiction, most recently a Tort law textbook to be published soon by Hall & Stott. Kate writes and performs comedy for television and radio, she was a finalist in the BBC’s New Voices for Radio and was shortlisted for Radio 5’s Podcast Award.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Emily Jeremiah on masks, ‘Finnishness’ and ‘Blue Moments’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Emily Jeremiah on the research process behind her novella Blue Moments (Valley Press, 2020).

I’d like to start by asking broadly about your relationship with Finnish fiction. I know that you’ve translated several Finnish novels, including Aki Ollikainen’s Booker Prize-longlisted White Hunger (Peirene Press, 2016), but I’m curious as to how you feel the tradition feeds into your own work. As someone less conversant with it than you are, I’d love to know where someone interested in exploring Finnish literature might start.

That’s right, I’ve co-translated five novels with my Finnish mother Fleur Jeremiah, as well as poetry by Eeva-Liisa Manner, among others. Translation offers a good training for the writer, because it demands an intense attentiveness to language; you really have to scrutinize what the source text is doing, how it achieves its effects. I’ve learnt from all the works I’ve translated, especially as far as compression and conciseness are concerned; four of the texts I’ve worked on are short novels (published by Peirene Press, which only publishes works under 200 pages). I’d recommend reading all the novels I’ve co-translated (by Selja Ahava, Kristina Carlson, Aki Ollikainen, Asko Sahlberg, and Virve Sammalkorpi), as a way of beginning to engage with Finnish literature – they are all excellent, in my view – but there are many other Finnish writers to explore, of course, for example Sofi Oksanen (trans. Lola Rogers/Owen Witesman) and Antti Tuomainen (trans. David Hackston/Lola Rogers). In terms of the classics, Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers is a highly significant work in the Finnish literary tradition, and then of course there is the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, which is alluded to in Blue Moments.

Thank you for those recommendations, it’s always stimulating for me to hear about writers from an unfamiliar culture, particularly one with such a rich literary tradition. Continuing on that track for a moment, I found that throughout Blue Moments there is a tension between what I read as ‘Englishness’ and ‘Finnishness’ – though perhaps tension is the wrong word. Eeva is of course a product of both cultures, which complicates her emotional development as she grows up between the two settings. I wondered how you feel about the idea that there is a contrast between ‘Englishness’ and ‘Finnishness’, on a cultural and an emotional level. Do you think there is any immutable essence to either culture, and how might that understanding have informed your designs for Blue Moments?

I wouldn’t say there is an ‘essential’ Britishness or Finnishness – nationality is a construct that changes over time. But when you contrast the cultures, you do see differences. It’s true that for Eeva there is a ‘tension’, or perhaps better, interplay between the two cultures. It’s hard not to lapse into stereotypes when seeking to sum up whole cultures, for example to state that Finns are taciturn and Brits class-obsessed, but we may be able glimpse and capture certain (partial) truths as we write. I wanted to convey the experiential nature of culture and nation – the way these things are intensely personal. So Eeva encounters ‘Finnishness’ in her own unique way, one that is formed by her particular character and family situation. In my work as an academic, I have worked on notions of Germanness, and on ‘nomadism’, a form of subjectivity proposed by philosopher Rosi Braidotti, and I’m sure these investigations played a part in how I thought and wrote about Eeva.

I like that idea of constructs of nationality coming into focus only once placed beside a contrasting culture, as we experience through Eeva in Blue Moments. I’d also tentatively connect that to the repeated motif of masks in the novella, not just regarding nationality as a kind of mask we wear, but as an inherent part of cultural/personal identity. While working in the museum, Eeva comes across the following caption: ‘Masks both conceal and reveal; they hide the impersonator, but reveal the spirit.’ I feel this sheds light on Eeva, her father and others, but I hoped you might expand on how this idea fed into your characterisation. To what extent are your characters defined by the masks they wear, and more broadly, do you feel there is a certain echo of the writer as being both concealed and revealed by the mask of their writing?

The masks in the text are a way to highlight the fact that selves are both concealed and revealed, and the complicated ways in which subjectivity is formed and performed. I was thinking of Eeva’s father, in particular, who is not able to live fully in accordance with what he is. But we all adopt masks in different situations, projecting images of ourselves that vary according to context. I hadn’t thought of that applying to the writer, but yes, it’s an interesting prompt. In writing, we do expose ourselves, but we use established tools to do so, so we are at the same time joining a particular tradition or set of traditions – we merge with others. And the fact of being read points to the relationality involved in the writing process. This also raises the idea of biography – Eeva’s situation is quite different from my own as a child, but my experiences of Finland of course fed into the novella. So the work has autobiographical traits – I am both masked and revealed by it.

Absolutely. And I feel as though that motif of concealment/revelation circles us nicely back to the novella’s title, that idea of the ‘blue moment’ typifying ‘the time between light and dark, when all is in suspense’. Again I feel this speaks to the process of writing and researching, particularly in the sense of the writer as someone who manages the light cast upon their narratives – what to reveal, what to conceal. Does this resonate with you at all? I’m particularly curious to know whether you feel this is an integral part of the writing process, that all literature is to an extent an exercise in the creation of ‘blue moments’.

For me, the blue moment designates the state of being in between, unfixed. It is the condition we find ourselves in all of the time; we all grow and change, and homes are always conditional. Eeva comes to understand and even celebrate that in the course of the novella. I hadn’t thought of the image in literary terms, but it’s an intriguing idea, the writer as ‘someone who manages the light cast upon their narratives’. Again, we’re back to the mask. We also come up against the idea of writing as an intentional process. Writing springs from the unconscious, so that what one ‘chooses’ to include in a narrative may reveal the psyche in quite unintended ways. At the same time, there is a conscious process of selection and control involved, at least partly. So yes, I think you’re right: the blue moment could be said to stand for literariness, that crepuscular phenomenon.

Emily Jeremiah holds an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and was awarded Arts Council funding to work on her first novella, Blue Moments (Valley Press, 2020). A professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, she is the author of three academic books. She is also an award-winning translator of poetry and fiction. She has published two selections of translated poetry, by Eeva-Liisa Manner and Sirkka Turkka, with Waterloo Press. With her Finnish mother Fleur Jeremiah, she has co-translated five novels, one of which, Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger (Peirene Press), was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Her second novella, An Approach to Black, will be published by Reflex Press in 2021.

INTERVIEW: Wyl Menmuir on xerography, imagined cities and ‘Fox Fires’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Wyl Menmuir on the research process behind his novel Fox Fires (Salt, 2021).

Fox Fires is set in the labyrinthine city of O, a place as tricky to navigate as anything from Kafka, Borges or Ismail Kadare. Topographically it resembles many different cities (Prague, Odessa, Minsk, even Madrid), but I feel the real sense of evasiveness that permeates O comes from its feeling of suspended existence, its almost timeless lack of identity, fuelled by the repression which sustains it. I hoped you could tell me about some of the geographical research you undertook to help imagine the city of O. Whilst researching, did you come across topographical or architectural features, in Central Europe or elsewhere, that made you stop and say yes, that’s O, that’s the feeling?

I knew I wanted to create a large canvas in which the action could take place. In my first novel, The Many, the action takes place in a tiny fishing village and in the waters just off its coastline, a tightly defined crucible. It’s a claustrophobic place to spend any amount of time and I spent three years there, developing my characters and working out what the story was and when I came out of that I wanted to work on a novel which felt maximal, expansive.

In a strange way, Fox Fires is the other side of the coin to The Many. Where the first novel is inward-looking, the second looks out, towards Europe. I began to write Fox Fires around the time of the EU referendum when my own relationship with Europe was very much on my mind. I hadn’t really realised this until just now, but in their own way, both novels are concerned with isolationism and concepts of home, though they look at those concepts from different angles.

One of the challenges of this novel was to write convincingly about a city that doesn’t exist and has never existed and I spent a lot of time in my own head, wandering the streets of cities across Europe in which I have spent time or passed through, places that have stayed with me. If it comes across as a partially remembered city, a city of memory, that’s because it is. I stole features and buildings from different cities and started to conceive of districts with their own distinct feel and I couldn’t really say which came first, the features or the city. I wasn’t able to travel much while I was writing Fox Fires, so I used maps and Google Street View and it was as I was wandering the streets of cities I have only dreamt of visiting that the story started to come together.

While, on the surface, The Many and Fox Fires don’t seem to share a lot of ground, O is very much a hybrid city, much like the village in The Many, which was a place that I put together based on fishing villages across Cornwall, the west coast of Ireland, the east coast of Scotland.

In Fox Fires, I wanted to explore a city that was on the cusp of something – a new way of being, perhaps – a place trying to move forward while simultaneously trying to come to terms with its past, somewhere that is in denial in some way about its recent past. I remember wandering around various cities in Central Europe in particular around the turn of the millennium and really getting that feeling.

I’m intrigued that you point to turn-of-the-century Central Europe as a particular influence, especially echoing the Central European style that we’ve already alluded to through Kafka and Kadare. Continuing with scene-setting for a moment, I wondered if you could share your ideas on how the history of Soviet and post-Soviet Europe, which seems to pulse implicitly beneath the city, fed into your conception of the political environment.

There are a lot of implicit references to events that took place in the late 90s across parts of Europe, yes, elements of recent history that I borrowed, especially from countries that experienced conflict. One of the things I became fascinated by was the idea of national guilt and reconciliation, which was something I read quite a lot about. I’m interested the stories we tell ourselves in order to justify the things we do, the role of memory in the development of national identity, the role of guilt and the necessity of reconciliation in accepting histories many people would rather forget.

Another thing that feels distinctly Central European, even Kafkan, is the theme of ‘the copy’. Throughout the novel there are allusions to replicas, records, echoes and more generally the transmission of information via carbon copying, whilst your Acknowledgements point explicitly to Kate Eichhorn’s work on political xerography (pre-digital photocopying). I wanted to ask how you approached the idea of the implications of ‘the copy’, and how that might have fed into your process?

While I was writing Fox Fires, I was preoccupied with ideas about copying, degradation and disintegration. One of my soundtracks to the novel was William Basinski’s ‘The Disintegration Loops’ and in my mental wanderings of the city, I could hear the hiss of tape, the disintegrating loop, the creation of something that was only possible in analogue technologies. That echoed the process of creation of the novel itself, which is one of taking a clear idea and turning it, through the editing process, into something rich and strange. That’s one of the reasons the novel had to be set when it was set – on the eve of the mass take-up of digital technologies. What I love about xerography is what starts as a clear, crisp image can become degraded and yet somehow richer in the process of degradation, that in that process a – perhaps subversive – truth is revealed that was not present in the original.

Whilst I’ve asked about the presence of ‘echoes’ in Fox Fires, there is relatively little overtly intertextual material in the novel. The only thread that comes through strongly (outside of music) is the link between the narrator Wren’s experience and Greek mythology, specifically Theseus and the Minotaur. Could you tell me why, in a place like O which is so resistant to history, Greek mythology felt like an important cultural thread for Wren to carry into the environment? Why do you think mythological frameworks remain so useful to contemporary novelists?

That’s quite a practical thing, I think – intertextuality is often about giving the reader a sense of stability in the narrative, something to hold onto when everything else seems to be new or in flux. I think that’s what mythological frameworks are often useful for. Aside from biologically, Wren is not of O. She arrives in the city with a whole load of cultural baggage and she brings this framework to bear on the city. It’s a point of reference for her, and for the reader too, a foothold of sorts. And in terms of the story itself, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur has so many of the elements of the story I wanted to tell – guilt and shame, the desire to get to the heart of the matter, a complicated family, a labyrinth at the heart of which is an uncomfortable truth, so while O has its own mythologies, its own folk tales, to which I refer in the novel, it seemed to make sense to use a framework the reader would already know to give them that foothold, a point of reference that might unlock other elements of the narrative.

I find that image of the narrative as a labyrinth (with intertextuality as one possible ‘thread’) a very apt one in terms of some of my recent conversations. To extend that metaphor a little, I’d like to ask (as I’ve asked many of my interviewees), if there is a research question hidden at the centre of Fox Fires, a narrative-labyrinth in which so many of the characters’ motivations are obscured. More generally perhaps, is Wren’s story part of a process of enquiring, or answering, or both?

In the case of this novel – for me at least – enquiry is the point. Fox Fires is a novel about recognising that urge to scratch at the surface of things and see what lies underneath, to get to the heart of the matter through a process of enquiry, regardless of whether it’s going to be painful or dangerous, regardless of whether others might want you to leave the past alone or to hold onto an illusory past. I think that illusory past – the one we’re all tempted by on some level – is dangerous as it means we are unable to learn from what really happened.  I wanted to create, in Wren, someone who was capable of seeing beyond the map to the territory beneath.

Wyl Menmuir is a novelist, editor and literary consultant based in Cornwall. He is the author of the Man-Booker nominated novel and Observer Best Fiction of the year pick The Many, and Fox Fires. His short fiction has appeared in Best British Short Stories and he has been published by Nightjar Press, Kneehigh Theatre and the National Trust. He has written for Radio 4’s Open Book, The Guardian and The Observer, and is a regular contributor to the journal Elementum. Born in Stockport in 1979, Wyl now lives in Cornwall with his wife and two children. He is co-creator of the Cornish writing centre, The Writers’ Block, and works with Arvon Foundation, National Literacy Trust and Centre for Literacy in Primary Education on national literacy programmes, as well as lecturer in creative writing at Falmouth University. When he is not writing or teaching writing, Wyl enjoys messing around in boats.

INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Brooks on nightmares, stately homes and ‘The Whispering House’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Elizabeth Brooks on the research process behind her novel The Whispering House (Doubleday, 2020).

The influence of Gothic literature pervades The Whispering House – aesthetically, thematically and through its implicit and explicit references to books like Rebecca and Austen’s Gothic satire Northanger Abbey. I’d like to ask what Gothic means to you, and how you perceived its influence feeding into your narrative designs for The Whispering House. What is it about the Gothic aesthetic in particular that excites you as a writer?

It was the atmosphere of Gothic that lured me to the genre in the first place. I can’t resist an opening page that beckons me through the foggy streets of Victorian London, or through the doors of a forbidding house, or into the woods, promising mystery and menace aplenty! There’s no more pleasurable invitation to a story, especially when I’m sitting up in bed, warm and safe, with a mug of tea to hand.

However, when I began writing in the genre, I became increasingly aware that atmosphere is not enough to sustain a novel. No matter how many “bumps in the night” a writer can squeeze in per chapter, it will only be a compelling read if there is some profound human interest at its heart. All novels are about people – the ways in which they think, function and interact – and Gothic is no exception. The setting can be as weird and wonderful as you like, but the central problem must be relatable. I think it’s this juxtaposition of the exotic and the mundane that gives Gothic literature its special eerie quality.

In many respects The Whispering House is a world away from reality (stately homes, locked attics and mysterious paintings don’t provide the parameters for most people’s lives, including my own!) but there’s nothing outlandish about the novel’s central problem, which is a re-framing of the question that drives both Jane Eyre and Rebecca. What if the person you are closest to, and most dependent upon, is not what he seems? What if the supposedly familiar turns out to be the horribly unfamiliar?

In the end I think I’m drawn to the Gothic because it’s both fun to play with (all those creaky stairs, and wavering candles, and watchful portraits!) and capable of bearing the weight of serious subject matter. It’s a world-view that’s essentially questioning and doubting. In the context of a Gothic novel, the nicest, simplest and most satisfying answers are never the right ones – and that’s how I like it.

I think I can see that link between the uncanniness of human experience (that conflict between the familiar/unfamiliar) and the Gothic motifs you employ in The Whispering House. I guess the most obvious of these is the house itself – Byrne Hall – which evokes the tradition of the ‘haunted’ manor house that still occupies such a prominent place in the English imagination. I’m aware you based your design for Byrne Hall on the home of Agatha Christie, and I hoped you could explain a little of how this location helped inform your use of setting. What did you glean from your research into the real house that became useful for the fictional one?

Yes, The Whispering House was inspired by a visit to Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon – the evocatively named Greenway – which is now owned by the National Trust. I changed a lot of the details when I fictionalised the house – for example, the view from the garden has become a sea-view rather than a river-view, and I’ve made the interior cold and empty, whereas the real Greenway feels cosy and lived-in. The most important element that I borrowed was the Queen Anne style façade, with its white walls, pillared porch and symmetrical rows of windows. I loved the idea of a house whose serene, elegant exterior hides a dark, sinister interior.

It mattered to me that the estate once belonged to Agatha Christie, and had provided the location for several of her stories (Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal by Innocence among others). I think that’s why my subconscious linked ‘Greenway’ and ‘menace’, right from the start. All stately homes are inspirational, in that they invite you to wonder about the private lives of the people who have lived there, and the events that have taken place in the very rooms you’re strolling through, but the Agatha Christie connection gives Greenway an extra special frisson.

In houses like Greenway, the past often feels just – but only just – out of reach, and I think it’s this that draws me to the haunted house tradition. I don’t feel particularly compelled by apparitions, or poltergeist activity, or clanking chains; for me, it’s about the eerie ways in which the dead make their mark on a place, leaving traces, both material and atmospheric, that continue to affect the living. National Trust properties like Greenway are full of such suggestive traces: empty clothes and shoes, stained teacups, inky pens, the creased spines of books in a bookcase. It’s this kind of haunting – in which the absolute absence of the dead coexists (and jars) with their proximity – that inspired The Whispering House.

To my mind, that understanding of ‘haunting’ leads me straight to Rebecca (and to Hitchcock), straight to that sense of a ‘material and atmospheric’ trace. I’ve already mentioned du Maurier’s novel as a possible influence, and I feel that idea of the ‘trace’ can only be compounded by the repeated references to dreams in The Whispering House, echoing the feeling of Rebecca’s famous opening line: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Could you tell me how you handled your designs for the dream-sequences, and perhaps explain the challenges of composing dream-sequences within a fiction framework?

Dreams recur throughout Gothic literature, because of the ways in which they permit access to a character’s most private desires, fears and obsessions. Normal forms of self-expression – the way a character talks, dresses, goes about her day-to-day life – may hint at an inner darkness, but dreams allow the writer to dig more deeply. Having said that, I think writers should be careful to use dreams sparingly and purposefully. Fictional dreams can’t be allowed to ramble on and on with no apparent structure, the way real ones often do – that would be a recipe for tedium!

Freya is by no means stupid or insensitive, but she is, like the narrator of Rebecca, a naïve observer of events. A savvier personality would never fall so easily for Cory and the ‘Byrne Hall idyll’. Her dreams and half-awake fantasies are a way of exploring the disconnect between the version of events that her conscious mind accepts, and the unease with which her subconscious mind is fraught. At some level, she feels victimised by Byrne Hall right from the start: in Chapter 1, having escaped the wedding party, she falls asleep on the cold hall floor and dreams she is a fish, ‘gutted and laid out on ice.’ Even at the peak of her bliss, after her first night with Cory, she dreams of a panicked voice urging her to get away and go home.

Diana is also preyed on by dreams. As she lies dying in her bedroom at Byrne Hall, her nightmares mingle feverishly with her memories, and sometimes she sees ghosts. I think Diana’s dreams are a symptom of her unhappiness and guilt, and of the painful love she feels for her son. Diana is a very defensive character, and it took me a while to work out how to penetrate her armour, and give her some form of self-expression. Dreams, half-dreams and hallucinations felt like one answer. If Diana was well, I think she would do everything in her power to resist such visions; its only because she’s disintegrating that the truth has its way with her.

To sidestep the Gothic for a moment, I’d like to point towards an intriguing commentary on the act of writing that comes towards the end of the book. Freya questions explicitly the old trope of ‘Write what you know’, adding: ‘as if seeing – or knowing, or painting, or writing – is ever a simple thing…’ Is that a perspective you share? What might it mean to ‘write what you know’, if anything, and where do you define the limitations of that?

When Cory advises Freya to ‘write what you know’ it’s his way of telling her to chill out, and to stop seeing creativity as a challenge. When he paints Freya, he doesn’t so much paint what he sees, as what he wants to see – i.e. a conventionally sexy female body – and thus his portraits say more about his limitations than they do about Freya herself. Cory is so confident in his abilities ‘to know’ and ‘to see’ that he fails to acknowledge the essential mysteriousness of other human beings.

Several years ago, whilst struggling to work out why my first novel wasn’t working, I had a Eureka moment. I realised that when I was writing my two main tasks were to be observant and to be precise. Writing a novel wasn’t about inventing airy-fairy metaphors, or self-consciously original sentences, or finding a home for obscure adjectives. It was about looking – really looking – at my characters and their world, describing what I saw as accurately as possible, and shaping it into a story. This is a difficult thing to do, and it doesn’t get easier (although it does get more enjoyable), because the more you look the more you see.

Freya spends most of the novel struggling to fulfil her ambition to write, because she’s living in a hall of mirrors. She’s too confused to be sure of what she sees, or what she knows, so how can she begin to describe it? Towards the end of the book she gains, at long last, a hard-won clarity. For months Cory has been telling Freya, via his portraits, ‘I know who you are,’ and when she writes her review of his exhibition, she effectively asserts, at risk of her life, ‘No, actually, you don’t.’ It’s a modest act of resistance, but glorious in its way!

Finally I’d like to ask broadly about what you feel is the driving force behind The Whispering House. At the heart of it, is it a response to the ‘haunted house’ genre, a commentary on art and possessiveness, an exploration of human behaviours in the face of loss and guilt? It is of course all three and much more, but what do you see as the central question that the novel poses? What, if anything, is being whispered to us?

Whenever I begin writing a novel, I try to focus on the practical stuff (Who are the characters in this story? What’s going to happen to them? Where will their story unfold? etc.) and trust the deeper themes to emerge of their own accord. If I sat down in front of a blank screen thinking, ‘Right, this novel is going to be about Grief’ (or Art, or Guilt, or any other big idea) I’d be overwhelmed, and wouldn’t know where to begin. Once I’ve got my characters up and about, talking and interacting with one another, I tend to get a sense of what I’m ‘really’ writing about, and I can home in on the bigger questions.

The Whispering House began as a response to the haunted house genre. As you know, the idea came to me in response to a particular place (Greenway House), which was a nice, down to earth way to start. It enabled me to ask, and answer, questions like: What does my haunted house look and feel like, and how much will it draw on Greenway? Who lives in this house and what is their relationship to the place? What has happened to them before the story begins? Why is the house haunted? Is this novel going to be a supernatural story with ‘actual’ ghosts, or a Rebecca-ish haunting, in which the characters feel oppressed by people and events from their past?

Once my ghost story had gathered momentum, the larger themes began to make themselves felt. I made Cory a painter because I knew Freya would be attracted to a bohemian artist, not because I expected portraiture to become an important motif in the book. The theme grew organically from Cory’s character, and his relationship with Freya, as I found myself wondering what it means to be someone’s muse; how that might be beguiling and entrapping; how capturing a person’s likeness can be an act of repression. If there are any ‘actual’ ghosts at Byrne Hall, they are the Freya portraits that begin to fill Cory’s studio, and the Stella portraits that he’s hidden in the attic.

Likewise, I didn’t intend the book to be a meditation on guilt and grief. In the first draft, Stella was not a character in her own right, but a generic ‘much-loved sibling’, whose death provided the catalyst for Freya’s narrative. The deeper I got into the story, however, the darker and more complex Stella became, and the more I needed to know about the sisters’ relationship.

What is The Whispering House whispering? I think it’s telling us that human beings are essentially unknowable. Cory paints obsessively, yet fails to touch on the essence of his subjects. Freya dredges up memory after childhood memory, but the real nature of her sister’s life and death remains elusive. Diana loves her son and hates her husband, to the point of insanity, but never truly ‘gets’ either of them. Even Tom – the kindest and most understanding character in the book – is far from transparent. I think the house is saying, ‘Yes, secrets can be unearthed, revelations can be made, but “satisfying conclusions” are only partial and provisional. Where people are concerned, there’s always another layer of mystery to be peeled away, and another one after that, and another one after that…’

Elizabeth Brooks grew up in Chester, and read Classics at Cambridge. Her debut novel Call of the Curlew was shortlisted for the Waverton Good Reads award. She lives on the Isle of Man with her husband and children.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Graham Mort on voyeurism, the Blues and ‘Like Fado’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Graham Mort on the research process behind his collection Like Fado (Salt, 2021).

One of the first things that jumps out about Like Fado is its broad international scope. The collection is marked throughout with an attention to cultural, topographical and linguistic detail that lends each of its disparate settings a feeling of authenticity. I wondered if you could talk about how your personal experiences of these various landscapes fed into your work on Like Fado. What’s your approach to transposing what you’ve seen in this places onto the page?

Working internationally and transculturally has been a big part of my life. I’ve travelled a lot in the past twenty years and almost always for work – projects across nine African countries as well as China, Kurdistan and Vietnam. Some recreational visits to Europe came on top of that, though I dislike that feeling of being a tourist. Travel, like all experience, involves three stages – anticipation, the evanescent present moment, then retrospection.  All of those seem key to the way the experience of being elsewhere shapes consciousness. I always travel with a laptop. Sometimes I take notes on the new location, but on longer visits, such as my time in Cape Town in recent years, I find myself writing about home.

I always travel with a camera and I’m interested in the relationship between experience and image-making. But some of the most disturbing aspects of experience, some pretty harrowing scenes in African countries for instance, simply don’t make it through the lens. That’s a level of voyeurism and objectification that I can’t permit myself. I think the camera teaches a visual awareness that is about looking, framing, including or excluding certain aspects of a scene (rather like short fiction). I don’t necessarily revisit those images on my computer hard-drive when I’m writing, but the act of taking the photograph definitely burns the visually perceived world into consciousness in a more intense way. The camera can be a kind of tyranny, always demanding to participate. It can also be a way of distancing or absenting oneself from an actual experience. So my relationship with the camera is complicated and sometimes ethically fraught.

I’ve always been interested in geography, in locations, so landscapes and cities fascinate me with their layers of time, their accumulations of custom, commerce, ritual and narrative. I often think of locations as narrative spaces – spaces that have been continually named, re-named and narrated. In that context, physical locations – architecture, topography, the flow of water – dissolve into time. I’ve also worked on  a number of multi-lingual projects and that has involved allowing the expertise of others to shape a process, deliberately placing myself on the edge of other languages. There is always a sense of othering and unachievable longing brought about by travel, the extent to which one becomes suddenly conspicuous, the extent to which one has to surrender to other cultures, languages, histories and identities, the ways in which the history of imperial power foregrounds the tensions in contemporary identity. Being shown along a street in Harare by an older Zimbabwean citizen who told me quietly that this was a street he could never have walked down when Ian Smith held power was both shocking and deeply humiliating to my sense of self. I don’t think that’s about trying to assume a false sense of responsibility, but of suddenly being shaken out of one’s own skin. That can be very productive for a writer.

I’m glad you brought up that relationship between the individual and the landscape as I’d also like to touch on the verisimilitude achieved via the complex characters of Like Fado. Of course there are concerns around voyeurism and appropriation, as you’ve alluded to, but I’m curious to know to what extent you leant on your experience of real people and events in building your narrative designs. What were the challenges of confronting your memories of these people and the difficult legacies of their lives? To what extent is that a necessary part of the process of narrative design, if at all?

If there is an arc from the ‘poetic’ short story with it’s quiet sense of epiphany, and the tightly plotted story with a sprung plot, I’m definitely on the poetic side and being as much a poet as a short fiction writer has definitely shaped my sense of character and consciousness in relation to the events shown in a story. That’s related to the movement of time, too. Often very little happens in the forward moving present moment of my stories, but a lot happens through the modulations of consciousness in my characters and narrators – that flux of apprehension and memory, the re-working of past events.

I guess one simple question drives all writers, ‘What’s it like to be someone else?’. Even a lifelong partner is ultimately ‘other’ in the sense that they cannot ever be said to be fully available to us, we can only ‘read’ each other, and those readings change all the time, from intimacy to incomprehension, even to incomprehension through intimacy. There is a sense in which we are ultimately separate from each other, even when the coordinates that have sometimes marked difference – ethnicity, gender, sexuality, culture, belief systems – apparently align.

So the complexity of characters is a given for me. Just as there is no such thing as a simple language, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a simple human being. Our lived experience is incredibly complex as we navigate the minutiae our daily experience (which is always generated by the mind as well as by events) and therefore our inner life is complex with the deployment, recall and interaction of that experience. I think this is also a political dimension for me. For centuries whole swathes of humanity have sometimes been assumed – by ruling elites, by those formally educated, by literature itself – to have somehow lacked a fully sensitised and fully awoken presence. I repudiate that both as a way of approaching people in life and of approaching them through writing.

A lot of my locations are derived from direct personal experience. In my latest book I felt the urge to commemorate places that have already changed since I wrote about them, to fix them at least for the duration of the story. Characters are a different matter and are never really based on actual people I have met. They are fictional entities that sometime grow from those locations to develop a kind of autonomy. I tend to draft a story quickly and then live within it, thinking about it as I go about daily life, letting its characters and their actions grow. I don’t really subscribe to that idea that, ‘the characters just took over’, but I do think that the subconscious presence of characters in the writer’s mind can be very powerful. Writing is a series of small decisions and each one has the effect of developing the whole story. Unintended consequences may develop, perhaps, but then nothing is really unintentional in a story.

Yes, I think you can see evidence of that process of allowing the subconscious to help develop the story in your writing, again through that more poetic, epiphany-led handling of the themes. If I may, I’d like to sidestep stylistic considerations for the moment and delve a little further into the broader themes of Like Fado. I was surprised to find the world of work such a prominent motif, with most of the central characters being characterised in some way via their professional life, the days ‘taken by work’ (p.123). I hoped you could explain what it is about professional life that you feel can be so useful to writers, perhaps as a component of characterisation in particular. Why do you think it became such a recurrent consideration in Like Fado?

I’m from a working class family – my grandfather was a cotton spinner, my father a carpenter and my mother a nurse. Work was the way people in that community spent their time and were identified. So my friends’ parents were all mill or factory workers or self-employed tradesmen. Work was also the thing that we wanted to get away from. Education offered access to a different kind of work and, being a writer, a positive sense of freedom within the work ethic. I absconded from my first attempt at university education and had a lot of jobs afterwards, from mill labourer to gardener to psychiatric nursing orderly. I freelanced before becoming an academic and had many jobs during that period. I have obviously drawn on those experiences of work in my writing.

In his book, Working, Studs Terkel begins with the words, ‘This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body…It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread.’ It’s a wonderful book in which he interviews workers across America in every conceivable walk of life from prostitutes to blue and white collar workers. There is an obvious satisfaction in public service, but even when work is repetitive and oppressive there is often this sense of almost perverse pride in their testimony, a sense of endurance, of going on, of resistance, which in itself creates meaning.

So for me work is an arena from which we take much of our identity and in which we slug it out against time, the forces of entropy, the politics of institutions and corporations. My stories include mill workers, a farmer, soldiers, a waitress, an ethnographer, academics, a surveyor, musicians, a sex worker, engineers and many more. In my story ‘The Glover’, my protagonist is an academic, an expert in corpus linguistics. His other job is as a torturer for a brutal regime. His work is routine, repetitive and predictable in some ways, but also rewarding when it produces results. My character’s apparently sartorial nickname is a kind of ironic nom de guerre, a euphemism for a horrible procedure that works on the imagination of his victims. Meanwhile, he worries about his aged mother who is in a home, his kids who are being bullied at school, and his wife’s upcoming gynaecological procedure. In that story I use work to create a sense of scale, a sense of the quotidian that echoes Hannah Arendt’s phrase in relation to Adolf Eichmann’s unremarkable personality and bureaucratic work ethic: ‘the banality of evil’.

Work is part of character for me, a kind of intelligence, something that can both imprison and redeem. I don’t romanticise it. I’ve seen the harm it can do when it becomes inescapable, when it enforces the restrictions of social class or gender, as it did in my own family. It has been ignored in much canonical literature and it’s really only in the twentieth century that it began to take its place in imaginative writing. A lot of authors still ignore it, as if characters in fiction are only actors in the dynamic of the story itself. That’s a fantasy. For me the work that people do and engage with is fascinating and rich and very much part of their inner life. It shapes their days, their actions, their consciousness.

Another prominent theme is music, as the title suggests. Recently I spoke to author Martin Goodman, who likened the musicality of language to that ‘rhythm which leads to silence’ found in a musical phrase. This reminded me of the lines in ‘Whitethorn’ linking the construction of memory with ‘the space between the notes that the notes themselves were reaching for’ (p.230), a clear link to me between music and storytelling. I wondered where you find the intersections between music and language, either in composition or through the reader experience. To what extent can fiction be ‘like fado’?

My father and grandfather were both musicians. In the short row of terraced houses where I grew up there was also a talented pianist and a gifted violinist. All of them worked in the local cotton mill. Sometimes those cultural aspects of working class life get occluded by clichéd representations. I play in a blues band and I love the narrative compression of blues lyrics. Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘Hey, hey, baby, whose muddy shoes are these? / You’ve got them standing where my shoes used to be.’ That’s a novel in two lines! I really like jazz, too, where the lyrics are often stripped away and replaced by the vocal qualities of instruments themselves. Bill Broonzy said, ‘A lot of people got the blues and don’t know it.’ Louis Armstrong said, ‘Without love you can’t play.’

A musical ensemble, especially one that improvises, operates as a microcosm of democratic society. There is an underlying rhythmical and harmonic form that offers structure, but individuals can find their voice, accommodating and stimulating each other. I became fascinated by fado music (‘Portuguese blues’) because it was disreputable music originally, but there is a terrific – sometimes overblown – sense of exuberance, tragedy and loss. It’s hard to miss the emotional impact, even if one doesn’t understand the Portuguese language. Music is shaped by silence as much as by actual sounds and that’s shared with an audience in the way a written text is shared with the reader. What is left out resonates. It’s hard to find exact experiential equivalences for music ­since much of it has an abstract form. Fiction is ‘like fado’ in the sense that it has a surface form, a narrative flow, a sequence of events dispersed into time. But beneath that ‘conscious’ layer lies a deeper, inchoate, almost inexpressible sense of emotion (‘saudade’ in Portuguese) that we experience in a visceral rather than in a consciously reflective way.

I’ve always found music a rich metaphor for the layering and structure of a story. The idea of counterpoint in music – the way different instruments respond to each other and contribute to the overall texture and movement – is the way I want my stories to work. Poetry has its origins in music, too. It’s meant to move the air and I try to work the language of my stories in the same way, try to be attentive to rhythm and cadence, the sound of the story, which is meaningful before we become fully aware of transitional meaning.

To finish up I’d like to circle back to the idea of internationality that we began with. While the collection spans many disparate locations, they are often filtered through the eyes of outsiders – tourists, migrants, workers abroad. You’ve spoken already about the potential dangers of voyeurism in fiction, but I wondered to what extent you feel that fiction might be an inherently voyeuristic activity? Whilst we often highlight the importance of the imagination in fiction, to what extent do you think it relies on writers peering into a world that is not their own, that does not belong to them?

It’s almost a cliché to reinforce the idea of the writer as voyeur, flaneur, secret agent in society. I wonder where the sense of belonging that is antithetical to that sense of isolation really resides? Human beings seem to crave a sense of collective identity, whether it be membership of the Bullingdon Club, the football crowd leaving Anfield, the arm-waving ravers at the Glastonbury Festival. Individualism is also an important element in the dynamic of inclusion, being oneself even in a crowd. Desire for inclusion, the sense of human solidarity, suggests its antithesis – a sense of isolation and exclusion – which I think is intensified in contemporary society and haunts many people.

I’ve spent a lot of time alone for various reasons. Birdwatching as a teenager; working alone as a gardener; riding a motorcycle with that simultaneous sense of singularity, of being vulnerable and in motion; writing alone at my desk; travelling overseas and spending time on my own in cafés, bars and restaurants. Being alone, moving on, moving through locations and meeting people in often fleeting relationships. When I was in a bar in Cape Town a guy who was already pissed asked me, ‘What do you think of the country these days?’ He meant what did I think of Black majority rule and the way the country had deteriorated (in his estimation) as a result? His remark was the tip of an iceberg and was something to do with the formation of my story ‘Meijersdorp’ in Like Fado. I guess those are the narrative icebergs, the hidden desires, the transient moments of deeper significance, that writers need to bump into. He went home to a hangover. I went home to my laptop in a rented house in a neighbourhood where no one knew me.

So that sense of liminality referred to in your question has been a big part of my personal experience. I think it definitely leads to a certain kind of character in my work. In my story ‘Like Fado’ the narrator is invited into a young woman’s house to photograph her aged mother. It’s a chance encounter and brings a frisson of apprehension, not least the subtle sexual expectation of entering the woman’s house, being close to her warm body, her flamboyant peacock feather earrings. When he takes images of the old lady who is slipping away from life, he finds her beautiful but experiences an ‘almost pornographic’ sense of his own actions, of stepping over the threshold of propriety. So much so that he keeps the encounter from his wife, adding a further frisson of secrecy and guilt. Yet that moment is one of intense realisation and connection that is joined up to his experience of listening to fado music later. His epiphany is one of simultaneously experiencing a feeling of death’s inevitability, of fated or enduring love, and of the inherent difficulty of loving another person who remains unknowable.

I think that buried in that story is something about my sense of what it’s like to be a writer. To become immersed in other people’s lives, to be moved, but to free oneself from that immersion through completion of the story. And however much those stories draw upon my personal experience, the truth lies in fabulation rather than verisimilitude, in the fictive engineering of the narrative and its contrapuntal layers.

Graham Mort is emeritus professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University, UK. He lives in rural North Yorkshire and has worked internationally across sub-Saharan Africa and in China, Vietnam and Kurdistan. Visibility: New & Selected Poems, appeared from Seren in 2007, when he was also winner of the Bridport short story prize. His book of stories, Touch, won the Edge Hill prize in 2011. Black Shiver Moss (poems) appeared from Seren in 2017. Like Fado and Other Stories, a new collection of short fiction, was published by Salt in January 2021. 

www.graham-mort.com

Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

 

 

INTERVIEW: Carys Bray on optimism, climate fiction and ‘When the Lights Go Out’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Carys Bray on the research process behind her novel When the Lights Go Out (Hutchinson, 2020).

One of the most challenging questions that When the Lights Go Out raises is how we deal with that debilitating feeling of helplessness that so many of us suffer from when thinking about climate change. I know you’ve spoken elsewhere about Nobel laureate Paul Romer’s idea of ‘conditional optimism’ – in your words: ‘hope should shove you out the door’ – and I’m curious as to how this idea fed into your designs for the novel. I wondered specifically if you felt that sense of practical optimism driving your work, and whether you feel that optimism might be a necessary aspect of the creative response to both climate change and climate anxiety.

I wrote the novel in the aftermath of my brother’s death. It was the saddest period of my life, and I struggled to do a lot of basic, everyday things. Instead of writing, I spent many hours procrastinating because I did not want to be alone with my thoughts. I discovered that the abject pessimism I felt lessened somewhat when I was physically occupied. So, I stripped wallpaper, painted fences, embarked on a garden clearance, dug up turf etc. until I was finally able to sit quietly again. Perhaps the writing that followed was driven by a sense of practical optimism, or at least, a sense that optimism (or hope) might be salvaged.

I wanted When the Lights Go Out to have a hopeful ending, but at first I wasn’t sure how to manage it. Traditional story structure(s) – ideas about the hero’s journey/the triumph of good over evil/the idea of ‘progress’ – aren’t necessarily useful when it comes to writing about climate, and I was aware that a neat, overly optimistic ending would be a betrayal of the novel and its ideas. I like Rebecca Solnit’s description of hope: ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.’ In the novel, hope is found in doing, which brings me back to Romer’s conditional optimism. Conditional optimism is not tantamount to cheerfulness or positive thinking; it’s all about action.

I think that’s an important distinction, especially in terms of how we position ourselves in relation to the weight of (sometimes apocalyptic-sounding) climate science. Actually, I’m curious to know whether your reading in terms of climate science contributed to the narrative design of the novel. Did you find that as you came across facts/figures that your attitude towards the world of When the Lights Go Out began to change? Or towards your characters, particularly James who acts as a conduit for many of these insights?

While I was working on When the Lights Go Out, I read a lot of climate-related news, but I don’t think my reading had much impact on the novel’s structure. Chris uses bad news like ammunition, as a way of injuring and/or berating his family, while James, who reads his teacher’s copies of New Scientist, uses the things he’s learned to counter some of his dad’s pronouncements – there’s only so much sad news you can listen to as you eat your tea each night!

I enjoyed writing James’s sections. James is more cerebral than his older brother, Dylan, and he’s beginning to think about the difference between the future he’s been promised and the future he can expect. I think a lot of young people are finding themselves in that position (especially in our post-covid world).

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of When the Lights Go Out is, as you alluded to, how our understanding of climate change influences the family dynamic. As part of this, I wanted to ask how you approached the process of keeping Emma and Chris’ relationship at the centre of the narrative design, without it being overshadowed by the hugely-pressing and often deafeningly-loud social and environmental issues that surround it. How did you approach balancing the personal and the public, the domestic and the political? I’m especially curious as to what canonical or contemporary texts, if any, you turned to when thinking about that balance.

I think there’s a great deal of overlap between the personal, domestic and political. When I started writing When the Lights Go Out, I wanted to depict a marriage that comes under pressure from something external (and perhaps existential), making it difficult to address/resolve. While I was writing the novel, a few friends mentioned that their partners had voted differently from them in the Brexit referendum and the subsequent general election(s). These differences of opinion either caused or uncovered cracks in relationships that had once been strong. I remember enjoying Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England and seeing something similar play out in its fictional world.

I don’t think I read any novels with the intention of examining the relationship(s) between the social/environmental and personal/political as I wrote When the Lights Go Out. Having said that, I read a lot of climate-related fiction and, as I think about your question, I can see how the social/environmental intersected with the domestic/political in those novels. I especially enjoyed The Overstory by Richard Powers, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Jeff Vandermeer’s deliciously weird Annihilation and Bourne and Liz Jensen’s dark ecological thrillers The Rapture and The Uninvited.

Just briefly I wanted to touch on another core theme at the heart of When the Lights Go Out, that of religion. Like yourself, I was also taught to believe that the Second Coming could happen at any moment, and just as with Chris’ family background in the novel, a lot of that ‘rhetoric of disaster’ (as you’ve described it elsewhere) came directly from the Bible. I wondered if you could share your experience of using the Bible as a research tool for When the Lights Go Out, especially as a text you have such a personal history with. What did you find when you re-examined certain passages with the novel in mind? Has writing the novel altered your relationship to the text?

I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do have a great fondness for the Biblical stories I heard frequently during my childhood – in fact, I gave Chris a religious background purely so I could use some of those stories in the novel. I particularly enjoy the stories in which people behave badly. Jonah is a favourite – he runs away, tells lies, almost drowns and having been miraculously spared, he sulks!

I don’t think writing the novel has changed my relationship to the text, but as I was thinking about which passages to include, I began to wonder whether some Biblical stories might be repurposed in light of our present difficulties. For example, the story of The Good Samaritan asks, ‘who is my neighbour?’ and Biblical listeners are invited to widen their idea of the category. Perhaps a modern retelling might widen the category further – our neighbours are not only humans, they’re bees, earwigs and hoverflies, how might we demonstrate neighbourliness to them?

I like that idea that novels might ask questions, even ancient questions like how might we demonstrate neighbourliness, through the creative process of narrative design. Do you think, or did you feel when writing, that there is a specific question at the heart of When the Lights Go Out? Do you see the novel as a question, as an act of research into the repercussions of climax anxiety on family life for example, or is there something different at the heart of it?

I suppose, technically, the novel is an act of research, though I don’t really think of it like that. I see it as a collection of things I’ve been thinking and worrying about (and, hopefully, some good jokes), and I suspect there are plenty of people who’ve also been thinking and worrying about similar things and who may perhaps enjoy the novel (and *fingers crossed* laugh at the jokes).

For me, the question at the heart of When the Lights Go Out is: If you believe your world is going to end, how should you live? Chris is thinking about that question in relation to climate change, but it’s a much older question. Ultimately, the world will end for each of us and in the meantime, how should we live?

Carys Bray’s debut collection Sweet Home won the Scott prize and selected stories were broadcast on BBC Radio Four Extra. Her first novel A Song for Issy Bradley was serialised on BBC Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for several awards including the Costa Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. It won the Utah Book Award and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and was selected for the 2015 Richard and Judy Summer Book Club. Her second novel The Museum of You was published in 2016 and her third novel When the Lights Go Out was published in 2020.

Carys has a BA in Literature from The Open University and an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University.

INTERVIEW: Alice Ash on hyperrealism, Debenhams and ‘Paradise Block’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Alice Ash on the research process behind her debut collection Paradise Block (Serpent’s Tail, 2021).

I was wondering firstly about where your stories originate. Some writers I’ve spoken with begin with a character or a narrative idea, some act of imagination, whereas others often start from a news story or something they’ve seen in the real world. I wanted to know if the stories in Paradise Block generally came from within or whether they were inspired from without?

I think most of the stories in Paradise Block came from a character – there was usually a spark that started with a voice I could hear, or a strange way of speaking, a few words that would give me a clue about what the character was like or, sometimes what they weren’t like. The difference between presentation and truth is an important element of character to me, so this was something I would often think about when trying to sketch out a story.

I’ve always meant to use newspapers for ideas, but I never got around to it when I was writing Paradise Block. Several stories were inspired by my real-life experiences, though – usually, it was something small: an observation about behaviour or a habit. A friend used to babysit a boy whose absent father was a train driver; the boy was aggressively proud of his father, obsessed with trains and driving them, but also weirdly fixated with train crashes. That detail struck me as having a lot of weight behind it, and, with some alterations, it bore one of the main characters in Paradise Block: plane-obsessed and fatherless Benny. So sometimes it’s just a moment or observation like that, a detail that moves the character a little bit in a certain direction. Other times it’s a voice that comes when I start writing and lends itself to scenes. Occasionally I have some weird image that I know fits within the story; I want to write quickly so that I can get to that image and write about it. With ‘Timespeak’, a story about a man who is harassed by a telesales agent trying to sell him his own coffin, I had a strong image of an elderly gent in an armchair – he was deaf, staring at a telephone that he could no longer hear ringing. This image made me think that the man wanted the telesales agent to ring, and that detail unlocked the story.

I think that strategy of an image, particularly an uncomfortable or surreal image, unlocking the narrative is something that helps bring Paradise Block into the sphere of hyperrealist literature – a genre that exploits sensory images in order to explore the line between reality and the fantastic, as I think Paradise Block does. Were there any works of literature, art, film, music that you purposefully drew from when trying to explore this line? Or perhaps that you felt you wanted to write against?

I think that writing about mental illness and detachment naturally fragments into fantasy, and hyperrealism lends itself to mirroring fixation and obsession, too. With my recurring characters, I wanted to create an atmosphere of uncertainty, of doubt and confusion. I loved the idea that I could depict a character in a certain way in one story and then completely contradict that in another. I was trying to do show the subjectivity of the stories, how truth in character is slippery and ‘reality’ can distort from one moment to the next.

The biggest influences on my process were Shirley Jackson and Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet. Jackson’s magic is so minutely aside from reality, which is what really thrills me – I find it far more frightening to have the darkness in your own world exposed than to be shown a far-off reality, so I always tried to keep my weirdness close to home and almost feasible to everyday life. It’s interesting to me that scary things can happen when you’re on your own, in your bedroom, watching TV or waiting for the telephone to ring. Jackson makes neighbours and kindly old ladies strange; she shows you a ‘normal’ scene and then adds teeth to it – this is what I love. And Grudova’s collection was really pivotal to my idea of what a short story collection could be – it made me begin to think of the stories as having their own rules and logic, not just themes that link them. The Doll’s Alphabet made me see the collection as its own unique universe, full of objects and codes that belonged specifically to Clutter and to Paradise Block. And I think that Grudova’s style gave me more audacity to sprawl out and get a bit weirder as a writer too, which is where my favourite of the stories came from.

I’m glad you brought up Clutter, as I think as a motif that setting perfectly encapsulates that sense of consistent internal logic which helps lend the town its eeriness. Clutter is obviously an imagined place, and the collection is I think quite open in exploiting the freedoms of the setting’s imaginary nature. That said, I’m curious as to whether you had aspects of a real physical space in mind when you were modelling it, or perhaps a conflagration of spaces, as I infer from the collection? Was there any ‘field-work’ involved in researching and constructing the descriptive environment?

I didn’t want to locate my tower block in a real place because I didn’t want the collection to feel too much like it was solely social commentary. I felt like writing about poverty in a real landscape would make every story and theme reflect through that lens, and I didn’t want that. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s also set in an imagined place, this time a lakeside village called Dark Poole. I think maybe I feel trapped by real places, maybe I don’t want the reader to bring their own suitcase of experiences to my universes – I agree, I do very much enjoy the freedoms of an imaginary landscape that I own in my head. In Paradise Block, I wanted my world to have its own rules, for the people to be shaped by the consequences of this world – the setting itself is a character that the reader has to understand. The interior narratives of the people in the book are very distorted, and I felt like I wanted to mirror this with a setting that was just as unreliable.

But still, when my publicist sent the book out, she described Clutter as a strangeland version of Brighton, and I was like, huh, yeah, it kinda is. There’s the beach, the shopping centre, the launderette up the road; The Brass Cross is based on a pub I used to work in. So Brighton is definitely in there. And yes! I did go ‘on location’ to Debenhams where I wrote ‘Complaint’, which is set in a department store. I find department stores incredibly creepy and watchful, and I enjoyed that a lot – all the ominous silence, the gliding elevators, the sense of never-ending false worlds of cutlery and glassware, BBQs set up with miniature plastic sausages and cardboard cut-outs of grinning Dads. Department stores are so strange to me, and I think they encapsulate what I was hoping to achieve with my setting in general. I wanted Clutter to feel like it was hanging on a cliff edge, like everything surrounding it may or may not exist, and like the whole town might twist and disappear into the sea at any moment.

And as for Plum Regis, the slightly more affluent town in Paradise Block, I was thinking about Chekov’s Three Sisters when I was imagining this place. Plum Regis is the Moscow to my Clutter, but, of course, the imagined version of the town is more potent than the real one. In my head, Plum Regis is more or less the same as Clutter, maybe with a slightly nicer department store and a pub with a better crisp selection. I was thinking about how poor people are encouraged to fight over crumbs, living within fantasies about how much others have, while the very wealthy eat whopping big slices of cake at the top.

I get that. I think in terms of social commentary Paradise Block is more of a question than an answer, and certainly not prescriptive in terms of how we respond to real-life environments that we might read as analogous to Clutter. Though I do think there’s something there in that link between Clutter as a society and the difficult, even ‘cluttered’ internal lives of your characters. It still feels, amongst the hyperrealism, like a collection about the real world, real people. In that sense, I wondered whether in compiling Paradise Block you had in mind some specific aspect of the real world that you felt these stories would help investigate.

When I was writing Paradise Block, I was exploring a part of myself that felt ultimately quite lonely and isolated, trying to decide what would happen to that bit of me. I wanted to express what it felt like to be poor and to consider lives that are often ignored, too. My dad worked for the ambulance service for years, and he often used to talk about how it felt to burst in on people in their private rooms, which were sometimes very messy, neglected and lonely. I wanted, I think, to explore these private rooms as though they were hidden mental spaces, and to think about what keeps people apart when they are so in need of solidarity. This was quite an introspective process for me and, because it took me so long to write the book, my attitude evolved as I got older. Later in the process, I realised that I also wanted to express solidarity between characters and not just the way lives are pushed apart.

Recently, I read a George Saunders essay on how the act of writing helps us to empathise with the world around us. Saunders starts writing Bob – an unreasonable ‘asshole’ who snaps at a barista. The writing process makes Saunders delve deeper, however – he asks himself why Bob snapped. Maybe Bob’s wife had recently died, maybe Bob was a widower, and the barista reminded him of his wife: ‘When I stop writing and come back to myself, I feel more opinionated, and petty.’ This made me think a lot about my characters in Paradise Block, many of whom I wrote based on my own feelings of loneliness, or on bad experiences, people I thought of as unkind and who I wanted to be ‘assholes.’ But as I wrote, the characters rounded and lost their pure asshole-status, they became people who had suffered and who suffered still, and that’s how I hope my characters come across. So I learnt a lot about the greyness of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and how the most interesting characters are something in between. I wanted to write about people divided and alone, but as I carried on writing, the hope sprung naturally through the cracks in the pavement – writing the book was a weird kind of therapy for me, I guess. There is more hope and unity in Paradise Block than I imagined there would be when I first peered through the dirty windows – now, the tenants are lightly touching each other’s lives.

Alice Ash is the author of the short story collection Paradise Block (Serpent’s Tail, 2021). She was longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize in 2019, and other writing has been featured in Granta, Refinery29, Extra Teeth, Hotel, 3:AM Magazine, the TLS and Mslexia. She lives in Brighton. Instagram & Twitter – @aliceash_

Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.