Venetia Welby first came to my attention in the year I was on the judging panel for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Her debut novel, Mother of Darkness, is very much the sort of book this prize was set up to promote. It is an intense and sometimes startling journey into the mind of a memorable protagonist (you may read my review here). I am delighted to welcome the author to my blog today and hope you enjoy the answers she has provided to my questions as much as I did.
Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Lincolnshire before going to Oxford to do a Classics degree. I always wanted to write and so moved to London afterwards to work in magazines at Condé Nast. As an editorial assistant at International Vogue, I worked on Russian, Japanese and Chinese editions, which was fun but didn’t involve too much writing so I decided to go freelance, work on my first novel and start tutoring to help fund this risky venture. Tutoring turned out to be of much greater benefit than purely financial as it took me around the world to places such as Beijing, Arizona and the Kenyan island of Lamu, and introduced me to some fascinating people. This work continues to provide great inspiration for my writing, and I’m now based in Bow, east London with my husband, son and one-eyed Bengal cat.
Can you tell us about your book, Mother of Darkness?
It’s a story of lost love and fractured identity, about a young man, Matty, on a path of self-destructive Soho debauchery that leads him further and further from reality. Matty is the kind of guy we would all perhaps recognise – charming, good-looking but slightly wild and dangerous. He’s attractive but bad news: you wouldn’t want to get too close. At first, he’s a libertine enjoying all that Soho has to offer to those who have youth, energy and a bit of spare cash… What we learn quite quickly, though, is how damaged he is, having experienced the recent heartbreak of bereavement and the enduring trauma of growing up without a mother or any stable home. The story that unfolds is the inevitable crisis that hits those who, unable to resolve the issues of their past, seek comfort in ill-advised friendships and increasingly crazed fantasies.
In a previous interview you said the puer aeternus archetype (the child-man who struggles to meet the challenges of life) formed the psychological backbone of Mother of Darkness, and that you enjoy reading books that flip your perspective on life. Did you set out to create a protagonist (Matty) who embodied these interests or did he develop organically?
Matty was very much an unplanned accident. He wasn’t even the protagonist originally. I spotted him lurking in the far corner of an almost entirely different version of the novel and started wondering about him. Who was he; why did he act the way he did; and what was he doing in my novel? Pretty swiftly he took over the whole thing.
The idea of the ‘eternal child’ complex or Peter Pan syndrome was absolutely fundamental to my understanding of Matty, and to making scenes with his psychiatrist credible. His mother’s death – giving birth to him – leaves Matty vulnerable, with lifelong guilt and a terrible distrust of women, whom he elevates into goddesses with such intense and high expectations that they can’t fail to disappoint him. He is stuck in life: the only tools he possesses for dealing with its vicissitudes are those of a child: needy, egoistic, wilful. The essence of this condition is the conviction that one is unusually special and set apart from the rest – an accusation often hurled at millennials – and it is this that is Matty’s undoing and which ultimately gives way to his zealous delusions of saviourhood. Matty in his chaos may be a reckless character to some but I came to feel profound sympathy for him, so the experience of writing him did, I suppose, flip my perspective on life.
Matty comes from a background of wealth and privilege, albeit shadowed by personal loss. Did you consider his hedonism the result of nature or nurture?
It’s a mixture, I think. Matty’s innate character predisposes him to cope very differently with life’s problems from his brother, Ben. Matty is by nature a sensitive, obsessive boy who becomes an anxious, compulsive and depressed man. His hedonistic ways provide an escape from himself and his intolerable feelings, and also perpetuate the cycle of being subject to them.
But, had he been shown love, protection and boundaries as a child he might have learnt ways to curb these tendencies. Instead he lives a motherless, unsettled existence at the mercy of his tyrannical and uninterested diplomat father, continually uprooted from country to country and condemned to leave behind figures that represent security and care. When Matty loses the two people closest to him, his brother and girlfriend, his partying and recreational drug use starts to drift into addiction with all its attendant risky behaviour and solipsism. It takes the perfect storm of trauma, guilt, substance abuse and denial for these traits to evolve into mental breakdown and messianic mania.
What is your favourite part of being a writer?
Writing! Thinking, dreaming, imagining. I love it when nebulous ideas and characters make the transformation into solid mental entities and they’re all I can think about. When I start dreaming about the story, I’m there.
Seeing my book in a bookshop is also pretty thrilling.
The novel I’m currently working on, Dreamtime, required a lot of research as it’s set around the US military bases of Okinawa, Japan. I loved travelling to these remote Ryukyu islands, talking to locals and marines about their experiences of the last 75 years and researching the magical folklore.
And your least favourite?
I found the public side of it all really hard at the beginning, as if I had to grow a new branch of my personality to thrust ahead of my real self for interviews and talks. But I found that there’s a part of me already developed that quite enjoys it when the time comes, even if I’m incredibly nervous, so I’ve learnt to trust that.
Ridiculously enough, answering ‘What is your book about?’ seems to be the most immensely difficult question for me, and I still find myself frozen at the prospect. I have no idea why.
As a published author, what is the best advice you have been given?
At my launch: ‘Get your friends to buy two books.’
More seriously, I can’t remember who said this but I think it’s true: every novel is a completely different experience, just as every child is. In many ways, on to book 2 is back to square 1, which is dismaying but also kind of liberating.
Do you seek out reviews of your books?
I wouldn’t say I seek them out exactly, but they tend to happen upon me. And I mostly like that, as I can learn from them. I have yet to deal with a real stinker, but I’d like to think I’ll be able to handle it. It’s part of the deal, like inuring yourself to rejection. In any case, I’d rather write the kind of books that elicit strong responses, positive or negative, than a bland, catch-all type. As in writing, so in life.
That said, I found the infighting of Goodreads a bit of a menace, so I leave that well alone.
What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?
I go somewhere new. I love exploring, whether it’s an unfamiliar London postcode or the other side of the world. Sitting by the sea in the sun with a glass of wine is just about my idea of heaven. Live music, dancing and imaginative, inventive cooking come a close second, and a bone shaking Chinese massage is always a livener.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently?
I’ve been very much enjoying Emma Jane Unsworth recently. I thought Animals was brilliant – the story of a fantastically dysfunctional female friendship threatened by one side’s imminent marriage. It’s witty, funny, philosophical and dark. I immediately sought out her first novel, Hungry, the Stars and Everything – just as good – and greedily await Adults, out this week.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter was beautiful – the tale of a new mother fleeing London, flooded by an environmental catastrophe. I’m looking forward to her new novel, The Harpy.
I think Ottessa Moshfegh is a genius and loved My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Lanny by Max Porter is extraordinary.
Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction, and why?
David Bowie, for the sheer glory of his chameleonic glamour, and his wit and poetry. I loved his Rolling Stone interview with William Burroughs – they can both come, then Paul Bowles will have a friend. I’d like him to be there as The Sheltering Sky is a big influence on my novel-in-progress, and I’m sure he’d love to discuss the ins and outs of my logistical problems.
Edward St Aubyn as well please, or Patrick Melrose if he’s not available. I like their heroic irreverence and iconoclasm. Finally, maybe Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – together. I imagine they’d have more to say to each other than to me but I’d like to be there to witness it all.
What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?
Is Matty’s bad behaviour based on your own? I can see in their eyes that they want to ask but Matty’s such a mess they don’t feel they can. The answer is no. Everyone says the first novel is semi-autobiographical and there may be some truth in that. This is not my first novel, however – that was written during a failed emigration attempt to China and was about young people escaping the confines of society and building their own. It was a little self-indulgent, and yes, maybe drawn to some extent from real life, and though it found an agent, it was not published. Getting that one out of my system left me free to explore truer leaps of empathy in my second novel, and to fully inhabit someone other – a great relief in many ways. What Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘A Letter to a Young Poet’ resonates: that a person can learn to write most, ‘drastically and effectively by imagining that one is not oneself but somebody different. How can you learn to write if you write only about one single person?’ Matty does have some basis in reality, however. I have known hard-partying converts to religious fanaticism, and always wondered how and why that happens. I wanted to explore the internal experience.
These are by far the most interesting questions I’ve been asked so far. Thank you so much, Jackie, for such a thoughtful interview.
Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books
Venetia will be talking about her book at a Literary Lunch to be held at Bowood Hotel in Wiltshire on 5 March – you may find out more about this event here.
The lunch is one of a monthly series held throughout the year at Bowood to raise funds for the Wiltshire Bobby Van Trust.