INTERVIEW: Gregory Norminton on world-building, Le Guin and ‘The Ghost Who Bled’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Gregory Norminton on the research process behind his collection The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017).

I’d like to start off with a general question about the relationship between short fiction and research. For novelists, it feels as though research is often taken for granted as a necessary step towards composition, but for short story writers there appears to be more ambiguity. As someone who has worked in both forms, how do you think the relationship between research and short fiction might differ from that between research and longer fiction? Why are the research processes behind short fiction (it seems to me) less strongly emphasised as a part of the craft?

In this instance, my hunch is that the only difference is one of scale. The short story tends to have a narrower scope than the novel, so the range of research you do will be smaller. Of course, everything depends on the specifics. Many short stories tend to work as vignettes, moments of heightened drama or revelation in the life of one or a few characters, and in such instances, especially if the setting is contemporary and already familiar to the writer, there is little, if any, research to do. My stories usually require more contextual ambition than this. Many are set abroad, in another period in history, or in the near-future, and my research forms an intrinsic part of my discovering the conditions in which the premise is to be realised. By this, I mean that much of what ends up integral to my writing emerges from the process of reading and thinking about the material. For me, research is a matter not simply of avoiding factual errors, but of creative discovery. The only difference with the research that I have done for novels is that, when it comes to amassing material for a short story, I actively avoid digression. I want, say, to know about the condition of Orthodox monks on Mount Athos in the C14th, but I don’t need to get to grips, as I might in a novel set in late Byzantium, with every aspect of Mediterranean politics, culture, warfare and ecology. Indeed, it would be to my disadvantage to do too much research, as it could blur my focus, tempting me to encumber my story with digressions and details that are inessential to it.

Yes, again that feels like a question of scope and circumscription, though as a collection The Ghost Who Bled feels extremely wide in scope. I wonder if this range of physical and temporal settings, as well as themes and styles, is something that came from your wider reading, perhaps from international fiction or non-fiction, or whether your research supported narrative motifs that came first from your imagination. Is there an interplay there between input and output?

History has always fascinated me, and I nearly studied the subject at university, so it’s not surprising that my fiction tends to wander about in space and time. Facts and documents limit the historian, but the fiction writer can indulge in guesswork and surmise, all while plundering the hard work of academics and archaeologists. I also used to travel more than I do now that parenthood and Covid and climate considerations have grounded me. Some of the stories in The Ghost Who Bled were inspired by my experiences in the American Midwest, in Cambodia and Malaysia (where I did conservation work), but others take place in countries I have visited only in books (Japan, Mount Athos, Iraq and the Caucasus). I never aim for exoticism: the narrative conceit dictates the location of the story, not the other way around. So, my storytelling antennae twitched when I read about Saddam Hussein’s body doubles, and about kamikaze pilots whose planes failed to take off, leaving them alive yet officially dead. The cultural specificity of these premises dictated the content of the stories. Generally, however, a human predicament interests me, and I look for the best fit.  If I can’t find it a contextual setting in my own time and place, I permit myself to look elsewhere, even if that means inventing a country, as I do for the poet protagonist of my story ‘Writer’s Retreat’.

If we could explore that a little further, I feel as though whilst international history obviously supports the process of looking back that underlies many of the various temporal locations in the collection, there are moments when the prose leaps forwards into an imagined future. I wonder if you could share your perspective on researching possible futures, and how that might differ from researching and sketching imaginaries of the past.

The practice of world-building in fiction doesn’t vary as much across the genres as one might imagine. Whether you’re writing historical or science fiction, contemporary naturalism, or high fantasy, you need to root your narrative in topographical and ecological and cultural conditions. Everything must feel grounded and subject to laws that, though they may vary from those that govern our existence, must nonetheless be consistently worked out and applied. When you read the best high fantasy, you find that the rules of those worlds have been precisely constructed, usually with reference to human cultures that, through reading or experience, are familiar to the author. Tolkien turned to Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic culture, obsessively creating societies via their languages. Mervyn Peake dreamt up a variation on late imperial China, where he spent his childhood, to create Gormenghast. George R. R. Martin makes no secret of his use of medieval history – notably the War of the Roses and the Mongol invasions – to conjure up Westeros and Essos. And Le Guin, whose Earthsea books I consider superior to those of all the men I’ve just mentioned, travels from the Middle East to the Pacific islands to invent a non-Eurocentric fantasy universe. It’s no surprise that Le Guin was the daughter of antropologists. She brings that discipline to her fantasies, culminating in her anthropological collection of texts from a future Californian civilisation, Always Coming Home.

I use these examples because I find them exemplary. Now I don’t write high fantasy, but I do stray into speculative fiction, where the same rules apply. You must build that world and tether its characters to its physical and socio-political laws. If you’re working with documented history, you have, of course, a body of literature to consult. If you’re anticipating the near or distant future, the best thing you can do is turn to history and current affairs. The odds are that something akin to the contexts you’re inventing have existed, or are taking place currently, somewhere on Earth. In my novel The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018), I try to conjure a Surrey of the future, one profoundly altered by climate change, and to do so convincingly, I turned to Stalin’s gulags and to the conflict in Darfur. My short story, ‘The Modification of Eugene Berenger’, is set in a dystopian future San Francisco, in an order of body modifying monks, but the science of what might be possible was brought to me by a scientist, Dr Nihal Engin Vrana, who works in the field of medical prostheses. He told me what could or might be done, and I, the story guy, imagined cultural responses to these new technological possibilities. Finally, the story ‘Bottleneck’, about a composer heavily pregnant at a time of ecological breakdown, developed from my own trepidation about the birth of my daughter and the state of the world into which we were bringing her. By researching human experience that is cognate to what you are inventing, you have a better chance of creating something complex and, as it were, imaginatively viable. Speculative fiction extrapolates from the known. At its best – some of the episodes of Black Mirror, for instance – it creates a deep feeling of unease, because we recognise our world, and ourselves, in the fiction, just a few steps beyond where we currently stand.

We’ve spoken a lot about setting, but I think it would be remiss not to emphasise how character-driven these stories are. Each of the constructed narratives of The Ghost Who Bled finds a foundation in the behaviours of people as authentic responses to the action, not simply as functionaries of the story. In that sense I was intrigued when I re-read the first line: ‘This is a story my neighbours told me.’ I wondered to what extent (even through the often wildly-imagined scenarios) real people worked their way into the characters. To what extent does the collection lean on your observations of human behaviour?

I don’t think it’s possible to write fiction without leaning on your observations. It would be like expecting a composer to write music without reference to any known chords. We write out of what we have seen and experienced, which in turn informs what we can imagine. Fiction writing is extrapolative: someone you meet, or something that happens to you, plants a seed of an idea. You cultivate it in your mind, on the page, and what you end up with may be at a great remove from its origins, so much so that sometimes you forget its origins.

Most of my characters are invented, but many have antecedents, named or anonymous, in history or current events. Saddam really did have body doubles; suicide pilots really did fail to take off in their aircraft in the final days of the war. The specifics of my characters in these predicaments are my invention, but the predicaments are not. At the same time, some of the stories evolved from my life experiences. ‘In Refugium’ grew from my time in a writers’ colony in the American Midwest; I share a childhood landscape with the protagonist in ‘The Time Traveller’s Breakdown’; the leeches in ‘The Poison Tree’ fed on me in the Malaysian jungle.

There is, in The Ghost Who Bled, one story inspired by a real person. My aunt, who lives in France, is Cambodian, and survived the horrors of the Killing Fields. I have heard her speak about her experiences, but I only dared to approach them obliquely, by keeping the, to me, almost unimaginable experience of survival, physical and psychological, at a distance from the narration. I’m a western man; I didn’t want to appropriate a Cambodian woman’s story. So ‘Zero + 30’ (the story takes place thirty years after Pol Pot’s murderous ‘Year Zero’) is told from the point of view of the survivor’s American husband. He is hopelessly out of his depth, but he is trying – which is all that any of us can do – to accompany his loved one in her suffering.

Finally I’d like to ask your thoughts, both as a writer and Creative Writing educator, on the idea of writing fiction as a form of research in and of itself. Do you feel that The Ghost Who Bled functions as a form of research into our world, or perhaps into the possibilities of literary form? Is there a question at the centre of the collection, whether that question be answered or open? Is there a thread tying these stories to an ambiguity within the world?

Ramming my university lecturer hat on – yes, absolutely, fiction is a form of research. But I prefer to think of it as a zone of conjecture, a space in which reader and writer meet and agree to play a game of Imagine.

I don’t set out to experiment for experimentation’s sake. The form should be dictated by the content, rather than the other way around. Dennis Potter didn’t have characters lip-synching to cheap songs because he wanted to expand the form of television drama; he did it because it was the most effective way of telling the story he wanted to tell.

You ask if there’s a question at the centre of my collection. I really don’t know, unless it’s the questions that are latent in all fiction: whose story is this, can we enter it, and what effect does it have on us? Is there a thread tying these stories? There may have been, but I lost it long ago.

Gregory Norminton is the author of five novels, including Serious Things (Sceptre, 2008) and The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018), and two collections of short stories, most recently The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017). He has been the recipient of writing awards from both the Arts Council of England and Creative Scotland. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Sheffield.

www.gregorynorminton.co.uk

@GDRNorminton

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

INTERVIEW: Sammy Wright on mimesis, misery porn and ‘Fit’

Photo credit: Clare Bowes

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Sammy Wright on the research process behind his novel Fit (And Other Stories, 2021).

I feel as though your experiences as a schoolteacher must have been key in aiming for the quality of verisimilitude that Fit achieves. I’m curious to know how those experiences fed into your narrative, and how you handled your understanding of children and young people in relation to both your creative process and its supporting ethical considerations.

I’m going to answer the last part of the question first, as it’s so important. As a working teacher, there cannot be any sense in which you’re exploiting or representing the young people in your care without their consent – and my feeling is that I am a teacher first and a writer second. But, having said that, there’s no doubt that I have mined my experience pretty heavily. In earlier attempts at writing about young people, I sometimes got this wrong, I think. I was teaching in London at the time and my writing was very obviously set in the place that I worked. It meant that I started to become afraid of the reader a little – afraid that I’d misrepresent. In addition, by the time I wrote Fit, I was not only teaching but in quite a public leadership role, and later, in a semi-political role too with the Social Mobility Commission. So I made a very conscious decision that I would create a fictional place that was absolutely not recognisable as Sunderland, where I work. It freed me up to concentrate on the characters, rather than on their surface, and to be certain that I could detach my general observations about kids from the actual kids I knew.

Having said all this, there are roots for the strands of the story and the characters that lie in specific things I have encountered. The levels of neglect that you see in schools are at times truly horrific, and I have seen on several occasions situations like those in the novel. I’d go so far as to say I’ve toned it down – I don’t like misery porn, and I think you have to treat your characters with dignity, rather than peering into the darkest corners of all the things that might have happened to them. For example, it was important to me that I knew in my mind exactly what had happened to Rose and Aaron, but that it wasn’t just plonked into the story for the sake of it. I’m not interested in the traumatic events themselves – I can’t bear it, really. I’m interested in how the child responds and develops in the wake of something like that.

Cycling back to the theme of versimilitude for just a moment, I’d like to hone in a little on your approach to dialogue. In my recent conversation with author Jonathan Taylor, we discussed the process of creating authentic dialogue for younger characters. Naturally, your experience as a teacher will feed into this, but I’m curious to know what challenges you found in recreating authentic speech. How did you use dialogue to characterise your younger characters effectively, without allowing stereotypes or quasi-adult syntax to creep in?

Dialogue is really tricky. I’ve always had an ear for how people speak, but that in itself isn’t always helpful. Dialogue isn’t about recreating speech – in fact, when I have recreated speech accurately, my editors and other assorted readers have often picked up on it and complained about a phrase repeated too much, or rambling discussions that don’t really go anywhere. At first I’d insist that yes, kids do swear like that, and that it’s perfectly realistic for them to say OK fifteen times in a row. But that misses the point. If I can go a bit highbrow, it’s about Aristotelian mimesis – not blindly copying reality, but creating an imitation of reality that focuses on the salient parts.

One of the choices I made in this book was to avoid any kind of signals of dialect. This was for several reasons,  including the need to anonymise the setting, but primarily it was about reflecting how kids think they speak, and showing their language from the inside, as it were. The reader can’t be given any kind of block between them and the character – too much slang, or too many apostrophes and phonetic spellings, only serves to distance the reader and make the characters like specimens to be watched and examined. You need to feel like it could be you speaking.

The other key choice was about showing the tricks of thought that come to light in the language we use. This wasn’t just in dialogue, by the way – sometimes it is in the language that characters use in a passage of close third writing – but wherever it happens it can be very powerful. An example that I had to defend in the editing process was a cigarette butt being ‘flicked perfectly’. My editor asked in what way the flicking was perfect, and I said that the whole point was that it reflected Dillon’s general sense that everything about the act was perfect – the imprecision of the language reflected the imprecision of his childish view of the world. You see this a lot in Rose and Jack, with phrases like ‘do you think they’re all rich?’.

I should add as well that a really straightforward thing in the text is that these particular teenagers are not overly verbal. I didn’t want to write yet another version of the hyper-articulate teen. None of them can articulate much about themselves – which is exactly my memory of being that age – and so there is very little explicit meaning carried in anything they say. 90% of it is subtext and inference out of very flat statements.

Yes, I feel like that flatness is, counter-intuitively perhaps, part of the key to the novel’s feeling of authenticity. For me, one of the most immanent themes of Fit is the impact of social media on young people, something we’re still coming to terms with as a society. The narrative scrutinises the influence of Instagram on social life, and touches on the pervasive danger of image-based abuse. I wonder if you feel literature can play a part in helping us understanding and manage these phenomena. Do we have, or are we need of, a new set of narratives to help us deal with this societal changes?

I’m a teacher of literature, and as such I’m both overly aware of the history of how literature has influenced culture, and very cynical about the impact it has on actual kids now. One of my dearest wishes about this book is that kids would read it. Someone asked me my ideal reader, and I said ‘Rose’ – or at least her real life counterpart. While that is pretty unlikely, to be honest, I do love the idea that someone might choose to teach it in school, perhaps, and as such that might be a way of introducing discussion of the value and use of images.

Tied in with that perhaps, and certainly another theme that feels especially pertinent, is your treatment of how young boys develop violent behaviours. From a creative perspective, I wonder if you feel that the representation of boys and men in both literature and the wider arts might contribute to how boys see themselves as they grow up. Again, are we in need of new narratives?

Absolutely. As a parent of two boys as well as a teacher, I find it shocking how narrow the depiction of men can be in mainstream culture. I think the issue I worried about in this book is about the archetypal roles men are shown in, rather than the specific diversities of sexuality and ethnicity. Why are men not rescued? Why are they not broody? Why are they not insecure about their weight and body shape in ways that are not simply mined for laughs?

The thing is, this is one of those instances where representation really matters. If you watch kids on the playground, they are like a little moving collage of everything they’ve seen and taken in – a phrase here, an action there. Some of this is from parents, but a lot is from culture. We’ve just had the Ofsted report on sexual harassment in schools, and there’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the press about the shock of it. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone who remembers their teenage years with any clarity will remember a time when romance was a pretty blunt instrument – and that comes from young people seeing films and stories and quite reasonably inferring that this is OK.

While we’re skirting around issues of intertextuality, I’d like to close by examining what is one of the key – in fact one of the only – explicit intertextual forces in Fit. The novel is replete with references to fairytales, most pertinently to Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as to analogous themes of image, transformation and consequence. I’d like to ask in a broad sense why fairytales still hold such a dominant hold over the literary imagination, and why they might still be a useful intertextual tool for contemporary writers. Might there be a key, within that sphere of imagination, to understanding and managing some of the themes we’ve been discussing?

Before I answer that it’s important to say that in this book I wanted to write something that was readable, story-based, and direct. It wasn’t intended as a literary game. But the architecture of it is designed around both fairytale archetypes in general, and three specific fairy tales in particular – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Beauty and the Beast. I’m interested in narrative theory, and I thought that one way of avoiding the inevitability of the arc of a particular story type was by colliding it with another contrasting story and letting the roles blur and switch. Is Rose Gretel or Cinderella – and does that make Titch the Fairy Godmother or the wicked witch. In that way, by leaning into the pull that story archetypes have on us, you can break free.

In terms of the use of the fairytale narrative for the particular characters I had, and the story I wanted to tell, there were several other key elements. The original prompt for the book was that I read Philip Pullman’s retelling of Grimm at the same time as I was dealing with a very difficult case where some young people had experienced such serious neglect that they stole from bins, and it seemed to me that the sheer brutality of a world that could produce that was a very good fit for a fairytale. And as I wrote, it came together with the language I wanted to use, whereby the young people in the story expressed themselves in this blunt, flat way, because the world they saw was one stripped back to its basics. And as the characters came into focus, I kept thinking about the way in which one sees oneself in very absolute terms at that age – as a hero, as put-upon, as struggling to make your way – and that at the same time, because everything is so new, you accept it all with the flatness of the hero of a fairytale who, when he sees a gingerbread house, rather than considering how unstable the building materials are and how difficult it might be to get a mortgage, just thinks “yum”.

And when we think in particular about notions of masculinity and femininity, it seems to me like fairytales are still just about the most influential stories we have. If anything, they have only grown in importance in the age of Disney. I include superhero films in that, by the way – while not strictly fairytales, they are certainly fables. And even when we have the twists and meta-textual winks we have come to expect from Marvel and Pixar, they never subvert that far – or at least not in a way that truly challenges the archetypal roles. One of the most depressing things to me is that the only Marvel film where female heroes are allowed to escape a narrow vision of “sexiness” is Black Panther – so that all the while you cheer the positivity of the representation, you also have a queasy feeling that this might be because Black women are not allowed to be “sexy” in the same way as Black Widow.

Sorry. I digress. But fairytales are the basis of all other stories, so whether they are acknowledged or not, they remain a key tool for writers.

Sammy Wright is a teacher. He was brought up in Edinburgh, worked in London for twelve years, and now lives in Newcastle. He has served on the Social Mobility Commission and is currently vice principal of a large secondary school in Sunderland. His short stories have been published in a variety of anthologies and his novel Fit, which won the 2020 Northern Book Prize, is his first book-length publication.

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

INTERVIEW: Hannah Stevens on missing persons, #spycops and ‘In Their Absence’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Hannah Stevens on the research process behind her collection In Their Absence (Roman Books, 2021).

In Their Absence opens with a quote from the eighth century Chinese poet Wang Wei: ‘When you are gone, there’ll be no answer to the questions…’ That theme of the pain caused by unknowing is of course a core motif of the collection, and a type of pain I think most people will identify with, however obliquely. With that in mind, I’m curious as to what first drew you to the subject of missing persons, and what in your thoughts and feelings compelled you to explore that through fiction.

‘Missing’ has always been a preoccupation of mine in one way or another. I’ve always hated losing things: keys, random everyday items at home. I just can’t relax until I’ve found them and know where they are.

I’ve always been preoccupied with missing person cases as they popped up in the news too. I found it so mind-blowing that a person could just disappear and that so many people could have no idea what had happened to them. I think I really started to focus on the theme of missing people after I wrote my collection Without Makeup and Other Stories (published 2012). That collection included a version of ‘Knowing Something by Heart’ which is also published in In their Absence. It’s about a child who goes missing, the aftermath of that and the effect on the family left behind. I think the last line of that story really stuck with me: ‘All of these missing people; if they go of their own accord, why do they go? And if they’re taken, why are they never found?’ and I wanted to explore this further.

People go missing for so many different reasons. It can range from abductions and trafficking to people who choose to disappear after relationship breakdowns or financial problems for example. And then some people don’t mean to disappear; they just drift out of touch with their networks, and this could be because of mental health issues or issues of addiction. So it’s a hugely diverse and complex issue, of course, because people themselves are.

Even though I’ve researched the theme of missing people extensively I still cannot fully comprehend the horror of the not-knowing.

Absolutely, and again I think that sense of being overwhelmed is something I think a lot of people will relate to. I find when thinking about the sheer number of persons still missing, it’s hard to process them as individuals and not simply statistics. In following the lives of missing persons and those ‘left behind’, I feel like this collection writes into that empathy gap, humanising its subject through the myriad of circumstances that might lead to someone going missing, as you allude to above. Speaking speculatively, do you think this empathy gap can ever be bridged? Does fiction have a genuine role in bridging that gap, as writers often claim?

I really do, yes. For In their Absence I researched a lot of factual, real-life missing person events and there are vast numbers of them. The collection of stories I wrote is, of course, fiction but in some ways they’re essentially creatively assembled or reassembled from a number of the narratives I’d read during my research. I think the stories in some way or another are representative of the experiences of people who have been affected by the issue. Ultimately fiction is still about human beings and their experiences, and communicates the pleasures and pains people experience. So I think all stories humanise the statistics in one way or another.

I also feel that short stories are a particularly good form for humanising missing person statistics as they are a form that is based on absence: on what you don’t say, what you don’t tell, what happens outside of the page.

One story that jumped out at me was ‘Laughter’, a flash fiction piece about a woman who discovers her lover is an undercover police officer. Was this inspired at all by the story of activist Kate Wilson, whose ten year fight against the conduct of the Metropolitan Police has just concluded with the IPT confirming the Met violated her human rights? What are your feelings about Kate Wilson’s situation, and how that reflects on the idea of the complex pains of abandonment? 

During my research into missing people I looked closely at the police as an organisation involved in processing and helping in missing person cases. But during my research I found an organisation called Police Spies Out of Lives. Police Spies Out of Lives is a group that was set up to help women duped into relationships with undercover police officers. It was set up by women personally affected by the issue and the group works to offer continued support to those affected and to campaign for justice. Kate Wilson’s story has been covered quite extensively by them and I have followed it.

Through this organisation I became aware of a number of incidents where women had been duped and lied to by undercover police officers (largely men). The story Laughter was inspired by a man known as Bob Lambert. He was an undercover police officer who had created the fictional persona of Bob Robinson to spy on political activists. He duped a woman into a sexual relationships with him and actually fathered a child.

Of course all of these incidents horrifying abuses of power. It is terrible enough when someone you know and love goes missing but what if you find out this person you loved and had a child with is not just missing but never actually existed at all? It would be incredibly damaging. It would be exceptionally difficult to grieve or come to terms with this absence when everything about your life before was based on somebody who was lying to you about so many fundamental things. I mean, you are not grieving for the person who was lying to you, who was duping you, but for a person who was invented or constructed, and who therefore never existed at all. What a complicated thing to process.

I think Kate Wilson and others who have pursued this case against the Metropolitan Police through the courts have shown immense courage and dignity and in the face of such a horrible thing.

Finally, I’d like to go a little deeper into your approach to characterisation. Recently I spoke with Jenn Ashworth about her novel Ghosted, which is narrated by a woman whose husband has disappeared. One of the most interesting things that came from our discussion was the idea that at all times (though particularly under stress/grief), people think and behave as though ‘divided in themselves, inconsistent, strange to themselves’. That quote came back to me over and over while reading In Their Absence, as your characters found themselves behaving in ways otherwise inconsistent with their self-image or what others expected of them. Does this ring true for you? Do you feel as though stress allows your characters to  behave unexpectedly, to do incomprehensible things?

Your question about stress is interesting, but perhaps a bit wide of the mark. Stress is a part of life. And it’s certainly one of the things that makes people behave unexpectedly. But not the only thing. It’s actually quite weird to think that people, when left to their own devices, will behave in ways that are wholly expected or predictable. We all do incomprehensible things sometimes, for incomprehensible reasons, even if we’re not stressed. Because human beings are just a bit weird aren’t they? So one thing fiction can do, is testify to the strangeness of human life, to its unpredictability.

Hannah is a queer, working class writer with a PhD in creative writing. Her short story collection, In their Absence, exploring missing people and broken lives was published early 2021 by Roman Books. Hannah has published short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction widely, including in Archer magazine (AUS), Litro (UK) and Loose Lips (CAN). Her stories have been anthologised in award winning books from Valley Press and by small press publishers Unthank Books.

Hannah teaches creative writing in universities, colleges, schools, the community and NGOs across the world, and she often writes on the themes of gender, domestic abuse, equality and LGBTQ+ issues.

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

INTERVIEW: Linda Mannheim on film noir, Butterfly McQueen and ‘This Way to Departures’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Linda Mannheim on the research process behind her collection This Way to Departures (Influx Press, 2019).

It seems to me that many of the stories in This Way to Departures explore and challenge difficult aspects of American history. September 11 is there, examined through New Yorkers present at the time, as well as repeated allusions to the Nicaraguan Revolution, in which the US aided the right-wing counter- revolutionaries fighting the Sandinistas. Through all of this, I get a sense of the USA as a place in which world history is always crouching just out of sight, and then caught unprepared when the shit goes down. I wonder, as an American living in the UK, whether that rings true for you? How did you handle your thoughts and feelings on the USA in your collection, and did your feelings change whilst writing it?

Oh wow – I’m grappling with this question (and all the different parts of it). The first thing to say is that the stories in Departures are very much a reflection of my concerns and obsessions (as they are for any writer of course). My feelings about the US didn’t change as I was writing these stories. I have always found it to be a complex and contradictory place, and certainly one with an extremely violent history – from the genocide of Native Americans to a farming system that relied on slave labour, and later segregation and institutionalised racism. It is also a place with an amazingly dynamic and inventive culture. And, for many people, it is a very good place to find refuge. My parents and grandparents, for example, fled Nazi Germany and obviously realised they were extremely fortunate (in those circumstances) to have been able to settle in the US, but they weren’t unaware of America’s faults. I don’t think the view the I grew up with — that the US is place filled with injustice while also managing to be the best place to live for many – is an unusual one. In the neighbourhood I’m from in New York, there were many refugees from the Dominican Republic who dealt with the paradox that the US, having supported a dictatorship in their home country, turned out to be the best place to run to when they had to flee. I think that’s true for many refugees.

The idea of the US being a place in which world history is always crouching just out of sight is an interesting one, but not one I thought of as I was writing this. I would say that, if history is crouching just out of sight, it’s often because you have a narrow field of vision. The US’s super power status following the Second World War, and its role in the Cold War, and its sense of exceptionalism certainly meant many people and institutions in the US have had a narrow field of vision. At the same time, I think American exceptionalism isn’t all that exceptional. English exceptionalism is pretty extraordinary too. I think America’s has been more noticeable because of the extraordinary amount of political and cultural power it has right now, though that political power is waning, and I wonder will happen as it wanes.

In terms of whether living in the UK has changed my perspective of the US — as I mentioned, I was pretty critical of the US (and around a lot of people who were critical of it) when I was growing up there. I think leaving the place you’re from always gives you a different perspective on it. For example, once I was living in a place with universal healthcare (the UK), I couldn’t imagine living somewhere without it again – the brutality of limiting access to healthcare really sunk in. I wrote first drafts of the stories, and revised them, over a long period of time, so I was living in Miami when I started writing the stories that are set there – ‘Noir’ and ‘Missing Girl…’ And, in fact, I was working with an organisation that represented children in the Miami-Dade court system when I started writing ‘Missing Girl…’, which meant being very close to the events and the environment that inspired the stories.

In terms of your ‘Miami stories’, I’d love to stop a moment and look a little more closely at ‘Noir’. Tying back to ideas of US cultural history, ‘Noir’ (also published as a standalone Kindle Single) gives a heavy nod to the linguistic playfulness of Chandler, Hammett and Cain. There are of course regular resurgences of interest in the genre, reflected in contemporary novels like Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009), but what draws you to the timbre of these particular writers? Why did you feel the urge to voice noir as a genre, and what did you want to do with it?

Like the characters in the story, I’ve found film noir a really compelling genre, especially for the way it articulates injustice. I was living in Miami when I wrote ‘Noir’. I’d just read a piece of non-fiction that someone I knew had written, and he was really mimicking the hard boiled style of private eye novels, and I started to feel like: the best way to write about Miami would be in this style. I also wanted to disrupt the usual roles that are a part of noir; you’re usually meant to sympathize and relate to a male protagonist who thinks he’s helping a chameleon-like femme noire, and I wanted a female protagonist who thinks she’s helping a homme noir. Years after I wrote the first draft, I read what Jonathan Lethem said about detective novels: ‘The detective wears a trench coat. A trench coat is an explicit reference to trench warfare…. The hardboiled detective was, to begin with, a veteran of World War I who had come back traumatized from a kind of violence, brutality, a despair at what mankind was capable of…’ And I thought, yep, that’s noir – the realisation that things will never go back to normal after a war.

While we’re talking about the incorporation of cultural influences into your work, I’d love to know a little more about how you came to research and write about the actor Butterfly McQueen. In ‘Butterfly McQueen on Broadway’, your curiosity around this largely-forgotten personality (McQueen most famously played Prissy in Gone with the Wind) comes through so strongly. Is there any truth in the motif of your characters spotting her around New York? And were there any practical or ethical concerns in writing about a real and only-recently deceased person?

Everything in that story really happened. I really did walk into a natural foods store in Washington Heights that was owned by a guy named Alex, and Butterfly McQueen really was standing there when I walked in. I kept thinking about it over and over again, and I kept thinking about Butterfly McQueen again and again – all I really knew about her initially was that she was incredibly famous for her role in Gone With the Wind, and that she was uptown, in our neighbourhood. If you live in New York, it’s not unheard of to see well known people around the city just doing things they normally do, but it was really unusual to see someone that famous in Washington Heights because at that point it felt like the forgotten part of the city. I was inspired to write that story by LossLit, the literary project that posits that most literature is about loss, that Kit Caless and Aki Schilz started. And, for the first time, I really started to research Butterfly McQueen. And I was both moved and disturbed by what I read about her – about the decades when she didn’t work because she refused to play maids, and about how she kept a photo of herself with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh so that when she was attacked by racist cops or security guards (which she inevitably was), she could show that she’d been a star once. I didn’t feel any ethical concerns about writing about Butterfly McQueen, because everything that’s recounted about her life is factually based and in the public domain, and there are no fictional elements. And I confess that, when I was doing research for the story, I was incredibly excited to find a cancelled cheque from Butterfly McQueen that someone was selling online, and if you zoomed in on the image, you could see that the cheque was made out to Broadway Healthfood, and that was Alex’s health food store!

That’s great – I feel like it’s those moments of serendipity and coincidence that invigorate the research experience. Stepping away from the US for a moment, I’d like to hone in a little closer on Nicaragua and the wider presence of Latin America in the collection, if I may. Whilst the USA is obviously an ‘American space’, it is not just North American. Latin American cultures, politics and languages pervade This Way to Departures, and I wonder where your interest in that originates. What’s your experience of Latin America, either through reading or travel, and how did that feed into your narrative designs?

I grew up in a neighbourhood with a really big Latin American community. The Chinese restaurant was Cuban Chinese, the corner shop was a bodega, and one of the background languages of my childhood was Spanish. Washington Heights is sometimes called Quisqueya Heights (Quisqueya is a Dominican word for the island that the Dominican Republic is on), but it’s also been home to people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico. I should say too that, it’s New York, so there were also people from other backgrounds: Germany (like my family), Ireland, Russia, Greece, and African Americans who fled the South during the great migration. It wasn’t until years after moving away (as an adult), that I realised how much growing up there shaped me, how hearing Spanish made me feel like something was falling into place.

My interest in Nicaragua in particular grew out of research I was doing for a short story when I was a student; I decided that one of my characters was an American who’d been there, but I really didn’t know anything about it. I ended up reading and reading and reading about the Nicaraguan revolution in the university library, became totally transfixed by what had happened there, and then went there on a scholarship to study Spanish. I ended up going there a few times – twice when the first Sandinista government was in power, and twice when Violeta Chamorro was president. When I was back in the US, my student job for a while was working for an organisation that did community education around US involvement in Central America. I have to say that I’ve really struggled with how to write about what was happening in Nicaragua and El Salvador during that time – in the last part of the 20th Century – because it was so brutal and there are so many ways to get it wrong.

That I understand completely, not just in writing what is true to the history, but also in honestly articulating one’s own feelings. To close our interview, I wonder if you think it’s fair to say that This Way to Departures is pessimistic in its outlook towards the state’s ability to sustain and protect its citizens in a meaningful way? Throughout the collection, it feels as though distant higher powers hold responsibility (without accountability) for repeated institutional failures – failures which it is difficult, sometimes impossible, for everyday, propaganda-soaked people to influence. How do you feel about that? And how do you feel short fiction in general can help write into that concern?

I don’t think of my work as pessimistic in that, though I’m writing about brutality and hardship some of the time, usually the people facing that hardship keep going and figure out how to survive in the aftermath. I hadn’t thought specifically about the institutional failures people cope with, but I think another way of looking at my work is that it’s about the impact of large political movements on day-to-day lives. The characters in both ‘Missing Girl…’ and ‘Dangers of the Sun’ are not affected by failures so much as deliberate decisions. Almost every quote by a politician in ‘Missing Girl…’ is a real life quote from a Florida politician, and they all understood the impact of their actions. Similarly, the doctor in ‘Dangers of the Sun’ and his lawyer know exactly what the doctor’s done and what he can do to try to make amends, and then they proceed to see what they can get away with. I suppose every story is there to relay information, and most of my fiction is based on real life stories that changed me in some way, and without being prescriptive in any way, I want to present those stories to other people. I keep thinking about Valeria Luiselli’s explanation that ‘it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity.’

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: This Way to Departures (shortlisted for the 2020 Edge Hill Prize), Above Sugar Hill, and Risk. She’s had work in The Nation, Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Catapult Story. Eimear McBride said her stories “provoke and abide like a slap.” Originally from New York, she lives in London and is a PhD researcher at the University of Westminster. You can find more of her work at: www.lindamannheim.com

INTERVIEW: Claire Fuller on du Maurier, folk music and ‘Unsettled Ground’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Claire Fuller on the research process behind her novel Unsettled Ground (Fig Tree, 2021).

You’ve spoken elsewhere about how Unsettled Ground was initially inspired by your coming across an abandoned caravan in the woods. This was fascinating for me because in finding out the origin point of the story my view of its design completely changed, almost as if it had been given a new centre of gravity. I’m curious to know whether this progression from a specific image to wider themes and narratives is typical of your process. Did you see the caravan as your centre of gravity, and do you think having such a thing helpful or even necessary when planning a novel?

That’s really interesting – I hadn’t thought of it as a ‘centre of gravity’, where supposedly everything is in balance or springs from. The section where Jeanie and Julius are in the caravan does feel very central so that it’s possible to trace lines from it into the past and into the future. Really though it was simple a point to aim for when writing Unsettled Ground. I might start out from a sandy beach, knowing there’s a massive body of water I have to cross in order to finish a novel. The caravan was a small buoy I could aim for and then launch off from. Most of my other novels have started with a character in a place in a similar way, but for the others that place and character has come much earlier in the narrative. For some reason in Unsettled Ground, I didn’t want to start with the caravan, but instead, I was interested in exploring what circumstances would have led someone to live in a place like that.

Other than a point-of-destination for your narration, I also feel like the abandoned caravan stands succinctly for something many of us have experienced at one time or another – the often less-than-idyllic realities of rural England. In the first half especially, Unsettled Ground broadly presents village life as a scruffy, claustrophobic and hostile place, drawing a social environment more akin to Hardy than Herriot. Do you think that’s fair to say? And if it is, how might that align with or challenge your own experiences of life in Wiltshire and elsewhere?

I did live with my family in a caravan for six months when I was six, although it wasn’t for reasons of poverty, and my memories of the cold and the damp, the lack of an inside toilet or bathroom, and the smell of the place are still incredibly vivid. But I can’t say that any of what Jeanie goes through is my lived experience. I grew up in Oxfordshire and live in Hampshire, so even the fact of her and her brother living in Wiltshire is invented. However, I certainly agree that village life in Unsettled Ground is anything but cosy – definitely more Hardy than Herriot. I spent my first ten years in a village and most of my childhood memories from that time are very positive and more to do with the landscape than the people. I wasn’t aware of the detail of what was going on in the village in terms of class, outsiders and gossip, but I do remember all these things in a general way which I’m sure helped with writing Unsettled Ground.

I feel like there’s a fair dollop of Hardy in Unsettled Ground, so it wasn’t too surprising to learn that you visited his cottage in Dorset as part of your research. Comparisons have also been made between your writing and that of Daphne du Maurier’s, not just because of your comparative themes but perhaps because of the driven, forward-moving structures of your novels. I wonder if du Maurier had an influence on Unsettled Ground, and if so what comparisons do you think are fair to draw in that dark, driven style and structure? Is there something of the Gothic (as I explored recently with Elizabeth Brooks and Jenn Ashworth) in your writing?

The comparison with du Maurier (which I’m very flattered by) is usually made between her novel, Rebecca, and my third novel Bitter Orange – which is set in a large English country house, and definitely has very gothic themes. I wouldn’t say that du Maurier’s writing had any influence on Unsettled Ground, but Bitter Orange eventually became a gothic novel, with supernatural elements, themes of sexual obsession, excess, and voyeurism. But in the way that the Gothic always deals with dark subjects, my novels do too – Unsettled Ground included. I don’t think I could ever write an upbeat, happy book!

A true Hardy-ite, then… That said, something that stood out for me, one of the real chinks of light through the novel (and the only persistent intertextual reference from the epigraph onwards) was your use of folk music. The bond provided to Jeanie and Julius through the music is extremely heartfelt, and I wonder if that comes from a specific place within you. I know for example that your son Henry Ayling performs folk music, and I’m curious to know whether music has bonded you two in a similar way. What is it about folk music, do you think, that speaks to the heart of so many people?

Oh, this is such a big subject! Folk music, country music, Americana – all these styles I love to listen to. And music often finds a way to wriggle itself into what I write. When I was writing Unsettled Ground, Henry was still living at home. His bedroom is next to my writing room, and he would often interrupt me to play me something he’d written and discuss lyrics with me. When he was younger I introduced him to many albums and musicians, and I’m delighted that now he’s introducing me to music he’s discovered. Perhaps folk music speaks to the heart because there is often a narrative in the lyrics, and most usually stories of love and relationships gone wrong. And there is often longing and melancholy – something that tugs at our emotions.

Well, in that sense I definitely see a link between that and the general tone of your novels. I’d like to close by asking about research in general. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you don’t do any research before starting a novel, which is a process a few of my interviewees have also described. And I know that the research you undertook once Unsettled Ground was in progress consisted of more than just reading, including taking a finite amount of money to the supermarket to attempt to understand Jeanie’s situation. I wonder if you could tell me broadly what research means to you, where it fits into your process and whether your attitude to it has changed over the years?

I enjoy doing research for my novels, so much that I try to limit myself. It is very easy to spend a day researching some arcane point only to find that it gets deleted later. However, sometimes digging deep into a particular area that I know nothing about will also sometimes give me something to move the plot along or change a character. Because I don’t do any planning before I start writing, I can only research as I go along. When I come across something I need more information on I’ll do my research then. That might be the Internet generally, asking a question on Twitter or tracking down an expert to interview. Although at the same time as I’m writing I’ll also try and find novels that cover a similar subject to see how writers have done it before me. Interestingly, with Unsettled Ground I couldn’t find any novels that dealt with rural poverty in contemporary England. I don’t think my attitude has changed over the years – only that I am perhaps now firmer with myself to not stay down the research rabbit hole for too long!

Claire Fuller is a novelist and short fiction writer. For her first degree she studied sculpture at Winchester School of Art. She began writing fiction at the age of 40, after many years working as a co-director of a marketing agency. She has a Masters (distinction) in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of Winchester. 

Her four novels: Unsettled Ground (currently shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction), the critically acclaimed Bitter Orange (longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award), Swimming Lessons (shortlisted for the Encore Prize for second novels, and Livre de Poche Prize in France), and Our Endless Numbered Days (winner of the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction), have all been published by Fig Tree / Penguin (UK), Tin House (US), and House of Anansi (Canada). They have been translated into more than 18 languages.

Claire lives in Winchester, England with her husband and a cat called Alan, and has two grown-up children.

INTERVIEW: David Hartley on animal mythologies, rabbitry and ‘Fauna’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author David Hartley on the research process behind his collection Fauna (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021).

I’d like to start off by delving into your personal relationship with animals. Fauna demonstrates the kind of imaginative exercise that only someone with a real passion for, or perhaps even a fixation with animals could write. When did animal life first become important to you, not just as a childhood interest but as an adult preoccupation?

A fixation on animals is only something that has properly developed over the last decade, although I’ve always felt a fondness and affinity. Growing up, my parents always made sure my siblings and I had regular access to the great outdoors. We’d regularly go hiking and fell-walking around the Trough of Bowland near Preston and our holidays were always semi-remote cottages in rural places – Snowdonia, Northumbria, the Yorkshire Dales and so on. Best of all, we had the garden. Our house wasn’t particularly big, but we were blessed with this long, elaborate garden that just seemed to go on forever and was always slightly overgrown and wild. I think that garden entwined its way around my inner spirit from a very early age and gave me an inclination towards wildness, exploration, and some of the mysterious, unknowable core truths of nature. It’s why I’ve always felt quite cold towards landscaped gardens; there’s some sort of essence missing in prim and proper lawns and flowerbeds.

This, I think, became a foundation for my interest in animals in later life. We’d always had cats growing up, who I’d adored, but it wasn’t until my early twenties when this inclination towards nature started to blossom into a proper interest in animal life. My partner and I started volunteering with the Manchester and Salford RSCPA. We’d help out at charity microchipping and welfare clinics, which were often held in the more deprived suburbs of the city. It was common to encounter status dogs on choke-chains, or a breeding situation that had gone out of control, or a neglected rabbit with overgrown teeth and matted fur. It was always distressing but I began to see the difficulties that often lie behind these situations. A lot of it came down to poverty, miseducation, and the mental health struggles of the owners, but also to some fundamental toxicities about humans; the desire to have ultimate control over something, and the idea that a pet somehow ‘completes’ a family despite the cost or the welfare of the animal in question.

Back at home, my partner and I started fostering rabbits and guinea pigs, many of whom ended up staying with us (we now have two house rabbits and, at present, twelve guinea pigs). Having seen first-hand how problematic it is to base your animal care on assumptions and traditions, we did our research and soon became experts in all things lagomorph and cavy, and that’s where my deep fascination in animals really came to life. Getting to know the intricacies and intimacies of the humble rabbit in particular totally changed my outlook on my understanding of animals more generally. I owe it all to our first pair of bunnies; Delphi and George. Changing my eating habits and going vegan soon became an inevitability, as did this new and invigorating direction in my writing: angry tales about wronged creatures. The first I penned was ‘Tyson/Dog’ which was directly inspired by the most common canine name filled out on the microchipping forms at those RSPCA events. At one point, it seemed like every male Rottweiler, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Pitbull in the Greater Manchester area was called Tyson. All the females were named Sasha, for some reason.

I think it’s interesting that your passion for animals came from adult experiences, as opposed to childhood interests. I’ve spoken to a few writers (particularly nature writers) who came to love nature through the canon of ‘animal literature’, which worked as a kind of catalyst for their feelings about the outside world.  I remember being inspired by the fables of Aesop and Kipling, and later through Brian Jacques, William Horwood and Robert C. O’Brien, all of whom use animals as analogies for interpreting human behaviour. Perhaps you could take us through your experiences with reading animals, and how that has fed into your creative development.

I was a Redwall fan for a time, so Jacques is definitely in there as an influence. I had an audiotape of The Wind in the Willows when I was young that I can still sing along to, so that probably factors as well. And I often go back to Watership Down, of course, but more the (terrifying) film version than the book. In a similar vein, the TV cartoon Animals of Farthing Wood lodged itself deep into my brain, especially the trauma of the death of Badger. All-in-all, that’s a lot of exposure to well-to-do anthropomorphised British animals with posh accents seeking some sort of utopian pasture after humans have muscled in and disrupted things. The blood-red fields in Fiver’s nightmare in Watership is particularly key, almost as much as the gunshot that kills Bambi’s mother. There are clear echoes of all this throughout Fauna, I think.

In terms of adult ‘animal literature’, I struggle to pull on any meaningful threads. It’s curious how we tend to leave behind the talking animals as something which fairly decisively belongs to children’s literature, as if we grow uncomfortable in later life by the mere suggestion of animal agency. Or we more easily see through the metaphoric veil at the humans beyond, and therefore have no place left over for animals in our stories other than as symbols of grace or portents of death. I’m enjoying what Jeff Vandermeer is doing in his weird fiction, particularly in his Southern Reach Trilogy, and in Borne. While his work tends more towards flora than fauna, he incorporates animals in a way that pushes them beyond simple metaphors for human emotions or as convenient narrative beats. They permeate, threaten, intertwine, fade back, reappear. In essence, they are wild.

The only other obvious entry is Orwell’s Animal Farm which serves as the main inspiration to my standalone chapbook ‘Pigskin’, published by Fly on the Wall as a sort of prelude to Fauna earlier this year. ‘Pigskin’ reimagines Orwell’s work by explicitly removing the stark political metaphors and re-infusing the farmyard creatures with their animality again. It also asks us to reconsider what we understand a ‘farm’ to look, sound and smell like in our heads: more rusty, corrugated iron and creaky gates, than idyllic fields and cartoon animals with smiles on their faces. The stories in Fauna try to reach towards something similar: animals that are wild, unknowable, and wrongly conceptualised. I use the probing directions, absurdities, and possibilities of ‘the weird’ to try and reconnect with that wildness.

I’ve mentioned fables already, but that idea of deep-seated and potentially misleading conceptualisations of animals really chimes with the influence of classical mythology in Fauna. For me this feels like a natural influence, not just because animals are such a recurrent motif of mythological narratives but because the overarching tone of Fauna lends itself to the search for meaning through imagination and analogy. In general social or environmental terms, I wonder if you feel as though we are in need of new animal mythologies? To what extent might the construction of new animal mythologies be possible?

I like that idea a lot – the search for meaning through imagination and analogy. I think that’s a lot of what drives my approach to writing and why I always find myself tumbling back down into mythology and fable. But yes, conveniently for my purposes the creatures are there in those worlds too, as beasts to be battled with, or as deities to be praised. So, when I enter Greek mythology most explicitly in the collection, on the shores of the Styx with the ferryman Charon in the story ‘A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs’, there was an immediate sense of comfort and belonging. These mythologies grant you a certain power to be able to do practically anything you like story-wise because they come along with a natural aura of magic and mischief. Which is precisely what I was relying on for these attempts to reimagine animal narratives.

In this industrialised, globalised era, our attitude towards animals has changed substantially since the mythologies of ancient civilisations. I suspect that has much to do with the modernising attitude that placed human beings as central gods in an increasingly secularised, profit-driven world, as well as the domestication of animals who don’t serve a direct work-related purpose. By reaching for the rational, we pushed down a lot of the mystical, and with it the aura around animals dampened and weakened. No doubt that weakening had been a long time coming since the first horse was domesticated, or the first wolf received a pat on its head for behaving like a person. But Descartes nailed down the coffin when he wrote that animals are automata who can’t reason or feel pain, and humans finally climbed to that pinnacle we’d been dreaming of. Sure, we’ll still coo and weep at an Attenborough documentary, and we’ll declare our deep love for our pets, but we do so while chomping on a chicken burger and deforesting the Amazon. Somewhere in our heads, a switch was flipped that we’ve never flipped back.

The new animal mythology we need is one that knocks humans off the pedestal we’ve put ourselves on. Unfortunately, it currently feels impossible for us to dismantle that imaginary hierarchy of superiority, but the climate crisis is, at least, giving us pause for thought. Oil-slicked sea-birds, emaciated polar bears, and dolphins caught in netting are new mythologies that tell anxious stories in that Barthesian way. We can’t get through a Grand National these days without some anxious hand-wringing around horse deaths. We’re now looking at animals and starting to feel guilt and shame, and I think that might be the catalyst towards a new animal mythology for our nature-starved, human-centric collective unconscious.

That I understand. So if we’re imagining how that might look, it seems to me as though one of the core components in building an animal mythology must be the classical tendency towards anthropomorphism or zoomorphism. In Fauna, the constant interchange of human and animal experience creates both horror and empathy, with both states (in my reading) struggling to reconcile with the other. What are your thoughts on the use of anthropo/zoomorphism in the collection, and how might both techniques enable or inhibit empathy between human and animal? What effect might that have on our anthrocentric unconscious?

I became conscious of the perils of anthropomorphism very early on when writing these stories. I began to trace a lot of the wrongheaded assumptions we have about animals back to this comfort we derive from anthropomorphism. It’s most evident with dogs, which is why the cyborg Tyson in ‘Tyson/Dog’ reflects on the expectations of his programming: he is expected to bark, not bark, roll over, sit, fetch, stay, fight, not fight etc based on the whims of the humans. In turn, the humans expect this creature to make behavioural decisions with the same sophistication as a human: defecate there but not there, rip up this toy but not this cushion. The process of domestication is the process of getting a non-human animal to conform as much as possible to the ways, means and comforts of humans. Anthropomorphisation plays a large role in that. Our narratives suggest that animals are basically just humans in disguise. We’ve believed ourselves to be so superior for so long we can no longer imagine alternative ways of being conscious or sentient.

I think of Wittgenstein’s quote quite a lot: ‘If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.’ He was making a fundamental point about language, but the animal element of his idea shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, it unlocked possibilities for me as I travelled into deeper and weirder absurdities while trying to keep connected to an animal reality. I leaned as much as I wanted into the trickster side of my fox in ‘Broadcast of the Foxes’, letting him grow feathers and travel through bricks, as well as staying classically fox-like. My birds in ‘Flock’ have an absurd communal quest but stay resolutely avian, while the Pandas in ‘A Panda Appeared in Our Street’ are defined by the humans who tend to them, but stay perpetually stuck in that position, quite literally. But it was writing the horse story ‘A Time Before Horses’ when I really wanted to give anthropomorphism a hefty kick.

I get increasingly anxious about horses. Another animal we revere and cherish and adore, and yet we cart them half-way across the world to dance in dressage, and regularly ride them to death while emphatically declaring that ‘they love it’ and its ‘what they want to do’. It never fails to sicken me. I fear horses are deeply cursed by their symbiosis with humans, more so than any other animal. They were fundamental to our modern evolution, but also to our ability to kill each other in mass numbers, and somewhere along the way we twisted our empathetic relationship with them to help justify our imagined superiorities and our very real bloodlusts. The conquering of Native Americans was literally overridden by the glory of a cowboy on horseback. And yet that was never the horse’s choice, or fault.

I try to get a little closer to some sort of horsey essence by attempting to tune into a form of equine communication that humans are utterly disconnected from and unaware of. So, my trio of interdimensional horses speak through minute flicks and twitches, and also have this ability to connect through a sort of mystical cyberpunkish network called the ‘equus’. Of course, there’s still anthropomophisation here because there almost always has to be, but these techniques of weird fiction help me slice away the human as much as possible to see maybe get a glimpse of what’s on the other side. I happen to believe that ‘other side’ is an incomprehensible and majestic vastness that terrifies us. That’s why we wallpaper over it with anthropomorphism.

Also running alongside that weird fiction influence is your exploration of the intersections between ‘natural’ and technological life. Throughout the collection, the commodification of animals is enabled by technology, which is perhaps what sometimes lends Fauna its dystopian undertone. I’d like to ask what research you did in terms of VR technology especially, and how you see the virtual world impacting on our understanding of animal life in the coming decade.

The only real level of research I did was the RoboRoach for ‘Betamorphosis’. This is a real bit of tech that was kickstarted by a pair of neuroscientists about six years ago. It’s a DIY kit that involves you catching a live cockroach, filing away the carapace on its head to expose the brain, then attaching electrodes which transmit to an app on your smartphone which you can use to move the cockroach around. All while it remains alive. It is an utter nightmare of the highest order, and there was some handwringing about it at the time, but only because it seemed to briefly signal that the same thing could be done with humans in the future. There was barely a sliver of concern for the cockroaches, of course. Why would we care about such an inconsequential creature, after all? At that point, I diverted my research away from the RoboRoach and into the cockroach. I learned about the importance of roach sociality, about how they just stop and die if they end up alone for some reason, and how they follow each other’s trails of faeces to find the best food and shelter. Translating all that over to Kafka’s Metamorphosis was an absolute dream. I found the absurdity of Kafka’s tale helped be to highlight some of the fallacies of anthropomorphisation because Gregor Samsa’s pathetic, helpless narrative voice fit so well with our concept of the inconsequential nature of insects, especially those designated as ‘pests’.

I guess I’m quite skeptical about the abilities of VR to solve some problems in relation to animals. I fear my understanding of technology has been somewhat coloured by the era of the tech bros who promised so much utopia while dredging up a new media dystopia that took us all by surprise. That’s there in ‘Come and See the Whale’ where advancements in various technologies make it possible to suspend a live whale in a tank in a museum for the benefit of Science, Knowledge, and Rich People’s Pockets. The trick is that the whale has a VR Atlantic Ocean grafted to his brain so he’s happy, of course, as long as nothing goes wrong, and why would it? Technology famously never goes wrong.

In a sense, I see the glorious Attenborough documentaries are a form of VR: immersive, close-up, slow-motion shots that get us as close as we could ever hope to get to amazing creatures in their natural habitats. But I was a film scholar at university, and I can see other things going on. The eagles and tigers are underscored by majestic strings and soaring symphonies, while the toads and bugs get quirky tubas and plinky-plonk pianos. The footage is heavily edited to give the illusion of smooth narrative. Even here, we can’t keep our human frameworks and hierarchies out, which is why I think these documentaries ultimately fail to get their full message across. They’re too comfortable, too cosy. The VR headsets will always come off as soon as we’ve had enough, or if we’ve got too close to something we don’t have the skills, or patience, to fathom.

I think that image leads us nicely to my last question, which I think in many ways you’ve touched on throughout our discussion. I’m keen to know whether your research for Fauna has given you greater optimism for the future, or greater pessimism. Did you feel your attitudes to the future changing as you wrote and researched for your stories, and what attitudes do you think Fauna might impart to your readers as we collectively face the uncertainty of the future?

At heart, I’m an optimist and always have been. But its increasingly hard to quantify optimism and pessimism in our present moment. They are both there, duking it out like ancient gods in some creation myth. On the one side, there’s been a quiet but substantial revolution in veganism since I started writing these stories. The narrative on being vegan, or ‘plant powered’ as the successful euphemism puts it, has shifted from something extreme and faintly ridiculous to a solid and respectable life choice. It’s now easy and fashionable to be vegan, and while there’s still a long way to go with all that, they are clear steps in the right direction. That does give me a lot of hope. As do the school strikes and the tide of political and public opinion sweeping towards green solutions and ecological concerns and away (I hope) from inaction and climate skepticism.

But I do fear its too little too late. And I look at the cognitive distance we still maintain from our animals and that worries me immensely. There is no shifting the meat industry. There is fevered outcry about the mere suggestion of stopping horse racing or greyhound racing or banning pet breeders. We brought in the Hunting Act to stop fox hunting, but it still happens with very little consequence. Barely anybody wants posh people to be shooting grouse every year and destroying huge acres of land in the process, but it goes on and on with no meaningful sign of it being stopped. Most of us are still missing a full vision of animality, safe and sound with our labradoodles and eco-friendly zoos.

I hope Fauna makes a few people pause and seriously rethink their relationship with animals. Not just the eating of them, but the manner in which they think about them. Are animals just elaborate ornamentation for human world? What does an animal actually want, and what has it been trained to want for our benefit? Is an elephant more fundamentally ‘important’ than a fly? I hope that by taking time to self-interrogate about animals it will help us to scale up and see the wider natural world in the same light. Fauna is about trying to set aside the human, at least for a moment, just to see what alternatives might be possible.

David Hartley is a writer and researcher, with a taste for the weird and the wonderful. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester where he researched representations of autism in science-fiction and fantasy. He is the co-founder of the Narratives of Neurodiversity Network, and co-host on the Autism Through Cinema podcast. His fiction has appeared in various literary magazines including Ambit, Black Static, Structo, The Shadow Booth, and The Ghastling, and he is the author of Spiderseed (Sleepy House Press), Incorcisms (Arachne Press), and Fauna (Fly on the Wall). He lives in Manchester with one human, two house rabbits, and twelve rescued guinea pigs. He tweets at @DHartleyWriter and blogs at davidhartleywriter.com

INTERVIEW: Jonathan Walker on demons, Twin Peaks and ‘The Angels of L19’

Illustration by Dan Hallett

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jonathan Walker on the research process behind his novel The Angels of L19 (Weatherglass Books, 2021).

I grew up in a comparable religious environment to Robert and Tracey, so it was fascinating for me to be reminded of this very emotive and often strange culture. Before we get into the deeper themes of The Angels of L19, I wonder if you’d be happy to share how your own background fed into your designs for the novel. How did you approach recollecting and interpreting your memories around your teenage faith, if you had one, and did your perspective on that time change as you wrote?

I grew up in a church very similar to the one depicted in the novel, and I have a photo-essay coming up on Ten Million Hardbacks based on my snapshots of the time, depicting my friends from the late 80s and early 90s. Many of these were taken at Merseyside Christian Youth Camps, which was my summer holiday and the highlight of my year during that period.

I say ‘grew up in a church’: I joined at fourteen, as a convert, and to some extent against the wishes of my family.

I am no longer a practising Christian. I stopped attending church in my late twenties, when I was a postgraduate, but looking at the arc of my personal history from my current vantage point, it’s no surprise to me that I began to drink problematically at precisely this point. I’m currently a recovering alcoholic and addict with nearly seven years’ sobriety, and I now see alcoholism and addiction as a kind of pathological individualism and spiritual deprivation. So when I cut myself off from community, and started to think of life in terms of me against the world, I also started to need alcohol to help me to negotiate that hostile world. My ongoing sobriety therefore depends on my willingness to acknowledge: that I am not alone; that I am part of something greater than myself, and must try to acknowledge that belonging and connection in my behaviour. But I can’t subscribe any longer to the very detailed and forbidding checklist of doctrines that I did as a teenager.

So it’s important that The Angels of L19 is a work of fiction: it explores some very specific answers to these general questions, but because it’s fiction, it doesn’t propose them as universally true. It’s a book about evangelicals, but it’s not an evangelical book: it has no interest in converting or convincing anyone of the truth of its revelations.

But in light of my experience of addiction and recovery, I certainly approached the novel in a different spirit to how I might have written it in my twenties, when one is supposed to write one’s semi-autobiographical novel. If I’d written it then, it might have been more like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: more satirical, or at least with greater scepticism and critical distance.

So I began by trying to remember in a spirit of charity, with a willingness to believe the best of my characters – to believe that their faith inspired them to be better people, not worse. I wanted the people I grew up with to read this and feel good about themselves: to feel that they hadn’t wasted the love they showed towards me; that I had kept it safe, and was trying to put it to good use by writing this book.

I think the link there with Winterson is an interesting one, especially in the context of your novel as being apart from that current of semi-autobiographical novels that writers often produce early in their careers. Continuing on literary connections for the moment, I’m aware that The Angels of L19 was written as part of your doctorate at the University of Kent, which means you must have undertaken several years’ worth of reading around the novel – again, something that’s not necessarily typical of semi-autobiographical novels. Your Acknowledgements refer to the work of English novelist and theologian Charles Williams, and I’m curious to know what other fictional and non-fictional resources you drew upon. If knowing you wanted to work with your lived experience from the start, how did you identify what would be useful in bringing your reflections to life?

Any creative project begins with establishing a sort of customised canon for the work you want to write: a tradition of which it will form a part. Obviously there are many examples of Christian fantasy that I used, and which are also part of the larger canon of English or European literature: The Divine Comedy, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I singled out Charles Williams in part because he felt ‘in reach’ as a comparison in a way that the more imposing works in this tradition do not, but I’d have to say that Mephistopheles from Faustus (along with his ancestors in medieval morality plays) is the main inspiration for the demonic character in my book.

Besides the Bible, I also used the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, the source of the legend of the Harrowing of Hell, which purports to describe what Christ did in the time between His death and resurrection. According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, and to many medieval fictional re-workings of its narrative, Christ went to hell and released all the Jewish patriarchs who awaited His coming there. My novel offers a fairly idiosyncratic re-telling of that legend, in which the promise of release is available to everyone – obviously this has very speculative theological underpinnings.

Stylistically, Jeanette Winterson is an important influence for me: not just for Oranges, but several of her other novels too, because they combine complex ideas and vivid imagery with very simple syntax and vocabulary. I found having two teenagers as POV characters useful in this regard: it put a constraint on my tendency to use abstract thinking and language.

For the visions of my character Robert, and for examples of how these might be situated within the secular mode of the historical novel, I drew particularly on the work of AS Byatt, especially her Frederica Quartet. Byatt’s novella ‘The Conjugial Angel’, about Victorian Spiritualists, also features visions of very unorthodox angels, and these are one of the main influences on the peculiar ‘presence’ in my novel.

I also draw on cinema and television: I’ve described my novel as ‘Donnie Darko but all the characters are evangelical Christians’, but I think Twin Peaks is actually the stronger influence (Donnie Darko itself is obviously inspired by Lynch). What I draw from Twin Peaks is the juxtaposition of an achingly sincere, even naïve, depiction of goodness – which Lynch associates with images of 50s America – with disturbing intrusions of adult complexity and supernatural evil. Lynch’s work has no real overarching mythology – the attempts to provide a systematic underpinning to Bob and the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks have always struck me as wishful thinking – but instead relies on free-floating, powerful images, which he trusts to speak for themselves, however darkly and obliquely. Their free-floating quality is precisely what makes them so disturbing.

I also tried to begin my story with images, to be quiet and let them arise out of my own history. My retroactive attempts to provide some theological rationale for these images in terms that make sense to my characters are perhaps as unnecessary as the Twin Peaks mythology, and a lot of this intellectual superstructure got cut in the editing process. But I do have a long essay on the novel’s theology, which may end up being published somewhere.

In terms of a theoretical framework, all my creative work is an exercise in hermeneutics, which means the theory of interpretation, how we infer or create meaning. I’m far from an expert on the philosophical literature on this, though I used the work of Paul Ricoeur when I was a historian. But everything I’ve written is engaged with the practice of hermeneutics: my first book is based on reports written by a seventeenth-century Venetian spy, who was trying to interpret whether the behaviour he observed and described was significant. Was that a blink, or a wink? A chance encounter, or a conspiracy? My first novel, Five Wounds, has an angel character, who is more traditional than the one in The Angels of L19 insofar as she originally had a pair of wings, which the novel conceives of as functioning like antennae to receive messages from God. So the fact that her wings are missing, amputated, means that Gabriella only receives garbled and corrupt transmissions, full of static and interference, which she is therefore obliged to interpret speculatively.

And the characters in The Angels of L19 are constantly engaged in acts of interpretation, not only of the Bible, but of contemporary cultural texts like music and films. The exorcism in the book even proceeds as an argument about the correct translation of a term in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. (I should stress that I am relying entirely on commentary by others for this and similar discussions: I have no Hebrew or Greek.)

You mention the Bible there – that must have been a core text for the novel, especially as it’s quoted at such length. I recently spoke with the author Carys Bray on her use of the Bible as an intertextual text in fiction, and am keen to ask you what I asked Carys. That is, did your relationship to the Bible change as worked with it alongside The Angels of L19? Is it a textual source you still feel an emotional attachment to, and did you encounter any moral or practical challenges in quoting from and interpreting a ‘sacred text’?

The Bible used to be a common resource for storytelling and argument: its stories and rhetoric were not only freely available to preachers, but for political argument. It’s well known that the origins of the Labour Party lie as much in Welsh Methodism as in Marxist theory – because the Bible is full of useful denunciations of the rich, and of injustice and oppression. And as a culture we’ve lost this shared resource, this resonance that attends upon allusion to a deep history, even though Biblical hermeneutics still underlies most of what we now call literary criticism. In other words, the techniques developed by medieval theologians are the same ones now applied to literary texts.

I hadn’t read the Bible in many years when I started my novel, but I’d pored over it from cover to cover many times as a teenager, and I found that phrases, images and stories came back to me easily. My characters turn to the Bible for advice, for inspiration, for consolation, for explanation, and to support arguments they want to make. It is something sacred, and therefore authoritative, but it’s not distant or intimidating – it’s close and familiar, a constant friendly companion.

Obviously approaching the Bible as a cultural resource, as a repertoire of stories, is rather different to approaching it as the revealed and infallible Word of God.

Reading it as a ‘cultural resource’, one of my own favourite scenes remains Jesus’ and Pilate’s conversation before the Crucifixion, where Pilate challenges Jesus with the line: ‘What is truth?’ This brings to mind one of the main concerns of The Angels of L19, as I read it, which is the truth (or untruth) of religious experience. During one of Robert’s visions we find the line: ‘This is a vision; and it’s really happening,’ a complex, perhaps paradoxical statement which reminded me of the concerns of religious philosophers like William James. I’m curious to know how this line relates to your own views on religious experience (speaking in tongues, communing with angels/demons, etc.) and to what extent our concept of ‘truth’ interacts with that?

Few people now share the evangelical belief in literal demons. Conversely, metaphorical demons are ubiquitous, although they are perhaps especially prone to appear in discussions of mental health problems and addiction, i.e. in the same spheres where literal demons are thought to have a particular interest. But unlike literal demons, metaphorical ones are not external agents: rather, they are part of us. ‘The devil,’ Freud wrote, ‘is certainly nothing else than the personification of the repressed unconscious instinctual life’.

Only in fiction can a demon be both literal and metaphorical. I wanted to give my demonic character agency apart from Robert’s unconscious desires. Only then could she push him to places he would not dare to go on his own.

In short, demons (probably) exist in the world of my novel. In that fictional world, they are real. But the relation of that fictional world to our world is metaphorical, and I see the demonic character in my novel primarily as part of a literary tradition (Faustus, etc.), not a theological one.

As for religious experience more generally, I see this as a universal part of human culture, which must therefore be adaptive in some sense. I don’t see religion as bad technology – as primarily an attempt to influence and control our environment, but an attempt based on faulty premises. Rather, I see it as a cultural phenomenon: a way to conceive of the relation between self and other; or the relation between self and the transcendent (whatever that means); a way to cultivate wonder and gratitude, and direct them out from the self. That is the spirit in which I hope people will read my novel.

Lastly, I’d like to ask about sin, guilt and deliverance. The impact of guilt, particularly sexual guilt (as I discussed previously with authors James Scudamore and Susan Furber), is a recurrent theme in your novel and has a clear association with the workings of teenage faith. I wonder if you feel that Christianity and/or our wider post-Christian society has a responsibility for the often very dangerous impact of guilt on young people? Perhaps this is too strong, but do you believe that there are aspects of modern religious belief that young people may benefit from being ‘delivered’ from?

Guilt is actually the appropriate response to the revelation of the harms I have caused. I haven’t made ‘mistakes’ (the preferred contemporary euphemism). I have been careless and selfish; I have hid from myself the knowledge of the hurt I might be causing, because I want what I want and I’m determined to have it; I have indulged my worst impulses, knowing they are harmful to myself and others; I have maliciously caused harm for its own sake because I wanted to hurt someone. I have, in other words, sinned.

Often – particularly in my experience of addiction, where this effect is particularly dramatic – I have acted destructively almost against my own will: I’ve felt myself mastered by something more powerful than myself, which I lack the capacity to resist unaided. But I don’t see any need to attribute this to demons. As St Paul puts it, it is the law of death at work in my members. And I need grace to overcome that law, and to offer the possibility of forgiveness beyond guilt.

So guilt is not an invitation to withdraw into myself: properly understood, it is an invitation to acknowledge the truth about the consequences of my actions, and to undertake reparative work. Guilt is only poisonous when there is no understood and agreed-upon mechanism for self-forgiveness. So my understanding of all this is still fundamentally Christian.

The problem is that guilt is not necessarily a very reliable Geiger counter for actual harm: it is itself a corrupted instinct. I felt no guilt for years over actions I now understand to be very wrong; conversely, I felt deep guilt over things I bore little responsibility for, or which didn’t really hurt anyone. And in my novel, it’s the demonic character who is the mouthpiece for Robert’s guilt: in fact, Satan means ‘the accuser’ in Hebrew. And Robert really has very little to feel guilty about. He’s a very innocent character (even if he is rather self-absorbed). So it’s a weapon that’s used to separate him from those who love him, so that he denies himself the possibility of forgiveness. As Alan Jacobs puts it, that’s what hell is: the refusal to be forgiven.

Guilt can also be used as a weapon by other people – usually by those claiming to speak for God, and who seek to appropriate His authority over others. And I should acknowledge here that, while my portrait of evangelical culture is on the whole positive, many others have far less happy memories of growing up in this world, which is undeniably very patriarchal and socially conservative. If I was queer, or the victim of abuse, this would no doubt be a very different story – perhaps also if I was a woman. I’m not trying to deny the truth of any of those negative experiences. But my experience was that I – a very strange and damaged teenager, whose behaviour was often quite provocative – was accepted and loved and nurtured. And so I wanted to be true to that.

I agree that in practice guilt is often a mal-adaptive and destructive emotion, and one of the correct roles of therapy may be to help people to be free of inappropriate guilt. But then therapy is our secular form of confession.

Jonathan Walker is the author of The Angels of L19 (Weatherglass Books, 2021), and two other books. He used to be a historian of Venice, and he has doctorates in history and creative writing. You can find him at jonathanwalkersblog.co.uk, or on Twitter as @NewishPuritan

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

INTERVIEW: Iain Hood on heresy, Oscar Wilde and ‘This Good Book’

Photo credit – Mark Box

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Iain Hood on the research process behind his novel This Good Book (Renard Press, 2021).

I feel as though there are two main philosophical themes running together through This Good Book – theology and aesthetics. Theological readings of art and aesthetic readings of theology are intertwined throughout, with ideas of ‘meaning’ providing the adhesive. To begin our interview, I’m curious as to which of these motifs – theology or aesthetics – first brought you into the idea for This Good Book. Is this a theological novel about art, or an artistic novel about theology? Or both, or neither?

As your interest, Joe, is writers and research, I felt I needed to do a wee bit of digging into my own recent ‘archive’ to see how it all started. I was writing another novel when scrawls which simply said ‘The Jesus Book’ first appeared on the scattered pieces of paper I laughably call my notes, sometime around the early to mid-2010s. A cursory search through old emails shows a note-to-self email entitled ‘Jesus’ with the semi-incoherent text content, ‘Each Jesus the image of the culture he is painted from’ appearing in August 2016. Another note-to-self email, with an attachment of a very early draft of This Good Book, comes in May 2017. So, I’d say the two were bound together from the start. I’ll also give the cute sidestep answer that before themes, first there were two characters, Susan Alison, nicknamed Lily in early drafts, and another artist then called Douglas Calder. It was them both being artists and Susan Alison wanting to paint a Crucifixion that came before the thematic wish to write about art and religion. Before they had names and genders and characteristics, I only remember there being a premise, which is the central premise of the end of the book, so I won’t go into that right now as it would be a spoiler. By the way, the title This Good Book came late in the process, after a first draft had been sent to Will Dady, who would eventually form Renard Press and publish the novel. I see from notes that in 2016 titles being considered by me were The Mythopoeia of Jesus (which eventually became the title of the painting Susan Alison paints within the book), A Resurrection (which I’m glad I got past) and My Crucifixion, which works quite well, I think, but I’m happier with This Good Book.

Yes, I definitely feel that (allusion to the ‘Good Book’ aside), This Good Book points us to some of the deeper aesthetic considerations of the novel, those that reach beyond theology, I mean. Homing in on aesthetics for a moment, I’m curious as to that interplay between moral/immoral art and good/bad art. A number of artists are discussed in moral terms (particularly Eric Gill) as well as in terms of their artistic vision (Dali), and it’s interesting to me that Susan Alison only manages to produce ‘good art’ (or well-received art) once she crosses the boundary into ‘immoral art’. Partly that’s due to the art media’s fixation with scandal, but is there a more fundamental link there? How would you describe that tricky relationship between aesthetics and morality?

I went looking for the Oscar Wilde quote about moral and immoral books and the varied versions of it came up on the search (Wilde was known to use a good line a fair few times, sometimes with slight variations), and ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written’ is a ‘good’ (concise? well-phrased? pithiest?) example of Wilde’s variations. This last sentence shows how easily ‘good’ can find itself encumbered with scare quotes, because what do we mean by ‘good’? My intention was to interrogate as many possible combinations of this question as possible (most easily done using binaries). Are ‘good’ (well-painted) paintings of horrific, ‘immoral’ actions somehow ‘bad’ paintings? Are ‘bad’ (mass-produced in a cheap medium, say) images of God somehow ‘good’ because God is commonly perceived to be morally ‘good’? Does ‘moral’, ‘good’ art often become anodyne or bland? Is ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’ art — because it is, say, transgressive — necessary at times? ‘Necessary’? Sorry for the scare quote explosion, here. To go back to Wilde, is there no such thing as moral and immoral art, only well-made or badly-made art? If you are coming to the conclusion that I have no answers, only questions, you’re right. In the end, Susan Alison is willing to do terrible things to produce her good art. I don’t say this is necessary, it’s just the case in her experience.

I think there’s something pertinent in Susan Alison’s experience, even if it doesn’t ‘answer’ our considerations of good art vs. bad. Her experience certainly gives us food for thought on the art world, which is portrayed in religious terms as a place of orthodoxy and heresy, defined by ‘golden moments’ in which artists’ visions coalesce into ‘movements’ that gel with the zeitgeist, and so become popular and historicised. I wonder to what extent you feel that success in the visuals arts, as well as literature, is a case of being in the right place at the right time? Did anything in your reading of art history suggest this, or perhaps the contrary?

Perhaps it’s an unshakeable thing. We always are in the right place at the right time because there are no options to be elsewhere. I don’t know how in the history of human art artists moved from flat representation to representation of depth using perspective and a vanishing point, but other developments I can follow. Artists are also inventors, and if you’re Titian you’re famous for inventing the tint of red that now bears your name. The only question then is, say some other artist invented the red tint but couldn’t paint for toffee, what then? Who would care about International Klein blue if Klein hadn’t done all the other stuff he did? I seem to be thinking in terms of colours, here. Purposefully, I have Douglas work in a medium that invites laughter (his own urine in plastic bags), but I have him working hard as a conceptual artist and hope to show that Susan Alison’s oft-times dismissal of his art is not the whole story.

As the Borges quote that starts the book may suggest, I perversely like to voice the heretical when presented with orthodoxy, but also the orthodox when presented with heresy. Just to see what happens, mostly. So, I have been heard to say in the past, if you’re going to be a Catholic, you may as well be one like Marcel Lefebvre, the ultra-conservative who opposed the changes of the Second Vatican Council and was in essence ex-communicated from the Catholic Church for being too Catholic. In terms of This Good Book, it’s a book that has a crime and a trial in it, but it’s not a crime novel, more a novel like Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam. It has horror in it, but it’s not a horror story: more in the tradition of ‘The Horror’ in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a romance and a love story, but not a romance about the love relationship between the two protagonists. There is something haunted about the characters, but it’s not a ghost story. The question is, who is being haunted by what or whom? Certainly, Susan Alison is haunted by her memories of and thoughts about the Crucifixion and Douglas, and equally certain is my hope that the reader will be haunted by, at least, Susan Alison’s voice long after the book is read, and on down through the years.

I’d like to return to those lingering thoughts around the Crucifixion, but before I do I’d like to ask about Glasgow – a special place for me because it’s where my mum was born. One of the real pleasures of This Good Book is your representation of Glasgow as a cultural space. We find art history, localised knowledge and linguistic detail all used to evoke a sense of place as something to be shared, and shared widely. I wonder, as a Scot now living in the south of England (much like my mum), whether you felt any innate impulse to write about Scotland, any desire towards addressing that part of yourself. Did your idea of Glasgow change as you designed and wrote the novel?

I wrote a novel when I was young and had only just moved out of Glasgow that I did in the ‘in a nameless city, in a nameless European country’ style, except, when it suited me, it was very obviously Glasgow and Glasgow-based characters. Perhaps at that time I wanted to write in a European as opposed to Scottish way. With as many favourite writers who are French, Chilean, Catalonian, Irish or from the States as I have favourite Scottish writers, perhaps I still do. Hmm. I just noticed that ‘Catalonian’ (Enrique Vilas-Mata). That has the mark of a nation-within-a-union writer, doesn’t it? But you don’t really get to not be the thing you are, whether you want to escape that or not. Even though I’ve lived in Cambridge for close on 25 years, among my friends there I’m that Scottish guy who lives in Cambridge, except when I’m with my friends who are also Scottish, and then we’re those Scottish people who live in Cambridge. So, to chuck a couple of biggies around to place myself in the lofty company of, I write like an exile, Joyce or Spark. Joyce always wrote about the Dublin he had known or found out about with detailed questions to relatives and friends who still lived in Dublin. Spark wrote on a world canvas, but she said herself she dragged a Scottish sensibility around and poked it into all the nooks and crannies of London or Italy or the Holy Land. I don’t know whether my idea of Glasgow changed with the writing. My father attended the Glasgow School of Art, and I always think of it as an art city, the way others think of it as a football city or a sectarian city (these may be linked), or as a grimy and rainy or renascent and shiny city. What I do know is that the city has changed a great deal in ways I don’t know in the many years since I lived there. All I can say about that is it helped in the writing of the late 80s, early 90s parts of This Good Book, because these are still very real to me.

To close then, let me circle back to that interplay of theology and art with a more formal research question. I found myself putting down This Good Book regularly to search for images of the Crucifixion referenced in the narration. I was struck by the spectrum of meaning that the subject has evoked – not simply just the suffering of Christ but a whole range of moral, aesthetic, political suggestions. I hoped you could tell us how you felt when you first toured these images, as you must have done, and again whether you feel differently about them now the novel is out in the world. In broadest terms, what might depictions of the Crucifixion mean to the contemporary reader?

When I was looking for the Wilde quote above I also came across a few other of Wilde’s quotes that I could see I may have been thinking about as I wrote This Good Book. First, ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’ (Does Wilde mean it is a fiction because in real life good and happily and bad and unhappily rarely have such an easy correlation? Certainly in This Good Book I was intent on making as many mix and matches of these ideas as possible.) Second, ‘An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.’ (Susan Alison asks in the book what the point of an uncontroversial Crucifixion painting, sculpture or other artwork is. She also says at another point that religion should be a dangerous set of ideas or else it is nothing.)

With your last question, here, you’ve hit the iron nail that runs in on the head. What do depictions of the Crucifixion mean now? This is definitely one of the central questions of the book. Douglas compares what the Crucifixion and resurrection might have meant to early Christians and to world followers of the religion now, and he and Susan Alison debate the reasons she has chosen a Crucifixion over other religious symbols and stories. They seem to come to different conclusions each time, though most often the conclusion that the meaning remains elusive, perhaps by necessity. What never seems up for debate is the power and the longevity of the image, and maybe this is meaning enough in itself.

Iain Hood was born in Glasgow and grew up in the seaside town of Ayr. He attended the University of Glasgow and Jordanhill College, and later worked in education in Glasgow and the West Country. During this time he attended the University of Manchester. He now lives in Cambridge with his wife and daughter. This Good Book is his first novel.

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

INTERVIEW: Ruth Gilligan on beefburgers, sausage wars and ‘The Butchers’

Photo credit – Paul Musso

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Ruth Gilligan on the research process behind her novel The Butchers (Atlantic Books, 2020).

The Butchers is set largely during the BSE crisis of the late 1990s, a time of radical disruption for rural Ireland and the borderlands. I remember the noise around Mad Cow Disease in the UK, especially when our then-Minister for Agriculture John Selwyn Gummer fed his daughter a beefburger – that seemed to capture something of the strange fear of the time for me. I’m curious as to your memories of those years, if you have any? Was there anything in remembering or reading about this time that stuck in your mind, and how did that end up feeding into your work two decades after the event?

So in 1996 – the year the book is set – I was only eight, so of course I do have memories from that time. But in terms of the actual BSE stuff, the best I can recall is my parents warning us that we weren’t allowed to get burgers from McDonald’s anymore (though as it happens, I had always been a chicken nuggets girl myself) or the boys in school making silly jokes about mad cows or seeing those horrific images on TV of dead cattle in the UK being heaped up and burned in giant pyres.

By contrast, my strongest memories of that year are things like the Spice Girls releasing their first single or the day Veronica Guerin (a prominent Irish journalist) was shot dead by one of the criminal gangs she had been investigating or the Summer Olympics, where an Irish swimmer actually won some medals for once (only to have them later taken off her for drug allegations). They are the memories of a child, not of a news- or politics-engaged adult, but in a way that was useful too because Úna, one of the book’s main characters, is only a kid herself, so it was important to know the kinds of things that would have been on her radar; the kinds of things her peers would have been chatting about in the school playground. As for the other stuff, that was where the research (all four years of it!) kicked in.

Four years is a long time. Actually, something that jumped out at me is the hint in your Acknowledgements that during that time you undertook field research (literally field research), visiting farms and speaking with rural community members in Ireland. Was that part of your four years of research, or was it a product of visits with friends, family members, etc.? Did your feelings about agricultural Ireland change when you made this trips, and what effect did they have on your plot design?

So yes, as alluded to above, The Butchers – much like my previous novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan – required a hell of a lot of research. Although, as I’ve already said, I was living in Ireland at the time the book is set, I was down in the middle-class suburbs of Dublin, so life on a farm along the border counties may as well have been another world away. My research was very deliberate and, arguably, unnecessarily in-depth. I read endless books about BSE; I subscribed to numerous farming journals; I did a butchery course; I analysed every single newspaper published in Ireland in 1996; I poured over tribunal reports; I watched countless documentaries. On top of that, as you’ve mentioned, I went out and actually visited the region to try and really soak up a sense of the place. I also interviewed a number of farmers who gave me a tour of their land, generously answered all my inane questions (‘what’s that?’; ‘that’s called a cow, love’, etc. etc.) and gave me lots of wonderful stories and gossip about that time.

My feelings about agricultural Ireland certainly changed over the course of this process, largely because I hadn’t realised just how murky certain aspects of it were, at least back then. The dodgy deals; the tax evasion; the elaborate scams to avoid and exploit the various EU tariffs – obviously they weren’t all at it, but the ones that were were pretty elaborate in their schemes. It was like the bloody mafia! All of this gave me such wonderful fodder for the novel – that’s what’s so great about research, to be honest. Yes it’s important in terms of accuracy and authenticity, but so often real life is even madder than what you might invent, so I kept discovering absolute nuggets of gold to include in the book. For example, after British beef was banned internationally, which obviously meant Northern Irish beef too, some farmers started smuggling beef and cattle south over the border to try and pass it off as Republic of Ireland (i.e. uncontaminated) stock. But the smuggling got so prevalent that the army ended up having to come along and actually barricade the entire border shut – and this still right at the tail end of the Troubles. The official name for that army operation was ‘Project Matador’. What a gem! You literally couldn’t make it up.

I’m fascinated by those threads of Irish history, the ones that have repercussions which echo deep below the surface. It seems to me like the Ireland of The Butchers is not just one in which rural life is changing, but one in which society as a whole seems to be moving towards a broad liberalisation. Recently I asked author Helen Cullen how she approached these changes in her novel The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually, and if I may I’d like to put the same question to you on The Butchers. I feel in both novels that the signposting of Irish history and culture implies mixed feelings, what I described to Helen Cullen as ‘a landscape of contradictions’. Does that ring true for you?

Oh, that’s a great phrase, and such a great book. I love Helen’s writing, and I think yes, she is also exploring the ways in which Ireland has, over the last few decades, both changed dramatically and, in some ways, stayed the same. This tension – the explicit clash between tradition and modernity – was exactly what I wanted to explore in The Butchers, the original starting point for the whole thing, if you will. I also wanted to explore the way Ireland has always managed to hold competing faith systems side by side – like, on the one hand, obviously the Church has been such a dominant presence, but at the same time, people have always been very superstitious and, in many regions, have clung to these almost pagan beliefs and rituals. Many see no issue, for example, with being a devout Catholic and also believing in the Fairies – it’s fascinating! I was curious to examine that duality up close. And yet, of course, as soon as other external faiths or belief systems come along, there is immediate scepticism. It’s hard, because there seems to be so much momentum in recent years in terms of Ireland becoming a more liberal country – the abortion referendum, same-sex marriage – all this astounding, grassroots-led progress. And yet, we’re still uncovering the bodies of women and babies who suffered at the hands of the Church only a matter of decades ago. This culture of shame and silence; until we face up to the past we can never fully move forward.

Perhaps it’s a leap, but that idea really reminded me of another conversation, my chat with Ruth Padel around the mythological motif of the Minotaur, which has come up multiple times during these interviews and which I can’t seem to shake off my mind. It’s an image you use in The Butchers: the threat of the Minotaur as an obstacle to escape, as explored through Davey, a young man motivated by his own visions of autonomy and freedom. For me, and in tandem with Ruth Padel’s perspectives on civilisation, it seems as though we could equate the Minotaur with those pre-modern forces of superstition (as you allude to) that live under the surface of the novel. What’s your take on that? Is there something analogous between the twists and turns of the labyrinth, and modern Ireland in a state of change?

Oh, I love this – what a great analogy! I guess the main role of the Minotaur – and indeed, of all the Greek myths and legends that feature via Davey’s point of view – was to add yet another layer of superstition or belief into the mix. It’s kind of saying – look, we all know that the Ancient Greeks had these stories to try and help them make sense of the world, and now we have ours, and other groups have theirs. But what’s to say that yours is better – or any more ‘real’ – than mine? Why is Abram being tested by an angry Old Testament deity more acceptable than Prometheus being punished by the Gods? Why is a group of eight men wandering around Ireland killing cattle in a certain way any stranger, objectively, than not eating particular foods on particular days? I am not for a second undermining or belittling anyone’s creed – in fact, quite the opposite! – instead, I wanted to place all these contrasting versions and systems and stories side by side to show how they can all be true, all be sacred to different people at different times.

Before we close, I’d like to pull back to your ideas about Ireland. I’m curious as to how you view the political changes which are bringing divisions at the borderlands back under the political spotlight. Just recently, the UK government announced their plans to abandon prosecutions for Troubles-related murders, something that will no doubt spark controversy and possibly violence in the coming months. After so much progress, how does it feel to see tensions beginning to flare? And how might writers in Ireland and the UK help us deal as a society with the re-emergence of problems we had hoped were buried for good?

It’s strange, because when I was first working on the novel, people would ask me about it and I would give a brief summary and they would immediately say ‘oh, wow, the border counties? Oh, the smuggling of goods between the UK and Ireland? Oh, national identity? How very topical!’ Because at the time of writing, the news was full of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, so I assumed that, upon publication, those would be the kinds of conversations people would want to have around the book. But then of course, by the time The Butchers actually came out, we were right at the start of a global pandemic, so suddenly people were like ‘oh, wow, a widespread disease with an unknown source? A contrasting approach to how it’s being dealt with – and portrayed – in the UK and Ireland? How very topical!’ Suddenly the book had taken on a whole new resonance.

As you say, things have now evolved again, and in the wake of Brexit actually ‘taking place’, we are seeing a resurgence of tensions in Northern Ireland, and a so-called ‘sausage war’ between the UK and the EU. It’s fascinating to spot the echoes of what happened with BSE – even down to the media using those old photos of Boris Johnson with a link of sausages draped around his neck as compared to John Gummer back in the day posing with his daughter and a hamburger to try and convince people that British beef was safe / best. I guess to answer your question, though, I’m always a little wary of how writers can ‘help’ – I never see myself as any kind of sage or wisdom-dispensing seer – I’m finding the world as baffling as everyone else right now! But I do think we can at least foreground the cyclical nature of things, the precarity of peace. As a society, we seem to have such short term memories, so maybe by simply telling and retelling these stories we are less likely to forget and make the same mistakes all over again.

Ruth Gilligan is a writer and academic from Dublin now based in the UK. She has published five books to date and was the youngest person ever to top the Irish Bestsellers’ List. Her most recent novel, The Butchers, (published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US) is a literary thriller set in the Irish borderlands during the 1996 BSE crisis. Ruth holds degrees from Cambridge, Yale, UEA and Exeter. She contributes literary reviews to the Irish Independent, Guardian, TLS and LA Review of Books. She works as a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.

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