INTERVIEW: Ruth Padel on mythology, restoration and ‘Daughters of the Labyrinth’

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

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

 

 

INTERVIEW: C.D. Rose on forgery, whimsy and ‘The Blind Accordionist’

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.

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

INTERVIEW: Alexandros Plasatis on listening, exophony and ‘Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Alexandros Plasatis on the research process behind his collection Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021).

It strikes me that Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness is in many ways an exploration of stories within stories. The epicentre of the work, the Café Papaya, feels like a reflection of the work itself – a hub in which the stories of the staff and their customers alight, mingle and then move on. Even within those stories are other stories and other narrators, creating a Conrad-like distance from the objective truth, a house with many mansions. I wanted to know how you approached the book in terms of that ambiguity of form, its cross-genre feel. Did it feel like writing a cogent novel with a singular centre of gravity, or collating a short story collection, or both?

It felt like a big mirror had been smashed – you take one piece and examine it, you look at its curves or corners and you take another piece and examine that too, and another, and as you look at them you’re fascinated by their shapes. Each piece that never existed before the mirror was smashed now begins to stand up alone as an object because it means something to you, each piece starts to create its individual story in your head and you feel some sort of attachment to them. You know that these are parts of the big mirror that now doesn’t exist and you decide to stick them back together to see if you can re-create the big mirror and when you do that you find out that the big mirror is not a big mirror anymore but the broken pieces are still parts of the big mirror, you get the feeling both of the wholeness and of the fragmented and you look at it and think, ‘Are you one big mirror or many small mirrors, a novel or a collection?’

So, no, it didn’t feel like collating a short story collection because I knew that each story was part of something larger: the community of Egyptian fishermen, Café Papaya, the harbour life, Kavala. And it didn’t feel like writing a novel because when I was writing each piece I forgot the whole and focused on the individual piece, and each piece reflects different angles of myself and the Egyptian fishermen in a way that I think wouldn’t work in a novel. It felt like re-making a whole out of something smashed.

This ‘stories within stories within stories’ that you mentioned, you know, I remember part of me was telling me not to do it, I was not supposed to do it, but a stronger part of me was telling me to go for it, to do what I’m not supposed to do, it’ll be fun. I remember I did this more in the story ‘Two Arms’. And as I was going for the story within the story within the story, I felt I was trapping myself deeper and deeper and I had to get out of it somehow, and my one part kept saying, ‘See, I told you, didn’t I?’ and my other part kept replying, ‘Hahaha, I’ll do it.’ And so I did it. And it was fun entangling and disentangling myself within stories.

Your question created this idea in my head. It’s just an idea, I haven’t researched it or anything: so, I am an immigrant. How does an immigrant identify himself? To identify himself, the immigrant must see himself as a story within a story within another story, and we narrate these stories to ourselves from different cultural viewpoints. Perhaps the immigrant, due to his experiences, feels more at ease, it comes more naturally to him to create this story within story or the novel-in-stories thing, because the immigrant has the fragmented inside him.

I like that idea of how stories beget stories within a fragmented or fractured cultural experience, and I think that’s supported by the act of sharing stories that’s so prevalent throughout the collection. It feels to me as though the disparate narratives are linked not just by storytelling (as in most novels) but by the act of someone listening, which is also a repeated motif. In that sense, I’m curious to know how you might relate the physical act of listening to the process of research behind the book. How important is it, if at all, for a novelist to position themselves as someone who listens or maybe listens in to the fragmented stories of our world?

I listened to these people for thousands of hours, but as a human, not a novelist. When you listen, listen without labelling yourself or those who talk. Taking yourself as a novelist or writer or whatever, you filter things out when a person talks, you think, ‘This is important, that isn’t.’ If you do that you become the silent director of their talking, you don’t listen or you listen to what you want them to say, not what they truly say.

I listened to the Egyptian fishermen and the beggars around the harbour without thinking that now a fisherman or a beggar was talking to me. They were humans and I was a human. They were the artists and I was the observer of their art. I listened while I was drinking coffee with them, while working in the café, while I was drunk and/or stoned, and while I was terribly tired from all that listening I kept on listening to them, and my reward was to discover one simple thing: that true listening means understanding and understanding means travelling and then I wrote this book so other people can travel with us. When you listen, you’ve got to be there every second, wanting nothing more than to understand, even when what you listen to annoys you, or when you are really tired, and sometimes you have to keep on fighting your ego to truly listen. The real people who I later fictionalised in the book had a need to be listened to, to be understood. They were marginalised people, ignored and seen as inferior by the many. And when they knew that a man was truly interested in their lives, they came to me with their stories, they came with their laughter and pain and truths, and when I was too tired and had headaches from listening, they came with their aspirins, and said, ‘Here, take a couple, I want to tell you something.’

Yes, you explain in your Acknowledgements that you worked as a waiter at a café in your hometown of Kavala, where the book is set, and it sounds as though you absorbed the stories of migrant fishermen in a similar manner to the staff at Café Papaya. On that theme, we’ve spoken about what the act of listening might mean but I’d like to go a little deeper into how your research for Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness leant on your actual experiences. In particular, I’m curious as to how your memories of a since-departed place fed into the process of you transposing these stories into prose fiction.

‘Acknowledgements’ is a story and had been published as a story before. I don’t try to explain anything there. It’s part of the funfair. The research of this work was what anthropologists call participant observation: I spent three or four years with these people, being their shadow, lurking around the harbour, serving coffees in the café and asking questions, going out to bars with them, doing formal and informal interviews in all sorts of places, being – as Patrick Chamoiseau said – ‘a kind of parasite, swimming in a sterile bliss.’ During that time of participant observation I kept some notes, and when I moved to England I expanded those notes into diaries written in Greek, one thousand handwritten pages.

The diaries were very important to me, they were the first draft of my book, but at the time I had no intention to write fiction and I had never written fiction before. In the diaries I tried to write everything. With the help of the notes, I pushed myself to remember everything and write it down, especially little details that to me seemed insignificant at the time. Maybe when you write you must not take yourself seriously. By being insignificant you see clearer, you are a truer version of yourself, not some God who knows everything. So I wrote my insignificant little notes like a good little student.

Years later, I used those diaries to write fiction in English. I feel it helped me that I was writing about a now-faraway place. Memory and feelings are more alive when what you had you have no more.

I think there’s a lot to unpack there, especially in how that process of listening, diarising and writing (in Greek and English) helped to shape the difference in flavour between the Egyptians narrating in Greek, the Greek characters’ own narration, and then you as a Greek writer writing in English. Do you see Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness as an exercise in exophony, as specifically facing the challenge of articulating a non-native tongue?

The book is not an exercise in exophony. Writing in English was a statement. Greeks pissed me off and I left the country and wrote it in another language, simple as that. It took me 15 years as I had to learn a whole new language, but for me that was part of the fun and I never felt frustrated for writing in a language that I hadn’t, and still haven’t, mastered.

You know, when we were kids we would go out to play in the neighbourhood and our neighbourhood had mental borders, we knew that up to there and there and there was our neighbourhood, we felt safe, and the kids of the neighbourhood stuck together and we played our games. Writing in your second language is like going out there to explore other neighbourhoods, it gives you this sense of freedom and danger, you’re the outsider who sees new roads and trees and kids who might be playing different games and you have this feeling of newness, of everything being more alive, more dangerous, more unexpected. You know that you’ll never know the other neighbourhoods inside-out like the other kids that grew up there. But because you’re an outsider, subconsciously you train your senses to become sharper, you need them sharper because you’re in the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Because of the ethnography and the long period of time I spent with the Egyptian fishermen, I found it easy articulating their voices. Ethnography gives you a spherical experience and creates a bonding so that later, when you write creatively, you can be them. I know exactly how the Egyptians felt when they spoke in Greek because I feel the same when I speak in English. Say you want to drive from A to B and the easiest and quickest way is the motorway but because you don’t know the rules of the motorway you take the unusual way and drive through country lanes. You get there in the end, it takes you longer, and the journey leaves you with a different aftertaste, both you as the narrator and the person who listens. My Egyptian friends had all different levels of Greek, and this too I try to show in the book when they speak. And this is easy as well, because I’ve been through different levels of English.

In English, I am unsure of every single sentence that I write, always, even the simplest one. It’s like every sentence is an equation and there is no book of solutions. So every sentence that I write appears to me as some sort of mystery, it looks back at me and asks me, ‘Am I right? You’ll never know, dickhead.’ And I laugh and take my sweet little time with it.

I use all sorts of dictionaries to try and get words right, and even then I’m unsure. Thesauruses, Greek to English, English to Greek, English to English, even Greek to Greek to find a start with a word, visual dictionaries, slang dictionaries, synonyms and antonyms, etymological, idioms. I know that out there, there is a word I’m looking for, and so I start hunting for it, and this makes writing in English a game for me, it’s fun.

And every time I finished a story, I called over an English friend and we sat next to each other in front of the computer, going through the story. And what was important about this friend is that he is – and this is how he describes himself – an underclass. So he is someone who understands marginalised people, even though he’s English and the people in the book are Arabs or Greeks. When I wanted to get a word right, I would interview him so I could get the deep meaning of the word, so that I could feel its weight. We could be talking about a single word for an hour. There were times were he thought that I used the wrong expression or word, but I usually knew that already and there was a reason I wanted to sound different. There were other times when my friend insisted that a sentence is wrong, and he called me Manuel and described these weird sentences as ‘Manuelisms’, meaning that I sound like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, in which case I would call him a Gammon and I would re-write the sentence.

By the way, I came across a comment about exophony recently. It made me think, which I rarely do. ‘Exo’ means ‘from outside’ and ‘phony’ means ‘voice’. Shouldn’t it be called exography then, with ‘graphy’ as in ‘writing’? I don’t know, what do you think?

You may be right, although as someone who has about six non-English words in their repertoire, I may not be the authority… (C’est la vie, I suppose). I’m aware there’s much more we could discuss, but to close I’d like to ask what I’ve been asking a number of my interviewees. I want to know how you feel your work might operate in terms of being an act of research in and of itself. What does the work investigate, at its core, that is better investigated through this synthesis of the novel and short fiction forms than through, for example, a transcription of migrant narratives or a traditional doctoral thesis? At the heart of it, does it look for truth, or meaning, or both, or neither?

It looks for heart and finds heart and laughter. The truth is there, fresh and slaughterhouse raw, not all nicely packed up in fancy packets on supermarket shelves. I don’t remember myself looking for meaning when I was out there, but I remember these people giving me meaning without me asking for it.

But I talk as if I know what the book is about, which is not true. I don’t know what the book looks for, the book is beyond me, what it looks or doesn’t look for only the book knows, not me.

About your question on what the book investigates better than a traditional doctoral thesis. Many years ago Captain Cervantes said something like this in Don Quixote: It is one thing to write as a poet, and another to write as a historian. The historian must pen things as they really were, without adding to, or diminishing anything from the truth; but the poet may say, or sing, not as they were, but as they ought to have been.

Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who lives in Bolton and works with displaced and homeless people. He is the author of the Edge Hill Prize-nominated Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness: a novel in stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021). Stories from this book have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of The Net, and over the years all the stories were published in US, UK, Indian and Canadian magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of The Other Side of Hope: journeys in refugee and immigrant literature.

www.alexandrosplasatis.com

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

INTERVIEW: Steve Hollyman on masculinity, The Streets and ‘LAIRIES’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Steve Hollyman on the research process behind his novel LAIRIES (Influx Press, 2021).

As someone who grew up into the same kind of nightlife described so vividly in LAIRIES, I found a lot of the action eerily reminiscent of encounters I’ve had in these environments. I wondered how you might have used your own experience in designing the novel, and more generally how you feel personal experience might complement or challenge the process of researching for fiction.

There’s lots of stuff in there that’s based on personal experience – stuff that I observed and conversations I overheard; anecdotes that I heard second- or third-hand from other people – and, of course, the experience of getting beaten up a couple of times just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I never really liked going to nightclubs – I much preferred going to pubs or gigs – but I invariably found myself getting dragged out on the town by my mates. There was a really uncomfortable edginess to it back then – the feeling that something might kick off at any minute, and often it did.

But there’s a sort of ridiculousness to it as well, and that’s what I wanted to get across in the novel. I didn’t want the violence to seem macho or choreographed. It was really important for it to be messy and brutal and nasty. I was listening to The Streets a lot at the time – the first album, Original Pirate Material, is the perfect soundtrack to LAIRIES.

I also got a lot of help from others, to fill the gaps in my own experience. I spent a bit of time hanging round police stations and stuff. I can’t quite remember how it came about, but I basically walked into a local police station, a scruffy 22-year-old in a hoodie, and said, ‘I’m writing a book about yob culture. Can you tell me what’s what?’ They were very accommodating, and some of the officers let me interview them, despite regarding me with slight suspicion at first. I asked one of them to pepper spray me, so I could see what it felt like, but they obviously refused. I interviewed someone who’d been in a coma, someone with a traumatic brain injury sustained in a cycling accident. I spoke to an expert in regression hypnosis. All these topics are explored in the novel, and I took it really seriously. I felt that it was my duty to at least try and get it right.

The book was written in fits and starts – on the train, on my lunch break at work, and, mostly, in the pub at night. Sometimes, the pub would be packed and there’d be strangers sitting at the same table as me, trying to see what I was writing. I clearly remember someone saying to me, ‘Oi, what the fuck are you doing on that laptop? Looking at porn?’ I wasn’t interested in finding a quiet place to write. I can’t write while I’m listening to music, or with headphones in. I always want to be right in the middle of something, because it somehow helps me to focus. I don’t find writing relaxing at all. There’s something about it that makes me feel quite aggressive.

Yes, I think that sense of being ‘in the middle of something’ comes through in the novel’s very direct handling of the characters and their inner-worlds. As well as being a kind of social case study in the tradition of Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, LAIRIES also feels like an experiment in multiplicity, playing freely with narrative voice and POV. What were the challenges of creating and maintaining the novel’s diversity of voice?

For some reason, I find it extremely difficult to write in the third person, even though most writers I know say it’s the place where they feel most comfortable. It might come from the fact I kept diaries and journals from the age of about 11, which were always written in the first-person. I knew right from the outset that it was going to be a multi-stranded novel, with different voices. I knew that each of those voices had to be distinct, and that it would be further complicated by the fact they’re all male, all from the same town, all roughly the same age, and all narrating their version of the same events. Duncan’s voice came very naturally and effortlessly. Colbeck’s was more difficult to get right, but as soon as I switched it to the second person (it was originally first person present) it just clicked. Then there’s other stuff that a writer can use to create space between voices – stuff like speech marks vs. no speech marks, past tense vs. present tense, quirky bits of idiolect, and so on. I used every tool at my disposal.

You mentioned that all the narrative voices are occupied by male characters, so it seems natural that masculinity should be such a dominant theme within the novel. I’m curious as to how you approached this in a literary sense. How well do you feel masculinity is handled in contemporary literature? And to what extent is the novel as a form adept at confronting some of masculinity’s more difficult (and of course violent) manifestations?

It seems to me like there aren’t many books like LAIRIES out there at the moment – either because writers aren’t writing them or because publishers aren’t publishing them, or both – and it’s always puzzled me as to why. LAIRIES was exactly the sort of book I wanted to read when I was twenty years old, and that’s precisely why I wrote it. It’s set in 2003 and a lot of it was written between 2006 and 2009, so at the time I was working on it I was much closer to the era I’m describing. But reading it now, I think it has more impact than it ever would have done a decade ago. I was speaking to a mate of mine a couple of months ago, and we agreed that attitudes were so different in 2003 that this novel might as well be a period piece. And it’s stronger for it, I think. There’s a quote from J.G. Ballard where he says something like, ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror’… that’s precisely what I wanted to do with this novel. I was thoroughly pissed off by the things I was seeing whenever I was out and about. I was disgusted by it, and I didn’t find it funny at all. I wanted to show Britain what Britain looked like, and I wanted Britain to be repulsed by what it saw.

As for whether the novel as a form is more adept than other forms – such as film or poetry – at portraying this type of thing… I really don’t know, but I’d assume it depends who’s writing it. For me, I’d always wanted to write a novel, so that’s what I ended up doing. I was making it up as I went along, really, and it was a very wasteful way of writing because I ended up cutting so much stuff out.

There’s another current that I feel runs under the surface of LAIRIES, that of philosophy. There are numerous explicit references to philosophers and their works and a more implicit philosophy of ethics that seems to drive the narrative. This current is so strong that I’m tempted to say LAIRIES works as a kind of philosophical hypothesis (or more accurately a hypothetical question), even if one made oblique by the 400 page-plus size of its analogy. What are your thoughts on that?

By the time I started writing it, I was really, really interested in philosophy. When I was about seventeen I met a PhD student who was writing his doctoral thesis on Kant, and we became friends. I was so intrigued that I ended up taking some philosophy modules at uni. I liked the idea of the ‘educated thug’ and at first I thought it would be mildly amusing if the ultra-violent Ade also drove a vintage camper van, listened to Fleetwood Mac and went on long, passionate diatribes about western philosophy. It just seemed to make him even odder, so I went with it. But I wanted there to be some ambiguity there too – he gets pissed off when he can’t get Duncan to understand the principles of some obscure philosophical enquiry, but does he even understand it himself? If the novel is asking a hypothetical question then I suppose it’s something like, ‘If masculinity is inherently toxic, then can there ever be such a thing as a good guy?’

I’ve asked a lot of writers during this series whether there is a question, or even a research question, at the centre of their work, so I’m keen to know: is that the question, the key question driving the novel? If LAIRIES is posing that question or any question at all, does it also provide an answer?

I think (and I’ve wracked by brains about this, believe me, with the help of my friends) that’s the key question the novel is asking. But the question remains unanswered. And the crucial thing is that it has to remain unanswered, I think, because there’s so much that’s pivoting on that tiny little word at the beginning: if. Duncan is basically a ‘good guy’ who’s a bit out of his depth, yet his actions have the most devastating consequences. Colbeck’s reluctance (or even inability) to confront his own emotions leads him to such a nadir that he basically feels he has to choose what type of misogynist he wants to be. Tag is perhaps the most typically ‘masculine’, yet he feels utterly emasculated by the fact he was unable to protect his girlfriend on the night she was assaulted. And Shaun has spent months or even years running from his problems, and, more importantly, running from himself, but now he’s stuck in hospital and he can’t run from anything anymore – he’s stuck where he is, both literally and metaphorically. The fact is, regardless of whether all masculinity is toxic, the part of it that is toxic can have devastating consequences for everyone – including men.

Steve Hollyman was born in Stoke-on-Trent and is the singer/guitarist in the three-piece alternative rock outfit CreepJoint. He wrote Lairies while studying at the Manchester Writing School — a pursuit he initially hoped would make him a better lyricist. Shortly afterwards, he was awarded a scholarship to complete a PhD, and he now works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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