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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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