Gig Review: Adam Scovell in Bristol

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Stanfords bookshop in Bristol to hear author, Adam Scovell, in conversation with bookseller, Callum Churchill. Having enjoyed both of Adam’s novels – Mothlight and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, I was interested in hearing from an writer whose style strikes me as haunting and original. I discovered that he has been compared to Sebald, an author I am unfamiliar with. Adam’s books reference many people and works that I could say the same of – I have not come across them. This did not detract from my enjoyment of his books but does give me pause for thought. I wonder how many links I have missed in the plot threads woven.

I arrived early at the bookshop so had plenty of time to enjoy my complimentary glass of wine and peruse the shelves. Callum was busy recommending books to Adam. When I spotted a copy of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul on a book table I caught myself doing the same to his colleague. I’m not sure random customers are supposed to recommend books to booksellers…

Stanfords is a lovely bookshop. If you get a chance to visit be sure to admire the map of the city that covers the entire staircase wall from ground floor to basement. I spotted several small piles of Adam’s book strategically set out around the store.

As is customary with my gig reviews, what follows is a write-up of notes I took on the night – some sparse, and not a complete record of all that was discussed. Nevertheless, I hope it is of interest.

The event started with an introduction by Callum followed by a brief summary of How Pale the Winter Has Made Us from Adam. He told us that he split the narrative into two voices. The protagonist, Isabelle, is a stressed academic living alone in Strasbourg when she hears of her father’s suicide. The second voice is that of Isabelle’s research and is more academic in style. Adam then read to us a section of the book in which Isabelle is preparing to meet a market trader who sells her old photographs. The scene is set in the early morning. The language used has a dream like quality.

Callum asked about the Erl King and was told this mythical creature came from a poem by Goethe.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from Adam’s wanderings around Strasbourg where his girlfriend has a flat (the one Isabelle’s partner’s is based on).

Callum asked about Adam’s interest in objects that are old and battered.

Adam talked of his fascination with inorganic demons from weird fiction – the sense of what has accumulated in them over time. He mentioned books he read while writing, including Georges Perec’s Life: A User Manual. Isabelle lists objects seen in the streets she walks. Adam views objects as portals to history, their aesthetic a part of the city to be absorbed.

Callum mentioned that both Adam’s novels have a sense of crumbling.

Adam talked of his love of detective fiction such as that written by MR James. In these, what is real is presented convincingly, only to have this reality broken down. The banal and ordinary becomes unexpected, not of this world.

Callum asked about using hurtling towards mania as a trope in writing.

Last month Adam was interviewed by Deborah Levy at an event held in Foyles, London. She expressed concern that the intensity inherent in Adam’s writing was autobiographical. He explained that he admired [Bernhard or Bernhardt?]’s narrators for their manic qualities and wanted to see what he could do with this himself.

Adam told us that Gary at Influx, his publisher, didn’t like Isabelle for her insufferable, unbearable condescension. Much of the initial drafts were edited to soften her.

Callum mentioned the plethora of characters introduced along with the variety of information presented in essay style. He asked how Adam chose what to include.

Adam approached his initial research much as he would if writing a thesis. He then tried to make this interesting. It was about finding a balance between what is real and what is readable (not everything included is real). This approach made editing a challenge as facts had to be checked. For example, a book with a frankly unbelievable title actually exists.

Callum asked why Strasbourg, if its borders were significant.

Adam was going to the city regularly to visit his girlfriend when Brexit was starting. The European Parliament is there. It is possible to walk from the city into Germany. Jean Hans Arp used his French and German names as suited. Adam became interested in the people who had also passed through.

Callum asked about mapping a place – psychogeography.

Adam talked about getting to know a place at a level beyond what a tourist sees – its history and local residents. It can feel as though the city becomes ingrained within its people.

Callum mentioned that obsession is a theme in both books and asked how Adam drew up Isabelle’s character.

Adam wanted to subtly reflect her through her research – to insinuate rather than tell. He also wished to ensure that his girlfriend did not think Isabelle’s terrible relationship with her partner was a reflection of their’s! To help achieve this he deliberately sent Isabelle’s partner away. This created distance – a factor in all Isabelle’s relationships.

Callum talked of fragments included, intertextual references. He asked how Adam knew what to make explicit and what to assume the reader would know.

Adam talked of the many photos he purchased in Strasbourg (as Isabelle does), many of which were not included in the final edition. These offered stories that Adam realised could be included. What was difficult was reflecting in prose the real and personal impact of images and art encountered.

Mention is made in the book of Gutenberg’s holy mirrors. Adam was amused by the bizarre image this tidbit conjured, of Gutenberg trying to make money from pilgrims, tourists, and people believing that a mirror could capture a religious relic’s aura.

Callum asked what photography lends to text.

Adam explained that Mothlight grew from a suitcase of inherited photographs. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from research in which photographs featured. It became a case of what image fitted with a character – which historical moment captured fitted the narrative.

Adam’s next book also has photographs but these are ones Adam has taken. He finds the process rewarding – using photographs rather than text for inspiration.

The audience were then treated to another reading, this times from one of the more academic sections, before Callum invited questions.

Q: Isabelle’s father is a failed painter. Why was this fact set up so early?

A: Wanted to drip this back in during Isabelle’s disintegration, along with the critical comments from her mother. Used reflection and insinuation as a destabilisation technique. Wanted to suggest there might be other aspects that were not being revealed.

Q: Is first person narration important to you? Also, what lessons did you learn writing a book second time around?

A: Likes the potential of the unreliable narrator, when well done. Not sure what was learned. Writing Mothlight was cathartic. Pale the Winter is not as autobiographical, more is concocted, although had technique of writing set down from Mothlight. Wanted a little more solidity, not as brief.

Q: Was it written in Strasbourg?

A: Largely, yes. Walked the routes many times, visited the cafes, spotted characters to include.

Q: Any anxiety in writing a gender different to own?

A: Yes. In first draft gender wasn’t set down. Once set down there was pressure to get it right. Watched certain films [Cléo from 5 to 7 ?] over and over that seemed relevant or proved useful in providing a blueprint.

Q: Walking features in both books. You live in London. What is it like walking around there?

A: Love it. My income is from freelance writing, researching film locations, which is a bizarre way of mapping the city. This is different to Isabelle’s experience but find it addictive, rewarding. Wouldn’t use it in fiction as it has already been done.

Q: Mapping. What is lost when transferred on to the page – cartography as story?

A: The sense of excavating a city, recognising the impact of random discoveries of the bizarre.

Q: Arriving at a place before seeing it – what of the impact of preconceptions derived from reading other work?

A: You do bring assumptions – included some in the book. For example, Isabelle visits one of her partner’s relatives outside Strasbourg. The house described is my girlfriend’s grandmother’s. Attempt must be made to get past clichés. Many of the scenes are set in real places and the preconceptions are Adam’s at times – he let them flow.

Q: Is there food in the book? Religion?

A: Yes. Isabelle visits a bakery. Items are linked to folklore. She visits a cathedral with an historic astronomical clock. Other churches feature.

Adam shared an anecdote. Flights direct to Strasbourg stop over winter. He made a journey to visit his girlfriend that took him via Colmar, Basle. He was reading Sebold and came across a poem in which exact route was being followed…

Callum drew the event to a close by thanking Adam and inviting the audience to purchase signed books that could then have a dedication added. As I had not purchased my copy from Stanfords I was unsure of the etiquette so did not join the queue.

And with that I had to leave to catch my train home. It was a fascinating evening offering insights into the writing process of a fine author. I am looking forward already to reading Adam’s next book.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is published by Influx Press 

Book Review: How Pale the Winter Has Made Us

Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage Site in 1988. The city sits on the border, formed by the River Rhine, between France and Germany. Over many years it has come under both countries’ jurisdictions but is currently French. It is the official seat of the European Parliament. It has a long history of excellence in higher-education with its university boasting many famous alumni including nineteen Nobel Laureates.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, by Adam Scovell, is set in Strasbourg and the place is as strong a character as any of the people the author has created. Narrated by Isabelle, an English academic, it opens a few days after her partner, who she had been staying with for several weeks, sets off to travel in South America. Isabelle has imminent plans to return to England where she is to take up a hard won post at her university. Alone in her partner’s flat she receives news that her father has committed suicide, hanging himself from a tree in Crystal Palace. Isabelle was not close to either of her parents – the failed artist father and the harridan mother – but finds herself haunted by grief in the form of a shadowy and threatening figure, the Erl-King.

Ignoring all attempts to communicate, including emails and texts from her mother and employer, Isabelle sets out to map aspects of the history of Strasbourg from the perspective of its famous inhabitants – including Gutenberg, Goethe and Jean-Hans Arp. She offers no explanation for her behaviour, suppressing any feelings of responsibility. The reader may ponder if her reaction is driven by innate self-destruction or self-preservation.

Isabelle chooses the subjects of her research from statues she passes when out wandering the streets, or plaques she spots on the walls of historic buildings. She visits coffee shops and mines the internet, hiding out in her partner’s flat that she has not, after all, vacated. She talks to street vendors, the homeless, and strangers she encounters who show an interest in the tokens she accumulates – photographs, postcards and examples of writer’s work. She immerses herself in this research in an attempt to block out thoughts of her dead father, hanging from a tree. Her mother’s cruel jibes relentlessly seep in – resentment at being sidelined by her child, attributing blame even for existing along with dereliction of perceived duty.

The narrative has a sense of dislocation. Isabelle is trying to piece together aspects of Strasbourg’s history as she herself gradually fragments. In stepping off life’s conveyor belt she chooses isolation but cannot quite escape the haunting knowledge and memories. Through the months of winter she sinks into grief, shrinking and fading as her research builds.

The writing is elusive in places but also an appreciative evocation of the city. The urban landscape, culture and people are portrayed with an eye to what is often overlooked by tourists. Amidst the bleakness of Isabelle’s internal trajectory, there is colour in the language, such as when Isabelle is book shopping:

“I picked each volume up, noticing the beautiful texture of the paper used for many of their covers; as if the book had just been printed in the back room of the shop and left out like freshly baked bread.”

Jarring comments from Isabelle’s mother are interspersed with Isabelle’s personal reflections – an effective device for showing how the most hurtful words cannot be unheard. There are also reproductions of certain photographs Isabelle collects, those that prompted her to research the circumstances of the moment captured. These include intersections between people – the successful and the frustrated – and art in its many incarnations.

My early impressions of this book were that it was a slow burn as I sought to connect with its voice. The further in I went the more I realised I was chasing a shadowy spirit, one with haunting potential. Alongside the history of Strasbourg – which may well make readers wish to visit – is a study of grief in a family lacking mutual respect and support. That none of this is presented plainly makes the unwrapping of meaning more rewarding. A poignant, intriguing and ultimately satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: Mothlight

Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside other creatures, such as a pupating caterpillar, where they will hatch and feast on the host from the inside out. These body snatchers are referenced in Mothlight – a darkly atmospheric tale of a young academic, Thomas, who becomes obsessed with the past life of an older acquaintance from his childhood.

Thomas first meets Dr Phyllis Ewans when, as a young boy, he accompanies his grandfather to the home she shares with her much older sister, Billie. Thomas notices the dust and disorder in their terraced house along with the many mounted moths hung on the walls. At first he is more taken with the faded glamour and financial generosity of Billie. Phyllis shows little interest in the child until she decides to share with him the details of one of her moth specimens. Thomas is transfixed.

Over time Billie dies and Phyllis moves from The Wirral to London where she continues her research in Lepidoptera. Thomas loses touch until Dr Ewan’s name is mentioned in connection with a paper being prepared at the London university where he is now working. Despite not seeing her for many years, Phyllis’s influence has been pervasive. Thomas lives alone spending what free time he has walking, collecting moths and studying them. He often visits the Welsh hills that Miss Ewan talked of so fondly. At times when he contemplates the vista he feels strangely detached from reality.

On renewing their acquaintance Thomas seeks to uncover more of Miss Ewan’s personal history, in particular why she appeared to hate Billie. He draws on photographs from her past and snippets of their conversation – clues to a story she avoids telling. He recognises that, in many ways, he has followed in her footsteps. He retains an underlying impression that he has experienced the tales she shares with him. There is an echo of the uncanny in their mutual recollection of events when only one of them was there.

The first person narrative offers the reader access to an increasingly disturbed mind. Scattered amongst the pages are the photographs Thomas pores over in what becomes a puzzle he feels a desperate need to solve. He recognises that he is allowing this compulsion to derail his career. He is haunted by a past he has appropriated, or so it seems.

Thomas tells his story looking back after what he describes as an illness. Who is the host and who the parasite in the house holding close the lepidopterist’s secrets? The uncanny elements float through the tale like motes from the slowly disintegrating specimens. The reader cannot help but breath them in.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.