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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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