Gig Review: Venetia Welby at Bowood

When I heard that Venetia Welby, author of Mother of Darkness, was to be guest author at Bowood‘s monthly literary lunch I knew I wanted to attend. The venue is within walking distance of my home and the book being discussed has so many fascinating themes I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to find out more about how the story came to be created. I was grateful to be granted permission by the organisers to slip into the venue after the ladies attending had finished eating in order that I might listen to Venetia’s talk. This proved to be as interesting as expected.

The following is taken from notes I jotted down on the day. I cannot write fast enough to capture everything that was said but I hope it offers a flavour and is of interest.

Venetia opened by explaining the importance of the setting of her novel – London’s Soho. She loves the stories that come out about the place – of its former decadence. Now its skylines are dominated by cranes as work for Crossrail proceeds. Iconic clubs and other venues have been replaced with chain coffee shops. Her protagonist, Matty, lives in a flat that is based on one Venetia lived in. He feels he was born in the wrong era, hankering after the former velvet jacketed debauchery that was once accepted.

Matty considers his drug dealer to be his only friend. He struggles to deal with reality. There is a novel within the novel as Matty tries to rewrite his past. He considers himself a ladies’ man but treats women badly.

At the beginning of the novel Matty appears to be a lost cause. Venetia wished to explore if he could be brought back from the brink. She read an extract where Matty is considering his surroundings – the house on his street where Sebastian Horsley once lived that bears a plaque, ‘This is not a Brothel’; the classical literature he no longer reads but keeps to impress women; the luxury apartment blocks replacing the Soho he would prefer to live in.

Ventia talked of both Soho and Matty undergoing an identity struggle. In writing Mother of Darkness she wished to explore delusion and madness. Matty sees a therapist whose notes are included in the book. Venetia spoke to three experts as part of her research to ensure these came across as authentic.

The first was her flatmate, an NHS psychiatrist who was working in Soho and studying for exams, including the work of Freud. Matty’s mother died in childbirth and he maternalises girlfriends.

The second person she spoke to explained about the various types of separation issues that form in childhood: secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidance attachment, chaotic attachment. Matty suffered a domineering father and can’t form a coherent narrative about what happened to him in childhood. His self destructive behaviour is an attempt to protect himself from the world. He tries to remove himself from reality in order to survive reality.

The third person spoken to introduced Venetia to: primordial images or archetypes (Jung wrote that an image is called primordial when it possesses an archaic character that is in striking accord with familiar mythological motifs); the eternal boy and associated narcissism. Matty has dysfunctional relationships with women. He elevates himself to god like status.

Venetia was interested in how, for example, a founder of a cult comes to believe in themselves.

She also looked to her classics education: the stories of Dionysus; the Oresteia trilogy (written by Aeschylus, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and the pacification of the Erinyes). Matty identifies with Orestes. The internal experiences and slide from reality makes perfect sense to him. By rejecting benevolence and embracing his animal nature, Matty can justify his behaviour. He sees everything through the lens of apocalyptic delusions.

A second reading – from when Sylvie tries to tell Matty she is pregnant – illustrated the world as Matty sees it. He observes the streets of Soho as radioactive and drowning in blood. He believes he will transcend the abyss and that Feracor – whose voice he has been hearing – will save him.

Questions were invited from the audience.

Q: Where did Matty come from?

A: He was skulking in the corner of another story I was writing. There are two types of people – those who party too hard and end up with drug induced psychosis, and those who swap their hard partying life for an alternative obsession such as religion. Dark cults – those who believe they are the next Jesus – display an innate arrogance. I am interested in how they can think this way.

Q: Your book is so relevant for current times, more should read it.

A: Thank you. I think also there is a crisis among young men. Drug use is a part of this.

Venetia was thanked and information shared on upcoming events, including the creative writing workshop detailed below. There was then the opportunity to purchase Mother of Darkness and have it signed by the author.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak briefly to Venetia. She is a lovely person and I look forward to chatting to her again at my next literary event – the Republic of Consciousness Winners’ Announcement – which, it turns out, we both plan to attend.

Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books

On Tuesday 21 April, Venetia will be running a Creative Writing Workshop at Bowood, specifically designed with beginners in mind. To find out more and book a place click here.

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.

Book Review: Mother of Darkness

Mother of Darkness, by Venetia Welby, tells the story of a drug addict and his descent into psychosis. The protagonist, Matty Corani, is born into material privilege and emotional distress. His mother died giving birth to him, an event his father, Daniel, struggled to cope with. Daniel worked for the Foreign Office, accepting postings around the world. Sent to boarding school aged seven, Matty nurses a jealousy of his younger brother, Ben, who he believes his father favoured. Under the influence of alcohol, Daniel had spoken cruelly of Matty’s failures. Matty believes his father blamed him for his mother’s death.

The story opens in Soho where Matty is living in a bedsit having sold the luxury family flat near Marble Arch. His current lifestyle revolves around drugs supplied by a man he regards as his best friend, Fix. Reeling from the loss of his girlfriend, Tera, Matty picks up girls for sex and then sends them away. Meanwhile Ben is in a coma following a car crash. Matty has little sympathy, believing his brother took Tera from him. Ben’s current hospital care is eating into the inheritance Matty considers should rightfully be his.

Aware that Matty is struggling, his stepmother, Katya, persuades him to see a psychotherapist, Dr Sykes. There is mention of an upcoming court case, another part of his life Matty takes drugs to forget. Dr Sykes suggests Matty write down his life story for them to discuss, an attempt to face his personal demons. While not believing she can help him, Matty finds this task constructive. He starts describing himself as a writer, the pages he produces the basis of a book.

The story unfolds from these various strands. There are descriptions of Matty’s days and nights – the gatherings in pubs and at people’s homes where copious amounts of drugs, supplied by Fix, are ingested. Alongside these are the emails Matty sends to Dr Sykes which enable the reader to better understand his backstory. Case notes are included giving Dr Sykes’ opinions on the rambling, often incoherent story she is being sent.

Matty has always been solitary, inventing characters inside his head in an attempt to navigate a world filled with what he considers to be serial rejections by those he has loved. Under the influence of the drugs he takes these manifest and mix with the stories from the philosophers he studied while at university. As his delusions become his reality, Matty’s ability to function is slowly derailed.

Although Katya and Dr Sykes are trying to help neither are aware of just how twisted Matty’s thinking has become. When even Fix starts to pull away the stage is set for crisis, just as the reader gains an understanding of the extent of Matty’s past actions. The denouement is shocking, somehow suitably deranged.

The author succeeds in garnering a degree of sympathy for what is an unlikable protagonist thereby building interest in how he arrived in this situation. When the truth is revealed it is recognisably a tragedy, for just about everyone involved. There is no attempt to moralise although it is a stark warning against degeneracy. There is much to ponder around whether Matty’s descent could have been prevented.

The variety of styles of writing are not always easy to follow but my interest was retained and I had not guessed the pivotal twist in the tale. A reminder that drug addicts have histories even if their behaviours border on the contemptible. This was a sobering, engaging read.

Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books.

Book Review: Hotel Arcadia

Hotel-Arcadia

Hotel Arcadia, by Sunny Singh, is a work of discernment and contrasts. Set largely within the sterile opulence of a luxury hotel in an unnamed city it tells the tale of war photographer Sam and hotel manager Abhi who are caught up in a siege when a group of terrorists storm the building killing many of the staff and residents. As the country’s armed forces gather outside to deal with a volatile situation these two hunker down in the relative safety of their respective rooms building up a rapport over the telephone. Although their lives are very different it turns out that they have much in common.

Sam is well used to danger having spent many years touring conflict zones around the world to photograph the dead. Initially she views the unexpected mayhem of the hotel in which she had hoped to anonymously unwind as just another assignment. She leaves her room to explore and capture the images which have become her life’s work. However, as her empathy with Abhi penetrates her carefully constructed protective veneer she chooses to take a risk that could be her undoing.

The story takes us back to other assignments and to how Sam came to follow this macabre career. She is strong and resilient but damaged, feeling misunderstood and rejected by those she has loved. She has little time for romance seeking out men for her satisfaction rather than love.

‘happy love stories are only so because they end with the first consummation. Those aren’t really love stories but rather tales of chase, of gratification delayed’

She shields herself from the bloody gruesomeness surrounding her photography by capturing the peace and aesthetic beauty of the dead. She rarely photographs the living who still embody the terror that has befallen them. Her defense against the horrors that surround her requires that she should never become involved.

Abhi was raised in a loving home, a quiet child who appeared to happily follow where his lively brother led. Their father was a much decorated soldier who expected his sons to follow him into the military. When Abhi secretly arranged to go to a university it was regarded as a betrayal. Abhi has not spoken to his father since.

He enjoys the life that he has carved for himself in the hotel and had hoped to find love with one of the regular guests with whom he had become intimate. As he struggles to carry out his duties in the aftermath of the attack he must deal with the knowledge that his lover was likely in a bar where the terrorists have rampaged. It is possible that his lover is dead.

The writing is evocative and powerful. The reader feels the heat, smells the fear, experiences the beauty which remains despite the gruesome scars that war cuts through lives. The author avoids cliches, building characters with the flaws and hurts that life inflicts. By remaining vague about exactly where the hotel is situated, by not dwelling on local styles of dress, preconceptions are avoided. This is a story about people, not race.

I loved the character of Sam. She was atypical of females in literature seeming true to life with her suppressed hurt and determination to survive. When she encounters a living child among the dead she shows humanity but does not suddenly revert to some societally expected maternal type. She is a woman but does not allow her sex to define her.

Abhi is just as strong. A male hero who shows courage and compassion without having to leave the office from where he can be the most use to survivors. He is refreshingly different to the all action heroes beloved of so many fiction writers. He came across as believably real.

This story is of two disparate lives drawn together in a crisis. It explores familial and societal expectations and the profound effects these can have. It looks at loss, the transience of memory, the comfort of mementos. It contains an undercurrent replete with anger and defiance against a society schooled in archetypes

It is rare for any book to move me to tears. That this one did so, in the best possible way, highlights the power of the story and the quality of the writing throughout. The plot is fast moving and compelling. It shows that the hardest battles are those we fight with ourselves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quartet Books.