As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Victoria Richards on the research process behind her collection Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep… But We Don’t Mind (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023).
One of the core themes of Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep is, in my reading, the human capacity for compassion in the face of suffering. In some stories, characters are made to endure personal suffering, or witness the suffering of others; in others, it is the reader who is challenged to respond to that suffering. But in all, the difficulties of enacting compassion in the face of horror, sadness, etc feels ever-present. Is that a fair reading? How do you feel the difficulties of compassion function both within these stories, and within your personal relationship with the world?
I believe that compassion is the key to our humanity. Without it, we are little more than selfish, cold, avaricious consumers (of time, of material goods, of other people’s love and loyalty). It is through compassion and empathy that we are able to love and be loved; it is through human connection that we achieve something akin to God, or nirvana. Suffering and pain are made palatable by their opposites: love and compassion. Yet it remains our greatest challenge: can you feel compassion for someone who has wronged you? To be able to do so, you must be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand their motivation. If you can do that, you release yourself from pain and suffering. It is loving the one who has wounded you that ultimately sets you free.
Compassion as a quality is something that has captivated me since I was a young child, and I still don’t entirely know why. I remember my parents describing me as “too sensitive” because I would cry when the cat caught a bird and brought it in to the house. I remember persuading my dad to let me put an advert on Teletext (showing my age, here!) to advertise for pen pals – in the ad, I described myself as “compassionate” and asked anyone reading to, “please write to me with all your problems”. I was only eight years old. I grew up with a natural ache for others – when I was ten, I told my teacher that I wanted to be a psychologist.
I don’t think we should hide from suffering: let it be witnessed; let it be understood. Let us place ourselves in the shoes of the wounded and the person doing the wounding; let us attempt to understand the duality of these two concepts intimately, close up. I suppose, deep down, I don’t believe in inherent ‘evil’. I don’t believe anyone is ‘all bad’. I believe everyone can be ‘saved’. But to be ‘saved’, to be ‘made good’, we have to be understood.
More simply, I enjoy writing an ‘unlikeable’ or ‘damaged’ character, because it forces the reader to question what it is they like or don’t like about them. Sometimes, what we don’t like in a character can tell us an awful lot about what we don’t like in ourselves.
I was taken by your use of the language of emergencies, particularly the way you voice formal emergency guidelines in ‘Never Run From Wild Dogs’ and ‘Drowning Doesn’t Feel Like Drowning’. Writing within a world in which the word ‘emergency’ feels like it is gaining increasing prevalence, what effect does the sometimes uncanny-sounding vocabulary of emergency advice have on you? And what inspired to work with it creatively?
The motivation for using the field research on drowning came from a news story I was working on in my day job as a journalist. We were writing about the number of drownings that happen on busy summer days in popular seaside beauty spots, but which go unnoticed, because – as the adage goes – drowning really doesn’t look like drowning (or, at least, it doesn’t look an awful lot like the drowning we see in movies, where people yell and wave and shout and make a lot of noise).
Drowning is a lot more subtle than we might think: and that made me think about the way we present ourselves to others in our daily lives, how we can be ‘drowning’ right under the noses of our colleagues, our friends, our loved ones. We don’t cry for help, very often. We don’t make a huge fuss and attract attention. We don’t ask to be saved. We just drown slowly and quietly, in plain sight. The human experience can be very lonely – and surrounded by ‘emergency’. The trouble is, it’s a silent emergency most of the time. The people who shout loudest are not always the ones who need the most urgent help.
On a more practical level, I enjoy the mix of ‘official’ and ‘lyrical’ language. The former can sometimes present itself as a ‘found poem’. Emergency guidelines can sound dull and mechanical – but look at what they’re describing! The loss of something valuable, the loss of vitality, the terrifying end to life… all dressed up in ‘four handy steps’. Guidelines like these take the thing we fear the most – death – and make it tangible. They make it real. They give us a crutch or a life buoy; numbered instructions for how to cope with something terrible and unimaginable. In a crisis, that’s something we all need, but rarely get. I like the juxtaposition of the emotional and the practical. One only makes the other feel more accentuated, stark and profound.
Another persistent motif is the representation of the female experience. Looking back through the collection, the lived experiences of women form the backbone of many – almost all – of the stories’ narrative content. I’m curious to know whether you feel that the collection is a statement of feminism, and whether my question in that context is fair and has meaning? Is to write about the female experience, however one quantifies that, always an exercise in feminism?
It’s an interesting idea – is writing about the female lived experience, by definition, a feminist act? There are plenty of women who reject the very notion of feminism (many of them say so defiantly in our national newspapers or in fringe broadcast outlets). Internalised misogyny is all too real. Some of the fiercest disbelievers and critics against women victims of rape or sexual abuse are women. The notion of ‘the sisterhood’ is increasingly complex.
When it comes to my personal outlook, I can only go by the great women writers who sparked my love of the written word: Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Deborah Levy, Sharon Olds, bel hooks. Is their work feminist? Undoubtedly. But is that because women are expected to write confessionally, as these great women do – and then are typecast when they do so? Absolutely. Is it ‘feminist’ when we are confessional about sex, intimacy, abuse, our bodies, our longing, our dissatisfaction, our anger? I think so.
However you define ‘feminism’ (and each person will have their own notion of what that word means), women opening a window to their lives is, in my opinion, inherently subversive. To write about domestic disharmony, say – or about the suffocating intensity of bearing a child – is taboo.
Related themes, at least in terms of women’s historical subjugation, are those of marriage and parenthood, as well as the expectations on women around these aspects of life. I’m keen to know how you feel about marriage and family as institutions whose meaning has fluctuated over the centuries, the past century in particular. What does it mean to write about marriage, pregnancy and parenthood?
I write a lot about being a mother because I am fascinated by the way that feminism and motherhood clash, rather than intersect. Once women split in two, they become gently rounded whispers of milk and maternity. Removed from work, from responsibility, from heavy lifting; they’re not supposed to be “seen”, not really. They are elysian, beatified. Womanhood as we knew it, is entirely erased – and so with it all sense of sexuality, individualism and power. One could argue that is what happens within marriage, too. Marriage, in fact, was never meant to be about love and giddy, dizzy strength of feeling, of finding a “soulmate”. The original meaning of marriage was possession. Marriage was designed to give women economic security; to pass on the responsibility for the woman from the father to the husband. Just look at the history: in the UK, on getting married, women gained a home and (in some cases) relative wealth, but lost the right to an identity. Their husbands became their legal guardians, “until death us do part”. That’s the legacy that led to women shedding their names – so why are we still insisting on perpetuating it in today’s supposedly progressive and enlightened society?
What interests me is the way that women are still kept under strict controls… our bodily autonomy is being stripped away globally, with the reversal of abortion laws as seen in the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US – but we’re kept tight to social controls, too: we are simply not allowed to be anything but content with our lot. To be angry with the loss of self and the struggle for identity is to be a monster; a skewed line in the patriarchal narrative that upholds the idea of “family” at all costs. Mothers are the sacrificial lambs of society.
To write about it – to showcase you want anything more than this – is to expose what’s behind the curtain. It is unwelcome. To write about it at all becomes an act of rebellion – and in my personal opinion, that is a feminist act. I am a feminist because being ‘woman’ affects the way I exist in the world. And as an aside: my use of the word ‘woman’ is entirely inclusive. I hate the way womanhood is being weaponised – that we are witnessing confected culture wars that pit women – trans, non-binary, gender fluid – against each other. We should all be on the same team. We’re fighting exactly the same prejudice, stigma and threat to life. We should be protecting and embracing the sisterhood, not dividing it.
Finally, I’d like to close with a more general question about the uncanny. In my recent interview with Katie Oliver, she described how her use of hyperreality allowed her to explore ‘how far people can go in terms of convincing themselves they can get what they want’. This resonated with me when I was reading Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, in terms of the way the uncanny seems linked to desire, particularly in your closing story ‘Earnest Magnitude’s Infinite Sadness’. Is there a link between desire and the uncanny, perhaps connected with that strange psychological link between desire and repulsion? And is there a reading there for aspects of the uncanny within the collection?
I’m always attracted to the macabre and uncanny. When I was a little girl I was in love with vampires (not much has changed). A key element in my work – something I think about all the time – is the idea that someone or something can be in the ‘wrong place’. Or, the place is everyday, but there’s a subtle wrongness to it. I am fascinated by the idea of the presence of something that doesn’t fit – that shouldn’t be where it is. I like exploring what makes us nervous. We have a sixth sense that tells us a person, a situation or a place isn’t safe – that something isn’t quite right. I’m probably talking about intuition, but creatively, I like to ham that up: hence writing stories about little girls with memories of longer lifetimes than they could (or should) possibly be aware of. I once wrote a short story about a human heart that turned up, bloodied and beating, in a school playground. People avoided it at first, but then they got used to it – and it became a petty annoyance. The PTA WhatsApp group was full of moans and whinges about it.
I like the idea that we are all, ultimately, unknown and unknowable. That strangeness and mysteriousness is all around us, all the time. We fear what we don’t understand. And we can never truly understand anything but our own desire and repulsion. It feels uncanny because we are uncanny. I like playing with the fear we have that we can never truly understand each other completely. But (bless us!) we never stop trying. Do we? That’s why we read…
Victoria Richards is a journalist, writer and opinion editor at The Independent. Her debut poetry collection, You’ll need an umbrella for this, was published with V. Press in 2022. Her short story collection, Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep (but we don’t mind) was published in June 2023 with Fly on the Wall Press. Find her on Twitter @nakedvix.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.