INTERVIEW: Katie Oliver on butterflies, the Twitter takeover and ‘I Wanted to be Close to You’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Katie Oliver on the research process behind her collection I Wanted to be Close to You (Fly on The Wall Press, 2022).

I Wanted to be Close to You put me in mind of a conversation I had last year with the author Alice Ash, in which she mentioned how her hyperrealist style lent itself to themes of ‘fixation and obsession’. I feel like some of the stories in your collection mirror this sentiment, in that they sometimes turn up the contrast or colour of the world in a similar way as some psychological/emotional phenomena do, particularly obsession and paranoia. Does that resonate with you at all? What does it mean to you, if anything, to write hyperreality?

Now, it’s funny you should mention Alice Ash, as when seeking blurbs she was one of the very first people I asked! I didn’t think she’d say yes but was delighted when she did, because I love her writing. Re: hyperrealism, that’s a very interesting question. I don’t think it’s something I was consciously aiming for, but on reflection it does describe how I write. I enjoy dialling up the sensory elements of my writing in unusual and grotesque ways – I’m particularly thinking of one of the stories in my collection, ‘Becoming’. I won’t give spoilers, but if I say ‘the worm scene’ you’ll know what I mean! Additionally, fixation and obsession are certainly common themes within my writing, as is the frequent sense that we aren’t entirely sure what is real and what is a figment of the characters’ imaginations. I’m interested in exploring how far people can go in terms of convincing themselves that they can get what they want – whether that’s bringing back a loved one or metamorphosing into a different body.

I’m glad you mentioned metamorphosis, as I feel like the hyperreality in I Wanted to be Close to You is tied in some ways is your approach to nature, particularly in the way you play with devices like anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. I’m curious to know how you handled your exploration of these points of interchange (the animal-in-humans and potentially the human-in-animals), especially in the way the collection repeatedly challenges popular nature metaphors such as the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Now this was something I was very conscious about doing. I’m an absolute nature lover and am never happier than when walking in the woods or searching for shells on the beach, but I was very clear on wanting to subvert the ‘escape to nature/nature as healing’ tropes that we often see. There’s nothing wrong with those – I was just interested in pushing it the other way. The most explicit subversion of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis metaphor is in the story ‘You can’t kill it because it’s already dead’. I actually got the inspiration for this from years ago when I worked in a school – we had one of those kits where you get caterpillars and watch them as they build and then hatch out of their chrysalides. All went well apart from one poor creature where something hadn’t gone quite right for it and its wings were all wasted, and it died. It was absolutely horrible and the image has stayed with me for years. I feel like the more deeply I immerse myself in the natural world, the more I realise how dangerous, powerful and heartbreaking it can be, whether it’s a poisonous mushroom or a tsunami (or indeed, a doomed butterfly) and in my writing I almost wanted to pay tribute to that. There’s already such a tension between humans and the natural world – as a species we’re generally doing a great job of destroying it and the fanciful part of me feels like nature is just sitting there waiting to fully unleash. See, I’ve personified her again!

I’ve always identified intensely with animals and I’m a huge fan of stories told through their eyes – The Bees by Lalline Paul springs to mind as a favourite – it’s a thriller narrated by a bee trying to hide her secret baby and I would totally recommend it!

In terms of the animal-in-human, I think my interest in this comes from a really natural desire to change, to be someone or something else. The characters in my stories who morph in some way are all escaping something, whether that’s trauma, a bad relationship or simple dissatisfaction with their lives.

Stepping aside from nature for the moment, another theme that jumped out at me was your imaginative handling of complex future technologies, particularly domestic ones. Several stories revolve around characters negotiating their relationships with new body-technologies, often with irreversibly damaging effect. What is your attitude to current and future technologies, especially in regards to their interactions with the human body? Does our attitude to body-technologies need to change?

AI and body technologies are a true fascination of mine – I’m endlessly drawn to learning about them, but equally repelled! The main thing is that while the technology out there is incredibly impressive, I think we can have no real idea of what the actual consequences will be until it’s far too late. I can’t help but invoke the iconic Jurassic Park quote: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I recently read an article entitled ‘AI experts are increasingly afraid of what they are creating’, which says it all, really. For anyone interested in reading more around the subject, I highly recommend the brilliant To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell.

Leading on from that, one of the repeated approaches to the theme of the body in I Wanted to be Close to You regards your complex handling of the female body, particularly in terms of its vulnerability. In several stories, the female body is stripped of its agency by forces outside each woman’s control – either with the threat of physical assault, the mob judgement of social media, the sometimes-surreal realities of childbirth and motherhood, or with issues of body-belonging within an intimate relationship. As something you write so deftly and passionately about, I’d like to know how you navigated your own thoughts and feelings around agency and the female body. Were there challenges there?

I actually didn’t find it challenging in an emotional sense – it was more cathartic than anything. It is certainly an angry book: it isn’t a safe world out there for women and progress on e.g. reproductive rights has gone hugely backwards of late, so I wanted to write about it (my story ‘Underbelly’ directly refers to this – I wrote it postpartum after a pretty difficult birth). My relationship with writing pretty much all boils down to either processing my emotions or escaping them. ‘TimeOut’ is another story that seems to resonate with people – it links to the previous question about AI and tech. I wrote it when my son was eight months old and I was psychotic from sleep deprivation. I think I almost needed to fictionally present myself with the dream solution and then talk myself down from it by demonstrating how it actually definitely wouldn’t have been a good idea to turn my baby off with a dodgy app. Catharsis indeed!

We touched briefly on social media there, but to close I’d like to dig into that a little further. Twitter in particular has a recurring presence within the collection, handled within the stories in variegated ways. Naturally, these stories were written before Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, so I’m curious to know if your attitudes towards the app have since changed? How has social media fed into your life as a writer, and in your opinion is there any possibility of it being a force for good in the future?

I was so annoyed when he took over! For the obvious reasons, of course, but when the future of the app was looking very uncertain at the start I was slightly worried my book would be historical fiction before it had even come out…

In terms of social media feeding into my life as a writer, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve made so many great connections, found my writing group and gained genuine friends from my interactions. I don’t have many writing friends in ‘real life’ and I think it’s so essential to find people to share work with, push you towards deadlines and pick you up after rejections. While social media in general can be an absolute bin, the online writing community is mostly a warm and supportive place. I’ve recently joined Instagram (I have a book to sell) and am actually really enjoying the Bookstagram element, but I have to stay away from the reels on the homepage or else I’ll get sucked into eight hours of watching someone blend their eyeshadow or document their bikini body journey. That’s the real negative side of it for me – the timewasting and toxic body image stuff that’s shoved in your face on a constant basis. It’s the digital equivalent of being accosted by the perfume and makeup sample people at the entrance of a department store. Algorithm, if you’re listening – I do not want bum implants, thank you.

Katie Oliver is a writer based in South West Kerry. Her fiction has been shortlisted in several competitions, including the Bridport Prize and the Short Fiction/Essex University Wild Writing Prize, and her poetry is published in various online and print journals. Her debut short fiction collection I Wanted to be Close to You was published by Fly on The Wall Press in December 2022. She is currently working on her next collection and has work forthcoming in Holy Show later in 2023.

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

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A fiercely hopeful novel about family, sexuality, grief and how we as individuals can rediscover our political agency in the face of continued uncertainty.

Brighton, 2016. Laurie wears the scar given to her by a policeman’s baton as a mark of pride among her circle of bright young activists. Her conscionable but sensitive brother George should be a part of that circle, until the appearance of enigmatic Spanish migrant Antonio threatens to divert him from his sister’s world of marches and moral accountability.

As the clouds gather over Brighton and the EU referendum accelerates both Laurie’s political zeal and Antonio’s ambiguous desires, George is faced with the fact that their city of parties and protests is suddenly a place where the possibility of saving the world – as well as the people around him – is in jeopardy of being lost forever.

At once a letter of support to everyone disillusioned by British politics, and a deeply perceptive snapshot of modern relationships, A Bad Decade for Good People is a captivating state-of-the-nation tale that begs the question: when it feels like the world is falling apart, how do you keep those you love from doing the same?

A Bad Decade for Good People will be published by Parthian Books in Summer 2023. For press enquiries you’re more than welcome to reach me directly at joebedford86@yahoo.co.uk or via Twitter @joebedford_uk

INTERVIEW: Toby Litt on Mahler, meditation and ‘Patience’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Toby Litt on the research process behind his novel Patience (Galley Beggar Press, 2019).

In my reading, the core engine of Patience is the voice of Elliott, the narrator. In this respect, the novel enters into dialogue with other texts that attempt to construct a voice for a non-verbal narrator, someone without a physical voice of their own – I’m thinking particularly of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, although there are many others. I’d like to start by asking how you feel Patience interacts with these texts. How did they influence Elliott’s voice as you designed and wrote into that non-verbal space?

Elliott’s voice was where the novel started. It took a long time to write, but began with a photograph by Timm Rautert that I saw in an exhibition in Leipzig. I bought the exhibition catalogue, and went back to a few images from a series titled ‘The Children of Block 5, 1974’. The first thing I wrote was about a boy called Kurt who seems, in the photograph, to be pressing his face into a small wooden chest whilst kneeling on a chair. Another photograph shows a boy in a wheelchair looking very intensely at the photographer through windows of reinforced glass. He became Elliott. But it took a lot of time for me to work my way towards his voice. I did read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a couple of times, when I was doing my research. I avoided reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – although I’d seen the film years ago – because I didn’t want to be too influenced by the plot. I watched it afterwards, and was relieved to see few similarities. More important to Elliott’s voice, and to my belief that his hyperarticulacy might be possible, was Christopher Nolan’s memoir Under the Eye of the Clock. Nolan’s writing style, developed while he was completely paralyzed, was very different to Elliott’s – Nolan is an Irish writer, strongly influenced by James Joyce. Elliott’s main influence is the time he’s had to think about things. He has a leisurely language, but one that strives toward elegance of gesture.

Continuing with intertextuality for a moment, the archetypes of orphan and orphanage are ones deeply embedded into the English imagination, from Oliver Twist onwards. Why do you think the experience of ‘the orphan’ resonates within our literature? What is it about that notion of growing up alone that has helped it pervade the novel form as a theme?

I think orphan and orphanage read as very strange words, within English. They seem to be far from home. (This was one of the reasons that I called an important character in my novel Journey into Space Orphan.) With Patience, I tried to make it clear that this was a Children’s Home, not an Orphanage – meaning that many of the children had been put their by their still-living parents (as has Elliott). There is passage in which Elliott describes watching new arrivals saying goodbye to their parents for what might be the last time.

Orphans newly made cry in a way that is in my experience which is in my far from limited experience quite quite different to other children because other mothered-fathered children cry toward the world as if the world might hear and act whereas orphans cry as if they were the world as if they were the world crying in the full knowledge that there is no-one and nothing to hear them but the moon which appears some months in the top left hand corner of the courtyard window and of my winter vision nothing but the moon to offer comfort and that the moon is entirely comfortless and is known in fact as a white image of total comfortlessness just as orphans are and know themselves to be a pure image of total need of motherly fatherly comfort that is not coming never coming.

To answer your question, orphaning your main character is something children’s books very often do. And, within those books, the loss of the parents is – plotwise – the liberation that permits adventure. As a child, I always found the point in a story when the parents died or gave up their children very exciting. If that hadn’t happened then, like me, the characters would have been stuck in their boring, safe, normal world. Slightly later, I went to boarding school, and experienced genuinely being sent away (only eight miles, and I did go home at weekends). Because of these associations, I felt that making the central character in an adult novel an orphan was a risky thing. They could too easily come across as objects of pity. I wanted it to be clear that Elliott feels very little pity for himself, and finds a great deal of joy in his limited world. He just wants that world to be bigger and greener. I think this might apply to other orphaned characters in the way you’re suggesting – by making them seem smaller and more vulnerable, it makes the world seem larger and more dangerous. Novelists are attracted to anything that seems to expand the space of their narratives, and give them greater emotional depth. There may also be something in it to do with the English never really getting over (or perhaps past) their childhoods.

Yes, I completely get how the orphaning of a child character changes our expectations of jeopardy in the world around them. I feel as though our notions of the orphanage have held a particularly difficult resonance in recent years, as more of the history of institutional crimes and cruelties continue to come to light. I wonder what research you undertook to help position Patience thoughtfully within that framework. Were there any ethical challenges within the process?

There was the ethical challenge of whether to write the book at all – to speak from a position I hadn’t occupied. However, it felt as if I had a decent reason for this. The moment-by-moment experience of quadriplegic child in a Catholic Children’s Home in 1979 is, in most ways, inaccessable except through imagination. I did what research I could, particularly into Irish orphanages, but I took from those memoirs not the horrors but the structure of the day, the foods, the sense of physical texture. Elliott is treated with extreme neglect, which is terribly cruel, but he is not deliberately abused. Other children in the home die, by accident, because they aren’t being paid enough attention. I didn’t want to demonize the Catholic Sisters who look after Elliott. They are doing what they can to care for the many children in their charge, but they are so few and the children are so many and so demanding. I wanted to give the sense of how easily the horrors could take place, but that they weren’t taking place there and then.

Moving onto form, I’d really like to get a grip on how you approached temporality within the novel’s design. I feel as though the novel purposefully challenges the reader to develop patience, as the structure is largely built around the minutiae of Elliott’s world, not around the strictures of traditional narrative form (hence no chapter breaks). How did you deal with time, measurement and the very act of patience within Patience?

I’m afraid this question is too big, and I’m tempted to do the annoying author thing of saying that I wrote the book to answer it, so please reread the book. But, as an academic, I was asked to write a statement about Patience for the REF (Research Excellence Framework). This is what I wrote:

To write Patience I needed to become more patient. It was not a book that could be written in a hurry, or by a hurried writer – a hurried person. From start to finish, the novel took twelve years, although the majority of the drafting was in the final three years.

It is usual to describe research practice as the acquisition of units of knowledge or the fashioning of conceptual tools. And of course part of the researching of Patience involved me learning from memoirs by writers such as Christopher Nolan (Under the Eye of the Clock) and Jean-Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who experienced almost total physical paralysis – similar to that of Elliott, my narrator. It also involved closely re-reading writers who explored the phenomenology of time and paralysis, principally Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust. I found their use of a distended, flexible syntax was a way in to Elliott’s elegant, responsive thought-prose. Alongside memoir and fiction, I read the Heidegger that even the usually undaunted Hubert Dreyfus warned his students off – Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event). This served both as a model of prose that attempts to embody and enact its own liveness as thought, and also as a site for questioning ideas of active embodiment as necessary for Being. I soundtracked much of this research with time-slowing music, often written by Catholic or Orthodox contemplatives (Abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Komitas Vardapet).

Most of all, I developed a daily practice of zazen – usually translated as ‘just sitting’ – the Soto Zen form of meditation. This involves sitting cross-legged, motionless, eyes open, facing a wall, for half an hour. Conscious thought, or conscious direction of thought towards any aim (even towards calm), is not the point. I can now see – looking back – that, more than my reading, it was those hundreds of hours sitting in front of a wall, doing nothing, that slowed me down until I became capable of a new kind of patience and attentiveness.

That’s a kind of answer, distilled to 300 words. But much of my recent writing has been about different kinds of temporality. That goes for A Writer’s Diary as much as Patience.

To sacrifice a more summarial final question for one I’m more interested in, I’d like to close by asking about music. The relationship between fiction and music is something that’s come up several times in this series (most notably in my discussions with Jonathan Taylor, Martin Goodman and Graham Mort), but I’m curious as to your perspective. I was particularly reminded of Dr Mort’s comment that ‘Music is shaped by silence’, which came to me while I was inhabiting Elliott’s loud yet mostly-silent world. Where do you find the intersections between music and fiction?

I use music as a way to think about what writing doesn’t and perhaps can’t do. There are similarities. Formally, some symphonies or other classical pieces have shapes influenced by novels (for example the bildunsgroman), and novels – in turn – can structure themselves through themes, variations, transitions, climaxes. The main musical presence in Patience, apart from The Beatles, is Mahler. Most of us can switch on any particular bit of music we like in seconds. Then we stop listening. Elliott, by contrast, can’t choose to hear something he’d like, and has only heard Mahler in snatches. The Sisters turn off Mahler’s Sixth Symphony midway through the second movement; that’s all Elliott gets to hear of it. But in that time Elliott listens much more intensely than we do, because he is doing nothing else. He is in that time. For him, the music is a much more total experience. And that’s related to the lack of music (not the silence, the Children’s Home is full of noise) that comes before and after it. Often, it’s previous deprivation that makes an experience powerful. Lots of middle-aged people will tell you how powerful David Bowie’s performance of ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops was. How it changed them fundamentally. But it was absolute rubbishness of week after week of ToTP before this that set them up for that. They weren’t getting the music, or the camp, or the beauty that they needed – through their televisions. Then, suddenly, after the deprivation, it was ecstatically there. This relates to the end of Patience – which I’m quite happy not to give away.

Toby Litt is a writer and environmental activist based in London. He has published novels, short story collections and poems. His most recent book is A Writer’s Diary (Galley Beggar, 2023) – and his diary continues to run on Substack. His novel Patience was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. He is a member of English Pen and editor of the Writers Rebel website. In November 2023, he and the writer Natasha Walter took part in Cut the Ties, thirteen co-ordinated Extinction Rebellion actions against institutions that maintain our dependence on fossil fuels. Both Toby and Natasha were arrested for taking part in a Non-Violent Direct Action outside the Institute for Economic Affairs. When he is not writing, Toby likes sitting doing nothing.

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

INTERVIEW: Isobel Wohl on modern America, narrative tense and ‘Cold New Climate’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Isobel Wohl on the research process behind her novel Cold New Climate (Weatherglass Books, 2021).

In my reading, the world of Cold New Climate is one in which the mass of information made available by the internet makes the world’s problems feel distant and inevitable, a world in which it’s impossible for people to work out what really matters. I wondered how you handled this mass of information – these factoids that support so many of the characters’ social interactions –  while writing the novel. How did this information, and its ubiquitous nature, help inform your narrative design?

I wanted Cold New Climate to be true to a texture of lived experience today, and of course that meant that the internet had to feel very present. I was also curious about the way in which it forces issues of care and responsibility to the front and centre of our daily lives. We learn about global problems with a level of detail and intimacy that would be impossible without the internet. At the same time, the overwhelming amount of information we’re encountering can make these problems feel, as you say, “distant and inevitable,” such that we’re less likely to feel that we’ve contributed to them and less likely to feel we’re morally obligated to behave differently. So the factoids you reference in your question evoke the same issues that Lydia and Caleb are dealing with in their personal lives: am I causing harm? What would it mean for me to accept myself as responsible? What would that understanding force me to do? I wanted all of these little nuggets of seemingly random information to allow the ethical concerns of the book to play out across and between different scales: micro or factoid-size, human-scale or intimate, and macro or societal.

That idea of self-reflective questioning puts me in mind of the ethical paralysis that can accompany climate anxiety – that feeling of helplessness I discussed last year with the author Carys Bray and others. I wondered to what extent your research into climate change affected your attitudes to the future, and how you feel Cold New Climate feeds into our understanding of the climate emergency. Is there room, even in the face of our continued apathy, for optimism?

I think it depends a bit on what you mean by optimism. Clearly there will be a lot more suffering than there would have been if governments, corporations, and individuals had made different choices. Denying that isn’t optimism, it’s delusion. But it’s also true that we have the opportunity to change and create a better future than the one we’ll have if we stay on our current trajectory.

It’s also helpful to remember that we can choose optimism in specific moments. You don’t have to feel great about the broad sweep of history to decide that optimism is your best bet in discrete instances. And each time we make more sustainable choices, each time we talk to our friends and families and neighbours about the impact we’re having on the environment, each time we protest, we create deeply optimistic moments.

That said, I do live with a sense of foreclosure or foreshortening, the feeling that the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. In the novel, I tried to communicate that with tenses. At the outset I assumed I’d have to choose one narrative tense for the book, either the past or the present. During the writing process, however, I found myself working on some sections in one tense and some in the other—and the past tense sections weren’t necessarily flashbacks, but in some cases occurred after sections that had been written in the present, creating a future that sounded as if it were a past. And then it occurred to me that the present tense tends towards a cinematic, almost aquatic, surface-level feeling, in which events are often juxtaposed without a clear sense of the connections between them, whereas the past tense can create a greater awareness of an arc, so that the story seems more imbued with a historical trajectory. I tried to leverage both of those effects, so that you have a time when there’s this sense of suspended causality, and then a time when the weight of what’s happened really sets in. Hopefully that works on the personal level as well as on the level of climate.

I think it does, and actually I think it’s the way Cold New Climate works beyond the level of macro-social statement that gives it its core strength. The intimacy with which Lydia and Caleb’s lives are treated particularly lends the novel its verisimilitude and its total lack of sentimentality. In that sense, the novel balances the personal and the political by characterising its protagonists as real people in all their complexity, and therein lies its force of meaning. I hoped you could talk briefly about novels that you consulted when trying to achieve that balance of personal and political, micro and macro. Who, if anyone, do you feel achieves that balance?

You know, it’s interesting—I did consult books when I was writing Cold New Climate, but not specifically with an eye to that issue. I tried to just see the concerns playing out at different levels in the book itself, because of who the characters are. For example, Lydia’s treatment of Caleb and her hypocrisy about the climate both come from the same place in her; she’s just being herself in different contexts and at different scales.

Looking back, Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment was very important to me, especially when I was writing the opening chapters. The book doesn’t try to be about politics, except insofar as political and social realities deeply shape the protagonist’s life and cause the events of the story. Ann Petry’s novel The Street is another example of a book in which politics and intimate life are deeply intertwined.

I’d also like to talk briefly about America. For most of the novel, we are immersed in the intimate and even claustrophobic confines of New York City, before Lydia and Caleb take a road trip across the USA which brought to my mind the second half of Lolita. As a setting, America is handled dispassionately and again without sentimentality, but I hoped you could share your thoughts on how you feel the US complements or elucidates the themes of Cold New Climate. As someone who has lived outside the US for many years, how do you feel your evolving attitudes to the nation have influenced your fiction? Could Cold New Climate have been set anywhere else?

No, the book couldn’t have been set anywhere else—it would have been a different novel. Self-delusion and the collapse of supposed certainties run through Cold New Climate at both intimate and planetary levels. Also, I moved back to New York partway through writing the first draft. So at some level I think I was trying to work out my relationship to America while I was writing the book, since I’d been in London for several years and was now coming back home with the feeling that it was a strange country to me.

I wanted the book to speak to the current upheaval in America’s understanding of itself. I grew up in New York in the ‘90s, the era of the so-called “end of history”; we Americans allowed ourselves to think that the US was always going to be the dominant global power, and that our dominance was based on moral leadership. We were the indispensable nation, the shining city on the hill. Today that sense of might and moral value has been deeply, deeply undermined—and not just by recent changes, like Trump’s election or January 6th, or even the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now we know that we were never the country we told ourselves we were. In Cold New Climate, we see the dissonance between Lydia’s ideas of her own behavior and the true consequences of her actions. Caleb, too, in his own way, struggles with an inaccurate perception of who he is.

Finally I’d like to touch on something I’ve put to a few authors during this series – the idea of the novel as an act of research in and of itself. In its simplest form, I’d like to know whether you feel there is a question hidden at the centre of Cold New Climate, an unresolved space into which the whole of the novel attempts to write. That might be a question about our world, our future, our literature, but if Cold New Climate is an attempt to work through something within yourself, what is that question and to what extent is it answered by the text?

Any novel worth writing is a search, or maybe even a tangle of searches. I don’t think you always know the full extent of what you’re searching for. I try to build a book as a way to pose questions. We’ve touched on many important concerns in the book—climate, care for others, America—but I hope there are even more questions embedded in Cold New Climate, and that readers enjoy finding them.

Isobel Wohl is a Brooklyn-based writer. A native New Yorker, she lived in London for seven years before returning to her home city. Wohl’s first novel, Cold New Climate, was published by Weatherglass Books in April 2021. She is also the author of a short story collection, Winter Strangers (MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2019). Her essays have appeared in The Irish Times, LitHub, and Astra Magazine (online), among other publications. She is currently working on her second novel.

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

INTERVIEW: Rose McDonagh on zoomorphism, the Highlands and ‘The Dog Husband’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Rose McDonagh on the research process behind her collection The Dog Husband (Reflex Press, 2022).

I’d like to start with a quote from your story ‘Pipistrelle’, in which a fictional nature writer gives his thoughts on nature and life: ‘The plainer the bird, the prettier the song’ (p. 34). It strikes me that this quote might easily describe one of the core strengths of The Dog Husband, that of its commitment to the personal, the unadorned, the intimate, the domestic. I’m curious to know how you feel about this, and to what extent it might be fair to describe the collection as one that uncovers the sublime and the surreal in the lives of ‘normal’ people.

Yes, I think that’s really central to my writing. To me everyday life is woven through with the extraordinary and sublime. I think all people are strange and complicated in their own way. Being a counsellor and working for a number of charities over the years has brought home to me how much is hidden, how much is going on under the surface for everyone. Surprising experiences are there in the middle of ordinary life – you can witness something bizarre walking down a local street, or have an unexpectedly moving encounter with a stranger at a bus stop. The recent protest using Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reminded me of a time I started chatting to a woman at a bus stop and she told me she carries a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers everywhere with her because her husband, now dead, had carried the same picture all through the Second World War. If I put that in a story, it would risk seeming contrived. I often find I have to tone down real life to fit it into fiction.

In the stories where something momentous is happening, such as ‘Dog’s Bone’, in which an unspecified global disaster has occurred, I found it particularly important to focus in on the small, ordinary details, to create a sense that this is how incredible events occur, in the middle of ordinary life. As a species, we have this amazing ability to reflect and reason and ask profound questions, and we are aware of events on a grand scale, but by necessity much of our lives happen on a small scale. We are mammals that need to eat and sleep and keep ourselves entertained. So in ‘Dog’s Bone’, I included everyday details like of the layout of the village shop, the Halloween sweets and dog toys, alongside a sense that something has gone very wrong on a national or international scale. I wrote that story before Covid but it was something that struck a lot people during lockdown – the mundanity of the little things like queuing outside the supermarket and trying to find pasta while this huge global event was happening. Life is such an odd mix of the profound and beautiful and silly and mundane. I wanted to bring that into the collection.

While I’ve alluded to the realism of your characters, a core entry point for many of those within the collection seems to be the moment when psychological pressure forces them out of their reality. Several stories, including ‘Verdict’, ‘The Dog Husband’ and ‘Wormholes’ describe characters who have lost touch with what others broadly agree as ‘what’s really happening’. Why is this motif so prevalent in The Dog Husband and what might these breaks from reality tell us about the human experience? Does this theme come from a personal place?

It partly comes from my sense of the deep strangeness of life. While I don’t believe in many of the things the characters think they are experiencing – I don’t believe that aliens are landing in supported living flats or that someone’s husband has come back as a border collie – I do think being alive is incredibly weird. Sometimes we don’t see the strangeness of it because we’re so used to living it. We live with so many unanswered questions about the nature of reality, the nature of consciousness, the nature of the universe, and we live with such uncertainty around our own and others’ mortality. Developing characters whose reality is more obviously strange allows a way into exploring the sensations of existential anxiety and uncertainty in a playful way. In that sense it’s personal – although the situations are quite strange and unique to the character, they explore what is to me a recognisable sense of existential unease that perhaps most people experience at times.

I’m also just generally fascinated by belief and the way in which human beings experience the world differently because they believe different things. There’s something in the title story about how hard we can find it to accept that someone has a different core belief from us. One of the inspirations for the story was meeting a man who believed that people can completely control their own physical health by their mental attitude – if you have the right attitude you’ll never get seriously ill. I don’t believe that and I found it really annoying but I was curious about why it irritated me so much. It’s quite an offensive belief towards people who are coping with a serious physical illness, but I also felt like there was some jealousy in there. This person wouldn’t worry about his physical health because he assumed he wouldn’t get ill. There’s something of that in ‘The Dog Husband’ – it annoys the main character that her friend is comforted by a belief she cannot share.

I’ve also always hugely enjoyed ghost stories and thrillers and I love mixing some of the structures and tropes of those genres into stories that are maybe more literary or reflective overall. That probably links back to the first point – these genres let us explore deep fears in an almost playful way.

Another theme that pulls the collection away from traditional realism is your use of animals. The animal world pervades every story in The Dog Husband, with animals often occupying the place of key images and even characters. There’s a particular tension, I found, in your dual uses of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, alternating between animals acting as humans and humans acting as animals. What do you feel is the difference between utilising anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, and was that a conscious tension in your work?

It’s definitely in there though it wasn’t initially a conscious choice – it’s a theme I found and developed as I was putting the collection together. I’ve always loved animals so they tend to slip into most of my stories. Zoomorphism can be used to show those more instinctive, less culturally driven emotions and responses within us – desire, jealousy, fear – such as the character in ‘Pipistrelle’ becoming fox-like when he feels anxious in a crowded space. A person projecting human characteristics onto an animal is often showing up a need or fear within themselves. In ‘The Dog Husband’, the narrator begins to see judgement in the eyes of the dog as her own behaviour becomes stranger. In ‘Lily’, although the herd of cows pose a real threat, the characters are also projecting defensive or spiteful emotions onto them, which reflects the dynamics of their human relationship.

The tension between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism is something that is picked up directly by the main character in ‘Pipistrelle’ – his mentor disapproves of anthropomorphism but freely compares people to animals. To me, there’s a less of an absolute line between the two. We are animals and we do have some recognisably animal responses and desires. Certainly, anthropomorphism can be naïve, particularly when it’s related to what animals understand intellectually. But I also think there’s a naiveté to some accusations of anthropomorphism. I’ve heard people accused of anthropomorphism when they attribute any emotions to animals at all, but that accusation comes from a simplistic notion that human emotions are special. It ignores the fact that on some level our emotions evolved as we evolved as social animals.

Leading on from that, animals are also used in the collection as conduits or apparitions representing absent humans, which I feel (alongside other plot points, such as that tension between reality and fantasy) lends some of the stories an aspect of the fairy tale. Did you have fairy tales in mind when drafting these stories, and if so, what do fairy tales mean to you and your craft, if anything?

Yes, I think they are there in the background for most authors because they’re part of your reading DNA. They are the stories you encounter from earliest childhood. In the collection, ‘The Mute Swan’ was the story that was most directly influenced by fairy tale. I wanted to write a reverse fairy tale in which an animal becomes a human. I liked the idea of exploring which strange behaviours a person would exhibit if they had recently transformed from an animal. How would people around them react? With ‘The Mute Swan’, it ended up not being as overt as that – what’s really going on in the story is ambiguous – but it dances around the idea that a creature has turned into a human. One of the key features of fairy tales is that they are psychologically simple, the characters have very few subtle psychological motivations but are driven by big core emotions like love, hate and jealousy. It’s fun to take some of the central themes and ideas from within fairy tales and flesh them out into the grey areas and the more nuanced emotions of real life.

Marina Warner argues that a sense of wonder is a key component of fairy tales. Without thinking of fairy tales explicitly I knew that was something I wanted from each story in this collection. I started to feel more confidence in my short stories when I began to write around ideas that gave me that little thrill of wonder as soon as they arrived. When the narrator in ‘Pipistrelle’ says of the imaginary book, ‘I hope it brings you both pleasure and wonder,’ in my mind, that was a small nod to the reader about my hopes for the collection.

Finally, I’d like close by asking about Scotland and your use of setting. While representations of setting are not crucial to most of the stories (except perhaps ‘Black and Orange Caterpillars’), the spectre of rural Scotland remains pervasive throughout the collection. I wonder how your feelings about your native environment, and in particularly your childhood experiences of the Scottish countryside, worked into your designs for these stories. What does it mean, broadly, to write Scotland?

I’m aware that Scotland is a diverse country and my experience of it is only one person’s but Scottish settings are hugely important to my writing. There’s definitely a sense of being in the Scottish tradition of writing about the uncanny which encompasses Scottish authors such as James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark right up to Ali Smith, Iain Banks, James Robertson and other more modern writers. All the stories in the collection except ‘The King of France Wears a Hat’ are set in Scotland, and that story is very much about a Scottish high school though the children are visiting an unnamed continental city. Scottish towns, cities and suburbs are also present – ‘Verdict’ weaves between the city setting of the court and the leafy comfort of a suburb; ‘Wormholes’ is set in the city; ‘The Mute Swan’ moves between the city and country. I grew up in Edinburgh but I had family in the Highlands, my mum’s parents lived there, so both have a place my psyche.

I have really joyful memories of childhood holidays in the Highlands and I’ve visited there several times a year throughout my adult life. As a child I felt very emotionally attached to the landscapes there. The Highlands are often romanticised in fiction and I was aware of trying to avoid that whilst capturing the wildness of some of the landscapes in those stories. It was interesting to take places that have a sense of safety and familiarity for me, for example a caravan site – we had a lot of fun caravan holidays as a family – and give them a sinister undertone. There was a feeling of adventure and wonder in visiting the Highlands as a child – those remembered feelings can help to find the spark that a story starts from as an adult. I particularly remember my dad reading to my brother and me from a book of ghost stories in an old stone cottage that we stayed in. I remember being scared, being in this old, isolated house with all these very vivid images from the ghost stories in my head, but also being aware it was a playful fear. Having those experiences can be really useful to go back to as a writer – you can heighten the atmosphere into something darker. There’s always the potential for an isolated place to feel unsettling or unsafe and I enjoyed playing with that in stories such as ‘Nightjar’ and ‘Lily’.

Rose McDonagh was born in Edinburgh. Her stories have won the Bath Flash Fiction Award and been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the London Magazine Short Story Competition, the Dinesh Allirajah Prize and the Bristol Prize. She lives in Scotland with her husband. She is trained as a counsellor and has several years’ experience working in trauma support and community health. Her first short story collection, The Dog Husband, was published by Reflex Press in 2022. Her debut novel, One Came Back, which has been longlisted for the Caledonia First Novel Award, and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, will be published by Trapeze in 2024.

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

INTERVIEW: Thomas McMullan on sex, shame and ‘The Last Good Man’

Photograph by Jonathan Ring

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Thomas McMullan on the research process behind his novel The Last Good Man (Bloomsbury, 2020). 

I’d like to start with one of the potential origin-points for The Last Good Man – the central image of the wall upon which your characters publicly denounce one another. This form of public shaming – whether via Soviet-era newspapers, the dazibao posters of the Cultural Revolution or elsewhere – is one which obviously resonates with users of social media, as has been reflected in several critical readings of the novel. I’m not sure I buy the image of the wall as a direct metaphor for social media, but I am curious to know what function you feel outing so-called ‘enemies of the people’ might have both historically and today. Why do so many societies seem to rely on scapegoat culture? And how might that idea have fed into The Last Good Man?

There’s a large wall on a hill across the water of Plymouth Hoe. It’s big and always seemed a bit pointless to me when I was growing up, although I’m told it serves some protective purpose for a nearby fort. It looks more like a piece of public sculpture. I didn’t consciously have Bovisand Wall in mind when I was writing the novel (I only just found out its name) but I’m sure it was in there somewhere, as was Dartmoor Prison, as was the 196-metre high transmitting station on the top of the hill beside Princetown.

I’m giving these examples because the wall in my story; its imposition on the landscape, is important. It sticks out of the moorland. I recently read A Horse at Night: On Writing by Amina Cain and there’s a bit in that where she says she’s been thinking about landscape painting and literature: ‘and perhaps as an extension of this I have started to think through the idea of character and landscape as similar things, or at least as intimates, co-dependent.’ Hard to disagree. The wall is as much a part of the characters’ minds as it is a part of the horizon they see.

In the novel, it’s suggested at several points that the wall used to be more utopian in the kind of writing it hosted. There used to be marriage proposals, celebrations, things like that. Whether or not this is a case of characters misremembering, there’s a sense that this imposition on the landscape, and by extension their psychologies, wasn’t always associated with violence. The wall, at its core, is a reminder of seeing and being seen, which can be as much a joyous thing as a source of unease.

At some point the wall in the novel became a more formalised space for the community to police itself. I was struck with the dazibao posters of the Cultural Revolution, in particular the way in which local squabbles would play out in these spaces. It’s a reminder that the whole concept of ‘enemies of the people’, a term which implies a degree of objective judgement, is often tied to these complex local dynamics working beneath the surface.

Actually, writing this, I’ve just thought of an interview with a British Army captain in Adam Curtis’ documentary, Bitter Lake. The captain reflects on the failure of Western forces to fully comprehend the situation in Afghanistan: ‘We understood the conflict as good, bad. Black, white. Government, Taliban,’ he says. ‘They’ve understood it as a shifting mosaic of different groups and leaders fighting each other … over power.’ Perhaps there’s something of this in how the simplified idea of ‘good’ can be leveraged by those that wish to gain – or keep – power in a community.

I’m glad you mentioned community. In The Last Good Man, as in other contemporary reflections on the village as a social structure, community is both cohesive and conspiratorial. It involves both maintaining a cogent group identity and protecting that identity from outside corruption, an idea that can easily (at least in the UK) be projected from the rural to the national. What are your feelings on localism, both in terms of rural and national community? Is it, as your character James Hale perhaps naively states, ‘something we need in the world right now… A bit of community. A bit of sense’ (p.55)?

I began writing the novel before the Brexit vote, but most of the work was done in the years after and it almost goes without saying that a sense of community division was palpable in the UK. A lot could be written about the wider reasons for this division, from the impact of years of austerity and the systemic dismantling of community support networks, through to the UK’s changing role in global politics, through to the building reality of the climate crisis, but along with this breakdown there is a fantasy of the local as place of stable and communally shared identity.

This fantasy tends to be associated with the rural, at least for those in cities. During the pandemic we saw a return to the old fear of the city as a site for disease, of dangerous and uncontrollable, perhaps incomprehensible, forces. The fantasy of the rural community, on the other hand, is a desire for comprehension, place, order. ‘A bit of sense.’ Perhaps this is why James Hale believes in the wall, because he wants to believe that it is a source of comprehension, in which words are written and interpreted, the state of things understood, action duly taken.

Personally, I know this is misguided as much as I recognise the desire. As our global order becomes increasingly dysfunctional, who wouldn’t look for something stable to grip onto? Instead of facing the enormity of interlinked conflicts and failed climate pledges, who wouldn’t hope for a clear task at hand?

I certainly recognise the resurgence of that fantasy, though I feel it may cut both ways. That motif of the conspiratorial insular community (as well as the countryside as a site of violence) is also a key motif of folk horror, and something with a widespread presence from The Wicker Man to Hot Fuzz. Was folk horror, in any of its forms, a direct influence on The Last Good Man, and how helpful do you feel genre terms like this are in approaching the contemporary novel? Is ‘folk horror’ useful for understanding The Last Good Man?

I didn’t really have folk horror in mind when writing The Last Good Man, although it strikes me this is the flipside of our previous idea, that the ‘sense’ of the community turns out to be perverse, predatory. I was more influenced by Samuel Beckett, the use of landscape and language in Waiting for Godot and Not I. There’s a Kazuo Ishiguro short story, ‘A Village After Dark’, which my agent got me onto early in the submission process, and I admire the mood captured there.

For the second part of your question, I cringe a bit at genre terms like this. I’m not sure why, although perhaps it has something to do with the desire – it seems particularly strong with books and films – to categorise along the lines of affect. I mean, I can see why. Thrillers, romance, horror. You’re expecting an emotion. But there’s a level on which it feels a bit…

I’ll tell you what. It feels like it’s a way for the industry to know how to sell things. In some cases this works well but in other cases it feels like the toes have been chopped off to fit a foot into a slipper. I wouldn’t begrudge a reader wanting to orientate themselves, it’s inevitable, you’re always going to be read through the lens of other things the reader has encountered, but genre terms shut down an open reading in favour of something already known.

I’ve asked already about the potential political questions brought up by the novel, but I also feel as though it is (or perhaps is mostly) a story that has more to say about the human condition than only its place within group behaviour. In your interview with the Yorkshire Times, you said that The Last Good Man is ‘less a post-dystopia and more a manifestation of some mass psychological crisis, a bad dream’, which resonates with the fact that so many of your characters’ public dilemmas are rooted in private anxieties, particularly around sex. I’m curious to know how much you feel we (and your characters) are driven, even in our public and social personas, by the things that happen behind closed doors?

Sex is one of the main things we have going. It makes sense for it to drive at least some of the drama in our lives. I like how central sex is to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. All the stuff about free will and God and morality and meaning, and the core of the story is the sexual rivalry between a father and son with the beautiful, powerful Grushenka. Those anxieties are very much a part of the novel’s philosophy. (As an aside, that book doesn’t get talked about enough as an erotic novel. There’s a genre term for you.)

Is the ‘closed doors’ of your question meant in these terms? The door to the bedroom? It also makes me think of the trapdoor that tends to get spoken about with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a door guarded by the ego that, when asleep, is breached by the unconscious mind.

As far as my novel’s concerned, there are quite a few accusations on the wall about sexual matters, particularly about women in the village. This was purposeful. There is a patriarchal nastiness to what is put up on the wall. The wall is framed by some as an objective space but one that is ultimately structured around power dynamics that benefit a certain moral status quo, which in turn benefits those that wield authority in the community.

On the other hand, one of the characters in the novel keeps a diary of her dreams. I’d thought of this as a place of private understanding in contrast to public interpretation, but perhaps both kinds of writing are a way to express power over something that happens behind closed doors.

While I would love to delve further into the human psychology of the novel, I nevertheless feel as though I have to swing back to society before we close. The Last Good Man, as a novel of the near future, paints a grim picture. If I may ask, how optimistic are you about the future of our civilisation in the next fifty years? Is there room, in your personal outlook, for hope?

I’m writing this on the day that the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has warned that we are approaching tipping points that make climate breakdown irreversible, and ‘we will be doomed’ without an historic climate pact. The truth of the matter is that an unprecedented level of global cooperation is needed at a time when geopolitical tensions are greater than they have been for generations, and because of this I think a breakthrough of the scale Guterres is talking about is unlikely.

Many people will die, many are already dying as a direct result of climate breakdown. I’m sure action will be taken but I fear it will be too late to prevent the kinds of catastrophes that will drive human civilisation from previously inhabitable areas. This is already happening. The level of displacement will be of a different order, however, in the next fifty years, and it doesn’t take much to see the potential social and political fallout of this. Our home secretary is already using the toxic rhetoric of ‘invasions’ to describe those seeking asylum across the channel.

I am hopeful, however. What’s the alternative? I have hope that humanity will find ways to adapt, even if it is unfair that those forced to adapt the most will have contributed the least to the problem. We as a species generally excel at being reactive, even if we sometimes fail to plan ahead. I have hope that collapse opens up possibilities, that there are voices in the dark, that we make each other laugh, that we enjoy it, seek it out, that we have more interesting dreams with belly aches, when the wind is blowing and you think where did that come from, the image of an apple the size of a room. I have hope that we will flower. I have high hopes in the rituals of death. I have a child now and he’s almost speaking, any day now.

Thomas McMullan is the author of The Last Good Man, winner of the 2021 Betty Trask Prize. His fiction and poetry has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Lighthouse and Best British Short Stories. He has also written journalistically for the Guardian, Frieze and BBC News, and worked with theatre companies in London, Amsterdam and Los Angeles.

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

INTERVIEW: David Gaffney on experience, the still image and ‘The Country Pub’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author David Gaffney on the research process behind his story The Country Pub (Nightjar Press, 2022).

One aspect of The Country Pub that jumped out at me is the idea of the narrator as an avatar for the author, with your short story mirroring certain qualities of your own life quite specifically. I wonder if the narrator’s experience of a night of anxiety in the Cumbrian countryside comes from personal experience, and whether it’s typical for you to lean on your own experiences for setting and plot. In broad terms, what does it mean to write oneself into narrative fiction?

I do tend to write stories based on personal experiences as I find that real events that I have been part of or have witnessed stimulate my thinking much better than say an abstract idea or a artificial prompt, or worse, a blank page. But I do sometimes wonder if this approach leads me to have more strange encounters and experiences than most people because maybe subconsciously or even consciously I seek them out. I am the person who will speak to strangers on trains or in the street, or seek out the unusual route to walk around the city, sneak into places that look interesting, or indeed do anything that might lead me to finding some aspect of life that might be worth writing down. So whether it is things I see, things I do, things I hear, or things people tell me about, I would say that that all of those things tend to inform my stories. And even while I am experiencing them, I am already thinking about how I will structure and retell the experience later. In the case of The Country Pub I have an awkward relationship with the countryside. I was brought up in west Cumbria in the middle of nowhere and all I wanted when I was a kid was to grow up and go and live in a big city where lots of things are always happening. And now I live in Manchester, I do find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to live miles away from bars and restaurants and cinemas and shops and music venues. You ask what it means to write yourself into narrative fiction and I would say that all narrative fiction has the writer’s own experiences and views running through it like goblins in a prog rock concept album. So in short, in the case of The Country Pub there was a pub exactly like that and most of what happened in the story is true.

To roll with that for a moment then, it feels as though one of the central sources of anxiety here is the tension between the central couple’s urban, middle-class sentiments and their rural surroundings, which lead them to perceive the countryside as stagnant, irrational and potentially threatening. Do you think this is indicative of a real-life divide between urban and rural cultures in England, and to what extent might the couple’s fears reflect genuine anxieties in the rural-tourist experience?

I don’t think my attitude to the countryside is very typical. Most people I know, and indeed most writers I know, love the countryside, and in fact seek it out for writing retreats and short breaks. But as I said earlier I have a rather more complicated view of the countryside and rural life in general. I tend to see rural areas as either being extremely privileged picturesque areas full of very well-off people who have moved there from cities, or as small non-descript towns full of people who are disgruntled because they can’t escape to busy more highly-populated places where there are more opportunities, more culture, and in general more things to do. On the other hand, in The Country Pub I wanted to explore the often unrealistic expectations of middle-class city dwellers who expect the countryside to be preserved as a kind of open air museum which has all the qualities of a imaginary rural idyll; village greens and busy, friendly pubs, along with the comforts and luxuries of a city, like Michelin star chefs and trained baristas on every corner. I thought this would be an interesting clash of cultures to explore. In my next collection of short stories, Concrete Fields, I explore these themes in more depth, in particular the idea that escaping to a rural idyll for a short time can make an artist more productive creatively, which I don’t find is the case for me.

Sitting at the centre of the rural environment, the archetype of the English country pub is of course one broadly established from Hardy to du Maurier to Ishiguro. The image of the pub as including a log fire, local ales, etc. is one particularly evocative of Englishness as a site of comfort and familiarity, as you alluded to above. I’m curious to know whether you feel this archetype is changing, and whether it is compatible with modernity and the new forms of community forming around Instagram and the online tourist industry.

I feel that the idea of the English pub is on its last legs. Many of the old country pubs in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and the Lake District, have been destroyed by managers reinventing them as eating establishments and decking them out like inner-city wine bars from the eighties. The whole idea of the pub doesn’t fit so well with a new, more diverse and more equal society. It is no longer the case that a man wants to go down the pub every night on his own while his wife stays in the house minding the children. I remember a pub in Ennerdale, Cumbria where it used to be customary that all the men had to stand at the bar while all the women sat down together in a corner. And this was only recently. I think it’s fair to say that old-fashioned pubs are not all that welcoming to women or to people from other cultures, and the endless sport on every screen and flashing slot machines everywhere can be a big deterrent. And not everyone even drinks alcohol any more. I think the more continental-feeling café bar you’d find in an arts centre can be a much more welcoming place for people of many different types. After all, some people just want to come in on their own and sit in a corner reading. But what I do think is missing now is the sense of danger and excitement that a pub used to offer – the possibility that something could happen there that might change you forever.

Absolutely, for better or for worse, as many of us have experienced. Though to close, I’d like to move away from rurality and hone in on one of the central metaphors of The Country Pub, that of the ambiguity of the still image. From the opening, the narrator is unsettled by the dichotomy that a still image is unable to provide proper context for the action it portrays, as in the following example: ‘Think about a photograph of a man holding a hat above his head. You don’t know whether he is putting the hat on or taking it off, do you?’ This put me in mind of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, in which a man in mid-air can be perceived as either floating or falling. In broad terms, what does this dichotomy mean to you, and what feelings (even ambiguous ones) does it provoke?

Yes, this is something I wanted to explore – the idea that when we are in a particular time and place, how do we know whether we are leaving the place, or just arriving, and whether this is the end of something or the beginning? The idea of the short story as a photograph, a moment captured in time, with no sense of what happened before or what might happens afterwards. I sometimes feel that as we move from Autumn into Winter, it can be mistaken for moving from Winter into Spring. Are the days getting shorter or longer? Is this a sunrise or a sunset? Is this relationship just beginning or just ending? We can feel momentarily that we are trapped in an in-between state where we haven’t quite worked out which direction we are travelling in. As writers the essence of a story can come to you in one whole rush, as if the whole thing has happened all in one second. What we then need to do is unravel it and flatten it out on the floor into some sort of linear sequence that makes sense to the reader. We live in stories, we make up stories about ourselves, we tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel better, and we change our stories to improve our lives. We’re always trying to get our stories straight, as if one day we might be interrogated about them.  So having this sense of not knowing where you are in the durational structure of a story seemed a good thing to look at.

David Gaffney lives in Manchester. He is the author of several books including Sawn-Off Tales (2006), Aromabingo (2007), Never Never (2008), The Half-Life of Songs (2010), More Sawn-Off Tales (2013), All The Places I’ve Ever Lived (2017) and graphic novel The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head (2018). His latest novel Out Of The Dark is out now on Confingo and his graphic novel, Rivers, is also out now on Top Shelf. See www.davidgaffney.org for more.

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

INTERVIEW: Melissa Harrison on nostalgia, responsibility and the future of the countryside

Photo credit: Brian David Stevens

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, and in association with Everybody’s Reviewing and the Centre for New Writing, I spoke to author Melissa Harrison on the research processes behind her fiction and nature writing.

I’d like to start by asking how you feel about the tradition of the English rural novel to which At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley belong. As a genre which was immensely popular especially in the interwar period, and seems to be in resurgence now (I’m thinking of writers like Tim Pears, Claire Fuller and yourself), how do you see your work speaking to that canon? Do you feel, when writing, that you are entering a dialogue with Hardy, Lawrence, the interwar writers and others?

You’re absolutely right: rural novels have a long history in this country, but reached a peak of popularity in the years after the First World War, part of a wave of countryside writing that included dozens of farming memoirs like Adrian Bell’s hugely popular Corduroy trilogy, and a rash of motoring and walking guides such as Grigson’s Shell Country Alphabet. Some of these books were aimed at helping the (still relatively recent) phenomenon of ‘townies’ reconnect with their rural roots; others were a reaction against the new horrors of mechanised warfare, and a balm for the social and economic upheavals that followed. The boom in nature writing we’ve seen for the last 10–15 years has its roots in some of the same soil.

I wouldn’t personally include Lawrence as part of the interwar tradition of rural writing – his primary concerns are people and ideas rather than place, I’d say – but you’re right, it’s certainly a period I have a deep and complex relationship with. I suppose I want to interrogate the image of rural England that was conjured up in those years, or if not conjured up, buffed to a high shine. Nostalgic even at the time, I find the vision of farmland and villages and market towns captured by many of those books utterly alluring: it feels rooted inside me, part of my inner architecture, something lost that I long for in a bone-deep way, as I long for the ordered, bucolic rural landscapes drawn by Charles Tunnicliffe and Ronald Lampitt in the Ladybird books of the 1940s and 50s and elsewhere. But at the same time I’m deeply suspicious of this longing, knowing full well how reactionary, excluding, unjust and frankly unhealthy that fantasy of England was then, and still is in the wrong hands today.

My mother was born and brought up in what’s now Pakistan, in the last days of the British Raj. Her mother was Anglo-Indian, her father a British school teacher: national identity, for both women, was never clear-cut, given the prejudices and political complications of that period in that place. My five siblings were born in India; I’m the only one in my family who was born here, in commuter-belt Surrey: a place where none of us had roots. In the foothills of the Himalayas, Mum grew up speaking Urdu and hearing talk of ‘home’, a country she’d never visited, yet when she came here she missed the country of her birth for the rest of her days. The books she loved best – and that she read to us when we were small – were stories of English rural life: Cider With Rosie, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, Lark Rise to Candleford, the Miss Read books, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and nature novels like Watership Down, A Black Fox Running, Tarka the Otter, Duncton Wood and BB’s The Little Grey Men books; even The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings contributed, I think, to a reading culture which was intensely romantic (and elegiac) about the English countryside – although the rural villages and farms it described could be found nowhere around us in the Home Counties of the 1970s and 80s. My continued fascination with that kind of writing feels a bit like picking at a scab, I suppose: nostalgia for an imagined rural past is a faultline in our national psyche that also runs through mine, and I find it hard to leave its contradictions alone.

Running with that theme, I’m very interested in your wider attitudes to nostalgia, both in your own work and elsewhere. You’ve written that ‘political and social nostalgia may be dangerous, but ecologically it’s unavoidable’ (Stubborn Light), which feels like a nuanced view of nostalgia as a potentially useful conservationist tool – something active, akin to what Svetlana Boym calls ‘reflective nostalgia’. What are your feelings on the role nostalgia has to play in conserving our environment, and in the ways you yourself approach the natural world as a writer?

If you’re at all engaged with the current crisis you’ll know that we’re facing ongoing losses and extinctions, some of which may yet be ameliorated but many of which are now unavoidable. Yet one of our greatest blind spots is to the rate of diminishment, captured by the term ‘baseline shift’. We each take as a norm the state of nature in our childhoods, and though we may notice the losses that occur ‘on our watch’ (and many of us never do), it’s very hard for us to understand the far, far greater losses that have occurred across greater sweeps of time. And here, nature writing can prove to be invaluable. The world I grew up in was much richer in wildlife than the one I inhabit now, and I grieve for the nightly hedgehogs, lesser spotted woodpeckers, great crested newts and flocks of lapwing on the Somerset Levels that I remember from when I was a child; but in rural writing from earlier in the 20th century, and beyond, I read of creatures like corncrakes that I have never and may never see in the wild, and of abundance – flocks, swarms, shoals – I can’t even imagine. It’s impossible to read those accounts without a keen sense of nostalgia, and rightly so: we can and should use that feeling as a spur to try and restore species and landscapes not to their condition in our youth but to a carrying capacity we may never have experienced ourselves. That doesn’t, in my view, mean picking a date in the past and somehow rolling back time to try to recreate it; it means working in the here and now to great a newly rich, dynamic and resilient ecosystem that responds to the pressures but also the technologies we have today. And books are part of that toolkit: as I’ve mentioned before, stories are powerful: they can drive engagement and connection, and create change. They can also be a way for us to collectively process our grief, and can be a vital act of witness – a memorial, even – just as books written a century ago are today.

You mentioned the writer and cultural theorist Svetlana Boym. The distinction she makes between what she defines as two types of nostalgia is interesting: “Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.” (‘Nostalgia’, in Atlas of Transformation). Going by that definition I’d agree that reflective nostalgia is central to the kind of writing I do. Certainly, I don’t believe in restoring the past intact – or in any version of ‘absolute truth’. Any truth we can approach in our own lives is always partial, culturally inflected, temporally unstable and subjective. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, and we’re in trouble if we believe otherwise.

Tied to that theme of nostalgia, I’m interested in the tensions between place and identity that come to the fore not just in All Among the Barley, but in your non-fiction as well. You’ve written about the ‘very real dangers in tying national identity to place […] because it leaves no room for change’ (Article for Foyles, 2019), but also about how ‘connecting with and defending our “home patches” is a powerful way to protect the environment’ (Stubborn Light). I wonder how you feel about the tension between these two ideas, and how that continuum from localism to nationalism (and even fascism) is handled in your work.

It’s crucial that we nature- and place-writers don’t fall into the trap of believing that only a certain set of people with a prolonged history of living in a place really ‘belong’ there, or can appreciate or understand it. If we do that, then any change to the social make-up of an area becomes a threat – and we cannot afford that kind of thinking in an age of climate breakdown and mass population movement. We absolutely must cultivate a way of thinking that is flexible and open and welcoming of change when we create stories and narratives about place – because, as I’ve mentioned already, stories are incredibly powerful.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that as someone bewitched by history, heritage and tradition, welcoming change would be difficult. I love nothing more than to discover an ancient dialect word for a wildflower, or a regional method for laying a hedge; I’m fascinated by folklore and the hyper-local forms of culture that have been preserved in large part by groups of people interacting in a prolonged manner with the specific geography of a place. But there’s only a conflict between caring about tradition and welcoming change if you see the past as a fixed entity, and change as a new thing. Yet we are a nation built on constant immigration: over and over we’ve folded into ourselves the gifts other cultures have brought us us, adding to, not erasing, our set of stories about these isles. All we need to do in this current moment is to keep doing what we’ve been doing for centuries, rather than believing in the (frankly ahistorical) idea of static national, regional or local identities.

When it comes to conservation, the beauty of looking after a ‘home patch’ is that anyone can do it, no matter their cultural background or how long they’ve lived in a particular spot. Whether it’s a garden, a street tree, a park with a ‘Friends’ society or a local nature reserve, everyone can find somewhere to connect to and develop a sense of custodianship for. Entering into an imaginative and emotional relationship with a ‘home patch’ – watching it grow and change, finding out what lives there and what those things need, protecting it from damage – can bring enormous benefits, both for people and for the natural world. Added up, garden by garden, tree by tree, park by park, that kind of care can utterly transform an area’s richness in wildlife, as well as its custodians’ mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, and their feeling of belonging and rootedness, too.

To sidestep that idea of individual conservation for just a moment, I’d like to delve deeper into your thoughts on political ecologies. At the height of the pandemic, a set of posters (falsely attached to Extinction Rebellion) were circulated claiming that ‘humanity is the disease, coronavirus is the cure’. Reflections of this kind of anti-humanist, deep ecological theory (including problematic aspects like population ethics) are something I sometimes recognise in what is otherwise very mainstream contemporary nature writing (though not, I should point out, in your own). Is this a phenomenon that you’ve noticed in nature writing, and how robust do you feel nature writing is in handling these complex feelings of blame towards the human population?

Right now there’s a real danger of nature writing (and nature writers) being co-opted by both the very far left and the very far right – who, of course, are not very far apart. We can’t afford to be naïve about the potential for texts lauding pure and untouched nature and bemoaning the sullying influence of humankind being used by these groups to promote dark ideologies, often in a way that begins fairly uncontroversially (and sometimes lyrically and persuasively) but leads somewhere very unpleasant indeed.

It seems to me that if what truly exercises you right now is the ecological effect of rising population levels you should be advocating for women’s education and improved access to contraception and abortion, supporting migration into countries with falling birth rates and an ageing tax base, and working to help new citizens connect with and care for the natural world in their adopted homes (which means making access possible, but not dictating the form in which it occurs). Yet I don’t see many eco-fascists doing that work.

We all also need to think carefully about the language we use around native and non-native wildlife so that we using it much more mindfully. Many native species, such as bracken, behave invasively and are causing enormous issues; many introduced species, such as little owls, are not only unproblematic, but beloved. We need to assess species (and people) as individuals, rather than drawing damaging equivalencies between country of origin and intrinsic worth. How we talk about ring-necked parakeets or yellow-legged hornets may seem like a small matter, but frankly, I feel it’s often where we let our pants show.

Finally, you mentioned the idea of ‘blame’ towards the human population, and this, I think, is where a lot of resistance to the changes we need to make is stemming from. None of us like being blamed, so we try to shift that blame on to others, or on to species, or to rid ourselves of the discomfort we simply switch off from the entire notion of engaging with the problems we currently face. But there’s a difference between something being your fault and it being your responsibility. It’s not your fault, or mine, that we are where we are. We were born into the world as it is now, and must live in it: we are not to blame. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to try and lessen the losses to come, while we still can.

To close I’d like to touch on something I discussed recently in my interview with the author Will Burns. In Will’s novel The Paper Lantern, our capacity for hope in the face of the degradation of the countryside is stretched to breaking point, as it is for many of us when we read about the continuing challenges our landscape faces. That said, how do you envision the future of the English countryside? Does it have a future, and if so, what do you think that future might look like?

Of course: England’s villages, with all their varied, vernacular architecture, aren’t going to be pulled down, and we’re still going to need to grow food, which means the farmland we’re used to seeing will survive, too; in fact, it’s likely to become more and more important that we produce as much food as possible at home, and that requires land. For many people, those villages, set between rolling green fields (or golden ones in summer) are the epitome of rural beauty – despite the fact that although they look unchanging and bucolic, under modern agricultural systems those fields can be staggeringly empty of wildlife (not for nothing did the naturalist Chris Baines once say that if you want to make farmland more biodiverse the best thing you can do is build houses on it, as urban areas are often far richer in wildlife than intensively farmed land). So yes, in that sense, the English countryside has a future.

But I’m guessing that when you talk about hope you mean hope for a countryside that’s species-rich as well as productive, a home for hedgehogs, nightingales, turtle doves, otters, purple emperors, water voles, stag beetles, song thrushes and all the other forms of non-human life that make this country their home. And here I think it’s important to move away from the ‘hope/no hope’ binary: if we fall into that trap, we’re effectively letting ourselves off the hook by saying either that everything is going to be fine so nothing needs to be done, or that the battle is already lost so there’s no point making any effort. The truth is, everything isn’t going to be OK, but how bad things get is in large part still up to us.

I think of what’s coming down the line as a bottleneck. There are going to be more extinctions, and further falls in abundance, but how many species we get through that bottleneck depends on the work we all put in now. And it really will take all of us. Not everyone has the singlemindedness necessary to be an activist; some of us are thinkers or communicators, some are community mobilisers, some have political or public-facing skills, some have the ability to guide children in a way that benefits the world to come, to influence an employer or to flex their economic muscles to bring about change. We can’t each take on all of those roles, and that’s OK. But I think we should all be taking on at least a couple.

And there are enough good things happening to counterbalance the bad. I usually avoid the term ‘rewilding’ as I think a lot of the discourse around it has become polarised and toxic – for which the environmental movement should shoulder a lot of responsibility – but the energy that is currently being generated around restorative and regenerative forms of land use is absolutely staggering to me. From individuals to farmers to landowners and councils, there has been a dramatic and sudden sea-change in people’s understanding of what land might be for that has occurred at a deep, perceptual level and is still gathering pace. Just as much of the degradation of our countryside took years to become apparent, this shift will take decades to fully show results, and there’s very good reason to be hopeful about what those results might be.

Hand-in-hand with that ongoing process, Brexit – for all its terrible effects – has given us the opportunity to change how we pay farmers and landowners to manage land, and what we ask them to provide. We’re still kicking about in the weeds, which is causing all sorts of problems for farmers who need to be able to plan ahead, and many of the most exciting initial proposals have predictably been watered down, but I do think we’ll end up with something better for nature than we had before. And finally, the burgeoning movement for improved access to the countryside is interesting. The pandemic did what nature writers like me could only have dreamed of: connected many people with their inner need for nature, got them outdoors, looking for solace and finding it. And with that has come a growing appreciation that access isn’t always easy or equitable, and that there are barriers – economic, cultural, social, practical – for many groups when it comes to outdoor activities other people take for granted.

I’d like to see a countryside where farmers are supported to produce high-value crops on the most productive land while helping marginal land to become truly species-rich; where dozens more oases of true rewilding such as Knepp are connected to each other by thick hedges, strips of woodland and other wildlife corridors so that creatures can move across intensively farmed land; where rivers are rewiggled and beavers used to restore wetlands, locking up carbon and preventing flooding downstream (and with a sensible management system such as exists in Bavaria). I’d like to see more gardens, parks and entire villages allowed to become overgrown and ‘untidy’, rich in insects and birds and full of decay and dynamic, changing, connected habitats; and I’d like to see people from all sorts of backgrounds finding their way into the British countryside, making rich new connections with it, and feeling welcome there.

Melissa Harrison is a novelist and nature writer. She contributes a monthly Nature Notebook column to The Times and writes for the FT Weekend, the Guardian and the New Statesman. Her most recent novel, All Among the Barley, was the UK winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. It was a Waterstones Paperback of the Year and a Book of the Year in the Observer, the New Statesman and the Irish Times. Her previous books have been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (At Hawthorn Time) and the Wainwright Prize (Rain). She lives in Suffolk.

Melissa is represented by Jenny Hewson at Lutyens & Rubinstein. She can be found on Twitter at @M_Z_Harrison.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England. The above interview was generously funded by the Centre for New Writing in association with Everybody’s Reviewing.