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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.graham-mort.com

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