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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 reviewed it on my blog earlier this month - https://bookphace.blogspot.com/2018/09/dark-waters-elizabeth-lowry.html
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 - https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06k5d8w
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.