Author Interview: Venetia Welby

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.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 Winners’ Party – Speech by Neil Griffiths

In yesterday’s Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners’ Event 2019 I wrote that the founder of the prize, Neil Griffiths, gave a speech that I felt encapsulated the prize’s ethos – celebration rather than competition. He said a great deal more that I had wanted to summarise in my write-up but couldn’t note down quickly enough. So, as he left the podium, I accosted him to request a transcript. He kindly agreed.

I reproduce it below – thank you Neil for allowing me to share your words.

Thank you all for coming to the 3rd Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. As some of you know, after tonight I will be stepping back from the prize. One of the reasons I’m stepping back is that I find the whole prize … enterprise … so unbelievably … distressing.

If you took a PET scan of my nervous system before, during, or after any of the moments in the judging process, it would look like the nervous system of a small naked boy holding up a broken stick in front of a herd of bison.

He’s not in either fight or flight mode, but the less common ‘freeze’.

Who in their right mind wants to make these choices? – there never can be the right amount of books to fit a prescribed longlist or short list; how can there really be a winner!

One of the reasons I started a prize is that I won one once. And it’s a nice feeling.

After the event, Bridget and I drank the champagne that came with prize straight from the bottle in the taxi home.

Once at home I found a cigar someone had given me, smoked that, and then threw up on the stairs.

What’s interesting about that prize that year is that the one judge, Deborah Moggach, couldn’t choose between two books and so gave the award to me and another. She made an effort to convince us all – she simply couldn’t … or did not want to choose.

The Booker has done this twice. It’s a good thing. Each winner is an award-winning novelist from then on.

But it’s this ‘winning’ thing that is troubling. Games have winners; competitions have winners. Prizes, whilst winning something might be implicit … at least for the arts … should be more about a celebration of great work.

Everyone in the arts knows picking a winner is a nonsense. If the short list is strong enough then there will be strong arguments for each of them to be the winner.

So from next year … which is this calendar year … the judges of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses will be instructed to select the winning book(s) on the criterion that book x or y cannot not win.

If we raise enough money … we want to be in a place where we don’t … have … to choose between books … that we can’t choose between.

If we can’t raise enough money, giving three writers an award might divide the pecuniary upside by three, but it triples the good feeling.

We approximated something like this in our first year. Because I had no idea what I was doing I had just made things up as I went along. The judging panel came from independent bookshops and just wanted to read the books and tell me which they loved.

It meant there was no one to tell me how long the long list must be. Why stop at 12 or 13, 14 if I still loved another book?

Our first longlist was 18 books long! The short list was only 9 because even I realised double figures was too long. It was great. I didn’t feel like a naked boy with broken stick in front of herd of bison. At that point, I didn’t know it was possible to feel like that. That comes later.

In year 1 we did have a unanimous winner, Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

But there were two other books which the judges loved enough to win had they not loved Counternarratives more.

So I decided we’d have 2 runner-up awards. If the prize wanted to spread the love, it also wanted to spread the money around.

And then there was a novel that polarised the judges … and who doesn’t love a polarising novel … apart from the 50% who don’t love it?

This novel seemed to me to be so multitudinous in conception and execution, not to award it something seemed like an act of bad faith … so I created the Walt Whitman Award for Multitudinousness.

On the understanding that such an award might do more harm than good, we quickly turned it into a Best First Novel Award.

But then we were established, and for some reason we thought we must play by the rules, so what did we do? – we followed the Booker Prize.

A Longlist of 13, shortlist of 6 and only one winner.

It was this more rigorous culling process that nearly did me in.

I will never right the wrong of Mathias Enard’s Compass not making the short list. Sorry, Jacques. It still causes me pain when I think about it.

And it’s no exaggeration when I say … had I insisted on it making the short list – and the judges were split – there would have been a fight. When someone is willing to ‘take it outside’ … you don’t have much choice when you’re in a French restaurant in Charlotte Street.

That said, we managed to raise enough money that year so all the short list presses received £1,500.

(Interesting statistic: the Booker Prize gives money to their shortlisted authors but it represents 0.96 of their budget; our shortlist receives a third of our budget.)

This year … the judging wasn’t as potentially violent as last year, and we’re sticking to the ‘established’ format.

Before we move onto the short listed books and publishers, I would like to thank a number of people. Quite a lot of people.

First, this year’s judges: David Collard, who has supported this prize from the off and has guided the judging process with great integrity and gentleness; Catherine Taylor for her enthusiasm and all round commitment to the detail; and Niven Govinden for his generosity and openheartedness. We were also joined by three creative writing students from UEA, Ayanna Gillian Lloyd , Vijay Khurana, Maya Lubinsky. Thank you to Nicci Praca for spreading the word from year one; Rebecca Irvin for creating and running our Instagram account – whatever that is. The Pigeonhole for running extracts of the Long List for two months. Laura Hopkins for design and manufacture of our trophy.

A big thank you to two people who I hope won’t mind being name-checked: Graham Fulcher and Anil Malhotra – without their support, the prize pot would be significantly smaller. Your generosity and support in general has been essential to this year’s prize. Thank you to our media sponsors the Times Literary Supplement, our academic partners the UEA Writing Program and the UEA Publishing Project, especially Philip Langeskov, Nathan Hamilton and Steven Benson. I look forward to our ‘strategic partnership’ ‘going forward’, which in normal language is ‘I hope the relationship over the next few years flourishes’. Sarah Crown and James Trevelyan at the Arts Council. Without the support of the Arts Council of England we wouldn’t exist – they are existentially important.

Talking about existentially important, as I said last year, and it remains more true this year, and will be truer still next year, when it comes to the success of this prize, I’m irrelevant. As everyone who has been involved over the last two years knows, this prize continued existence is the work of one man, our Lord Je … – sorry, I mean … James Tookey. His years may be few, but his gifts are many – it’s quite sickening, really. Thank you, James.

I will be back in 15 minutes …

Will Eaves, Murmur, published by CB Editions

Murmur takes two points in the life of Alan Turing, falling in love at school and the ‘chemical castration’ he was subjected to later in life after being convicted of ‘gross
indecency’.

I’m not one for talking about what novels are about, or even what they mean. But much has been made about this novel being about ‘consciousness’ and ‘artificial intelligence’. All fiction is about consciousness, it seems to me. Which is one of the reasons I named this prize the “republic of consciousness”. So what is Murmur? It’s a novel that has at its heart … a broken heart … and it reminds us that we are irrevocably changed by a broken heart. No anti-virus can rid us of it. But of course it’s more than that … it’s about a man with whom the world is not yet finished with … whatever his brilliance … his service … there is still more pain to come. As is the case for all of us. Which is why this novel, despite its formal difficulty, its mind-blowing intelligence, is so easy to love.

Doppelgänger by Dasa Drndic, published by Istros Books. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth and SD Curtis

Doppelgänger contains a short story ‘Arthur and Isabella’ and novella ‘Pupi’. Only one judge was familiar with Drndic’s work; the rest of us were stunned by what we read. It was like discovering Kafka for the first time – dark, playful, uncanny, absurd, funny, haunting. The first story had us reeling. Not only does it include … gerronto sexuality … in all its wrinkliness … but before we get there we have full-on incontinence.

And yet, even in this short story, the history of central Europe in the 20th century … is present. This is what Drndic does – she brings you characters who have managed their lives through Nazism, then Communism, and then just in case you’re too involved in these particulars, just in case you forget what’s happen around them … she strides in and provides documentation, language use, registers of names, the facts. It makes for a reading experience of real emotional depth … and at same time this pulling of focus upwards reminds us … what horrifies you here … is everywhere.

The translations are extraordinary.

Chris MaCabe, Dedalus, Henningham Family Press

Dedalus is a creative response to the greatest novel in the English language. It is a momentous act of hubris. Chris McCabe has the cojones of Achilles. How many writers in the last 97 years have thought to themselves ‘I wonder what happened to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom when they woke up on the 17 of June 1904? And think: sequel?’ Whatever the number … they’ve either thought better of it or tried and failed. Of course they have: it’s a mad idea. But not for Chris McCabe … he wondered and then thought: “fuck it. I can do this.” Let me just quickly say what Dedalus is not … and that’s a good try or honourable failure.

Dedalus is work of art … answering to a deep need of response … by a writer-poet possessed of the imaginative gifts to deliver that response in the 21 st century …

On a personal note: I’ve started and not finished Ulysses many times. Reading (and finishing) Dedalus somehow provided the energy to start and finish Ulysses. I got the keys to Ulysses from Dedalus. That is quite some gift.

Also, I must mention the publisher, Henningham Family Press – this is the most beautifully published book on our shortlist, and without a doubt the most beautifully published work of fiction this year …

Wendy Erskine, Sweet Home, Stinging Fly

If everything is right and good with the world, the playing field is flat and true, and the goalpost cannot be moved, there is a story in Wendy Erskine’s first collection that should be in every short story anthology for evermore and taught on every creative writing course across the world. “Inakeen” has stayed with me as no other short story ever has.

Wendy Erskine has that rare talent – she can write short stories. Because so few people can. Most people just start and finish them, and it’s really not the same thing.

It’s an odd form: it’s not as naked as poetry or as forgiving as the novel. It also allows for clever-dickery … which the poem or the novel does not. But at its best … there is a kind of guilelessness in its acceptance of ordinary human affairs … an understanding that we are fragile in a world of hard objects …. and as we try and make it through, there are going to be moments, even without an explicit crisis, when it feels touch and go.

Wendy Erskine has this guilelessness … and she renders it in a prose that has wisdom, edge, pathos and natural humour. There is no doubt Sweet Home is one of the great debut collections in recent times.

Kitch, Anthony Joseph, Peepal Tree Press

Maximalist, polyvocal, polyphonic – Kitch is a bravura work. It’s all left on the page. As David Collard said: “The writing creates a saturated technicolour … when, let’s face it, all other books are different degrees of bleak”.

It’s prose for the senses. It’s a prose that intoxicates. A work of voices, worlds, music, politics, society. Oh, and the life of one man called Lord Kitchener who could sing calypso. A boy who takes his talent from a village to the city and out into the wider world. What is held in beautiful tension in this work … is the purity of the talent: some people are just born to sing; and all the other … tougher attributes one must possess to be survive and be heard in an unwelcoming world …

This is a timely book of course. After the Windrush scandal, here is a story to make it real in ways we cannot know from the new stories, the archive footage, even the anecdotes of grandparents of friends.

It should be noted after the saturated technicolour of Trinidad, when the Windrush enters Tilbury Docks, we might not have despair (there was much hope) … but all the colour drains away and Anthony Joseph gives us a wonderfully sustained piece of onomatopoeic prose, including Lord Kitchener singing on board ‘London is the place for me’. There is no greater compliment to a writer than when we say: you made me feel that. It’s near perfect. No, it’s better than that – it’s perfect.

Lucia, Alex Pheby, Galley Beggar

On the RofC GB podcast, I said that in the narrative arts ‘empathy’ had become shorthand for ‘liking’, ‘understanding’, ‘feeling for …’ a character. And that that has become a problem in literature. It’s has become a requirement.

Alex Pheby had this to say: “I think empathy … is a much more rigorous and exhausting task … where you are obliged to put yourself into position where you wouldn’t normally otherwise put yourself in, with no hope of recouping anything, and taking that into the self.”

What if I were to say reading Lucia is a rigorous and exhausting task … where the writer obliges you to put yourself into position where you … wouldn’t … normally … otherwise put yourself in, with no hope of recouping anything, and taking that into the self.”

Which writers these days set out to write such a novel? To make such demands? Only a writer of deep psychological insight … and writerly courage would do that. Would ask that of us. Try and think of another novel that mutes and extracts the central character from the beginning and yet somehow has us weeping for her at the end.

Only art created from real empathy can do this.

 

Neil Griffiths is the author of Costa Best Novel shortlisted Saving Caravaggio. His most recent novel, As A God Might Be, is published by Dodo Ink. You may follow him on Twitter: @neilgriffiths

 

The joint winners of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses in 2019 were:

Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions
Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press

Author Interview: Nicolai Houm


Photo credit: Paal Audestad

Today I am delighted to welcome Nicolai Houm, author of The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, to my blog. Nicolai has published two novels, both critically acclaimed in Norway where he currently lives. Pushkin Press have just published the first English translation of his work – you may read my review here. In this interview Nicolai tells of how he coped during a life threatening situation, and what he has in common with David Foster Wallace.

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in Norway, but spent part of my childhood in the States. By the time I was twelve I had decided to try to become either an author or a marine biologist. The second alternative had a lot to do with the French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who seemed to be on TV in America just about every day. Who wouldn’t want to travel the seven seas on a yacht, swim with dolphins, revolutionize underwater exploration AND get to wear a funny red knit hat all the time? Anyway, in the end I chose writing. I guess I can still wear a funny red knit hat if I want to.

Can you tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it?

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a story of immense grief. Not the most alluring topic, some might say, but I think the way Jane the protagonist deals with her loss makes for a plot driven story with several layers. She’s lost in a foreign country, strung out on alcohol and pills, and at times it’s up to the reader to puzzle the story together.

It’s hard to answer the second part of the question without including a big spoiler. Let’s just say that every parent fears what Jane has experienced, myself included. And the novel came about as my way of dealing with that fear.

The story is set in both America and Norway with the characters in each place depicted with very different personalities. Do you believe place shapes personality, and willingness to adhere to differing societal expectations? How does this affect those who live in multiple countries during their formative years?

Growing up in two different countries certainly shaped my personality. The language difference alone affects a child, since you realize at an early age that the connection between form and meaning is arbitrary. It’s a basic linguistic fact, but for a child it’s an eye opener. You learn to see how diverse humans are, and you understand that what you consider to be the truth is not necessarily universal. In the process of adhering to differing societal expectations, a child becomes a keen observer. It’s impossible to adapt without observing closely and to a certain degree mimicking what you observe. Some of that has stuck with me, and I think it helps me in my writing.

The depiction of grief in the story is raw and movingly authentic. Did you find this challenging to write?

In one way it’s like other subjects you deal with as a novelist. You have to rely on empathy, and there has to be some kind of truth to what you write, even though it’s not your personal experience. And meticulous research goes a long way. On the other hand, I felt there was more at stake than usual. Knowing that many people have experienced a loss similar to Jane’s was sobering, humbling and often made it hard to write freely. If a reader lets me know that the book’s depiction of for example rhythmic gymnastics or mountaineering is off, it would make me cringe and I would promise myself to do better research next time. If I was told that Jane’s sorrow doesn’t ring true at all, it would make me doubt the whole project.

Jane is lost and alone in a tent in a storm, physically and metaphorically. Have you ever felt endangered by weather or threatened by wildlife in remote locations?

Ha ha. Great question. No, luckily I have not felt threatened by wildlife. I did go live in a tent in the mountain region where the musk oxen roam. Unlike Jane I respected the advised safety distance. They’re magnificent beasts, but you do not want to irritate them.

I have felt endangered by weather on several occasions. We Norwegians spend a lot of time in the outdoors. The depiction of Jane getting lost in a storm is inspired by personal experiences. One time a surf buddy and I tried to hike over a mountain on the west coast of Norway, to reach a secluded beach on the other side. It was the 1st of May and the sun was beaming through scattered clouds. When we reached the summit, we made the ill decision to leave the backpacks behind for a moment (they were stupidly heavy with the surfboards and wetsuits attached) and have a quick peak over the ridge to see if we could spot the beach. The vantage point was of course a lot further along than we thought. By the time we got there, fog had drifted in from the sea and the visibility was close to zero. While we were trying to find the backpacks, the weather changed dramatically. The temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. Soon we were in the middle of a late season snowstorm … wearing t-shirts and board shorts! There was no cell phone reception, and the map and compass were stashed away in the backpacks we could not find.

We ran around in the blizzard for close to an hour trying to beat hypothermia and find our gear. When we finally stumbled upon the backpacks pitching a tent was out of the question, but we managed to weigh down the canvas with some boulders. The rest of the day and the following night we laid on our surfboard bags under the frantically fluttering canvas. I have to admit that the surfboards and wetsuits where not the only thing that had been weighing us down. I had also brought a 3.5 liter box wine. We were so happy to have made it, that we downed it.

Can you share with us any significant changes between first draft and last? Was the story published as initially conceived?

I actually rewrote large segments of the manuscript. I had two editors at the time, and though they didn’t agree on everything, it was clear that I had to make changes. The zoologist Ulf, who ended up being an important character, was initially just a random guy Jane bumped in to at the beginning of the story and never met again. I knew that introducing a character early on, close to the initiating event, and then just dropping this character without notice, is a no-no. Readers would of course wonder what happened to Ulf, and why he showed up in the first case. I guess I wanted a loose form, so things would just happen to Jane, like they do in real life. The lack of constraint would contribute to a feeling of realism. But it rarely works that way. A novel needs certain formal traits. There were a number of other revisions. To mention a few: Jane was unfaithful to her husband in the first draft and the cut up technique was less prominent. The important thing to me starting out was Jane’s inner life, the raw grief. The plot and structure seemed secondary, but I knew I would have to deal with it at some point.

What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I chew tobacco. To be precise, I use snus, which according to Wikipedia is “a moist powder tobacco product originating from a variant of dry snuff in early 18th-century Sweden.” It’s a thing in Scandinavia, a bit gross and not healthy, but I seek comfort in the fact that the late David Foster Wallace also was an avid tobacco chewer. At least I have one thing in common with the most innovative writer of our time.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

At the moment I’m half way through Donna Tartt’s highly enjoyable The Goldfinch, and I’m submersed in the harrowing but beautiful depiction of reckless, deprived teenagers trying to survive on the outskirts of Las Vegas. At the same time I’m ploughing through old nonfiction books on Norwegian immigrants to the US. The latter is research, but I don’t know if it will lead to anything.

Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Honestly … my Dad. It’s his birthday on Monday and I haven’t seen him for a while.

And finally, what question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

Well, the “Have you ever been threatened by wildlife” question definitely felt fresh in an interview with an author. Kind of hard to beat that one.

 

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is published in English by Pushkin Press and is available to buy now.

 

Author Interview: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Today I am delighted to welcome Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir to my blog. Auður is the author of five novels, a collection of poetry and four plays that have been performed at the National Theatre in Iceland and at the Reykjavik City Theatre. She also writes the lyrics for the Icelandic performance pop band Milkywhale.

Auður’s latest novel, Hotel Silence, won the Icelandic Literary Prize 2016 and was chosen Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by booksellers in Iceland. It is published in English by Pushkin Press – you may read my review here.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born and grew up in Reykjavik in a large family, the fourth of five sisters and brothers. The fourth child is sometimes considered the “invisible” one, which suited my strong need for freedom. When I was born there were 170,000 Icelanders (today there are 337,000) and they were fighting their first Cod war – over fishing rights – against the British Navy. When I was five I discovered I spoke a language that only a few people understood and decided to learn my first foreign language, chosen at random – German !

2. Can you tell us about Hotel Silence and what inspired you to write it?

Hotel Silence is a rather physical novel about man’s ability to regenerate. I’m exploring ideas of masculinity by looking into human suffering and pain. Silence is part of the healing process. My hero is a man that would rather be killed than to kill someone. I’m asking questions around the importance of doing some good in life, the fragility of the human body, how we use words and how we justify ourselves by our actions. And also whether we can do something to mend or ‘fix’ the world.

The inspiration comes from the world around us and the rest is imagination.

3. The story is set partly in a war ravaged country. What research did you do to ensure this was authentic?

War is unfortunately all around us in the world. You just have to watch the countless news reports. There are also references to world literature in the novel itself. There’s usually a certain absence of time and place in my books; nowhere means everywhere. The country is never specified but has a familiarity to it.  Even though people in the western world prefer watching their wars on TV rather than outside their windows, I tend to think: this might just as well be us.

4. Can you share with us any significant changes between first draft and last?

Yes I cut a lot between the first draft and last! Which was new for me.

I discovered that the more you have to say, the more you have to cut. The more space you have between words and between lines the more there is for the reader to put his or her meaning into. My measure of when a book is finished is whether it has become a stranger to me, as if written by someone else.

5. As well as novels you write poetry, plays and song lyrics. What is your favourite part of being a creative writer?

The feeling of absolute freedom. No one tells you what to write! Which means that I am the only one responsible – at least for my novels and poetry – and therefore the only one to blame! Regarding plays and song lyrics it’s a bit different since the outcome depends on a team effort of actors, singers and performers.

6. Do you enjoy social media?

I regularly take a break from social media in order to ease my mind and have more time to read. For instance last summer I took a three months break from all social media to be able to spend more time out in nature. The good thing was that when I returned I hadn’t missed anything!

7. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I recently stopped working as an art historian and a teacher at the University of Iceland to become a full time writer. I sometimes celebrate my new life by going to cafés in Reykjavik when everyone else is working, like at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon!

8. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Last night I read Carson’s McCullers novella The Ballade of the Sad Café, first published in 1943 when she was only 26 years old. It’s such a wonderfully weird love story about a triangular relationship, challenging any given ideas of masculinity and femininity. One of the characters is a hunchbacked dwarf.

9. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Since I spend so much time with fictional people I would chose real ones. Can I have two dinners? One with Elizabeth Bishop, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch and Anne Sexton and another one with Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. I would cook for them all.

10. And finally, what question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What is the meaning of your first name Audur?

It means emptiness, the state of containing nothing. Which is the origin of all creation!

 

Thank you so much Auður for providing such interesting answers to my questions.

 

Hotel Silence is published by Pushkin Press. Click on the cover above to find out more.

 

Author Interview: Simon Okotie


Photo credit: Evgeniy Kazannik

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Simon Okotie, author of In the Absence of Absalon, which is published by Salt.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in east London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. We moved to Norfolk in the late seventies – seemingly one of few black families in the region at the time. I moved back to Norfolk last year.

2. Can you tell us about In the Absence of Absalon?

It is the second book in a trilogy. My editor, Nicholas Royle, recently described the first book, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, as about ‘a man travelling 200 yards on a bus’. In the Absence of Absalon is somewhat less dramatic: it is the story of a man taking his keys out of his pocket – that’s the first half of the book, at least, as he does actually enter a townhouse in the second half. The third (as yet untitled) novel – forthcoming from Salt in 2019 – is about a man walking down a ramp; rather, it is about a man taking precisely four-and-a-half steps down a ramp leading to a pedestrian underpass (which I think is excessive – I am currently trying to edit out one of those steps).

The plot of the first book has been described as ‘slight’; whilst ‘In the Absence of Absalon brings us to a later stage in the emerging non-plot’, which is ‘wafer-thin’. Nicholas Lezard said, in the Guardian, that the whole of In the Absence of Absalon is largely a matter of qualifications, of trying, in tightened and tightening circles, to get to the essence of what it is to be alive in a contemporary city. And of course it is also a joke about the very nature of the detective’s search for clues. For here everything is of equal significance: that is, immensely significant on its own terms, and yet, when placed against the wider backdrop, of absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

I would say, though, that there is more to the plot than has so far been reported!

3. What inspired the book?

The books were inspired by a black man, known as Marigold, who was often seen in Norwich during the ‘80s unofficially directing traffic on the inner ring road wearing yellow rubber gloves. The original Marigold is still well known in Norfolk. He died in May 2015.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

The latter (although with my current work-in-progress – my fourth novel, a thriller – I am attempting to incorporate more of the former).

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Strange to say that I don’t really think of myself as ‘a writer’: I prefer to say, simply, that I write. After all, I can only produce meaningful work when my sense of self-identity (as ‘a writer’, or as anything else) is at its thinnest (although I’m not saying that identity is unimportant, or that issues of racial, gender or other strands of identity are absent from what I write). Fredric Jameson, writing in the London Review of Books about fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude, says that, at its best, to write (and to read) is to ‘lose ourselves in [a] precisely situated oblivion’, which nails it, I think.

And to answer the question, my favourite part of writing is where it takes me in my reading.

6. And your least favourite?

Poverty!

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I’m with Franzen:

“Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you towards content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended. The result is a silo in which, whatever side you’re on, you feel absolutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

Yes. I think it is readers, in a sense, who create books. I am grateful when people engage with my novels – whether on-line or in print – and am fascinated by the different interpretations of the so-called ‘action’, regardless of whether people like the work. Reviews always feed in, somehow, to my work-in-progress.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I am a public transport enthusiast, and like nothing better than a good bus or train-journey (outside of rush hours): an ideal place, often, to read, write and reflect.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I have just finished Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which is devastating, as was Philippe Sands’ East West Street.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I would love to have spent time with the Buddha.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I find it impossible to compute this question, as a highly introverted, private person!

 

Thank you Simon for providing such interesting, and entertaining, answers to my questions. 

You may follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonOkotie 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about In the Absence of Absalon. 

In the Absence of Absalon is published by Salt Publishing who I previously interviewed here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Author Interview: Patty Yumi Cottrell

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, which is published by And Other Stories.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m a Korean adoptee. I used to write poetry. When I was in my late twenties, I wrote a couple of short stories so I could apply to graduate school, and since then, fiction has been my primary focus. I worked with Jesse Ball, a genius, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He changed my life. I’m so thankful for him. Something he taught me was to find joy in the process of making things, and to not worry about the rest.

2. Can you tell us about Sorry to Disrupt the Peace?

It’s a dark comedy about suicide. A woman investigates her brother’s death. It’s rather bleak, but I hope it’s not too depressing. It’s supposed to be funny.

3. What inspired the book?

The simple answer is I was troubled by something that happened in my life, so I decided to write a book about it. I had a question in my mind, and I hoped that by the end of the book, I’d have an answer. Some other inspirations: Bill Callahan, Aphex Twin, Curb Your Enthusiasm, vegetables, Murder, She Wrote, Robert Walser, Jane Bowles, Sheila Heti, and Thomas Bernhard.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

I think the content of the book dictates these matters. If you’re writing a sprawling family saga or a fantasy novel, you need to have a plan. My book is like a scrolling video game from the early 90’s; my narrator can only go in one direction, from the left side of the screen to the right. I didn’t need an outline. I wanted to surprise myself, so I had to trust my intuition. I didn’t know what any of the scenes would contain, or what would happen next.

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Sitting at my desk quietly. I also like reading, and I think that’s an important part of being a writer. People should read more than they write.

6. And your least favourite?

I don’t have a least favourite part about being a writer. I think there are some troubling aspects of being a writer, but they all relate to being a human: money-related issues, existential dread, the nauseating horrors of the world, obsession, problems with family members, addiction, etc.

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I like Instagram. But overall, I think social media is a form of hell. I recommend staying away from it for a month and seeing what that’s like.

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

I’m thankful for reviews, but I don’t seek them out. If someone sends one to me, I’ll read it.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I watch the NBA and participate in fantasy basketball. Wasting time doing nothing is another form of treating myself. Taking naps. Walking without a destination. Allowing myself to change my mind.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue. It’s a complicated and challenging novel about tennis, colonization, and art. I also loved Tao Lin’s novel Taipei. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable book, but also really moving.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I’d like to have dinner with the ghost of Muriel Spark. If she’s not available, I’d have dinner with my girlfriend and some friends and I’d invite J.M Coetzee, because I’ve heard he doesn’t smile.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I wish interviewers would ask me to tell them everything I know about polar bears.

 

Thank you Patty for providing such interesting answers to my questions. I look forward to reading your response when a future interviewer asks you about Polar Bears.

You may follow Patty on Twitter: @pmcottrell 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is published by And Other Stories who previously provided me with a guest post about their publishing house when they were shortlisted for The Republic of Consciousness Prize last year – you may read the post here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Author Interview: Ariana Harwicz

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Ariana Harwicz, author of Die, My Love.

My thanks to Carolina Orloff from Charco Press for translating my questions and Ariana’s answers.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I always say that I was born when I wrote Die, My Love. Before then, I was alive, in the same way that everybody is alive, yet for me that is not really being alive. I had recently had a baby, I had moved to live in the countryside next to a forest. I would watch the thunderstorms, I would go horse-riding, but that was not life for me. And then I wrote Die, My Love, immersed in that desperation between death and desire. Die, My Love comes from that. I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel. I was not a writer, rather, I was saving myself, slowly lifting my head out of the swamp with each line.

2. Can you tell us about Die, My Love?

I think I’ve said it all before, but if I had to add something, I’d say that in addition to being a novel, it is also a mournful poem, a song, a sonata by Schubert or Rachmaninov mixed with ‘Stronger than me’ by Amy Winehouse. I believe that this story about a woman who is apparently foreign, who doesn’t speak the local language, who gets corrected when she talks, married to a man born in the country and with a newborn son, plus a lover who lives nearby with his wife, is a molotov cocktail. This is the story of a woman faced with two possible fates: being a mother/wife/lover or walking the riskier, marshy path of simply Being.

3. What inspired the book?

Motherhood as a form of prison, a trap, an ordinary destiny. Writing the novel was a chance to escape that.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

Without a doubt, I am the second kind of writer, a gardener, not at all disciplined. I don’t plan anything in advance, for me that would be comparable to trying to plan a kiss, a certain look, the shot of a gun. No, that’s not how I write. There may be a tone, a universe, a given violence before the writing begins, but then the novel has to be lived. You have to be brave enough to live through it and see what happens.

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

It is not a matter of having a favourite part but rather the crucial difference between a life with writing and a life without. Being a writer allows you to live more, to live twice, to live always on two different stages. It is a fatality rather than a choice.

6. And your least favourite?

Nothing.

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I post literary texts, some comments on literature, but all in all social media seems to me to be politically useless. It is the weapon given to you by the system that you are out to criticise. It is like drinking water from the enemy’s hands, or ranting and raving in the owner’s mansion. It seems to me that providing a space for the most rebellious to complain as long as they do it within the system’s language restrictions and general terms and conditions, is a cynical and very smart gesture.

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

It depends. Whether I do or not, I am always interested in the reader. The reader is everything, is a sacred figure, is the one who will tell me whether what I write is dead or alive.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I go for a drive out into the woods where there are no speed control cameras!

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia,

Castle to Castle by Louis-Ferdinand Céline,

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

With Frank Sinatra so that he sings while we eat, or with Gerard Depardieu, even though I am sure he’d try and get me drunk.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What would I be willing to do in order to write?

 

Thank you Ariana for providing such interesting answers to my questions. You may follow Ariana on Twitter: @ArianaHar

Click on the book cover above to find out more about Die, My Love. 

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc