‘You’re supposed to twist and pull, if you find one, so that the head doesn’t come off. Twist, pull, discard, forget.’
Read my really quite gross little tale right here for free (500 words).
‘You’re supposed to twist and pull, if you find one, so that the head doesn’t come off. Twist, pull, discard, forget.’
Read my really quite gross little tale right here for free (500 words).
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
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.
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.
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.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Susan Furber on the research process behind her novel The Essence of an Hour (Valley Press, 2021).
Comparisons have been made between The Essence of an Hour and The Bell Jar, and it’s obvious that the current of twentieth century American literature runs strongly throughout the novel. There are numerous references to Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner (as well as English writers of the time), and I wonder how their influence fed into the composition of The Essence of an Hour. What is it in the spirit of novels like This Side of Paradise which helped inform your approach to place, character, theme? How did this literature help you capture the zeitgeist of 1940s America?
When I wrote the first draft of The Essence of an Hour, I wanted to create a voice that would be a female version of Holden Caulfield. She is messy and cruel and, while attempting to be honest, she is completely unreliable. While I do think The Essence of an Hour and The Bell Jar are quite different novels, they are both about young women who are limited by their circumstances and, as a consequence, lash out at other women.
Sylvia Plath’s journals provided a better understanding of what it was like to be a literary young woman during the 1940s and 1950s. The novels that most informed Essence’s historical setting are Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, and The Company She Keeps and The Group by Mary McCarthy. I am especially indebted to The Group for understanding what Vassar life would have been like at that time.
Stylistically, Essence is most inspired by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Carson McCullers. Unlike their British equivalents, many of the American modernists (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein) did not dismiss popular literature or the cult of celebrity. So, it makes sense that Lillie would have access to these books easily and cheaply. Lillie herself loves Hemingway, and not only because I was influenced by him. Teddy for her embodies the perfect Hemingway hero, and Lillie too identifies with the author. In one of Richard Yates’ short stories, he talks about how every young American male writer of his generation was inspired to be and write like Hemingway. But I don’t think it would have been only male writers and believe Lillie too would have modelled herself on him. She feels stuck in the constraints of the feminine world and so she adopts the ideals of male writers.
It’s interesting how you contextualise the influence of these literary ‘celebrities’ not just on you as the author but on the characters themselves. It certainly jumped out for me while reading that so many characters in The Essence of an Hour consciously borrow their speech and behaviours from novels. I feel like that theme of artifice runs throughout, and maybe comes most clearly into focus during the fated party with New York City’s Bohemian crowd. Here, Lillie’s disappointment with the literary community is profound, and I wonder if that came from a personal place. As writers, many of us fantasise about the literary communities immortalised in books like A Moveable Feast, but does this community really exist? And if it does, is it even worth being a part of?
I’ve certainly been to a lot of awful parties as a college student during the height of ‘hipster’ culture, so those experiences did feed into the Bohemian party scene. I do remember, especially in my late teens and early twenties, going to parties or nightclubs and experiencing that feeling Nick has in the second chapter of The Great Gatsby, when he is both looking from within and without.
I, like Lillie, am from a small town in America. I was lonely as a child, and while reading took away a great deal of my loneliness, it also made me feel lonelier as there was nobody to talk to about how much I loved certain books. So, I did form my own world in books, and I channelled those feelings of angst into Lillie, and I gave her a friend like Teddy, whom I never had.
Lillie sees the reality of her world through the lens of fiction – both that she reads as well as writes, and, like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, she is obsessed with living a life worthy of fiction. Lillie also knows that her memories are not reliable – partially because memories never are, but also because she has twisted them to fit a literary narrative. I think most writers may well be like that, so I do wonder to what extent something like A Moveable Feast is fiction; not intentionally, of course, but because our memories are fiction, always.
I do think having a community is important, though it need not be other writers. You need people who love you for who you are and support your work as a writer, even when you will not let them read your work. Yes, Lillie is in love with this fantasy of what it will be like to be part of a literary set, but what she is aching for is a like-minded community.
Yes, I think that’s something a lot of writers will identify with, especially in that sense of seeking meaning through a community of writers or readers. For Lillie in The Essence of an Hour, there is of course another rather looming conduit for meaning and community available through the Catholic church. The presence of Catholicism in Lillie and her peers’ lives is made manifest in many ways – guilt, shame, apprehension, but also security, identity, sublimation. I’m curious as to your own proximity with the religion, and how your feelings about it might have fed into the novel. In particular, I’m curious to know how you perceive the effects of Catholicism on young womanhood, both in the 1940s of the novel and today.
I grew up in a devout Catholic family and attended a very conservative Catholic college in America. It was normal at college for people to party recklessly on a Saturday night and then be at mass the following day. This disturbed me deeply, especially when male students were pressuring female students for sex, but still considering themselves to be pious young men. It felt like something out of another era, and I think that is perhaps why I gravitated so much to the writings of female authors of the 1940s and 1950s. How they described sexual relationships with young men rang truer to my own experience than the teen dramas I watched on television.
In our first few weeks of college, my girlfriends – also Catholics – and I talked a lot about sex, specifically whether under any circumstances we’d consider having it before marriage. This enforced one narrow idea of morality that many of us hadn’t yet had the opportunity to confront. Others had lost their virginities in high school but felt too ashamed to admit it. It was a toxic culture. Because we couldn’t talk about what good sex might look like with one another, this also made it difficult to discuss what bad sex or even assault could be.
While I am no longer a practising Catholic, I consider myself to be a cultural Catholic. It is difficult to unsee the world through the lens of my religious upbringing, to detach myself from its ideas and doctrines of sin, guilt, and the power of confession and the sacraments. Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was nineteen was revolutionary – I saw how one could write a novel about this loss of faith, alongside the loss of virginity and innocence, and that is when I started the first draft.
I think there’s something really pertinent there about the effects of faith on the sexual aspects of young womanhood, I hope you don’t mind if I return to it. I feel like one of the real strengths of the novel is the intimate insight we get into the anxiety generated by Lillie’s complex attitudes to sex and virginity. I wonder, especially as you say you can relate your experience to the sexual politics of the 1940s, whether you feel as though young women today are as confused about sex as the young women of Lillie’s time? What are the challenges young women may share with Lillie and her friends, and what new challenges do you observe in contemporary society? In broadest terms, is it easier or harder today?
Lillie comes of age in the years just before the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which supposedly heralded in second-wave feminism, and she is roughly the same age as Betty Friedan. I based Lillie on the women Friedan writes about in The Feminine Mystique – well-educated and poised for successful careers, but their society’s expectation was for them to be wives and mothers who stayed at home. This attitude certainly has changed. Thankfully, some of the strict gender roles which Lillie finds difficult to adapt and follow have also been deconstructed as well.
However, in terms of sex, I think not much has changed. I, like Lillie, and probably most of my childhood friends too, never received any ‘sex talk’ from my mother, and health class wasn’t much help either. When I went to college, I had no idea of what a healthy sexual relationship looked like, and again like Lillie, my romantic ideals were formed from films and books. This was not unusual amongst the girls I knew, and so many of Lillie’s conversations with her friends are inspired from the sort of things we said to (and about) one other.
While many young women may not fear the societal shame of losing their virginity before marriage that plagues Lillie and her friends, I think the patriarchy continues to win. Young men continue to pressure women for sex, not taking ‘no’ for an answer because they believe all young women want to have sex, all the time, and with them in that moment. We are told as young women that we are independent and that the world is ours for the taking, but it isn’t – because we are also taught how to hold our house keys in our fingers when walking late at night, what evidence we must keep if we ever need to report a rape, and that boys sometimes just won’t listen. This is not freedom.
I am glad to see in the wake of #MeToo more novels being published that deal frankly with rape, sexual assault, and abuse, but when I was a student the only book I had read that dealt with these issues was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I was finishing the final full draft of Essence during the time of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Supreme Court nomination hearing. I recognised Lillie’s story and the story of so many young women in her testimony; a story that too often is not listened to or believed.
There’s so much there we could go into further but while we’re touching on what’s going on in North America right now, I’d like to close by asking around your ideas of the USA. The USA of The Essence of an Hour is carefully-drawn, with its wider social changes exerting their power over your characters with a kind of invisible magnetism. As an American who has left the US, I wonder if your views of your birth country were altered by your processes of writing and research for the novel. When you think of America now, both as a political, literary and personal space, what do you think of and how do you feel?
Just as I will always be a Catholic culturally, so too will I always be an American. As a child, I, like many literary-minded kids, dreamed of living in Europe, of being some sort of Henry James character. I have lived in England for almost nine years and recently received my indefinite leave to remain permanently in the UK, but I in no way see myself as British. Yet, I know I plan to continue living in England while also continuing to write about America. Again, it may be a cliché, but I do think living away from America lends a clarity to evaluating and aiming to understand it as a country.
Lillie’s America is in many ways the America of my childhood, mixed with my grandmother’s stories of growing up during the 1940s in a small Pennsylvanian town, though she would have been a little younger than Lillie at the onset of the war. I will not claim to know America or what it means to be an American – there are too many possibilities and pluralities of identity and existence. Most of America I only know through novels, not through experience. But I do know a small segment of American life – the socially conservative suburbs of a small upstate New York town. Originally, I set the novel in New England (I’ve always wished I was from New England – it seems more glamorous; something I share with Fitzgerald), but I don’t know New England. So, I moved the setting to outside of Albany. I’m from a suburb of Buffalo – and my town inspired Mohawk Island, including some of the street names – but that is too far from New York for the action of the novel.
I know that adolescent feeling of desperate boredom, that loneliness of not knowing other people who are interested in reading and discussing books. But I also know the joy of hot summer nights spent with friends around bonfires and swimming pools, all of us bursting with energy to be grown up and able to escape.
My favourite of all literary tropes is that of the summer heatwave boiling over into tragedy, and I wanted to write a novel that played with this idea. Every year I longed for the summer because it meant two and a half months of reading outside in the sun. It was when I was happiest, and my imagination ran wild. I’d read the classic novels I didn’t have the time for during the school year and write failed attempts at novels in the evenings. Essence is my love letter to those summers and the world of my childhood, but also to all the American novels I have loved, been inspired by, and cherished.
Susan Furber was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1992. She studied English and Philosophy at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. Susan is a book editor and lives in London with her husband. The Essence of an Hour is her debut novel, published by Valley Press in February 2021.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jenn Ashworth on the research process behind her novel Ghosted (Sceptre, 2021).
I’d like to start by asking about the relationship between Ghosted and the Gothic tradition. In my conversation with the author Elizabeth Brooks, she described one of the core research questions that drives Gothic literature as: ‘What if the person you are closest to, and most dependent on, is not what he seems?’ I wonder if this question fed into your ideas about Mark’s disappearance, and the self he keeps hidden? How far do you feel Ghosted leans into Gothic themes and aesthetics?
There are a lot of critics and scholars doing work on the Gothic and working out these kind of definitions – and while I love a good Gothic novel, I personally don’t find the attempt to define genre a really fruitful place for my writing to start. I tend to research genre in terms of of getting in the same place as my reader, knowing what they might have read, what they might expect, and seeing if I can play with that a bit. So for Fell, I read lots of haunted house type books, lots of stories and books narrated by ghosts, stuffed my head with it, then let it filter through into the writing. The same for Ghosted, really, where I concentrated on all the ways a person might try to speak to or with someone who wasn’t there – from internet message boards to phone messages to seances and mediums. These are definitely Gothic themes but I just put all that out of my head. Someone else can write an essay about the book if they want to – my job was to find some characters and follow them. With that reading done, I let it appear in the story as and when the characters demanded it. It turned out that for Ghosted the idea of presence and absence, and what kind of hauntings or omissions or unexpected arrivals happen in close relationships – between a married couple, between child and parent, between two friends thrown together by circumstance – was key to what I wanted to do.
Beyond the those relational circumstances though, there’s also a sense of individual multiplicity permeating Ghosted. Almost every character (though Laurie and her father especially) is characterised via the diversity of their internal selves – voices that are ‘never quiet, never unanimous’ (p.13). Naturally, this provokes stress and confusion in Laurie, but it also confuses those around her, much like Meursault’s incomprehensible grief in Camus’ The Outsider confuses his prosecutors. I wonder how you balanced Laurie’s internal multiplicities in your writing, and what challenges you faced in achieving this complex characterisation (and its effects). Is there an analogy there between the reader-writer relationship, as drawn out by Laurie’s narration?
It felt quite natural to me, to work with characters who were divided in themselves, inconsistent, strange to themselves. I think it is King Lear where Shakespeare has Regan say of her father, ‘he hath ever but slenderly known himself’. We might find that internal strangeness becomes exaggerated at times of high emotion or crisis – falling in love, becoming unwell or infirm, losing someone, experience grief or violent anger – but I also think it is a really accurate description of the way humans are in the world. Even as far back as Aristotle he’s saying (in The Poetics) that good characters are consistently inconsistent, so it isn’t a new idea. I guess the challenge is the pressure, perhaps, a writer might imagine she’s under to make a character relatable, or consistent, or likeable – that if someone is loving in one chapter, they have got to be that way through the whole book, or that every single one of their actions must be clearly motivated in a way that the reader can relate to, or approve of, or is consistent with whatever the reader imagines their own experience to be. I find that extraordinary limiting, and it massively, insultingly underestimates a reader who is there for the mystery, and to have the terrifying and rather beautiful mystery of other people and themselves that they will experience in their real lives acknowledged in their fiction.
Yes, it definitely feels like much of the energy behind Ghosted comes from that sense of people being inherently inconsistent, as being capable of surprising the reader just as people surprise us in real life. I think there’s an interesting reflection on that coming through Laurie’s father. As his memory deteriorates through vascular dementia, his past ‘disappears’ and is replaced by fantasies and lies. Because of this process, his carer Olena finds herself able to describe him as ‘very innocent’ (p.16), despite what we know about his moral shortcomings, and even characterises the lies themselves as ‘entirely innocent,’ protective confabulations (p.96). I’m curious as to your perspective on what the process of fantasy supplanting memory says about our ideas around who we are and what we’re made up of. Who are we without our pasts, if anyone? Did these considerations feed into your writing and research?
Yes, definitely. In Ghosted we have all of the characters wrestling with, or battered by, their pasts in some way. Olena is outrunning a secret, and we might begin to wonder if this excessive care and kindness she’s showing in her present life has anything to do with her wish to atone for a past life, and if so, does that make the love she shows to Laurie, Mark and Laurie’s father any less valuable? Or perhaps the Olena who did what she did (not wanting to spoil here) is a totally different person to the Olena who cares for Laurie and her father. That’s also true, right? Which makes ideas about atonement and punishment and restitution kind of complicated. Similarly, Laurie’s mother seems to have a secret, and the keeping of it has almost erased her as a person – Laurie really doesn’t know her at all – she’s not there, because she’s never been able to be in her present. Laurie and Mark are crushed by their shared experience, and this inability to articulate it, to incorporate it into a shared present, is behind most of what happens in the book: Mark disappearing is the most obvious dramatisation of that – first into the virtual space of the internet and then literally, from their shared flat. And we have this undercurrent of the psychic stuff – wanting to reach out of the present and bring the past – dead people, not to put too fine a point on it – into now as a way of healing or creating justice of some kind (that’s a very Gothic theme, I guess). I wanted to write a book that considered all of these things, all the ways and means we have of dealing with the time that stretches out behind us, the fact that we only exist now, but a lot of ‘now’ is burdened by problems from ‘then.’
Another more oblique thematic thread that interests me is the eschatological pessimism that comes from Mark’s retreat into online conspiracy theories and climate panic. This seems partly a product of what Laurie calls his ‘mindless and wilful misery’, in contrast to what she over-generously describes as her ‘mindless optimism’ (p.83), but it also seems to be a characteristically modern and pervasive collective malady. This kind of pessimism/panic is something I’ve spoken of with a few writers, notably in my interviews with Carys Bray and Isobel Wohl, but I wonder if these are feelings you identify in yourself. When you read about climate change and imagine humanity in terms of our climate future, how do you feel and how do those feelings manifest, if at all, in your work?
What a question. I think both optimism and pessimism are fantasies, or judgements: they take us away from now, rather than towards it. Personally, I think we’re too late to avert the damage we have done to the earth when it comes to climate change and the ecological disaster that is coming. I do believe that. And it is only a belief: I am not a climate scientist and I know humans in extremis can do unexpected things. I hope that the efforts certain groups and individuals are making to live differently, to care, to build flexible, conscious communities, to agitate for change, to speak the truth about what is happening right now continue, I hope they grow. And I also don’t think the guys at XR, for example, are going to fix what we’ve done to the world, but they will make ‘now’ as good as it is possible to be. It will help us mourn. I don’t think I’m like Mark – he’s kind of suffocated by his nihilism for much of the book – nor am I like Laurie – whose optimism is fairly clearly a delusion and has a self-protective function – she’s still managing to convince herself there’s nothing much wrong in her marriage during the conversation she’s having with the police when she’s reporting her husband missing. But I’ve experienced both and drew on those experiences when writing those characters, these more or less dysfunctional ways of mourning, which I take to mean this work of bringing painful pasts and lost futures together in some kind of curious ‘now’.
Though there’s plenty more we could touch on, I’d like to close by asking about your approach to research in general, especially as you teach Research and Methodology for Creative Writing students at Lancaster University. Several writers I’ve contacted for Writers on Research have commented that they were ‘not sure they did any research’, especially if the books came from a particularly personal place. I’m curious as to what you think constitutes ‘research’, why it’s useful for writers, and whether you have any advice for practitioners insecure about the methodological aspects of their work.
I guess there’s two ways to think about research – one is the information-gathering that a writer does to get the stuff they need into their heads so they can bring it into the book. I’m doing a lot of that at the moment, and there’s no system or method, really, as I don’t know yet what the book will need: it just involves following my pleasure, getting curious, reading widely and eccentrically (stories about the prodigal son, how abattoirs work, what it is like to be a nurse in a HDU). My tip there for all writers is to keep notes, keep records, keep a bibliography of some kind: for all I’ve said about living in the ‘now’ – you can certainly make things a little easier for your future self if you know where that interesting fact about how they hand out the meals on Covid wards comes from.
From that first research stage – the reading and watching and thinking, stories start to emerge. They just suggest themselves if you’re at it long enough. What if.. Is always a great question. Or what would it feel like if… or what would a person do if… And with the stories, another set of questions – research questions that are about the ‘how’ of the writing, and not only the what. So the writing itself – the actual forming of the book, the drafting, all the structural decisions and micro-decisions about sentences, word choice, the colour someone’s hat is, also become a form of research, and a way of answering some not-subject-matter related questions about language, or form, or genre, or point of view, or tense, or something else. The main question might be ‘how on earth can I pull this off?’ which is a terrifyingly fertile place to start.
Not all writers think of it in this way or need to. But if this is ringing a bell with anyone reading, the advice I’d give is ‘hold your nerve’ – because if you are in the midst of finding out about something, some ‘how’ of writing, then of course by definition you do not know that thing now, and you do not know, not for certain, that the thing is available to be known. It is very likely the whole project will be an absolute state, you will have no idea what you are doing, and it will feel as if the thing is going to blow up or fall over or disappear every time you put your hands on it. Don’t be all tortured about it, just do your work. This is how it is. Inch along, following your question, and watching for new questions to emerge. Write a lot, and plan to delete a lot too. Nothing is wasted.
Jenn Ashworth was born in Preston and studied at Cambridge and Manchester. Her earlier novels include A Kind of Intimacy, The Friday Gospels and Fell. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018. In 2019 she published Notes Made While Falling, a memoir told in a series of essays. She is a Professor of Writing at Lancaster University.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Benjamin Wood on the research process behind his novel A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better (Simon and Schuster, 2018).
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better has been described as a ‘Northern noir’ in its depiction of the feral gloom of the north of England. In that sense, do you feel as though the rural North can be useful to writers in terms of reader associations of jeopardy and primeval violence, if those associations exist? Did you catch a sense of that topographical menace when conducting research on the geography?
Although a key sequence of the novel is set in Wasdale—which is about as remote and wild as the north of England gets—I was more interested in seeing if I could eke out the drama in the more familiar and mundane aspects of the landscape I grew up with, places like the motorway service station at Sandbach, all the Little Chefs that start appearing on the A-roads about an hour on the journey northwards. To me, these offered more opportunities for the jeopardy and violence you refer to—they’re meeting points (literal stations on the path to somewhere better), where characters can interact and unravel agendas they’ve carried in from elsewhere. Even when I was kid, I found the foyer of a Little Chef to be a weird and menacing place. I felt as though I was passing through a world of strangers I didn’t want to know.
In American road novels / movies, the truck stops and diners and gas stations always seem to have a volatile, cinematic quality, and I wanted to see how much of that I could bring out of the ostensibly drab venues of my youth. There’s something chilling, for instance, about the fact that the service station at Sandbach is effectively a mirror of itself: the same facilities are offered on one side of the motorway as the other, and they’re connected by a sinister-looking walkway that traverses six lanes of fast-moving traffic. That’s always fascinated me. So most of my interest in writing this novel came from setting myself the challenge of presenting these fairly dismal places in a fresh, invigorating, or dramatically resonant way. I was less concerned with depicting the splendour or wildness of the Lake District, but it was an inevitable outcome of having a crucial scene take place there! And, once the characters arrived, I tried to embrace all the breath-taking qualities of Wasdale and expose the more commonplace elements that surround it (hard shoulders, laybys, thorn dykes, etc.). I wanted to write about the journey to and from the Lakes, through the “pastoral inbetweenland,” as Daniel calls it. That was my main motivation really—to capture the passage through a place that seems unremarkable and infuse it with a sense of tragedy or tension.
Yes, I think in that sense the landscape certainly reflects Daniel’s psychological journey, and that sense of him being haunted or perhaps hunted by the past. The narrative is framed retrospectively, with Daniel at points forcing himself to confront the implications of his trauma, which again drives that sense of being chased through the past as in a nightmare. The past in that sense, as with his relationship with his father, is what Daniel defines himself by and against. I wondered if there was an aspect of therapy to the novel as an exercise, whether when structuring the narrative you chose to exploit that move from repression to acceptance as a story-driving device?
Writing in the past tense allowed for a fluidity between the threads of the story, which I wanted to use to my advantage, structurally. The past tense affords a reflective tone to the narration and a more natural sense of events being reconsidered, studied, picked apart, while presenting opportunities to flash-forward and include information that has been arrived at later on, and rationalised or—yes—accepted, I suppose.
In terms of structure, I wanted to give the reader a clear understanding, from early on in the book, that Daniel has survived the trauma of his past, but he’s still burdened with it and trying to understand it from a point of distance. One of the exercises therapists sometimes use is to ask a person to return to traumatic events of their childhood, bringing all the understanding and experiences they have as an adult to stand in their own shoes again, re-evaluate the moment—to understand how well they did to cope and get through it the first time. That’s pretty much what Daniel is doing in the book: he’s still working out the why of his trauma, because he already knows the what. And the reason he’s doing that is withheld from the reader until the final section, but it’s essentially a redemptive act on his part.
I’d like to delve a little deeper into the why/what of that trauma through your characterisation of the father. He is characterised as having ‘two weathers’, that is being driven by the seemingly-contradictory impulses of pride and self-pity, desire for acceptance and misanthropy. Actually there’s much more than these simple binaries existing within him, but he is obviously a character who’s purposefully split down the middle. I hoped you could explain your process of achieving this contradictory characterisation.
My approach was to allow Fran to define himself through his speech and actions (as they’re filtered through Daniel’s memory) in scenic time, and also to characterise him through the evaluation, interpretation, reflections, and speculations of Daniel and others. There are blindspots in the narrative—things about his father that Daniel can never know—and this is always useful, dramatically. Because Daniel clings to the hope that one day his father might prove his true worth, he’s looking for moments to be more sanguine about their relationship—I like to think these more tender or humanising moments give Fran a more rounded quality. For me, the challenge of writing Fran’s character was to get across his duplicitous behaviour and his unreliability, while providing a cogent sense of where his frustrations with life are derived from, and how they come to make him feel as though the world is against him. Some people are drawn to him (e.g. the many women he’s able to charm into his bed), some people like him (QC); many others see right through him, avoid him, resent him, detest him. I tried to get across as much as I could how others view him, and how the judgments of others might infect his psychology over time.
One of the more difficult aspects of A Station on the Path… in terms of accessibility of meaning is the story-within-a-story provided by the diversions into Daniel’s audiobook series. The series he’s listening into, with which he connects his father’s anecdotes of working on the screen adaptation, overlays a YA fantasy narrative onto the road trip structure that carries the central thread. I wondered in terms of plot design how integral the internal narrative of the series, The Artifex, was to the overall structure. Did you find designs for The Artifex influencing your ideas of Daniel and his story, or did Daniel’s story feed more directly into your idea of The Artifex?
I intended the excerpts from The Artifex Appears to become more overtly resonant with Daniel’s own experiences as the book progresses: the more that he listens to the book on tape, the more the reader starts to see connections between the two tangential narratives. Both stories feature characters who purport to be something they are not: they present images of themselves they can’t sustain. The Artifex TV show begins as a benign fixation for Daniel—it’s what connects him to his father—and the audio book he brings on the journey becomes a coping mechanism for him, a thing that dulls the agony of his experiences and literally gives him a distraction from the tragedy of his life as it’s unfolding. As he gets older, he comes to see the overlaps between his own story and Albert’s in The Artifex. Part of my aim for these sections was to disconnect readers from the violence and horror of the novel, too—to take them out of Daniel’s world for small pockets of time so that they could anticipate what follows next and recalibrate, prepare themselves for the next emotional upheaval. There’s a good deal of harrowing stuff that happens, so I wanted to flatten the story out here and there, to reflect Daniel’s own experience of listening to the book on tape.
To finish up, I’d like to ask about the novel as an act of research in and of itself. I’ve asked about the possibilities of ‘Northern noir’ and the repression motif which helps carry the narrative, but I wondered if you think the novel has a more specific question hidden at its centre. If the novel itself were functioning as a question, put to either the texts that came before it or to our notion of the world, what would it be asking? And does it point to a potential answer, either in itself or elsewhere?
I wrote the novel to investigate the legacy of problems in a family: how your parents’ mistakes can be inherited and repeated, or—with a bit of luck—averted. It’s as much about the small psychological injuries inflicted on Daniel as it is about the major, distressing incidents he’s forced to witness. As bleak as this novel can seem at times, I was aiming to write something that provides some hope that cycles of trauma can be stalled or overcome. And I’ve been lucky to get correspondence from readers around the world who’ve identified with the issues the novel examines; some of them have told me how it connected with their own experiences and helped them see a way forward in their own lives. That’s easily the most rewarding thing to have come from writing the book, and the most valuable justification of it as a piece of ‘research’ from an academic standpoint, I would say.
Benjamin Wood’s first novel The Bellwether Revivals was published by Simon & Schuster in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize, and won one of France’s foremost literary awards, Le Prix du Roman Fnac. While serving as the British Council’s Writer in Residence in Istanbul, he began researching and writing his second novel, The Ecliptic. It was shortlisted for the Encore Award 2015 and was a finalist for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award in 2016. His most recent novel, A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and the European Union Prize for Literature in 2019. Benjamin is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at King’s College London, where he teaches fiction modules and founded the PhD in Creative Writing programme. Before this, he taught for nine years at Birkbeck, University of London, co-founding and directing its undergraduate writing degree. He lives in Surrey with his wife and sons.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Ruth Padel on the research process behind her novel Daughters of the Labyrinth (Corsair, 2021).
Before we get into the specifics of the research behind Daughters of the Labyrinth, I’d love to know how you first came across the history of the Jews of Crete. You mention in your Acknowledgements that you were first invited to Crete by archaeologists from the British School in Athens, but what was it that draw you so strongly to the history there and to Nikos Stavroulakis’ work at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue?
I first went to Crete as a student researching something quite different – ancient Greek tragedy, myth, religion, and ancient ideas about what was inside people – for a PhD thesis which became a book called In and out of the Mind. I had got a scholarship to get out of England for a year and went to the British School of Archaeology at Athens. They needed students to help on a dig at Knossos and I agreed to go. I had no idea how lucky I was, how that would introduce me to a whole new world, which has been one of my touch-points ever since. I was studying ancient Greek, which my father first taught me. But at Knossos, from Cretans I was working with, I learned the living language, modern Greek. I felt I was in touch with the living history of what I had studied all my life and loved the sense of delving into that ancient earth, the whole process of discovery and uncovering – I think this feeling animates the whole of Daughters of the Labyrinth and the whole ten year process of writing it. After that I kept going back to Crete, sometimes living there for a year on end, teaching and writing. When I married and had a child, we spent six months at Knossos, my daughter learned to walk on those ancient stones.
I got to know all the island but the Knossos and Heraklion area was the bit I knew best – until, decades later, an old friend brought me to West Crete, to Chania, and introduced me to the synagogue.
I am not Jewish but was very moved by the history of the nearly forgotten and very ancient civilization of the Jews of Crete. They had an uncanny parallel to the lost civilisation of the Minoans. Nikos Stavroulakis was a remarkable teacher, very knowledgeable, and had done an extraordinary job of rescuing and renovating the synagogue, re-consecrating it as a working place of worship but also a centre for reconciliation. The small local congregation was made up of Jews Catholics, Orthodox and I suspect atheist, but the festivals were attended by people from everywhere, and of curse tourists and Jewish visitors came through all the time to attend Friday services. An extraordinary, very special place.
Like Etz Hayyim, it feels to me as though Daughters of the Labyrinth is in some ways an act of restoration, of rebuilding a story from shattered fragments. Again, your Acknowledgements points in some detail to the resources that were available to you in researching the Jews of Crete, but I’m keen to know you felt when you were handling this material. As the history came alive to you, how did you know what you wanted to include in your narrative and what to leave out? Were there ethical concerns involved in that process?
I wrote the novel in three stages. At first it was entirely a historical novel, based on the two true stories I mention in the Acknowledgements. One was the single survivor of the Germans’ arrest – a sad isolated woman whose non-Jewish boyfriend had saved her, but then he died and she came back to the town, emptied of Jews, alone. Locals remembered her. The other story hinged on the photo of two girls, given to Nikos by their school friend who had then emigrated to America. She had watched the dawn arrest but had assumed they survived, and came looking for her friends. Extraordinary. She gave Nikos the photo and her own eyewitness account of the arrest. I used her account in the story, but did feel ethical concerns about using the photo.
I based the non-Jewish boy, Andonis, on a close friend I had known since the old days at Knossos. I knew a lot about Crete and its history from living there; and about the synagogue, the arrest of the Jews, their food, rituals, worship, from going regularly to Chania and seeing friends around the synagogue. I stayed in Nikos’ house, in the top of it, now owned by dear friends. There were also pamphlets for the different services, and Nikos’s wonderful Cookbook of the Jews of Greece.
But in that early form, it was too much of an adventure story, not reflective enough. I put a lot of my love for Crete and the Cretans into it, but it did not feel original or sinuous enough: not now enough. So I invented the couple’s daughter and put the narrative into her voice, and made the main plot her discovery of their story. That was the second stage.
Then, as Covid approached, there was a third layer, in which I saw the pattern of civilizations, loss and disaster – like the German occupation, the tsunami that destroyed the Minoans, and then the global lockdown of Covid.
So, for reflections on that, I looked for what I needed and researched it where I could. In psychology, Holocaust literature, and also art history, since the character was an artist. The characters felt more and more real to me, and I looked for what I felt mattered to them. Particularly the narrator. I went and talked to artist friends, I wanted to get the feeling right, of living a career in painting. Teaching, being taught, drawing, fixing colour on canvas, how it feels when someone looks at your work, your relationship with the gallery owner – everything.
I’m struck as you mention all these different influences on the stages of your narrative-building that the sources you drew from came from so many different places. For me, one of the more oblique intertextual sources that excited me in the novel is the way you share Cretan mantinades, the musical narrative poetry of the island. As a poet as well as a novelist, perhaps you could tell us why this lyrical form excited you so much when researching for the novel.
A lot of this novel came out of my life rather than research, and writing it was researching my own history as well as the island’s. I have always sung. When, as a student, I got to know Cretans working in the archaeological trenches at Knossos, they taught me mantinades, and other Cretan songs. I’ve sung them ever since. I included one in my Desert Island Discs a few years ago. Beautiful, but often very funny, very quick and observant – very human.
Yes, I think it’s that almost universal sense of humanity that jumped out for me in the mantinades, in the way they intrepret human feeling. In that regard, another intertextual source that jumps out for me is Greek mythology, specifically that of the Minotaur and of its analogous relationship with what you call ‘the beast at the heart of civilization, the monster in the human psyche’ (p.17). Mythology is something that’s come up a few times in this interview series, notably in my conversation with the author Wyl Menmuir, but I’d like to know what resonance you feel the story of the Minotaur’s labyrinth has with our modern understanding of the world. What is it about that motif that continues to ring true within the human heart?
It’s an extraordinary thing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Freud laid bare the unconscious in the very same years (1900-1905) that archaeologists were excavating the Palace of Minos at Knossos. George Steiner was one of the first people to bring the Holocaust into critical discussion. In his 1956 book The Death of Tragedy he talks about the monster at the heart of civilization – Nazis playing Schubert as the cattle trucks unloaded at Auschwitz, all that – in relation to the Cretan image of the bull, the secret shame beneath the royal family of Minos, the first royal family of Europe. Minos was Europa’s son, she was brought to Crete on a bull, and Minos’s wife had sex with a bull and bore the Minotaur. Minos had the labyrinth built to hide it. That mythic image, the Minotaur in the labyrinth under the palace, is the hidden brutality under the surface beauty of any civilisation. It seemed to me to have special relevance to now, when the nastiness, selfishness, jealousy, violence and aggression that are always present (as Freud pointed out) in every psyche, and every nation, are more visible, more aggrieved and vocal, and even licensed by popular politicians, than they have been for over a century in Britain. Unfortunately. As elsewhere.
That’s certainly a resonance I picked up on, both through the historical sections of the novel and through the contemporary ones. The characterisation of the UK in the early chapters is as a hostile environment, one damaged by the recent resurgence of English nationalism and xenophobia. I think this is aptly reflected by the motif of the Minotaur, as you allude to, and yet I feel there is also a further complex call-to-action embedded within the narrative. Towards the end of the novel, I was struck by this quote: ‘Whatever you find unforgivable, that’s what you’ve got to forgive’ (p.261). This spoke directly to me as an Englishman worried about the trajectory of our country, and I wonder if you had Britain in mind at all when you wrote it. What is it in your research that helped enforce that idea for you – that strength in forgiveness – and what can we learn from that going forward?
Well, a lot of the hidden reflections, as it were, below the surface of the novel are about families. All the tragic Holocaust nexus of second generation/third generation survivor guilt, as well as sorrow and anger, of the shadows of inherited trauma: Ri gradually discovers that she had inherited her mother’s buried trauma without knowing what it was. I did a lot of research in psychology literature and the literature of trauma: appalling things seen and then buried, which emerge in family dynamics in other forms. This is particularly appropriate for Crete, a land of so many caves, so many secrets and layers. So I was particularly thinking, in that phrase, at the family rather than the national level. But Britain … We were the one country that, in my parents’ generation which went through the Second World War, did not suffer the trauma of either an occupation or a civil war, to test us. All our neighbours did: Ireland had a civil war, France and Belgium had the Nazis; they all have had to learn, confront their past, and forgive. I think we are being tested now. Who knows what will come?
Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet, author of twelve acclaimed poetry collections, a first novel set mainly in the jungles of India, and an eclectic range of non-fiction from wild tiger conservation to madness in tragedy, reading contemporary poetry and the influence of Greek myth on rock music. Her poems have appeared in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The White Review, Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and elsewhere. She started out as a classicist at Oxford, has lived in Crete on and off since she was a student and visits regularly, and is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Professor of Poetry at King’s College London. www.ruthpadel.com
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author C.D. Rose on the research process behind his collection The Blind Accordionist (Melville House, 2021).
As all unpublished novelists know innately, there may be more ‘undiscovered writers’ now in existence than ‘discovered writers’ at any point in time. Our global reading list only expands, and at an exponential rate. In that context, I’d like to start by asking simply – why Maxim Guyavitch? As a scholar of a ‘lost writer’, and as a compiler of ‘lost work’, why do we need Guyavitch? More glibly, what has Guyavitch ever done for us?
It’s true. There are too many books out there. The to-be-read piles have become towers. Each discovery of a new writer leads to another, then another, then another.
Who needs more?
The answer to that, I think, is everyone. We all need more – or, at least the opportunity (however distant) to read more, or the knowledge that there is more there. You don’t have to read everything, after all. Nobody’s demanding you give up your entire life. Books will wait, for a long time, if necessary.
‘Why Guyavitch?’ is a good question, especially when there are so many others. I could say he’s ‘one of the greats,’ but such a glib phrase wouldn’t suit him. I could say he’s an important minor writer, but that wouldn’t be right either: no writer is ‘minor.’ (There are no minor writers; there are only minor readers.)
I think it’s the question that’s the problem here. What do any writers do for us? Guyavtich has done nothing for us; the question is: what we can do for him?
There may be something there, though I still wonder what separates Guyavitch from other similar writers of the age. In that sense, I feel like there’s an extent to which Guyavitch’s work embodies something of Europe in the time before it was carved up and devoured by capitalism and Communism, that lost world. As the Afterword to The Blind Accordionist points to, there are connections to be made with Schulz, Babel, Brodsky and others – all writers who work within ambivalent spaces, ambiguous forms. What do you feel it was, in the spirit of Europe before the Second World War, that informed these writers’ (and Guyavitch’s) proclivity for the ambiguous and the ambivalent?
It was certainly no Arcadia, especially if you were Jewish, or Gypsy, or any other ethnic minority. But James Joyce lived for a good while on the tip of Mitteleuropa, and later claimed he’d never been so happy as when living in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire. I wonder if it was something to do with the uncertainty caused by ever-shifting borders, the mixing of so many ethnicities and languages, the possibilities of the still-fresh Romantic nationalism before it coalesced into something poisonous, the legacies of so many traditions (Kabbalistic philosophers rubbing up against itinerant storytellers – the culture whose loss Walter Benjamin laments in his essay ‘The Storyteller’), a literary culture not bounded by formal restrictions (such as that of the novel) or genre limits.
All that, added to the risks of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and never really knowing where that place might be, would almost inevitably produce a literature that might seem rich in ambiguity and ambivalence, I think.
Running with that idea of ‘genre limits’ for the moment, I’m interested in David Kingston’s classification of ‘the Whimsical’ – that is of a genre of ‘Whimsical literature’ that should be considered as valid as the Romantic, Pastoral, Gothic, etc. As your Afterword notes, Kingston provides a number of examples of Whimsical literature, but I wonder if you concur with his definition. What is Whimsy in literary terms, and what aspects of it, if any, do you find in the work of Maxim Guyavitch?
I neither agree nor disagree with Kingston’s classification; I included the reference to (and excerpts from) his essay simply because I thought it may be of interest to any potential Guyavitch scholar. At its worst, I think the Whimsical is some slightly stunted form of imaginative creation, a reification of the trivial. At its best however (and I think it can be very good), it is both weird and eerie (using Mark Fisher’s definitions), yet also with a comic dimension. It’s a re-investigation of shadowy corners of childhood, as well as a distinct aesthetic tradition all of its own, lurking somewhere between the heimlich and the unheimlich.
In literary terms, it could include: lists; use of folk tales; miniatures; anything involving marionettes or puppets; very short stories with very long titles; mises-en-abyme; collections of short stories pretending to be novels pretending to be collections of short stories.
I don’t, for the record, think that Guyavitch’s stories are whimsical at all.
That I understand, and I think that fits with my general notion that Guyavitch is perhaps a writer that’s ‘hard to pin down’. Some of the core themes running throughout The Blind Accordionist are those of forgery, fraud and disguise. Other than the obvious allusions to deception that those themes imply, I’m interested in their relationship with replication, translation, duplicity – the way that forgery, for example, produces a doppelganger, a shadow. I’m curious to know where you find the links, if at all, between forgery, duplicity and Guyavitch’s stories.
Forgery has fascinated me in that often it requires the application of extreme skill to utterly pointless ends (or, if not quite pointless, then dubious at best.) Duplicity is an awkward term in that it implies both ‘doubleness’ and ‘deceitfulness.’ Is there a link between those things and Guyavitch’s stories? Quite possibly. Is Guyavitch, through his work, hiding something while also attempting to tell us about it? Almost certainly.
I’d like to close by asking whether you feel, in the same way that I do, that Guyavitch is to an extent made alive within the text. To what extent, through this collection and your scholarly work, does Guyavitch continue to speak to us in a living voice, in the twenty-first century? Is there a future to Guyavitch research?
The absence of voice in written texts, and its paradoxical remaining trace, fascinates me – in short stories particularly. I’ve long been trying to prove the unprovable thesis that it is this quality which defines a short story. It is one of the things which makes the ghost story the short story form par excellence, I think.
Guyavitch is no longer a living voice, but quite certainly a ghost, one whose non-presence haunts us all – calling us to remember that which was never remembered in the first place.
I certainly hope that this new edition of the nine stories will set in motion a whole new cycle of Guyavitch research.
C.D. Rose is the author of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else and The Blind Accordionist.