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.

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



INTERVIEW: Carys Bray on optimism, climate fiction and ‘When the Lights Go Out’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Carys Bray on the research process behind her novel When the Lights Go Out (Hutchinson, 2020).

One of the most challenging questions that When the Lights Go Out raises is how we deal with that debilitating feeling of helplessness that so many of us suffer from when thinking about climate change. I know you’ve spoken elsewhere about Nobel laureate Paul Romer’s idea of ‘conditional optimism’ – in your words: ‘hope should shove you out the door’ – and I’m curious as to how this idea fed into your designs for the novel. I wondered specifically if you felt that sense of practical optimism driving your work, and whether you feel that optimism might be a necessary aspect of the creative response to both climate change and climate anxiety.

I wrote the novel in the aftermath of my brother’s death. It was the saddest period of my life, and I struggled to do a lot of basic, everyday things. Instead of writing, I spent many hours procrastinating because I did not want to be alone with my thoughts. I discovered that the abject pessimism I felt lessened somewhat when I was physically occupied. So, I stripped wallpaper, painted fences, embarked on a garden clearance, dug up turf etc. until I was finally able to sit quietly again. Perhaps the writing that followed was driven by a sense of practical optimism, or at least, a sense that optimism (or hope) might be salvaged.

I wanted When the Lights Go Out to have a hopeful ending, but at first I wasn’t sure how to manage it. Traditional story structure(s) – ideas about the hero’s journey/the triumph of good over evil/the idea of ‘progress’ – aren’t necessarily useful when it comes to writing about climate, and I was aware that a neat, overly optimistic ending would be a betrayal of the novel and its ideas. I like Rebecca Solnit’s description of hope: ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.’ In the novel, hope is found in doing, which brings me back to Romer’s conditional optimism. Conditional optimism is not tantamount to cheerfulness or positive thinking; it’s all about action.

I think that’s an important distinction, especially in terms of how we position ourselves in relation to the weight of (sometimes apocalyptic-sounding) climate science. Actually, I’m curious to know whether your reading in terms of climate science contributed to the narrative design of the novel. Did you find that as you came across facts/figures that your attitude towards the world of When the Lights Go Out began to change? Or towards your characters, particularly James who acts as a conduit for many of these insights?

While I was working on When the Lights Go Out, I read a lot of climate-related news, but I don’t think my reading had much impact on the novel’s structure. Chris uses bad news like ammunition, as a way of injuring and/or berating his family, while James, who reads his teacher’s copies of New Scientist, uses the things he’s learned to counter some of his dad’s pronouncements – there’s only so much sad news you can listen to as you eat your tea each night!

I enjoyed writing James’s sections. James is more cerebral than his older brother, Dylan, and he’s beginning to think about the difference between the future he’s been promised and the future he can expect. I think a lot of young people are finding themselves in that position (especially in our post-covid world).

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of When the Lights Go Out is, as you alluded to, how our understanding of climate change influences the family dynamic. As part of this, I wanted to ask how you approached the process of keeping Emma and Chris’ relationship at the centre of the narrative design, without it being overshadowed by the hugely-pressing and often deafeningly-loud social and environmental issues that surround it. How did you approach balancing the personal and the public, the domestic and the political? I’m especially curious as to what canonical or contemporary texts, if any, you turned to when thinking about that balance.

I think there’s a great deal of overlap between the personal, domestic and political. When I started writing When the Lights Go Out, I wanted to depict a marriage that comes under pressure from something external (and perhaps existential), making it difficult to address/resolve. While I was writing the novel, a few friends mentioned that their partners had voted differently from them in the Brexit referendum and the subsequent general election(s). These differences of opinion either caused or uncovered cracks in relationships that had once been strong. I remember enjoying Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England and seeing something similar play out in its fictional world.

I don’t think I read any novels with the intention of examining the relationship(s) between the social/environmental and personal/political as I wrote When the Lights Go Out. Having said that, I read a lot of climate-related fiction and, as I think about your question, I can see how the social/environmental intersected with the domestic/political in those novels. I especially enjoyed The Overstory by Richard Powers, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Jeff Vandermeer’s deliciously weird Annihilation and Bourne and Liz Jensen’s dark ecological thrillers The Rapture and The Uninvited.

Just briefly I wanted to touch on another core theme at the heart of When the Lights Go Out, that of religion. Like yourself, I was also taught to believe that the Second Coming could happen at any moment, and just as with Chris’ family background in the novel, a lot of that ‘rhetoric of disaster’ (as you’ve described it elsewhere) came directly from the Bible. I wondered if you could share your experience of using the Bible as a research tool for When the Lights Go Out, especially as a text you have such a personal history with. What did you find when you re-examined certain passages with the novel in mind? Has writing the novel altered your relationship to the text?

I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do have a great fondness for the Biblical stories I heard frequently during my childhood – in fact, I gave Chris a religious background purely so I could use some of those stories in the novel. I particularly enjoy the stories in which people behave badly. Jonah is a favourite – he runs away, tells lies, almost drowns and having been miraculously spared, he sulks!

I don’t think writing the novel has changed my relationship to the text, but as I was thinking about which passages to include, I began to wonder whether some Biblical stories might be repurposed in light of our present difficulties. For example, the story of The Good Samaritan asks, ‘who is my neighbour?’ and Biblical listeners are invited to widen their idea of the category. Perhaps a modern retelling might widen the category further – our neighbours are not only humans, they’re bees, earwigs and hoverflies, how might we demonstrate neighbourliness to them?

I like that idea that novels might ask questions, even ancient questions like how might we demonstrate neighbourliness, through the creative process of narrative design. Do you think, or did you feel when writing, that there is a specific question at the heart of When the Lights Go Out? Do you see the novel as a question, as an act of research into the repercussions of climax anxiety on family life for example, or is there something different at the heart of it?

I suppose, technically, the novel is an act of research, though I don’t really think of it like that. I see it as a collection of things I’ve been thinking and worrying about (and, hopefully, some good jokes), and I suspect there are plenty of people who’ve also been thinking and worrying about similar things and who may perhaps enjoy the novel (and *fingers crossed* laugh at the jokes).

For me, the question at the heart of When the Lights Go Out is: If you believe your world is going to end, how should you live? Chris is thinking about that question in relation to climate change, but it’s a much older question. Ultimately, the world will end for each of us and in the meantime, how should we live?

Carys Bray’s debut collection Sweet Home won the Scott prize and selected stories were broadcast on BBC Radio Four Extra. Her first novel A Song for Issy Bradley was serialised on BBC Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for several awards including the Costa Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. It won the Utah Book Award and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and was selected for the 2015 Richard and Judy Summer Book Club. Her second novel The Museum of You was published in 2016 and her third novel When the Lights Go Out was published in 2020.

Carys has a BA in Literature from The Open University and an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University.

INTERVIEW: Alice Ash on hyperrealism, Debenhams and ‘Paradise Block’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Alice Ash on the research process behind her debut collection Paradise Block (Serpent’s Tail, 2021).

I was wondering firstly about where your stories originate. Some writers I’ve spoken with begin with a character or a narrative idea, some act of imagination, whereas others often start from a news story or something they’ve seen in the real world. I wanted to know if the stories in Paradise Block generally came from within or whether they were inspired from without?

I think most of the stories in Paradise Block came from a character – there was usually a spark that started with a voice I could hear, or a strange way of speaking, a few words that would give me a clue about what the character was like or, sometimes what they weren’t like. The difference between presentation and truth is an important element of character to me, so this was something I would often think about when trying to sketch out a story.

I’ve always meant to use newspapers for ideas, but I never got around to it when I was writing Paradise Block. Several stories were inspired by my real-life experiences, though – usually, it was something small: an observation about behaviour or a habit. A friend used to babysit a boy whose absent father was a train driver; the boy was aggressively proud of his father, obsessed with trains and driving them, but also weirdly fixated with train crashes. That detail struck me as having a lot of weight behind it, and, with some alterations, it bore one of the main characters in Paradise Block: plane-obsessed and fatherless Benny. So sometimes it’s just a moment or observation like that, a detail that moves the character a little bit in a certain direction. Other times it’s a voice that comes when I start writing and lends itself to scenes. Occasionally I have some weird image that I know fits within the story; I want to write quickly so that I can get to that image and write about it. With ‘Timespeak’, a story about a man who is harassed by a telesales agent trying to sell him his own coffin, I had a strong image of an elderly gent in an armchair – he was deaf, staring at a telephone that he could no longer hear ringing. This image made me think that the man wanted the telesales agent to ring, and that detail unlocked the story.

I think that strategy of an image, particularly an uncomfortable or surreal image, unlocking the narrative is something that helps bring Paradise Block into the sphere of hyperrealist literature – a genre that exploits sensory images in order to explore the line between reality and the fantastic, as I think Paradise Block does. Were there any works of literature, art, film, music that you purposefully drew from when trying to explore this line? Or perhaps that you felt you wanted to write against?

I think that writing about mental illness and detachment naturally fragments into fantasy, and hyperrealism lends itself to mirroring fixation and obsession, too. With my recurring characters, I wanted to create an atmosphere of uncertainty, of doubt and confusion. I loved the idea that I could depict a character in a certain way in one story and then completely contradict that in another. I was trying to do show the subjectivity of the stories, how truth in character is slippery and ‘reality’ can distort from one moment to the next.

The biggest influences on my process were Shirley Jackson and Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet. Jackson’s magic is so minutely aside from reality, which is what really thrills me – I find it far more frightening to have the darkness in your own world exposed than to be shown a far-off reality, so I always tried to keep my weirdness close to home and almost feasible to everyday life. It’s interesting to me that scary things can happen when you’re on your own, in your bedroom, watching TV or waiting for the telephone to ring. Jackson makes neighbours and kindly old ladies strange; she shows you a ‘normal’ scene and then adds teeth to it – this is what I love. And Grudova’s collection was really pivotal to my idea of what a short story collection could be – it made me begin to think of the stories as having their own rules and logic, not just themes that link them. The Doll’s Alphabet made me see the collection as its own unique universe, full of objects and codes that belonged specifically to Clutter and to Paradise Block. And I think that Grudova’s style gave me more audacity to sprawl out and get a bit weirder as a writer too, which is where my favourite of the stories came from.

I’m glad you brought up Clutter, as I think as a motif that setting perfectly encapsulates that sense of consistent internal logic which helps lend the town its eeriness. Clutter is obviously an imagined place, and the collection is I think quite open in exploiting the freedoms of the setting’s imaginary nature. That said, I’m curious as to whether you had aspects of a real physical space in mind when you were modelling it, or perhaps a conflagration of spaces, as I infer from the collection? Was there any ‘field-work’ involved in researching and constructing the descriptive environment?

I didn’t want to locate my tower block in a real place because I didn’t want the collection to feel too much like it was solely social commentary. I felt like writing about poverty in a real landscape would make every story and theme reflect through that lens, and I didn’t want that. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s also set in an imagined place, this time a lakeside village called Dark Poole. I think maybe I feel trapped by real places, maybe I don’t want the reader to bring their own suitcase of experiences to my universes – I agree, I do very much enjoy the freedoms of an imaginary landscape that I own in my head. In Paradise Block, I wanted my world to have its own rules, for the people to be shaped by the consequences of this world – the setting itself is a character that the reader has to understand. The interior narratives of the people in the book are very distorted, and I felt like I wanted to mirror this with a setting that was just as unreliable.

But still, when my publicist sent the book out, she described Clutter as a strangeland version of Brighton, and I was like, huh, yeah, it kinda is. There’s the beach, the shopping centre, the launderette up the road; The Brass Cross is based on a pub I used to work in. So Brighton is definitely in there. And yes! I did go ‘on location’ to Debenhams where I wrote ‘Complaint’, which is set in a department store. I find department stores incredibly creepy and watchful, and I enjoyed that a lot – all the ominous silence, the gliding elevators, the sense of never-ending false worlds of cutlery and glassware, BBQs set up with miniature plastic sausages and cardboard cut-outs of grinning Dads. Department stores are so strange to me, and I think they encapsulate what I was hoping to achieve with my setting in general. I wanted Clutter to feel like it was hanging on a cliff edge, like everything surrounding it may or may not exist, and like the whole town might twist and disappear into the sea at any moment.

And as for Plum Regis, the slightly more affluent town in Paradise Block, I was thinking about Chekov’s Three Sisters when I was imagining this place. Plum Regis is the Moscow to my Clutter, but, of course, the imagined version of the town is more potent than the real one. In my head, Plum Regis is more or less the same as Clutter, maybe with a slightly nicer department store and a pub with a better crisp selection. I was thinking about how poor people are encouraged to fight over crumbs, living within fantasies about how much others have, while the very wealthy eat whopping big slices of cake at the top.

I get that. I think in terms of social commentary Paradise Block is more of a question than an answer, and certainly not prescriptive in terms of how we respond to real-life environments that we might read as analogous to Clutter. Though I do think there’s something there in that link between Clutter as a society and the difficult, even ‘cluttered’ internal lives of your characters. It still feels, amongst the hyperrealism, like a collection about the real world, real people. In that sense, I wondered whether in compiling Paradise Block you had in mind some specific aspect of the real world that you felt these stories would help investigate.

When I was writing Paradise Block, I was exploring a part of myself that felt ultimately quite lonely and isolated, trying to decide what would happen to that bit of me. I wanted to express what it felt like to be poor and to consider lives that are often ignored, too. My dad worked for the ambulance service for years, and he often used to talk about how it felt to burst in on people in their private rooms, which were sometimes very messy, neglected and lonely. I wanted, I think, to explore these private rooms as though they were hidden mental spaces, and to think about what keeps people apart when they are so in need of solidarity. This was quite an introspective process for me and, because it took me so long to write the book, my attitude evolved as I got older. Later in the process, I realised that I also wanted to express solidarity between characters and not just the way lives are pushed apart.

Recently, I read a George Saunders essay on how the act of writing helps us to empathise with the world around us. Saunders starts writing Bob – an unreasonable ‘asshole’ who snaps at a barista. The writing process makes Saunders delve deeper, however – he asks himself why Bob snapped. Maybe Bob’s wife had recently died, maybe Bob was a widower, and the barista reminded him of his wife: ‘When I stop writing and come back to myself, I feel more opinionated, and petty.’ This made me think a lot about my characters in Paradise Block, many of whom I wrote based on my own feelings of loneliness, or on bad experiences, people I thought of as unkind and who I wanted to be ‘assholes.’ But as I wrote, the characters rounded and lost their pure asshole-status, they became people who had suffered and who suffered still, and that’s how I hope my characters come across. So I learnt a lot about the greyness of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and how the most interesting characters are something in between. I wanted to write about people divided and alone, but as I carried on writing, the hope sprung naturally through the cracks in the pavement – writing the book was a weird kind of therapy for me, I guess. There is more hope and unity in Paradise Block than I imagined there would be when I first peered through the dirty windows – now, the tenants are lightly touching each other’s lives.

Alice Ash is the author of the short story collection Paradise Block (Serpent’s Tail, 2021). She was longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize in 2019, and other writing has been featured in Granta, Refinery29, Extra Teeth, Hotel, 3:AM Magazine, the TLS and Mslexia. She lives in Brighton. Instagram & Twitter – @aliceash_

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

INTERVIEW: Anna Vaught on neurodiversity, Joycean poetics and ‘Saving Lucia’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Anna Vaught on the research process behind her novel Saving Lucia (Bluemoose Books, 2020).

I’m sure you’ll understand why Saving Lucia, for a project like Writers on Research, feels like a goldmine. The scope of history and the agility of prose with which it is explored seem to point – often directly – to the processes of research that must lie underneath the novel. To begin with, I hoped you could tell me how you first came into contact with the story of Lady Violet Gibson. What was it about her story that you knew would be so central to a novel not just about her but about many disparate neglected histories?

I came across her quite by chance. I saw a mysterious-looking photograph online when I was doing some research. It was this one: an elderly-looking lady in an old-fashioned looking coat, in a garden and feeding the birds. Or rather, allowing the birds to alight on her. And I loved her pose – devotion; like a pieta. Who was she?

Tracing the photograph, I found that this was Lady Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of Mussolini, and that she was in the garden of St Andrew’s Hospital, to which she was committed for life. So, it was the mystery of her and the juxtaposition: so gentle, but she tried to murder someone. I read about her and was hooked: her grief, humour, purpose, delicate nature, illness, the robust brilliance of her, too. That she loved art, books, was a woman of faith, converted to Catholicism, came from great privilege and yet and yet. Lucia Joyce has been written about a great deal, but I appear to have been the first person to explore a potential meeting between the two women, who were co-patients at St Andrew’s hospital. I thought that would have been fascinating! Of Blanche (Marie) we know little, but what really struck me when I read Per Olov Enquist’s Blanche and Marie was that a number of reviewers – including those from the broadsheets – assumed that he was presenting facts about Blanche when he described books that she kept and about her being reduced to a torso by radium, working alongside Marie Curie. I have to admit, it made me think – I am sure unfairly; please forgive me here – that our stories as patients are perhaps not listened to, or that we are traduced because our testimony is doubted. Did this play into the reception of Blanche here? I wanted (although, of course, I worried that I was stealing a story and traducing things!) to make her whole, have adventures – with Violet – to be free and not an exhibit. So I sent her off with the 8,000 women for a jamboree across Paris and a steal into the setting for a banquet at Monsieur Charcot’s home! As for Bertha. Ah. She was a bit different. She was Anna O in Breuer and Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, but in ‘real’ life, Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent social worker in Jewish communities; looking after women, young girls, unmarried mothers and their babies. It seems that Bertha had periods of illness in her life, and I wanted to explore that, even broken, we are majestic, productive, touch many lives, as well as to imagine that while she was this ‘Anna O’ (her identity as Bertha was not revealed until some years after her death), she was someone else. She had, of course, many dimensions. We all do.

Of course, and I’m tempted to say it’s that multi-dimensional characterisation which gives the novel a feeling of authenticity – a kind of verisimilitude that comes through even the stylistic ambition of the novel. I wonder to what extent this authenticity is rooted in your research process, particularly in your correspondence with sources close to the history, as well as in your visits to relevant locations such as the graves of Violet and Lucia. What influence did these interactions with real people and places have on the design of the novel? Did you feel that stepping physically into dialogue with the history altered your approach to translating these stories from biography to fiction?

Yes. For me, the moment of change was when I heard from the family of nursing sisters to whom the book is dedicated. In terms of structure and design – well, it was more that I felt a great sense of responsibility. I also heard from the family who thanked me for giving her more voice. I was worried about that, you see, because she was a real person and one thing I find awful is the notion of stealing someone’s narrative. So dialogue with history made me feel even greater care for her and towards her. It also meant I was more sensitive to comments on the book. I was not presenting madness and mental illness, but questioning those supposed mad, aiming to show what resilience and imagination is required – and I knew this from my own life, from what it took. Did you know that the nurses sewed pouches into her dress and coat so that these could be filled with birdseed? I found this out in my interview with Aunt Nancy, the last surviving nurse (now in her mid-nineties and living in Massachusetts) and so, of course, I added it to the book and put in a little account of this at the back of the novel. Aunt Nancy had it read out at her 95th birthday party and when I was told about this, I had to go under a duvet and cry for some time because it was all too much. In a good way. But still too much.

You touched there on one of the most powerful thematic aspects of the novel – that is, the ambiguities between diagnoses of ‘madness’ and the psychological effects of repression on the individual self (particularly, in my reading, from the systems of patriarchy that have governed our society). You also touched there on your own proximity to the subject. If you’d be happy to share, I wanted to know where – as a writer – the strength of feeling in this theme comes from. Did you find a personal sense of anger, despair, historical injustice feeding into the prose as you wrote? Did your readings of the histories of these injustices feed into you?

I know a lot about the history of psychology, psychiatry and about the way that people have been looked after and treated. I know a lot, in particular, about what this meant for women. There was that. I already knew of the injustice of it all – women committed by the say-so of a man; a husband, for example. The history of hysteria (which is tackled in the book) – how can you not rage? All these lives. What they might have been! However, a key thing to know is that my own history is threaded through the book. I have a history of mental health problems – OCD, depression, generalised anxiety; I can manage these more or less, but I still have dissociative episodes and do not consider that I will ever be fixed. Perhaps if I had been looked after appropriately earlier? It is thought that these things stem from early complex and extended trauma. I navigate the results of this side by side with neurodivergence and it is a challenge. So there is the strength of feeling, too. I know something of how it is to be dismissed as a weirdo, a nutter, to have your story and accounts of what happened to you dismissed, and I also know what it is to find appropriate sympathetic care. When you have suffered intense cruelty in a domestic setting, as happened to me, and no one believes you ­(in the wider family, in school: this is what happened to me) you really do know the power of a story. Not only because it is testimony, but also because when there are no routes out, the imagination is a key resource. I have written elsewhere that reading, and the imaginary worlds that flowed from it, kept me afloat and saved my life. Do you see how close that is to a central tenet of the novel? It is a feat of the imagination by an extraordinary woman who has nowhere else to go. She petitioned repeatedly to leave. This was denied, even when she was elderly and frail.

That theme of the imagination as a resource that fills the space testimony leaves behind is something that’s come up repeatedly during this interview series. It seems particularly pertinent to Saving Lucia, as the histories of Lady Violet Gibbon, Lucia Joyce, Bertha Pappenheim and Blanche Wittmann are ultimately ones which require a proactive engagement of the imagination. As part of that, the novel leans into that void that historically-male narratives of women’s experiences (particularly those of ‘madness’) leave behind. I’d like to ask why you feel the novel as a form might be suited to the exploration and dissemination of these types of histories. What is it, as an exercise of the imagination, that the novel is able to achieve that other genres aren’t?

I think Saving Lucia would suit a play, too! I suppose that a novel, being a piece of long narrative in literary prose, gives us more space for voice and experimentation, and that is what I wanted to show for Violet. I needed that extent of text to show a reader her experimentation with language and rehearsal of her adventure; I needed an extended narrative to move back and forth between the lives of the women, the passerines, before I put them all together. Also, I wanted the conceit of the book being a prose record: Lucia is, fictionally, saved because Violet finds a way for her to go back into the world. It is a fact that Lucia had a sponsor and could have at least attempted life beyond the hospital. New medications of the time should also, from what I have been able to find out, have made that possible. But she remained in hospital, like Violet, until she died. However, she is also saved by Violet in the book – as are the other women – because her story is kept, recorded. ‘Don’t let me be remembered only as a case.’ I think, here, the novel offers possibilities for imaginative freewheeling. For the energy and intellectual thrust of Violet. I thought she was fascinating and was so glad to have her here for a while. I thought I would draw attention to this, a variation of which was originally in the back of the novel (read here). These are biographical accounts of the four women with some thoughts on my own history and on telling a story.

To close, I’d like to touch briefly on the structure of Saving Lucia, as in many ways I feel this a key to understanding the process behind the novel. Saving Lucia moves fluidly between disparate physical and temporal locations, as well as between a complex structure of narrative voices, something that I feel helps lend the novel that sense of imaginative agility. In the face of these multiplicities, and in its open dialogue with James Joyce and other writers, how did you approach designing the overall narrative voice of the novel? How did this range of imagined voices and intertextual references coalesce into what I think is ultimately a consistent style?

This will sound odd to some. I heard it all in my head; the voices of women – I imagined them, let them play, had them at my table. I heard it as a journey, too, and felt it as a series of imagined gifts to all the women. I also, because of Lucia and because of what I imagined as a dynamic energy, heard the rhythm and cadence of poetry and prose, and that is where, in addition to the biographical Joyce links, Finnegans Wake and, to a certain extent, Ulysses came in. I heard the energy of Joyce’s prose, its fizz and sparkle, mixed in with the words of the women, particularly Violet and Lucia. I have also said that the book is what the inside of my head looks like, a kind of busy interplay between voices and texts, snatches of poetry, prose and song. Also, Joe, thank you so much for commenting on the open dialogue with Joyce and other writers. This is not something – other than in Andrew Gallix’s superb review (I mean I thought his review was superb as a piece of writing!) in The Irish Times (read here) which has really been discussed. I’ve seen people write that Joyce fans won’t like the book because of what it shows of Lucia, but that history is quite well known and, in fact, the book is full of Joyce pastiches and references. Homage to Joyce, too! You will also find R.S. and Dylan Thomas, Auden, Synge and various classical references because we know a little of Violet’s reading interests so I worked things in. Almost as if I were speaking to her, thinking: What might you like here, Lady Gibson?

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of three. 2020 saw the publication of Anna’s third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. She is currently editing a new novel, writing a novella and has a first non-fiction book and a second short story collection in the pipeline. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents, in New York City.

2020 most recent publications:

Saving Lucia:

INTERVIEW: Martin Goodman on musicality, research ethics and ‘J SS Bach’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Martin Goodman on the research process behind his novel J SS Bach (Wrecking Ball Press, 2018).

If I may, I’d like to go straight to the end of J SS Bach, to the afterword that as a researcher of research was extremely interesting to me. You open your discussion on some of the real and textual sources for the novel by describing the moment when its ‘barebones’ first came to you in a moment of genius loci inspiration. I wondered if at that moment, when you came upon the novel’s two driving themes (the Holocaust and Music), you knew that you would need to delve deep into factual, personal histories to bring those two themes together?

‘At that moment’? No. It was a welter of experience. The storyteller in me then started to grapple with it, in order to even speak or think of it. You pull out strands, seek narrative connections between separate parts. And first you work out what those parts are. I decided these elements were fixed – that was one curious research aspect, accepting that the ‘download’ of the book’s principle characters, themes and structure held authority and to ‘fictionalize’ it would be to diminish it. Certain fixed aspects were the year 1938, the young cellist in Vienna, the deporting to Dachau, the Stradivarius cello. Then you recognize that the ‘download’ fell into a vessel shaped by what I already knew. One such thing was a news article about Herbert Zipper, a young Viennese Jewish conductor and composer but then a music student who was deported to Dachau. So pretty instantly, the Holocaust and Music were intertwining through factual, personal histories.

I think it’s that personal, perhaps living, aspect of the history that makes it such a sensitive subject. I have met survivors who were actively willing to share their stories and others who were well-known for never mentioning that time at all. If possible I hoped you could tell me whether your approach to research ethics changed while you were investigating these stories, and whether your attitudes towards transposing real-world suffering into fiction were altered in any way by your experience of researching J SS Bach.

For my first novel, On Bended Knees, I sought accounts in English of the German wartime experience. This was thirty years ago and I found few. That novel therefore drew on my own experiences, of adult English lives touched by the war and from my time working in Berlin in 1975. The research premise was there: to investigate the inheritance of war guilt and trauma, and to see how war affected both sides of a conflict.

The impulse to tackle the Holocaust and Music as a theme was not my own, it was planted in me, which did raise deep ethical points. One was: Do I have any right to tell this tale? I have a Jewish name, Semitic looks, lost ancestry, so I did spend a while trying to authenticate Jewish roots for myself, but the whole thrust of this book is that it is beyond my experience. I’m not German, a Nazi, a cellist, Austrian, Jewish, a girl, a woman, a camp survivor, a violinist, part of any diaspora, pre-war, deaf, a daughter, a wife, a composer, a mother. My only route inside the experiences of such lives was through research. This was mostly shelves of books and some internet archives as well as some conversations with people who were there. It was also vital to spend time at Dachau, Auschwitz and Terezìn. Place myself there physically, spend days walking around, and location is then something I didn’t have to fictionalize.

The Holocaust bears the weight of the saddest human stories. Most of those that are known we don’t, individually, know because we don’t choose to, they are overwhelming. When millions were killed their stories were extinguished with them. I decided it would be diabolical to invent new tales of atrocity for the Holocaust, and closed any book of fiction that I sensed was broaching such territory. The stories of horror I used were borrowed from survivors’ accounts. The fiction was anchored in fact.

That difficult relationship between fiction and fact – the potential discipline present in that interaction – has been coming up in a lot of my recent interviews. As you mentioned, you made the conscious decision to invent no new tales of atrocity, but I’d like to ask at which other points you realised, during your research, that your narrative design would have to come away from factual history. More specifically, I’m keen to get your thoughts on how you feel that prose fiction can help investigate aspects of human history that memoir, for example, might be less able to achieve. Author Heidi James, in our interview at the beginning of April, suggested that ‘fiction often gets to the heart of a story in a way that mere facts can’t,’ which interested me greatly. At which points in J SS Bach did it feel more lucrative for truth to give way to meaning, as perhaps all fiction ultimately must?

It was more the other way round. I had to abandon my narrative design when I learned it did not fit the history. My design was for my young cellist to spend the whole war in Dachau. Then I learned that Dachau’s Jewish inmates were sent to Buchenwald in 1938 – so my narrative had to go there. I imagined Canada welcomed refugee Jews. It didn’t. So the fiction changed to accommodate that fact. I determined my book would not take characters to Auschwitz because I didn’t want to exploit Auschwitz to give my book emotional heft. I read of the Jewish musicians from Prague who filled the ghetto of Terezìn with musical life before all being killed, obvious fodder to a novel exploring music and the Holocaust, but once again rejected the use of that setting as exploitative. I was going to despatch the Jewish women from my Viennese family to the women’s cap at Ravensbrück. And then I looked into the history. Those women of Vienna would have been sent to Terezìn. And from there to Auschwitz. My novel had to lose its qualms, I had to surrender my narrative plans, and follow my characters through their true history. They didn’t get to go wherever they chose, and I couldn’t make them.

Did truth give way to meaning, to become more true? I can’t think of any instances. Except of course it’s all a novel, it’s all fiction. At my first public reading from the novel I couldn’t stop myself crying, because the characters were so real to me and their story was so tragically sad, and only fiction can tell those stories because those who were killed left no memoirs.  In its later stages, of course, my novel becomes an exploration of biography. Our story of our own life, about which we think we are world experts, can be a false construct. Moments of story hit us with a resonance that shake our system in such a way that we take them as ‘truth’. A novel builds itself around such moments.

We’ve spoken a lot about the factual history here and its relationship with truth, but I feel as though it would be remiss not to briefly explore the second dominant theme in J SS Bach, which is of course music. Recently I spoke with author Jonathan Taylor about the relationship between music and literary research. Dr Taylor spoke about the ‘narrative structure of music, and the musical structure of prose’, in relation to writing’s ability to harness musicality, rhythm, dissonance, polyphony, etc. Is this something that rings true for you? 

I do look for music in language, though for me at its simplest that consists of rhythm which leads to silence. You build through sound into an absence of sound – the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a section, a chapter – a silence where the effects of your writing can accumulate in the reader. My biggest musical composition in J SS Bach was ‘The Diaspora Variations’, when musicians separately play elements of the composer’s new work through improvisation across all the spaces of the Sydney Opera House. They meet together to play a finale for an audience and reach a rousing conclusion from which a girl leaves. She steps out into silence and finds the performance continuing outside, to a different conclusion that is private to her. The pianist in my novel has been rendered deaf. The young cellist has to take the Bach Suites into his memory. He has to metabolize music into his bloodstream to keep himself alive when standing on parade grounds. My older cellist has given up performance. Music at its deepest inverts you, leaves you raw and quivering at the touch of the world, and a book can do that too.

I think that idea of a book affecting you as if ‘at the touch of the world’ links aptly with something I’ve been asking all my interviewees. You mentioned earlier that your research premise for the novel involved the ‘inheritance of war guilt and trauma’, but I’m also interested to get your thoughts on whether you feel J SS Bach operates as an act of research in and of itself – as something that helps ‘invert’ the world as well as the reader. Is the novel as a form an effective way of interrogating the truths of our world? Perhaps that’s something that for a novel so tied to history might be easier to relate to, or perhaps more difficult. How do you feel J SS Bach functions, if at all, as a question posed to our ideas of humanity and the environment we’ve created?

A novel ‘as an act of research in and of itself’ I take as being a novel without a readership. Does such a novel have a worth? It’s a tender question, for there are many millions of unread novels in the world, including one or two of my own. I was propelled on an act of creation that took 25 years to fulfil itself. That has value. Go on a huge voyage, come home and try and interest folk in your tales to no avail, you still have that voyage locked inside you.

I find I’m drawn to counter-narratives, to works set against ‘the truths of our world’, works that explore the dictum ‘the opposite is also true’. In J SS Bach I found myself writing life stories of characters who had been erased, in real life. It feels like an act of deep humanity for a novel to retrieve lost lives, and to give voice to the voiceless. We can focus attention on what the world prefers to neglect. I’ve just finished reading two novels; the trilogy … by Agata Kristof and No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo. Both were shockingly unsentimental. Separately I’ve been struck by this line by Gerald Sykes. ‘All our quasi-sacred literary classics—Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Melvillle—are romantics.’ There’s value, and likely commercial success, in writing what is romantic, escapist and sentimental. How do we explore our world without taking such routes? What truths does that reveal?

That’s what increasingly interests me.


Martin Goodman has written eleven books, fiction and nonfiction. A theme common to much of his fiction is the exploration of war guilt: his first novel On Bended Knees (Macmillan), set in England and Berlin, examined how the effects of war are passed from one generation to the next, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread (now the Costa) First Novel Award. 

Early nonfiction focused on pilgrimage, sacred place and shamanism, and included the biography of the Indian holywoman Mother Meera, and a quest to sacred mountains of the world. His biography of the scientist Dr J. S. Haldane, Suffer & Survive (Simon & Schuster), won First Prize, Basis of Medicine in the 2008 BMA Book Awards.

His ClientEarth, written with his husband James Thornton, won the Judges’ Choice, Business Book of the Year 2018. It tells of ecolawyers and their work to protect the environment. A BBC New Generation Thinker, programmes for BBC Radio 4 include a two-part series on iconic architecture of England, The New North (2013) and a documentary on the writer Alan Garner (2014). His short stories are published widely, and as with his literary criticism focus largely on gay themes; the criticism has focused on the works of Edmund Gosse, James Purdy and Walter Baxter. His play Feeding the Roses won an international Virtual Theatre Project award and was performed at Wake Forest University, USA.

With Sara Maitland, he wrote the handbook of creative writing mentoring The Write Guide (New Writing North, 2007, revised ebook edition 2015). He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull, and Director of the Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing, which has brought the world’s finest writers to Hull to be in dialogue about their writing and to works to promote and develop the region’s own very strong writing heritage and strengths. He stays at the forefront of developments in the book industry through his role as founder and publisher of Barbican Press, with a catalogue of fine contemporary novels and nonfiction from the UK, USA and Czechoslovakia, including new translations.

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

INTERVIEW: Heidi James on DNA, trauma theory and ‘The Sound Mirror’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Heidi James on the research process behind her novel The Sound Mirror (Bluemoose Books, 2020).

One of the epigraphs that open The Sound Mirror is from Jean Genet’s play The Balcony: ‘It’s a true image, born of a false spectacle.’ I wondered why this particular line stood out for you, and whether you think (as jumps out for me) that there might be a link between Genet’s juxtaposition of the spectacle and the image and the process by which writers transpose ‘real-world material’ into fiction?

Yes, it’s precisely the link you describe, and those words ‘spectacle’ and ‘image’ both infer the quality of transience, of performance, and of being the audience or the viewer. There’s something about Genet’s phrase that perfectly articulates the slippery qualities of ‘true’ material that we might mine to tell a truer story, that itself is a fiction, a spectral composition that haunts. In the lives of the characters I was writing, much of their behaviour is spectacle, by which I mean, a way of being that is prescribed, ordered or expected by cultural norms; not necessarily that which is authentic or responsive. More prosaically, fiction often gets to the heart of a story in a way that mere facts can’t.

That idea of fiction as ‘spectral composition’ reminds me of the recurring voice that comes in and out throughout The Sound Mirror – what I’d be tempted to call the collective narration of the characters, their antecedents and later descendants (perhaps you’d describe it differently). This voice, which permeates the novel, claims to ‘lead’ the action, almost as a kind of homogenised natural force. I wondered if there was anything specific in your reading for the novel that brought you to this idea, particularly in terms of working to frame family histories as an unbroken historical narrative, as you might find in Marquez for example.

My PhD was in trauma theory, so much of the research for that inhabits this idea of a collective ‘voice’ or perhaps collective experiences that are archived in the cells, in our DNA. The names of the main characters (Gail, Tamara, Claire and Ada) represent AGTC, the base pairs of DNA. We know that trauma can be epigenetic but there’s also research to suggest that trauma can be passed on intergenerationally. It’s this unbroken narrative of trauma (both personal and societal) that the voice is expressing – this long chain of mothers bequeathing damage – but also strength, resilience. There’s a Bessel van de Kolk text, The Body Keeps the Score ,that is really interesting on this too. All of this came together to create that idea of the body, at a cellular level, as traces of all the other bodies that preceded us (an archive as I said), that we aren’t individuals but enmeshed in our many others, all overlapping and wrestling for attention. Alongside this I was reading a lot of Mark Fisher’s incredible work and thinking about Derrida’s hauntology. Then there’s the voice too, the actual voice with which we speak, our accent, our vocabulary, the idioms we use; all informed by our circumstances, physiology, education, location – again overdetermined and coming together as self-expression and yet, is it? Which self?

I’m really interested in your idea of seeing human beings not as individuals but as overlapping multiplicities, something that rings very true for me. I think we can find that in the structure of The Sound Mirror, in the way it follows three discrete narrative threads, occupying three distinct temporal locations but ultimately culminating in one coherent narrative. I wondered to what extent the research for each thread informed the narrative design of the others. Did you find that as your research shaped Tamara for example, your visions of Claire or Ada began to change? Were there places where history supplanted or encroached on your original designs?

I wanted the prose style to reflect each time period and character closely. I worked to keep the narrative as close as possible to the characters, using third person/free indirect style. So, Tamara is contemporary, the prose sharper – the past intrudes on her in a way it doesn’t with the others as she is one in whom all the trauma culminates. Those interruptions, fragments and breaks are a way to try to write the way PTSD flashbacks muscle in on the present – it ruptures time. Tamara is also the one character that the collective ‘voice’, or we might say, the mothers, all cluster around and discuss. For Ada and Claire, it was a question of finding the right style and language to flex with their very different backgrounds, education, class and situations. For Ada’s sections, I wanted the narrative to read like a novel of the era, something she might have read, as what we read can often shape how we tell the story of ourselves. I hope there’s a shadowy self-consciousness to her passages.

It felt like I was writing three different novels at times, and in the end I wrote each one in an unbroken linear way, then smashed them up and interwove them. As the novel is based on the lives of my grandmothers’ I didn’t find anything encroaching on the design, I just had to go with it all.

Interesting. I was struck then by your shorthand for the ‘collective voice’ that we discussed earlier as ‘the mothers’, which of course in a very formal way they are. Certainly (it seems to me) one of the core strengths of The Sound Mirror is the way the structure naturally draws comparisons between these various women’s lives, and how they affect each other across time. Naturally you were working with material from your family history as a baseline, and this may be a loaded question, but did you encounter any problems in researching the historical lives of women in general? Particularly in terms of what can sometimes feel like a lack of meaningful material on so-called ‘domestic life’?

I would’ve, I’m sure, if I’d had to do a lot of research. I was raised mostly by my grandmother, and was always an avid listener, as she was a prodigious storyteller. All of this stuff was just there in my memory, waiting. I read some personal accounts of Anglo-Indian girls and women around the same age as Ada and that was helpful, but the few I found were self-published… There isn’t a great deal of material about that time from this perspective; as per usual it’s all mostly written from a more privileged position. In part I wrote the novel to redress the lack material about the domestic, about these women’s lives – impacted as they were by colonialism, war, politics etc. The domestic in this sense is the point in which all that is outside is incorporated into the intimate space of our lives and impacts everything. There were some funny moments when a well-meaning reviewer wrote to me to tell me I’d got some dialogue wrong (their father was from the East End of London etc. etc.) and of course, I hadn’t, I’d heard it from the horse’s mouth as it were (and Claire wasn’t a Londoner!).

That idea of the external being incorporated into the internal seems so core to me, a really central, driving motif for The Sound Mirror. To close up I’d like to ask what I’ve already asked several writers during this interview project, something I’m particularly keen to get your thoughts on. Thinking in terms of writing as a form of research, as a process of investigation into the nature of life, is there a particular question that you hope The Sound Mirror raises in your readers, and has the process of writing this novel begun to answer that question, in any way, for yourself as the writer?

If there is a question, it would be to consider the consequences of our actions and choices, the repercussions that may ripple out for many years. It was a form of exorcism, a rite to cleanse my family, to conjure my grandmothers’ stories up, to release them, to witness them, in all their complexity – an abreaction, I suppose. It worked.

Heidi James is the author of critically-acclaimed novels Wounding, So the Doves (a Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month) and The Sound Mirror. She won The Saboteur Award for her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter and was a finalist in The Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her short stories, poetry and essays have been published in various anthologies and magazines including, among others, We’ll Never Have Paris, Somesuch, Dazed and Confused and Galley Beggar Press. She hosts a podcast, First Graft, where she discusses writing and procrastination with other writers.

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

INTERVIEW: Jonathan Taylor on illness, Oliver Sacks and ‘Melissa’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jonathan Taylor on the research process behind his novel Melissa (Salt, 2015).

Melissa is inspired by true events, and at least at the beginning frames itself as a kind of reportage. What kinds of ethical concerns did you consider when working with real-life material, and how did you decide where the intersections between history and imagination should fall?

In some ways, the ‘true events’ lying behind Melissa are a kind of vanishing horizon. There are two or three true stories on which it’s based; but they’re distanced, displaced, seen through an inverted telescope. Oddly enough, my first novel, Entertaining Strangers (2012), is even closer to non-fiction, even though it’s usually seen as crazily surrealist. Often, the closer to reality something is, the less believable – which is why the earlier chapters of Melissa, where the pseudo-non-fictional elements are foregrounded, are probably the least ‘realist’ in the conventional sense. ‘Realism,’ as most people know, is a subjective thing, informed by social class, ethnicity, gender, geography and so on. Realism is always a simulation in fiction – or, to put it another way, fiction dreams of reality.

I think the main ethical concerns I had with Melissa were to do with the portrayal of illness. I wanted to make sure I got the portrayal of Melissa’s Leukaemia right. Personally, I think it’s a responsibility of modern novelists to do justice to illness, to write about it in a sensitive and informed way. You’re talking about something that has serious, sometimes traumatic, real-world effects, so you owe it to the reader – who, after all, may be affected (for example) directly by cancer – to write about it in a direct and ‘truthful’ way. Gone are the days when, in Victorian novels, characters suffer from a mysterious undiagnosed illness for a few weeks at key moments in the narrative. In contemporary novels, authors should (I think) use the proper terminology, and understand treatments, aetiologies, pathologies, and so on. That’s how to be sensitive as an author – to research and understand fully the medical context you’re working in, not to use ‘trigger warnings’ (which I have very mixed feelings about). On the most basic level, the reader needs to trust that the writer knows what they’re talking about – and, if they do, you don’t need trigger warnings.

In the end, fiction is just fiction, and the novelist doesn’t have a god-given right to trample on other people’s gardens. You’re not special or important as a novelist or author. Despite what Wagner felt, the ‘artist’ isn’t exempt from usual kindness, sensitivity, courtesy. But authorial kindness, sensitivity, courtesy is sometimes just a matter of knowledge and understanding. 

You mentioned ‘doing justice to illness’, particularly in terms of handling medical vocabulary. I’d say that context comes through especially strongly in Chapter Three, and obviously in the bibliography provided at the end of the book which includes several medical texts. Could you tell me something of how you approached the medical aspects of your research, why you chose to utilise medical language, and how you set about transposing your research into your fiction?

I’ve written about illness and medical subject matter in almost all of my books. No doubt that’s because I grew up surrounded by illness. I wrote about my father’s Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and bizarre brain syndromes in my earlier memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (2007). When I was growing up, it felt like no-one talked about mental or neurological illness, either in person or in the books I read, and hence it felt almost isolated to my family. I don’t believe, really, in progress, but I do think things have improved in this regard – and no doubt my reading has also improved, too.

But back then, at the start of the 90s, I remember the shock of recognition when, at the age of seventeen, I first came across the description of Edwin’s father’s brain disorder in Arnold Bennett’s novel Clayhanger (I wrote about the experience in a short personal essay here). It was a shock because I’d never seen anything in a story before which was analogous to my own experience of living with an ill father. Seeing it in words in front of me was startling, cathartic.

And then, a few years later, I came across the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks, and instantly recognised the world and the neurological conditions he describes so brilliantly. Of course, illness has been written about since the beginning of time, but the precision, the diagnostic detail, the (crazy, surreal, counter-intuitive) ‘realism’ of Sacks’s work has influenced me, I think, as much as anything else. His book Musicophilia – about the relations between neuroscience, illness and music – lies behind the whole of Melissa. What he adds to literature, or brings to consciousness (because it was already latently there), is the attention to neurology: nineteenth-century realist writers like George Eliot and Trollope show themselves to be brilliant psychologists, in their understanding their characters’ motivations; but later-twentieth and twenty-first-century novelists are writing in the age not just of modern psychology, but also neuroscience. And that context is vitally important when it comes to fictional characterisation these days, I think. Novels are, in part, about consciousness, about the workings of the mind, so the novelist needs to be aware of what others are writing about these things, in the related fields of science and philosophy.

I’m intrigued by that relationship between music and the psychological world, as that is obviously one of the thematic threads that hold Melissa together. I wondered if you could share your perspective on listening to music as a form of research, as opposed to reading or writing about it. In particular, did you find that listening to orchestral music, despite it lacking any verbal language, helped to shape your ideas around the style and narrative of the novel?

Yes, absolutely – the novel as a whole is an experiment to see if it’s possible to meld novelistic form with musical forms, such as variations. I see Part 1 as a kind of prelude to Part 2, where each chapter is a kind of distant variation on the underlying loss and grieving process. Some of the chapters are directly linked to specific pieces, and some of them are structured around the pieces themselves. I believe very much in the narrative structure of music, and the musical structure of prose: prose can and should be musical, rhythmic, onomatopoeic, lyrical, dissonant, consonant, fugal, operatic, symphonic, and so on. Writers should love the sound of words above and beyond their ostensible meanings (poets, of course, know this).

The central image of the novel – its starting point – is, as you know, a musical hallucination which is shared, somehow, by everyone on the same street. At the moment Melissa, a young girl on the street, dies from Leukaemia, everyone on the street hears the same music in their heads – or, at least, seems to. The novel takes that musical image as its starting point, and extends it, develops it. The epigraph to the whole book is from the eighteenth-century philosopher Novalis: ‘Every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.’ Each chapter is a kind of meditation on that idea, weaving together the central strands – illness, music and grief.

And yes, I did listen to music while writing it (and played some of the pieces badly on the piano). It’s a bit like writing with incidental music – though I always think the term ‘incidental music’ is a bit of a misnomer. Music isn’t ‘incidental’ in many movies, but rather integral to their storytelling (see the works of Powell and Pressburger, for example, or try and imagine Brief Encounter without Rachmaninov, or Death in Venice without Mahler). Movies, or at least certain sequences in many powerful movies, often come close to opera or ballet. And something similar can happen in musical fiction too, where music is far from ‘incidental’ to the story, but woven into it, a fundamental part of it. Ideally, I’d like the reader to hear the musical pieces in their head (or imagine them, if they don’t know them) while they’re reading.

Absolutely. I wonder if there’s a link there between the way readers might imagine music and the way they ‘hear’ characters’ voices coming out from the text, what you might call the ‘aural dimension’ of the text. That was something that stood out for me when I was reading Melissa – the use of distinct dialogue styles, the highly differentiated modes of communication between various characters. I wondered if you based some of your characters’ voices on voices collected from the real world, and how you feel about the challenges of creating authentic-sounding dialogue on the page?

People often talk about how writers ‘find their voice,’ but I’ve always felt that this is a rather egocentric, even solipsistic view of writing. Personally, I think writers should go out and find others’ voices – listen to people, absorb the different voices out there (in pubs, clubs, cafés, on buses, trains, in schools, hospitals, parks, and so on). Keatsian negative capability applies to fiction as well as poetry: ideally, the author should try and efface his or her own voice, and listen to others – let him or herself be occupied by others’ voices. Being a novelist is a bit like the guy in Mark’s Gospel, who’s possessed by a legion of demons.

This also ties in with the idea that there’s a musical structure to fiction which, for me, often involves the interweaving of different voices, like a fugue. All writing aspires to the condition of music, and particularly to Bachian polyphony. I don’t want to sound too pretentious, because by ‘aspires,’ I mean, by and large, it tries and fails – doesn’t come close. Although there are moments in Dickens which aren’t far off.

Funnily enough, all this applies, I think, equally to non-fiction. You’d have thought memoir – for instance – is much more monovocal. But when I perform bits of my earlier memoir (which I still do, occasionally) to an audience, I notice how many different voices are involved – how the book is really a collage, a scrapbook of different people’s voices, ideas, stories. Stories are conversations, which is why no story is ever about just one person, one “I.” Even monologues always imply other characters: if you listen to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, you’ll hear how the central voice is always shot through with others’ voices. Existential solipsism doesn’t necessarily make for good writing; and Trollope is at his most boring in the long chapters where the narrator eclipses the characters, talks over them. Perhaps it all goes back to the oral origins of storytelling as conversation, dialogue, improvisation, communality, where the audience’s voices were as important as the storyteller’s.

Talking of audiences, when I’ve given readings from the novel, some people have commented that Melissa captures teenage girls’ voices well – the main character of the second part, Serena, is an A-Level student, and has various conversations with her best friend. It’s certainly not for me to say whether this is true or not, but the comment always surprises me, because I didn’t think about it much while I was writing it. After all, if, as a writer, you can’t enter into another gender’s voice, what the hell are you doing? I know full well there are multitudinous examples of male writers writing women’s voices badly. But that’s pretty shoddy, to say the least, a failure to listen. I mean – the whole point of being a fiction writer is empathy, is that ability to leap into different perspectives, different voices. Of course, sometimes this works better than others, and of course there are some perspectives which people find harder than others – where the leap of empathy is much wider. It raises the whole issue of cultural appropriation too, which is a very complex and problematic area (and to which there are no simple answers). But ultimately, all I’m doing in Melissa is staging and replaying the kinds of voices I grew up with in Stoke – male and female. It’s just a matter of listening, surely. And, in that way, again it’s like music: your job as a writer is to listen.

To close our discussion I’d like to expand on a conversation we’ve had several times before. It seems as though for many writers the act of writing a novel is an act of research in and of itself. In that respect, what would you say is the key driving research question that Melissa explores, and did that question change in the process of researching and writing?

I sometimes think Creative Writing reverses usual academic practice, in that it’s often not till the end of the process (e.g. the end of drafting a novel) that you understand what questions you were exploring. Like psychoanalysis, Creative Writing brings the unconscious to consciousness (or tries to). So the questions I was asking myself in writing Melissa only really came into focus when I’d written it. Firstly, as I say, I was asking myself how far it was possible to push the idea of musical fiction – how far you could incorporate musicality into the very fabric of a novel. That was the ‘key driving research question’ in terms of form.

I realised what the ‘research question’ in terms of theme was only after I’d finished the novel. And it was a good job I only realised afterwards. Melissa was always intended to be an extended exploration of grief, the impossibility of mourning the loss of young girl – a daughter, a sister. But it was only when I finished it that I was able to recognise this as my grief. I’ve never had a daughter or sister die, and so the novel, in that respect, is (thankfully) fiction, an experiment in the far reaches of empathy. But when our twin daughters were born in 2008, they were premature, tiny, in intensive care and very, very sick. Even when they emerged from hospital, they were vulnerable, and we had our own personal ‘lockdown’ for some months. I realised in retrospect that Melissa grew out of that intense, near-death experience. It was me looking into the abyss of what could have happened. When I understood this, after I’d finished the novel, I felt a terrible sense of vertigo, and horror, as if I’d written something imagining the unimaginable. No doubt Gustav Mahler – also the father of two daughters – felt something similar when he wrote his famous song cycle, Kindertotenlieder (and one of his daughters did later die). In that respect, it was maybe a good thing I never realised what I was doing while I was doing it – I’d probably not have finished it. And, of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that all novels are displaced, dream-like versions of reality – all of them are vertiginous ‘What ifs?,’ extrapolating stories from the author’s and reader’s world, stretching and extending reality. All fiction, in that sense, is speculative fiction.

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

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