Friday, 14 December 2018

An Interview With Elizabeth Lowry

Dark Water, Elizabeth Lowry’s second novel, was published on September 6th to great acclaim.
The Guardian’s Book of the Day, The Times’ Critic’s Choice and Book of the Month. Historia Magazine included it in their list of best recent historical writing. Numerous bloggers, including myself, and other publications are running out of superlatives. With good reason. It is a work of depth and substance that only comes along once in a while. 

I am thrilled beyond measure to have had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present - An Interview with Elizabeth Lowry.

 Dark Water has left a lasting impression on me. There’s been so much to think about long after I closed the book. My mind boggles at the thought of how you approached the planning and plotting of this story. Can you give us some insight into the initial motivation for the book and how the idea for it first came to you?

Well, I’m interested in questions of identity and how we define personality. After you asked me this I went back to my very first notebook for Dark Water (I had three in the end) and found I’d scribbled down this remark by Primo Levi: ‘Man is a mixed-up creature; and he becomes all the more confused, we might add, the more he is subjected to tensions: at that point he evades our judgement, just as a compass goes wild at the magnetic pole’. William Borden sprang out of that, I think, and out of a love of Melville’s sea stories.

 The novel is offered as an historical novel, although I found it to be much more than that. But you must have had to do some extensive research. I found the narrative to be so realistic and convincing, I never doubted for a moment that I WAS back to 1833 Massachusetts. I also wondered if you actually spent some time below decks on a ship, the descriptions were so palpable? Can you tell us a little about the research you undertook?

I didn’t know much at all about ships (though unlike Hiram Carver, I don’t get seasick!) before I began to write Dark Water. It was quite an education. I had before me the painful example of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket without doing his homework. A scathing early review pointed out that in Chapter One the jib of a ship in a storm is still mysteriously flying even though the mast has been ‘carried away’ by the waves just moments before. (The jib is a small triangular sail that is set ahead of the foremast and is usually rigged to a stay extending from it. Oops.)
I found Melville a good teacher – his memoir White-Jacket about his stint on a US man-of-war was written expressly to explain the ins and outs of life at sea to landlubbers like me. We also share some source material. The route steered across the Pacific by Borden following the Providence mutiny draws on the real-life story of what happened after the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk by a whale in 1820. On losing the ship the survivors made for the coast of South America in open boats. An account of this disaster and their journey was published by the first mate, Owen Chase, and was used by Melville as the basis for Moby-Dick (though he was much more interested in the whale). I had help too in the form of marvellous sea-going accounts by other sailors of the time, such as Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast describing his experiences as an ordinary merchant seaman. Dana was a gentleman sailor (like Melville) who enlisted for the adventure of it, rather than from necessity. Once he’d had enough he could afford, unlike your average tar, to go home and retrain as a lawyer. That’s why his book isn’t called Ten Years Before the Mast!
I didn’t get to tour a real wooden man-of-war until I’d already written the early scenes on the Orbis, and took a trip to Boston, where the USS Constitution is kept in dry dock. It was useful to be able to check if I’d got the physical details right. You know, though, when approaching Dark Water I wasn’t drawn so much to the technicalities of ships or sailing as to what a nineteenth-century man-of-war could represent – an enclosed community with a rigid hierarchy and its own inflexible rules. The metaphysics of ships, if you like.

 Geographically that part of the USA is one of my favourite parts, especially Martha’s Vineyard. There is an indefinable thrill associated with those islands and I always feel that affinity when I read about them. I regret never visiting Nantucket. It seems crucial to the book. It conjures the ghosts of Melville and Moby-Dick, adding another atmospheric layer to the story. Are those places familiar to you or did you make some special trips?

I was born in Washington DC but left at a very early age, and hadn’t been back to the east coast at all until I tackled this book. I’d written a good chunk of Dark Water when I decided I’d better go and take a look at the places in it: Boston, of course, but Nantucket especially. It’s easy to get a sense of Boston and its history from paper sources; Nantucket was more slippery. An island has a totally different sense of space to the mainland. I spent about two weeks in Massachusetts in the summer of 2016, walking around Boston’s Beacon Hill and climbing all over Old Ironsides, as I mentioned just now, before staying in a tiny grey shingled cottage in Sconset on Nantucket – pretty much as Carver does, except that I didn’t have a Mrs Bunker to cook my meals.

Hiram Carver? He is the supreme paradox of us all! He behaved abominably at times, especially towards his own sister and her happiness. Yet in spite of it I simply couldn’t bring myself to dislike him. There’s something within him that seems to be within us all maybe? He and Borden seem to be two halves of a dichotomous whole. How did you go about creating such characters? Or did they eventually start to develop themselves!? I’ve heard some writers speak of how once created the characters do go on to develop their selves almost as if the writer has no part in it!

I’m so glad you don’t completely dislike Carver. I don’t either. The challenge, as with William Borden, was to write someone who couldn’t be pinned down too easily. I felt I had to give him some significant redeeming features, in the form of his youthful anti-authoritarianism, his willingness to question the mores of his time and place, and his instinctive sympathy for the social outcasts he is treating at the asylum. Once I got going he added his own flourishes. But of course he is the worst cannibal in the book. By the end he has consumed Ruth Macy as surely as he consumed Richard Mansfield, Frank Goodwin, Adam Thornton, his sister Caro, and William Borden. The irony is that he’s also trapped himself. By achieving a position of supremacy in the society he once despised, he has – as he knows full well – given up his last chance at freedom. 

 The sea as a metaphor is wonderfully sustained throughout the book and together with considerations as to the real meaning of madness encourages the reader to ponder the frailty of the human soul. When Hiram suggests to Ruth that all we’ve created out of freedom is a prison it struck such a mournful chord with me because it’s so inviolably true. I found it a pivotal moment in the story and I wondered whether it was your intention to throw these metaphysical ideas out there in the hope that the reader might ponder some solutions?

Yes, absolutely. And if anyone can find a solution, I’d love to hear it.

 The book has much to say about the invisible line between sanity and insanity. The passages set in the asylum were both fascinating historically and sociologically. All too easy to ‘get it wrong’ but you didn’t! How did you set about writing these sections of the book?

Writing the asylum sections was tricky because I was hoping to show how fine that line can be, and how common, even ordinary, mental disturbance is – but couldn’t use any of the vocabulary we have at our disposal in the age of psychiatry. When I was reading the memoirs of some nineteenth-century asylum patients it seemed obvious that a few of them suffered from maladies which would now be quite easily treatable with psychodynamic medication, and this got me thinking. I wanted to approach these scenes through a sort of double perspective. In the book Adam Thornton, for example, clearly has what we’d today call bipolar disorder, with a two-to-three-week depressive phase, followed by a month-long build up to mania. Richard Mansfield insists that Thornton is mad, but Borden and Carver sense that something else is at play here, and the modern reader will too. What is ‘madness’, anyway? The doctors and attendants aren’t exempt: Richard Mansfield is a morphine addict; Felicity Joy exhibits a form of OCD when washing the asylum floors; Frank Goodwin is a binge eater. The younger Carver himself, whose refusal of food is really a rejection of his overbearing family and everything they represent, is anorexic.

 Suffering, whether oblique or realised, physical or emotional, play a huge part in the book. So many contemporary parallels, for example Richard’s dependence on drugs, Frank’s relationship with food, Hiram’s confusion with his sexuality take this beyond the historical. Was it emotionally demanding to write?

I wrote the book during a period of great personal stress and sadness and the wonderful thing was that I knew, while writing it, that it was acting as a very real life preserver for me. So yes, it was demanding, but not more demanding than actually getting through that time. 

 For me the most uplifting characters are the patients in the asylum! They seemed to have ‘got it right’! Was that your intention or am I… insane?!

You are quite clearly bonkers. Just joking – spot on. As Carver says, they’re at liberty to express the sorts of foibles and idiosyncrasies the rest of us have to keep in check. That can be quite appealing.

 Quite coincidentally as I was writing these questions I noticed that you had referenced Janet Frame on one of the social media platforms. I’ve always found Faces in the Water to be a seminal work regarding sanity, insanity and institutions and wondered whether her work had any influence on your writing?

Janet Frame is an expert at rendering mental anguish. I recently tweeted an excerpt from the second volume of her autobiography, An Angel at My Table, because I’m including it in a feature for the Guardian on my ‘Top Ten Books’ about psychiatric institutions. Her story is truly horrifying. She was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic in 1945 and spent eight years in and out of mental hospitals in her native New Zealand. In spite of this she managed to write a collection of short stories, The Lagoon. In 1954 she was scheduled to have a lobotomy, when the doctor who was due to perform the procedure read in the paper that her book had won a national literary prize. He cancelled the operation and she was released from hospital. In her autobiography she says, without any exaggeration, ‘My writing saved me.’

 How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?

At the moment writing is my day job, though this hasn’t always been the case. I write between dropping my children off at school and picking them up again, a working day of about six hours. It never seems long enough. I was a teacher for many years and I’ve written while taking detention and before registration in the mornings. When I’m away from home I set my laptop up on a bedside locker and write there. You can’t afford to have special rituals or be too fussy about your circumstances when your next thought is liable to be interrupted by someone saying “Mu-uum”. (Hello kids, I love you too.)
 I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

Not sure if I can pinpoint the very first book that moved me to tears, but I do recall, with weird immediacy, learning the alphabet itself. I was at the Walworth Barbour American School in Israel and must have been about five years old. We were taught the alphabet with an ingenious story flip-chart. In this story you were taken on a journey through a jungle, over mountains, across seas and deserts, and each day, as you travelled, you met a new letter. An audio cassette tape played alongside and made it all seem doubly real (there were no interactive whiteboards or DVDs then – this was the 1970s). I really had no idea what came after A, or B, or C, so every day was a total cliff hanger. I lived for these sessions and I was forlorn when we reached Z and they stopped. The excitement I felt for those 26 days is still vivid to me – I’ve probably never known anything like it since. Just thinking about it has made my heart thump.

 And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it?

Soon, I hope. I’m working on a novel about Thomas Hardy, set in the weeks immediately following the sudden death of his first wife, Emma. In the thirty-eight years they were married their relationship had become very strained: though they were living in the same house they only met once a day, over dinner, and had stopped speaking to each other. But he is shattered by the loss of her. Then, while he is still overwhelmed by grief, he finds a record she has written about their life together in which she accuses him of a very specific and very terrible thing (you’ll have to wait and see what that is), and he has to start re-evaluating their entire marriage – and himself.
The novel is called The Chosen, after one of Hardy’s poems. While describing it to you I’ve realised that like Dark Water it’s a story about suffering and the unknowability of the other, even the people to whom we’re supposedly closest. And about memory and identity and the mystery of human motivation. Which brings us back to where we started our interview, doesn’t it?

My heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth for this frank, informative, erudite  and entertaining interview. If you’d like to hear more of her I include a link to a radio interview Elizabeth did for BBC Oxford with Kate Orman -

And my thanks, yet again, to the wonderful Ana McLaughlin at Quercus books for introducing me to this book in the first place and for facilitating  this interview. 

RETRO REVIEWING: White Feathers Susan Lanigan

The fifth book in this Retro Reviewing series, White Feathers was published in August 2014.

For me this was almost a perfect novel. I could hardly believe it was the writer’s debut. Firstly how topical given the current wave of First World War centenary events, research projects and commemorative ceremonies. Secondly it had a good, solid story of love and betrayal and points to make about war and maybe class and sexuality. Neither facet overshadowed the other; rather the two strands ran alongside each other in full complement. An historical novel, this author did not fall into that first novel trap of shoving every piece of research at you whether it was integral to the plot or not. 
Thirdly it was a beautifully crafted book, it was economic without being sparse, and the characters were complete people. I’m going to say this, although I know many may ridicule me for doing so but I have to be honest. I was reminded of Pride and Prejudice. Mainly at the beginning of the book. Eva reminded of Elizabeth Bennett. She had sisters and friends who became like sisters, together with military interventions and scandals. Catherine and Roy Downey, however, are NOT Jane Austen’s Mr. And Mrs Bennett!!

And I said almost perfect for I didn’t find that perfection sustained right through to the end of the book. It was as if the writer suddenly thought, ‘Gosh, I better get this story finished!’ and I had the sense of everything being thrown in at the end. You could argue it was climactic and good plot tactics but given the control and flow of the rest of the novel it seemed to lose some cohesion. That is not to say that I didn’t continue to enjoy this book immensely and it is one of my favourite books of this year so far and I thank you, Real Readers, for giving me the opportunity.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

Penguin sent me a copy of Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth last year. I was pleased as I’m a Nesbo fan but I remember puzzling over the need or necessity for these prestigious writers to use someone else’s story to create one of their own. Are they all so short of new ideas?! I mean, did Shakespeare do such a bad job?! 

For anyone interested I include a link to the Nesbo review.

But after having read the Nesbo I think I ‘got it’. I read a little more about the Hogarth Project, the need to keep Shakespeare fresh, the challenge, the honour, almost of tackling the Bard! So I was delighted to procure this copy of Margaret Atwood’s Shakespearean adventure from Nudge books. This is a modern interpretation of The Tempest. I love the play for its weirdness as opposed to the history plays, the tragedies and comedies. It’s a resourceful and creative rendition that uses a theatrical theme, a play within a play idea, to illustrate a delightful revenge story. How better to explore the themes of forgiveness and repentance than setting your tale in a prison? 

‘Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. 

Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge. 

After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall? 

Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, revenge and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.’

Something I learnt from the Jo Nesbo book was to put aside any preconceived expectations of how the writer might tackle the story. Forget the author almost? No, not quite. I couldn’t do that. This is Margaret Atwood after all!! And as might be expected  it was resplendent with the Atwood wit and subtlety. 

The story was a delight and bordering on genius almost. For if you were to try and ascertain, stereotypically,  who in society would be least likely to be pro Shakespeare inmates of a correctional facility might be amongst your guesses. In so doing Margaret Atwood, in one fell swoop, has made it patently clear that Shakespeare is and should be accessible to all. 

The main character, Felix, emerges as a better teacher than actor possibly for what he achieves with his motley crew of players is wonderful. From initially motivating them and guiding them in this unique performance of the Tempest to their conclusions and ideas about what happened to the characters after the play was extremely moving. 

The revenge denouement is ingenious. I suppose it could be seen as a little farfetched but this is fiction it's a story  and The Tempest isn't a convincing bastion of reality!! It is possibly sugar coated if you’re looking for realism. From time to time you do ask if a group of criminals would behave as cooperatively as this. But I think the point is to offer a potential, the blueprint of a possibility. It’s one of the most uplifting prison stories I’ve ever read to be sure. And I wouldn’t mind betting that those unfamiliar with the Tempest might well seek out a copy or a performance after reading this book.

Which leads me neatly to considering how readers who are unfamiliar with the play do respond to the story compared to those who do know the play. If you know the story in the play you know what's going to happen in the book to a degree which possibly allows you to luxuriate in Ms.Atwood’s writing. She has wound the watch of her wit and struck!! But if not then the unfolding of the Tempest story with its diverse characters and its magical overtones will delight. 

On a more metaphysical level the book explores notions of prisoners and imprisonment that exist beyond the confines of prison walls. The things that makes us all prisoners in some ways. Yet the book never strikes as being heavy. It’s possibly one of Atwood’s lighter treatments? But it never loses touch with either Shakespeare or the contemporary world in which it is set. I would see that as more than filling the brief for this series of books.

And of Margaret Atwood I say - “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!” 


RETRO REVIEWING: Barracuda - Christos Tsiolkas

The fourth in the Retro Reviewing series is this book published in January 2014.

I confess I have had a copy of The Slap sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a while now. I do believe that wait is over.
And the motivation is from just finishing my  copy of Barracuda, Mr. Tsiolkas (does anyone know how to pronounce the name?) new novel.
Reviewers have not always been kind to this writer so I started the book with no real expectations. But I finished it with total admiration.
I thought it was an excellent novel. You could be forgiven for believing it to be a tale of an adolescent kid throwing a strop because he didn’t win a race. But it is so much more than that.
This is a tour de force of adolescent angst, anger and aggression and the painful journey to being a whole person again.
I suspect the book also has much to say about the situation of sports in Australia but I am British and I can’t usefully comment on that. There is little of the sports scholarship thing in this country and I’m not even sure how it works. 
But that is only part of the story and in the bigger picture just a small part. 
Danny the boy is not very appealing; Dan the man breaks our hearts. To have a dream well within your grasp and to lose that dream forever is not something to get over easily. To deal with it with criminal activity is reprehensible to say the least. But to understand why you’ve gone wrong and where you’ve gone wrong is one thing and to turn it around to enrich the lives of those you care about and may have hurt in the past is something else. 
I suppose you could see this as a coming of age story, a painful coming but a satisfactory and hopeful ending made this a meaningful read for me.
I loved it. So, slap me.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Anyush - Martine Madden

The third of my Retro Review series:  this book, abut the plight of the people of Armenia, was published in May 2014.

I have to look at this novel from two perspectives, one as a work of a fiction and two as a vehicle for the history that was being fictionalised. If this novel did anything at all for me it exposed my ignorance. And I felt ashamed. Novels like this are important regardless of how well they are written or constructed because they give voice to a series of events that might not be widely known. 
I was ignorant of the atrocities perpetrated on the Armenian people. And I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Martine Madden (and Real Readers) for enlightening me. This book made me cry, not for the love story contained within but for the suffering and cruelty inflicted on the Armenian people and after completing this book I have researched Armin Wegners photographs. 
As to the novel itself I suppose it is not the best-written book I have ever read and there are aspects of the narrative that I felt I’d read before in terms of plot construction and so some of the outcomes were not surprising or dynamic. The main characters are pretty solid for the most part but there are some who are there just to further the plot and don’t come across as real as Anyush herself and Jahan. I enjoyed the inclusion of Dr. Stewart’s diaries and letters as they enabled a focus on the fact that this book was not merely a love story. 

To say I loved this book is wrong but it moved me immensely and it will stay with me for a very long time.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Coal Creek - Alex Miller

The second of my retro reviews, this book was first published in May 2014 .

'When his father dies, Bobby Blue decides to leave the Mount Hay cattle station where they worked side by side and take a job in town as the new constable's offsider. Daniel, the constable, his wife Esme and their two girls, Irie and Miriam, are new to the western country and, struggling to understand its inhabitants, invite Bobby to stay in a hut on their property where he is educated alongside their daughters.
But there's a simmering tension, building quietly and strongly, beneath the overt goodwill. And when first Irie then Miriam become involved in a dispute that threatens violence, there's an abrupt and ruthless change in attitude from Daniel and Esme towards Bobby.
When tragedy strikes at Coal Creek the true nature of the perceived friendship is laid bare with consequences that will haunt Bobby for decades.'

 I am not one to judge a book by its cover. In most cases I don’t even notice the cover, as I’m too eager to see what’s inside. But for some reason I did look at the cover of this novel sent to me by Real Readers and immediately Brokeback Mountain came into my head, the short story not the film. And whilst I am not offering a comparison between this writer and Annie Proulx there was a similar ambience cast throughout as I read this.

I enjoyed it very much. I found it a well-constructed novel with clearly defined characters. Initially I found the style of writing a little stilted until I came to realise that the narrative was the protagonist’s written account of events. It was a simple enough story but rendered complex by the acknowledgement of the intricacies of human emotion and behaviour. There was a very strong feeling of how different the events might have been if different courses of action had been taken. And the particular courses of actions that unfolded were mostly all fuelled by human emotion not necessarily understanding the true situation. Except for Bobby who seems extraordinarily perceptive and knowing about people, animals and their place within the natural order of things and what happens when that natural order is contaminated.

The ending did have a little of the ‘happy ever afters’ in it but as a reader it gave me a satisfactory conclusion to the book. It wasn’t sugar coated but, like the entire novel, stated as fact of what happened.

I can see this making a good movie if there’s anyone out there looking for some material with potential?

Monday, 10 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Passionate Love Affair With A Total Stranger - Lucy Robinson

I was reviewing books long before I actually started a blog and whilst rummaging around my hard drive I found a few that have never seen the light of blog! So I thought I'd do a 'Retro Reviewing' feature............

This is chick lit, not a genre I’d choose but the only way to know I wouldn’t choose it is to read from the genre. So when Real Readers sent me a copy I was up for the challenge! And I can’t say that I enjoyed it but equally I didn’t NOT enjoy it. For me it is a genre that relies solely on the telling of a story. You kinda know from the start what is going to happen and as such there is an inevitability and predictability that comes with such work. This novel is no exception. It became fairly obvious what the ultimate outcome would be it was just a matter of what path the writer and her characters took to achieve it.
This particular novel is competently written for the most part, there is no attempt to make it ‘literary’ and I do respect that. I suppose the only way to go beyond the chick lit bracket is to do what David Nicholls did in ‘One Day’ with one particular outcome that was so unexpected and atypical of the genre. (Read it; I don’t do spoilers). 
And I don’t want to give anything away for those people who surely will enjoy this story. Bridget Jones is alluded to in the narrative, which I thought was a clever move because there are comparisons invited and by making the allusion clearly deflects any negative criticism.
If this were a film you’d wait for it to come out on DVD rather than have the urge to see it on the big screen.
But if you are a lover of chick lit you will enjoy this book immensely and I am sure it will do well for Lucy Robinson.