INTERVIEW: Zoe Gilbert on risk, re-enchantment and ‘Mischief Acts’

Photo credit: Sophie Davidson

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Zoe Gilbert on the research process behind her novel Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury, 2022).

Mischief Acts plays on not just popular myths of the forest like Robin Goodfellow, but also with historical figures, events and literatures. Each of the stories within the novel is accompanied by a folk song, riddle or poem, some of which will be familiar to many. I’m curious to know how you approached using this source material – not just the poems given verbatim but the wider pool of literature from which Mischief Acts draws. And how does that act of reading and re-appropriating fit into the more general process of myth-making, if at all?

I approached the source material for Mischief Acts in the spirit of self-indulgence. I let myself go down every rabbit hole, and as a result, serendipity appeared everywhere. I remember excitedly reporting a connection here, a confirmation there, to my partner, and him replying, ‘you’re so lucky!’ but it wasn’t luck, it was swamping myself in material until the inevitable resonances chimed. The thing about Herne the Hunter, who runs through the book, is that he connects with probably thousands of folk characters, pieces of lore, archetypes and tales from around the world. He turns up as an allusion or a shadow everywhere in lore and literature, and I started to see him in places another person might not – for example in common names of fungi, moths or mosses. He became the shape of the lens I was looking through, and as a result, almost anything I read that was relevant to the Great North Wood was potential material.

As you say, the chapters are interspersed with chants, or songs. Some of these are extant verses, from traditional wassails (‘Anon’ crops up more than once) to a poem by Blake or a lyric by Henry VIII. Mixed in with those recognisable old verses are chants I wrote myself and attributed to fictional authors. To me, reading a list of common names for fungi or mosses that runs into the thousands of terms is an exquisite pleasure: the density, the repetition, the sheer delight of names such as ‘sweet poisonpie’ just floors me. The same happened when I dredged up all the street names in post codes that were once covered by the wood, and isolated those that mentioned forests, trees, or geological features. Such beauty, in simple lists, I wanted to share, but I spent a great deal of time organising them into rhythms and forms, following those of medieval lullabies or carols. I attributed these to authors other than myself as a form of mischief – I wanted the reader to wonder where this odd little thing had come from.

I was cheeky in occasionally attempting direct pastiche of a beloved author (such as Thomas Hardy), or lifting words from a poem (by Keats) to constrain a section of writing. I also used historical texts here and there to inform voice (such as an account of the riots that followed the cancellation of Christmas by Puritans). Playfulness informed these approaches – god knows, we need to enjoy ourselves occasionally as writers – and I wrote in the spirit of my guide, Herne the Hunter, which meant embracing slipperiness, seduction and sometimes outright deception. I suppose this is a form of myth-making, but I only extend my fiction as far as I feel life will allow. The question to ask is always: is this a plausible sort of myth, or piece of lore, for the time, the people, the place? If so, make hay.

Just as an aside here: I recently gave a masterclass on Angela Carter and her self-declared business of ‘demythologising’. I hope I am doing a bit of that alongside the myth-making.

I’m sure we’ll return to that shortly, but for now I’m curious about the definition of mischief explored in Mischief Acts. In my reading, mischief encapsulates the varying energies of playfulness, chaos and damage, a half-sibling of the traditional idea of ‘evil’ removed of its negative Christian connotations. It might also include a carnivalesque relief (‘a particularly risky way of letting off steam’, p.2) and a natural expression of the amorality of nature. I’d like to ask whether you feel the idea of mischief is compatible with modern life. Are we too sensitive, or ethical, for ‘seduction, trickery, imprisonment, impersonation, and so much involuntary metamorphosis’ (p.54)?

This is exactly the sort of question I wanted to ask, but not answer, with this book. Mischief used to have a meaning closer to malevolence, which is interesting since that sort of behaviour ended up being shunted into the ‘evil’ category, which you mention. For me, the modern meaning of mischief still implies a risk of harm, yet times are changing ever-swiftly. Even old prank TV shows from the 1980s seem quite shocking by 2023 standards, in terms of the risk of harm. But ‘organised fun’ is dreaded by some precisely because it does not come with that dangerous edge – whether it is yourself or others you endanger.

Involuntary metamorphosis is a fact of life, but then so are seduction, trickery, imprisonment of various kinds, and impersonation. To pick just one domain of discourse: the conversation around consent (mainly to sex, but to anything really) has demonstrated the bind we are in. Obviously – obviously! – clear, unequivocal consent is the ideal prerequisite to risky behaviour, including sex. But it’s not seductive, by the standards of even the late 20th century. Perhaps it will become so. Perhaps we should hope it will. I am not writing fiction to dictate the way forward, but to encourage everyone to question, to remember, to hope, and ultimately, importantly, to remain undecided for as long as it takes.

I remember a slogan from a 1990s surfer-dude brand: ‘if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’ I hated it as a relatively risk-averse teenager (being a late starter with mischief), and I still think it’s dumb, because you can’t live there. But I do think we all need to go there, sometimes – it’s just that what constitutes the edge is an entirely personal matter. Stepping outside one’s constraints of goodness now and again is incredibly important. I would call it letting off steam, and the metaphor of a shut valve that makes the pressure build up inside is apposite. Whatever era we are in, and whichever generation we represent, that release of pressure will happen. It will always take different forms, but I do believe it will always involve risk. Otherwise it won’t work.

Running with that theme for the moment, I’d like to pull out a short quote from page 102, in which the downtrodden Robert Burmann reflects on the contrast between nature and society: ‘And so, I did pass that Day in considering the Puritie of the Animal Soule, and the Corruptible Nature of Man by contraste’ (emphases in the original). Burmann’s diagnosis of the human condition reminds me of the sometimes anti-humanist or misanthropic philosophies of the deep ecology movement, a structure of feeling potentially exacerbated by human-created climate change. I’d like to know if you feel we as a species have a ‘Corruptible Nature’, and whether that nature is dooming us to the fate we appear to be sealing for ourselves.

We are corruptible, but we are also profoundly adaptable. At this moment in time, it does rather look as though the corruption abounds in the upper echelons of power and wealth, and the burden of adaptation falls on the rest of us.

I don’t share Robert’s view of humanity. As a 17th-century puritan, he sees letting off steam and making merry as forms of corruption, whereas I see them as essential to the health of the human spirit, even when they don’t suit me. What I do agree with is your implied point that corruption will bring about the end human life. It has been incredibly hard to feel positive about humanity over the last half-decade, but I do think the tide is turning. It’s an amazing thing for anyone who has grown up with the convenience of, say, plastic, to even attempt to reject it. That anyone is even trying gives me hope.

Corruption occurs when it is a route to advancement. But most human beings fundamentally want to survive (or their genes do, at least). So, if we haven’t already missed the tipping point and enough people can assert together that something other than corruption will lead to survival, things might just change.

Another theme that jumps out for me in terms of that ‘human nature’ we’ve been alluding to is the relationship between nature, culture and deep time. As a composite novel that spans almost a thousand years, Mischief Acts feels like an ideal expression of how human beings and the stories we tell ourselves develop and also remain the same. I feel as though your use of nature, as a sphere in which we play out our cultures, is particularly useful for drawing those distinctions between progress and non-progress, and between enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment. Is that something that resonates with you? Do you feel as though myths and historical legend do connect us to aspects of human nature which have, perhaps, been learnt in deep time?

Myths are entirely, beautifully, man-made – I wish we could say humanity-made instead. They emanate from our collective of storytelling minds, but they don’t always tell useful stories.

I do think that nature and the folklore we have built around it are paths to connecting with the humans of the past who were, of course, just the same as us in so many ways. I certainly use nature, folklore and other historical research this way. But the myths that bound our ancestors are not often ones that we should inherit without question.

This question connects with the one above about mischief, and whether our 21st-century ethical preferences can tolerate it. It also connects with Angela Carter’s ‘demythologising’ mission. I have chosen in Mischief Acts to write about real people who defied convention, but those conventions were strong and usually made unconventional lives a misery. Ann Catley, the flirtatious diva with an extraordinary voice, was sucked into the lives of men who wanted to possess her. Samuel Matthews, the hermit who made his happy, solitary life in the wood, was a victim of mockery and ultimately violent attack. Each was made unhappy by a persistent myth and its concomitant archetypes. We should be wary of romanticising or perpetuating any ancient ideas without question, but particularly those that encourage prejudice or inequality.

Having said that, it can warm the human heart to feel other kinds of connections with the deep past, be that with humans or plants or animals. There is much we should forget, but much we should remember. This feels to me like the place where right-wing appropriation of old myth, and wholehearted re-enchantment, split off. The desire to own a particular myth, to tie it to your identity in a way that excludes others, is a bad way of attempting to connect with the past. We don’t have access to one ‘right’ original for any of our myths, lore or tales, and in England in particular, they are all a mish-mash of ideas and influences from around the world. If we do connect with aspects of human nature from deep time, they are certainly not particularly English ones, but if we find enchantment there, it is good to ask why.

To close, I’d like to circle back to that three-part structure on which the wider flow of Mischief Acts is hung: the continuum of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment. In the final section of the novel, we are projected forwards into a future in which human beings continue to negotiate their relationship with nature. I’m curious to know whether you feel there are opportunities for us to be re-enchanted, to connect with nature in new ways (or even old ways). And where might that path of re-enchantment potentially lead?

Re-enchantment feels vital to me. David Southwell, the author of the Hookland Guide on Twitter and beyond, has it right: re-enchantment is resistance. This should be the clarion call of all those who feel they have lost sight of nourishing meaning in the world, because we can make our own, and reject the pretence at enchantment that most modern channels throw at us.

The thing is that no two re-enchantments look the same, and it takes a bit of self-possession to decide what makes you fall in love with the world. Nature is an obvious source for so many people, including me; the same is true of folklore. But re-enchantment could be anywhere (except, I would generalise, social media or the news cycle). It might be in your sock drawer, or in the juddering shriek of the next train you take. All that matters is that you notice, and wonder, and are suspended for just a moment from the transactional thinking of our time. Enchantment does not involve possession or desire to possess, control, status, or any anthropocentric take. Wonder is central and wonder is everywhere.

Many, many years ago, when I hung out in Camberwell with a pair of Mexican artists with high ambitions and full souls, I experienced enchantment with a city. This was extraordinary to me. They were delighted by the light in London on overcast days and dusks – so blue – and took photographs of what I might otherwise have seen as detritus. A dead pigeon or a peeling red bench was an opportunity to find beauty. For those years, having been shown how, I found bus rides and bar queues and litter-strewn parks enchanting. I saw that insanely blue veil that falls across Southern England in low light, that I had never seen before. I couldn’t afford London life as depicted in the review sections of newspapers, but beauty was everywhere, and I was fed by it.

I admit that while I still see the blue, I see less of that particular beauty; what enchants me now is different. But re-enchantment leads us to valuing what enchants us; we come to care, and to hope for the continuing existence of these things. We desire to learn about them, and share them. By distinguishing between what enchants us and what simply distracts us, if we can identify sources of deep meaning, we will hopefully care about and protect the right things, and give less attention to the ones that do nothing for us and for the world. It comes back to that idea of re-enchantment as resistance: it helps us reject the tricks that steal our attention for others’ gain, that spew propaganda about what we should value in our modern society. When we know where deep meaning lies, we are more likely to resist the meaningless: consumerism, conspicuous consumption, social status via appearance or imposed models of ‘success’. This is where we might find hope for the future.

Zoe Gilbert is the author of two novels, Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018), which was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and adapted for BBC Radio, and Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury, 2022). Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally, and won prizes including the Costa Short Story Award. She is the co-editor with Lily Dunn of the recovery anthology, A Wild and Precious Life (Unbound, 2021), and is co-director of London Lit Lab, where she teaches creative writing courses on folklore, folk tales, the fantastic and enchantment, and also mentors writers. She is a Visiting Senior Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Suffolk. She lives in Kent, where the landscape is inspiring her third novel.

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

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