Q&A (with spoilers…)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I tend to consume books like tapas, so this is actually quite hard to answer. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, or a selected volume of Voltaire, or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, or Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Mikhail Bulgakov, Emmanuel Carrere, George Orwell, George Saunders, Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Roth, Albert Camus. I love writers who can fuse beauty and cleverness with social purpose.

The last book you read, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Everyone has been talking about her for years so it’s not exactly a hot tip, but that’s the honest answer.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Movie night. There are enough hanging plot threads in my actual life – I want to be able to sit back and look at the whole story. I don’t need Scheherezade feeding me cliffhangers every night forever. It’s like asking if you’d rather have limbo or a quick death.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Not probably any of the people I most admire. Marcus Aurelius was objectively a top guy, but would be a terrible date – after two drinks he would leave citing moderation in all things. You’d want someone with a wicked sense of humour who knew how to live. Hunter S Thompson would probably kill me, but maybe Angela Carter or Ernest Hemingway. Or Obama. Everyone wants to meet Obama.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Let Us Be True.

Where did you get the inspiration for Let Us Be True? Probably a question you have been asked before, but I am genuinely interested in the inspiration for the story of Ralf and Elsa. It’s strange, because what I have ended up with is really a character novel – one that devotes a lot of space to investigating the particular psychology of two particular people – but I first conceived it as a novel about the moment after the Second World War that is rarely written about, after the initial reconstruction efforts but before the individualistic, consumer-driven sixties was in full swing. I wanted to write about what it was like to find yourself on the very cusp of the modern era.

Why Paris? Did you pick this particular setting because you know it well or because it made sense logistically, culturally and from an historical point of view? I wanted to write about a place very like our own, but different enough that people could judge it for what it was – a bit like the way Shakespeare tore into society by setting everything in Italy. But Paris in 1958 was also a fascinating place in its own right: the Fourth Republic was collapsing; the communists were still one of the biggest parties, but there was a fascist fifth column in the police; French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power in a military coup and suspended the constitution; France was effectively at war with its own Muslim population; there were peaceful protests, but people were still being guillotined. Parts of Paris were already petrifying into an eerily timeless postcard city, and at the same time some of its residential neighbourhoods were ‘îlots insalubres’, dirty islands of slum housing, where no one owned a fridge and tenants shared a squat toilet. I can’t think of a better (or more intense) analogue for the conflicts we are worrying about here and now.

***Spoilers ahead***

Although you don’t play on the underlying theme too much, do you think Ralf and Elsa connect in such a monumental way because they share a common denominator in their home country and war-trauma? Absolutely – it is a part of why they connect and also one of the reasons why they clash. But the war itself can’t be spoken about directly, because it simply wasn’t done. It could be referred to, or implied obliquely, but very few people who were involved had any desire (or perhaps even ability) to talk about what they had been through. It is an elephant in the room – the clearest metaphor in the book is of Ralf and his mother sitting at the dining table, painfully aware of the father that isn’t present. Ralf eventually opens up about some of his childhood experiences, but Elsa doesn’t reciprocate, and we implicitly understand why.

Does Elsa accept the negative aspects of her marriage, because she feels guilty and believes she deserves to be punished? Is her separation from Ralf a form of penance? I don’t know if I could be that specific, but sadly it wasn’t uncommon for women to accept physical abuse as a fact of life at that time (which is not to say we have resolved the problem now). Whenever we make choices, we weigh them up relative to our life experience. Elsa’s life with Theo isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, and its great virtue is that it’s secure and predictable. She has never had that before – for me at least it becomes hard to judge her choice, even if we wish she could make the leap.

Unbeknownst to Ralf Elsa represents the root cause of why his life changed in such a drastic way. Does Elsa make a choice against Ralf because she believes the truth about her past would be an insurmountable hurdle between them? Yes, I think so. But more than that, in order to reveal her past to him, she would have to give him access to parts of herself that she hasn’t shared with anyone, including her husband and family, and it would make her vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been since she was a young girl hiding in a forest, muddy, shivering, terrified and alone. The war didn’t end when the last shots were fired. There was a whole generation of survivors whose lives were irrevocably scarred by what they saw and did, and they were out there, walking in the world, for the best part of the twentieth century. We’ll never know whether so many of them remained silent to protect themselves or to protect the rest of us.

One could argue that Elsa presents a certain coldness, a lack of emotion even, and one could suggest that her experiences in childhood, and as a very young woman, have defined her personality and the choices she makes. However that specific sense of survival and ability to detach herself from emotions was already evident at an early age. This information in combination with the actions of many Germans during the Nazi era begs the question whether Elsa really is the lovable enigma who has managed to enchant Ralf like a personal Mata Hari or is she a woman who is a ruthless survivor? In some sense Elsa is, if not the Nazi ideal, at least a Nietzschean ideal, a forceful, self-directed character. She can’t or won’t be absorbed into a group mentality, which exposes a fundamental contradiction in Nazi ideology: they simultaneously exult exceptional individuals and demand people subsume themselves to the herd. Are some people more valuable than others, or are we all interchangeable members of a group?

I did also really want this to be a story about love, and I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that love is one of the best answers to some of the questions posed in the book. But I wanted to resist this idea that’s very common in romance, that the underlying purpose of women’s behaviour can always be explained with reference to sex. Perhaps she is not stringing him along; perhaps it has nothing to do with him.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! It was a pleasure – thank you for reading it with such care and attention. I think all writers dream of having careful readers!

 

First published on Cheryl M-M’s blog.

A strange, wise novel

George Saunders is the most lauded short-story writer living today, revered in America to the point of canonisation. Among many other accolades, he has been awarded a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship and named by TIME magazine, in a characteristic departure from reality, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

He rose to prominence in the UK in 2013 with publication of his short story collection The Tenth of December, a bright, brilliant firework of a collection, which received rave reviews and won the inaugural Folio Prize (now the Rathbones Folio Prize). This made his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

Saunders’s stories often follow a certain structure: refusing to explain their rules at first, they seem strange and impenetrable; gradually, a world recognisably like our own is revealed, but in some way estranged or uncanny; the story and its conventions begin to converge purposefully and forcefully; and finally, out of nowhere, we are hit with a wave of compassion, the very last thing we expected of an ostensibly experimental story. Even when we do learn to expect it, the sheer aching sympathy of his characters challenges you to be better, kinder, more humane.

Lincoln in the Bardo follows this same broad structure, charting one night in the graveyard where the young Willie Lincoln, son of Abe, has just been interred. Although Lincoln Sr features, it is really young Willie who is in the bardo, a Tibetan word for an intermediate state between lives in Buddhism, similar to the Christian limbo. None of the characters there are able to acknowledge that they are dead, delicately referring to “that previous place” and calling their coffins “sick-boxes” as if they are merely resting up for a return. All here are restless souls, snagged on some troubling detail of their past life like Williams the hunter, who sits caring for the great pile of animals he has killed.

There is a touching trio of elders who take Willie under their wing: roger bevins iii, a young gay man covered in eyes; hans vollman, who lugs around a “tremendous member”, having been taken ill while anticipating his marriage-bed; and the reverend everly thomas, who is adamant that this is no place for a child, and that Willie must depart as soon as possible, for whatever the next life holds. Except Willie won’t go. He is waiting for his father.

Writing Abraham Lincoln is like playing Hamlet – fraught by competing, contested interpretations, impossible to begin anew – and Saunders confronts the historicity of the novel with a polyphonic, argumentative chorus. Different observers tell us Lincoln’s eyes are “gray”, “gray-brown”, “bluish-brown”, “bluish-gray”, “blue”; he is both “the ugliest man I had ever seen” and, to another, “the handsomest man I ever saw”. Saunders is not reverent towards Lincoln, whom he depicts at one point riding his nag with his long legs hanging down like “some sort of man-sized insect”. But we do not hear Lincoln Sr’s testimony directly – we literally inhabit him, as roger bevins iii and hans vollman sit within him to understand his thoughts.

The novel is not, as is being suggested, a masterpiece, but it does reveal Saunders’s many great qualities, not least of which is the hard-won gift of empathy, and his emphasis on the importance of “kind little words, which are of the same blood as great and holy deeds”. It takes a couple of chapters to attune yourself to the clamour of voices, but the reward is a strange, wise novel, truer in its expression than many ostensibly historical novels, and a reassurance that America has survived a war with itself before.

First published in New Humanist, Spring 2017. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

Agent Hunter Q&A

This is a Q&A I did with Agent Hunter, run by the Writers’ Workshop to help aspiring writers find the right agent and get tips on the publishing process.

 

Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.

I love Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series – they’re so quick and cunning, and she evokes her landscape with spare but telling detail, whether they’re in the French countryside or on the Italian coast. She also carries the plot with a tight cast of just three or four main characters and a couple to support. It’s masterful. I also love Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series (the original three, not that godawful Hannibal Rising). Harris pulls you along with great twists and a worthy adversary, but you learn about memory palaces and harpsichords along the way, which is somehow just really cool. It sounds as if I only read books about psychopaths, but I’d rather say I’m compelled by characters who operate with impunity.

 

Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!

This is tough. I got into publishing because I love literature and so it would be a tempting cop-out to say ‘books that are just really good.’ Why do I read a book when I could be seeing my friends or watching TV? I think really good books speak to us about what it means to be human beyond the everyday – to live, to grow up, to love, to fail, to die. Novels can be about anything on the surface but I think ultimately they need to address those universal concerns, which the best writers do: George Saunders, George Orwell, Cormac McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Julian Barnes, David Foster Wallace. I don’t think writing needs to be ‘difficult’ to be good. J K Rowling, David Nicholls and Mark Haddon write very different books but they make you invest deeply in their characters, and you have to keep turning pages to find out if they’re going to be okay.

 

Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?

I guess this isn’t my natural core of interests, but I do like high concepts and speculative fiction. I’d have loved to see a book like The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, about the day the Earth’s rotation mysteriously slowed down (though I thought the idea was better than the execution). Or Under the Skin by Michel Faber, which gets weirder and weirder but in a way that somehow feels very organic – an extension of the world that I know.

 

Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?

I think good non-fiction should strive to improve our understanding of the world around us. It’s a wide brief, and I am as interested in biography (Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère) as in books about economics (Ha Joon Chang) or science (Philip Ball, Jared Diamond, Jim al-Khalili). I particularly love reading accessible books by academics about their field, or by journalists who are investigating an untold story. My current list encompasses hard science, social history, true crime, current affairs and memoir.

 

Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?

I would say I’m not the right person for royal or military history – those books are published so often and so well that it would be hard to make a lasting contribution.

 

Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?

At the moment I have more non-fiction than fiction, but I am building my list, and the difference is that with fiction I am looking for authors who I can back for their whole writing careers, whereas with non-fiction it may be that someone only has one book they want to write – a true story they’ve found or an account of a long research project. Finding novelists is harder, but when you love their writing it will hopefully last a long time – I’m proud to be working on the third novel by my first client, Lisa O’Donnell, at the moment.

 

Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?

I want something to happen. Too often writers see the opening as a period of grace where they need to get all the boring backstory and set up out the way. Kurt Vonnegut said you should ‘start as close to the end as possible.’ If you know about the main character’s family going back four generations, I’m pleased for you – you’ve done your research. But are you telling me because it’s really part of the story, or to prove something else? Imagine someone has picked up your book in a shop (a shop full of books) and has allocated about five seconds to glance at the first page to see if it looks interesting.

 

Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?

I did this year. I represent Nick Louth, a thriller writer who self-published on the Kindle Direct Platform. He had sold around 50,000 copies in one month (he’s now sold five times that number), and we decided to work together on a traditional UK publication. His book will come out in 2015 with Sphere (part of Little, Brown), and will be published separately in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and, oddly, Serbian.

 

Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?

Editing is not a compromise. Editing is saving you embarrassment when the critics get hold of it. Editing is your kind old teacher quietly mentioning that your flies are undone before any of your classmates has noticed.

 

Q: Which 3 famous people (alive or deceased) would you invite to a dinner party and why?

I should say straight off the bat that these are not necessarily my favourite writers. But which writers would really ‘bring the party’? Milton, for instance, is one of the greatest writers in the English language but also a bit of a killjoy.

I would invite Hemingway, for his anecdotes and his general drinking stamina; Tolstoy, for his sheer barefooted craziness; Angela Carter, who I think would somehow keep the night on track while giving as good as she got. Plus, I would pay a lot of money to see her and Hemingway arguing. The conversation would teeter on the absolute brink of madness and genius.