INTERVIEW by by James LloydNWR Issue 97
: Both of your previous novels take place close to the border between England and Wales. In a previous interview you’ve mentioned that when writing your first novel, Happy Accidents
, in New York City, you had looked to ‘superimpose’ the vignettes of memory associated with Herefordshire and later ‘the life, squeal and fairground rides of Coney Island’, onto your little part of ‘somewhere between England and Wales’. This brings my mind the interzones of William Burroughs and Michel Foucault’s ‘heterotopias’. Without wanting to sound too theoretical, a ‘zone’ is defined as a borderless frontier world that juxtaposes and superimposes different times and places. How much of your work seems to take place in this space or ‘zone’? In particular, I’m thinking of your emphasis on character and of Halo Llewelyn, the protagonist of your second novel, Diamond Star Halo
, and the dreamlike quality of the world she inhabits.
: A little of my PhD thesis tried to theorise this ‘zone’ – I’m not sure if I managed it, but I also linked it to that liminal zone of adolescence, that place in between (note: I’m presuming for my PhD thesis it was’ in/-between’). If I remember rightly, in my thesis this liminal space included lurking vampires – I was of course talking Jane Eyre
and Salem’s Lot
in relation to the genesis of Happy Accidents
, and the spectre of adolescence and what we read as adolescents. I also linked this to that strange zone we inhabit when we write, that place of infinite and almost unknowable possibilities.
In direct relation to Diamond Star Halo
, Halo’s world is purposefully focused on one place simply because I wanted to explore a character that could never leave. I was re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude
when I started Diamond Star Halo
, and I was a little obsessed with place, I thought I could make Rockfarm, ‘a place where rock stars in sunglasses roam’, where horses are buried to rise again, where a chapel made of monks' bones could mourn The King of Rock n’ Roll, as primordial and eternal as Macondo. Well, almost!
On a very obvious level I wanted to explore the generations in one family, and how to do that economically? Keep them in one place.
: Like other writers you admire, Flannery O’Connor, for instance, you’ve mentioned that you return to the same canvas. This makes sense, considering the focus and setting of your last two novels. Could you explain how you go about cultivating such landscapes and communities, and how your present day experiences, such as writing your first novel in NYC, might have informed this process?
: I see pictures before I write – in my mind’s eye, as the saying goes. I have to be able to sensually interpret a place, a site of action, before my characters inhabit it. In Happy Accidents
, it’s the old farmhouse, which is a little Thornfield Hall, a little my grandparent’s farmhouse above Cregrina in Powys, and a lot imagination. The same goes for Rockfarm in Diamond Star Halo
: it’s a memory of the Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire where I grew up, but it’s a childhood memory spliced with The Heights of Wuthering Heights
, with a chapel made of bones I found in Faro, Portugal, and obviously with my imagination. As a writer, what I read, what I remember and what I imagine intersect and create these spaces. I think that’s what any writer tries on the page. And the whole ‘writing a remembered place in exile’ thing does heighten that memory, so you are re-imagining. I recently did an event at Hay Segovia with György Dragomán, and I read his novel The White King
: in some respects it’s what he’s doing there. He wrote the novel in Hungary, and it’s based upon his memory of fear growing up as a young boy in Ceausescu’s Romania. But, at the same time it is like any fiction, he has created a new place, a place of the imagination on the page, which could be any totalitarian communist state, not necessarily Romania or Hungary of that time; not specifically Dragomán’s childhood place or experiences, although at the same time they could be.
: Has your sense of place changed over the years? I’m thinking of how writing your first two novels may have contributed to your‘conception’ of place?
: Probably not, the answer may be a ‘let’s see’. The novel I’m writing now is set in Florence, Italy, at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m also writing a collection for Parthian called ‘Feast’ which has come from my year traveling with the Hay Festival as one of their International Writing Fellows (see ‘In Istanbul and Kerala’, NWR 97
, for a taster). That may have altered my sense of place on the page!
:How much of your work is planned and how much is intuitive? For example, you’ve mentioned that character is very important to you. How much of yourself or your life do you consciously invest in your characters?
: I think all writers invest themselves in their work – I’m not necessarily talking plot or character, but we do at least use our personal language. Having said that, I do get a little shirty when it’s assumed my novels are simply my ‘life’. This is ridiculous, because there is a big difference.
As for the planned/intuitive line… well, about a year thinking and noting and then God knows how many years writing and usually ignoring all that thinking and noting. Unfortunately I don’t plan: I should at least try, perhaps.
: Can you tell me a little bit about your latest novel which I believe is called Ghost Moth
? How does it relate to your previous novels; do you see your novels as being part of a process?
: Like most writers I definitely have ‘the catalogue’ in my mind the entire time: ‘which one next’ is more apt than ‘what next’. This market is so strange at the moment we do have to stop, pause and consider a question on top of this, perhaps: ‘which one has a chance?’ Of course, it’s best not to get bogged down in this. So yes, I know exactly what my future projects will be, it’s simply getting the wisest sequence that is the concern at the moment.
is certainly part of some sort of sequence. It’s set in the same borderland I inhabit in my books, and although it’s from a third-person viewpoint, it is centrally from the point of view of a child: an Anglo-German boy, Dieter Sugar. It is also born out of my work in the 1990s with the Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite. I worked with Kamau at New York University for a number of years, I was in the Comparative Literature Department but my graduate focus was Caribbean Literature. I’d call Ghost Moth
an historical novel; after all, it opens on Easter Sunday, 1955, and Dan Dare is King of the Skies.
Here’s a little blurb:
Dieter’s mother, Lilia Sugar, and his sister Saskia have left their flat in Pimlico, and are forced to take up residence at Sugar Hall, deep in the countryside. After all, it is Dieter’s inheritance. And while Lilia digs up the croquet lawn to plant next year’s winter vegetables, Saskia Sugar hides Forever Amber under her pillow and Dieter loses himself in the Hall’s vast red gardens. It is out there, beyond the forest of rhododendrons, that Dieter finds a boy: a boy who is hungry, a boy who wears a silver collar. You see, Lilia Sugar may have scraped the ice from the inside of the windows, she may have scrubbed the rust from the locks, but there are pasts that lurk in the folds of the drapes at Sugar Hall. There are pasts that whisper down your bare neck here, there are pasts that flutter light as a moth’s wing, tickling you from fitful sleep.
Sugar Hall has a secret.
It is 1955 and as Britain waits for its last hanging, this family must confront a history that has been buried but not forgotten; a past as secret as the cosy priest holes that litter the dark wooden panels of ancient Sugar Hall.
: Well, thanks so much for that preview! I was wondering, have your ambitions changed since your first novel?
I think that, practically speaking, they’ve been tempered! It is getting more and more impossible to take a chance, to allow all of the wonderful strangeness in: if you do, you may very well spend up to ten years on a piece of work that may not go further. This is a depressing fact, so in order to celebrate and respect that wonderful strangeness, I think we do have to adapt somehow in the book publishing world as it stands, whether that means exploring new genres or being self-sufficient or joining forward thinking crowd-funding teams like Unbound, I’m not sure. All of the above, I think [as well as supporting literary magazines, Ed
]. In terms of fiction, I don’t want to throw the wonderful strangeness on the pyre. I don’t think I could….
So, yes, I will be writing two film scripts in the future. Owen Sheers and I will be adapting Diamond Star Halo
for the screen, filming summer 2014, and the other project is bubbling. Let’s see what comes, I think that’s the only way writers can think in any case!
previous interview: Mark Tredinnick
next interview: Deborah Kay Davies