Number One Chinese Restaurant – Lillian Li + Q&A

Jimmy Han runs the Bejing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant’s been in his family for thirty years, but Jimmy’s had enough of his brother Johnny’s interference and has bought his own place, the Bejing Glory. Things aren’t going to be that simple though; Jimmy’s short of the investment he needs and he’s hoping his dad’s old friend, Uncle Pang, knows people who can help him out. Uncle Pang’s happy to be involved, although in a slightly different way to the one Jimmy anticipated.

While a tangled web of family secrets and lies is revealed, the novel also focuses on two of the restaurant’s longest serving employees: Nan and Ah-Jack. Nan is the restaurant manager. Ah-Jack has recently returned from retirement to continue working as a waiter, a decision taken by Johnny who values Ah-Jack’s loyalty. Nan spends a significant amount of her day covering for Ah-Jack who spends his time gambling, drinking and, inevitably, making mistakes at work. The rest of Nan’s time is mostly spent on her wayward son, Pat, who’s working in the restaurant’s kitchen and has his eye on Jimmy’s daughter, Annie.

Li crafts an engaging tale of family (dis)loyalties and the stories we tell ourselves about the lives we lead. Number One Chinese Restaurant is an absorbing novel.

I’m delighted to welcome Lillian Li to the blog to talk more about the novel.

The novel’s intergenerational, why did you decide to focus on a range of characters interconnected through family or working relations?

I’ve always been drawn toward stories about communities more than stories with only one main character because I think the way characters bounce off each other is incredibly illuminating, both about who they are as a person, and all the different roles they play within the community. So for example, while Nan, the manager of the Beijing Duck House, is certainly fascinating to me alone, I learn more about her when I see her take such gentle care of her longtime co-worker and friend Ah-Jack and then, that same night, fail to demonstrate the same easy warmth to her troubled son Pat. And I learn even more about why Nan seems to have a deeper relationship with her co-worker than her son within the context of her job at this Chinese restaurant. Hopefully the reader feels the same depth even if each character technically gets fewer pages dedicated to his or her journey.

Initially I was frustrated with the focus on the male characters but the novel slowly reveals these smart, fascinating, sometimes manipulative women. Were you considering gender stereotypes as you were writing?

That’s an interesting question. I think I tend to write my characters by first finding a person I know who can provide a foundation for my imagination. My characters aren’t based on real people because what I layer on top of that foundation is all invented. For example, the matriarch of the Han family, Feng Fei, gets her foundation from my grandmother. Specifically, the curlers they both wear to sleep, the way they complain about how their children treat them, and how they’re both surprisingly ferocious despite their age. But my grandmother never worked in a restaurant, let alone owned one, and so Feng Fei very quickly became her own person, shaped by those specific circumstances. At the same time, I think that character’s foundation in a real, complicated person is what guides me against stereotype and keeps me from straying into the one-dimensional.

The thing I really loved about the book was the way you show how we use stories to build myths about ourselves and our lives. What interests you about this?

I love that that resonated with you! I really believe that people experience the world, and themselves, almost entirely through stories, that it’s our way of understanding, but also controlling our lives. At the same time, I’m frightened by how easily stories take the place of facts, and how we’re almost naturally pulled toward believing “better stories” even if they’re patently untrue, about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. As long as we dismiss the power of the stories we’re telling ourselves and each other, we dismiss the potential for delusion and manipulation, but also the potential for connection and change.

The novel’s set in a Chinese restaurant and there are a number of criminal elements to the plot; what sort of research did you do and do you enjoy this element of writing?

There’s a fire that happens in the book and I talked to a fire investigator, Kathleen Summersgill, as part of my research. How I found her in the first place was that strangely enough, my first year in Michigan (where I attended grad school and wrote this novel), a pizza restaurant a few blocks away caught on fire in the middle of a sub-zero January night. A year or so later, at the point in my research when I needed to know how exactly someone starts a fire, and also how that fire might reveal itself to be suspicious to law enforcement, I remembered that potential pizza arson and looked up articles to see if I could find someone to talk to. Kathleen was the investigator on that case. I really enjoyed talking to Kathleen, not only because she helped me write a scene that wasn’t riddled with mistakes, but also because in talking to her, and asking her just generally about her job, I got so much extra knowledge about, essentially, the nature of fire and fire-starters. I was able to totally transform the scene into something that felt real to me. She gave me the necessary confidence to own that scene.

I definitely enjoy talking to people who’ve actually experienced the worlds I write about, criminal or otherwise. I like getting that foundation in reality, though I’m also a bit shy and a bit lazy. I try to remind myself of Kathleen every time I want to wimp out and just Google around for an answer.

My blog focus on female writers; who are you favourite female writers? 

I was introduced to so many amazing female writers who happened to have debut books the same year as me and felt buoyed and energized by their work. Lucy Tan (WHAT WE WERE PROMISED), Crystal Hana Kim (IF YOU LEAVE ME), R.O. Kwon (THE INCENDIARIES), Vanessa Hua (A RIVER OF STARS), Lydia Kiesling (THE GOLDEN STATE), Ingrid Rojas Contreras (FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE), Akil Kumarasamy (HALF GODS), Elaine Castillo (AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART), Nafissa Thompson-Spires (HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE), Rachel Heng (SUICIDE CLUB), Aja Gabel (THE ENSEMBLE), Fatima Farheen Mirza (A PLACE FOR US), Inez Tan (THIS IS WHRE I WON’T BE ALONE), and Nicole Chung (ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW) are just a few of my favorites.

Other favorite writers who’ve already had a number of books under their talented belts include Susan Choi (whose new book TRUST EXERCISE blew my mind), Ruth Ozeki, Karen Joy Fowler, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Lily King.

And of course, there are the powerhouses and legends. Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

There are so many more, but those are the handful that jump to mind.

Thanks to Lillian Li for the interview and to Pushkin Press for the review copy of the novel.

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

It’s 2016 and in Lark, Texas two bodies have been found within a week. The first, a black male, a visitor to the town. The second, a local white woman. It’s the talk of Geneva Sweet’s cafe:

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.”

“Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Locke introduces Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews into the equation. Mathews is suspended from duty and his marriage is on the rocks over an ultimatum issued by his wife who wants him to quit his job. His suspension is due to him being called out late at night by a friend, Rutherford McMillan, over an incident with Ronnie Malvo. Two days later, Malvo was found dead. The bullet wounds matched McMillan’s gun, a gun which he’d reported missing the previous day.

Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns – a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks – following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair.

When Mathews gets a call from his friend Greg Heglund, an agent within the Houston field office of the FBI, telling him about the case in Lark and suggesting he go and find out why the local sheriff’s refusing outside help, Mathews can’t help himself.

In Lark, Locke creates a town dominated by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the power and money of Wally Jefferson. A man who lives in a house which is a near perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and sits bang opposite Geneva’s cafe. Bluebird, Bluebird is a tale of racial hatred but Locke’s created something much more complex than the initial premise appears. As Mathews uncovers the town’s secrets, Locke shows how the heritage of blacks and whites in America is deeply entwined and suggests that white hatred comes from a more complicated place than they might wish to acknowledge.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a gripping, timely novel. The first in a new series featuring Darren Mathews, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

I’m delighted to welcome Attica Locke to the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird has a contemporary setting; did it feel important to be writing about race in America now?

It’s simply my world view. I’m a person of color and so I frequently write characters who are of color and in portraying the contemporary world they live in, I end up writing about race in America. I will say that I wrote this book before Trump was elected and we’ve seen this ugly cancer of racism metastasize all over the country. So it’s been odd seeing how prescient the book is. Although…. Just the fact that Trump was running for President of the United States so successfully was hint enough as to where we were headed.

A small section of the novel is written from the point of view of a white supremacist; how did it feel to get into the mindset of that character?

Oddly freeing. It wasn’t hard to write at all. I just typed up all my worst nightmares about what white supremacist think of me and let it all out. Somewhere in there too I was trying to understand where all that rage comes from. I have a theory that so much of hate and crime has to do with people’s perceived concept of scarcity—their belief, often false belief, that there isn’t enough for them. I think Keith—that character—believes that black men have taken something from him. It’s really a wounded point of view. It actually, I hope, shows you how small these white supremacists are.

The relationships you portray, particularly the marriages, are complex and often difficult. What interests you about people’s romantic relationships?

I suppose the usual stuff—what draws people together. It’s always interesting to write two people who don’t seem like they should be drawn to each other but they are anyway. And of course romantic conflict can be so irrational and passionate. That’s always fun to write too.

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

It goes to what I was saying before. It’s a mix of exploring what scares me and also philosophically looking at the way people respond to perceived scarcity—whether scarcity of money of love and affection. I’m so curious about why some people lash out and some people don’t.

You’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist; do you treat them as separate entities or does your work in one form inform your work in the other?

I think they can’t help but inform each other—maybe in ways I can’t even see. But I understand the two mediums very well and I treat them differently when I’m writing.

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

Yes! This is the beginning of a series of novels along Highway 59 in east Texas, all featuring Darren Mathews.

And, I have to ask, will Jay Porter be back at any point?

I’m sure. But it’s nothing I’d try to force. I’d have to wait for the right story to demand that he return.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers and have you read anything recently by a woman writer that you’d recommend?

Jane Smiley. Toni Morrison. Francine Prose. Jesmyn Ward. Paula Daly. Liane Moriarty. Curtis Sittenfeld. Tayari Jones. Jami Attenberg.

My favourite books of the last 18 months or so are All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Made for LoveMade for Love by Alisa Nutting; Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Thanks to Attica Locke for the Q&A and to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Dorthe Nors: We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush.


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is Dorthe Nors’ fourth novel but the first to be translated from her native Danish into English (by Misha Hoekstra), following the success of her short story collection Karate Chop and the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. 

In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Sonja, a woman over 40, translator of misogynistic Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson, decides to learn to drive. Her driving instructor won’t let her change the gears, her masseur treats her like a therapy client, her sister won’t speak to her and she spends a lot of time daydreaming about the farm that was her childhood home.

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”

With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.

Dorthe Nors 2

I spoke to Dorthe Nors about the novel by telephone last week. Here’s what we discussed…

Sonja, a middle-aged woman, decides to learn to drive. The idea of someone deciding to do so at that age is quite unusual. Where did the idea come from?

It came from the idea that it’s not unusual in Copenhagen. Most people my age, I’m 46, will not have a driver’s licence because they’ve been living in big cities all their lives. Therefore, there’s no need to have a licence. Most of the friends I had when I lived in Copenhagen did not have a driver’s licence. But then I started craving one and started contemplating getting one because I needed the freedom. I didn’t want to live in Copenhagen anymore. I wanted to move out of the city, move into the landscape, move away, but the only way I could do that was if I had a driver’s licence. That whole idea about being stuck unless you liberate yourself by controlling a vehicle was interesting. But it’s not unusual, it’s quite usual. Most times when I’m out doing readings about this people will come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I don’t have a licence, I’m so scared that I won’t be able to take it’. Middle aged men and women who don’t drive.

It’s interesting that Sonja wants to move somewhere but her driving instructor doesn’t allow her to do the gears. She gets stuck and has to change instructors before she can move any further forward.

I always write about existential structures. This is rule number one about my writing. Everything that goes on in that car mirrors an existentialist idea. The one thing that happens when you put yourself in that predicament is that you deposit your free will with the driving instructor because you can’t drive that car and in order not to kill anyone while you’re driving around, the responsibility of the whole situation is put with the driving instructor. So you deposit your free will with this person, who might not be a very nice person but who has the responsibility of the car. And what happens when people deposit their free will is that they also deposit their right to say, ‘Shut up and let me drive’. It’s a psychological dilemma. It takes a while until Sonja builds herself up to take back that freedom and say to her boss that she wants a new driving instructor.

That’s really interesting and links nicely, I think, to the piece you wrote for Literary Hub last year about invisible women and the idea that, particularly if you’re childfree, you become invisible at a certain age. I’m interested in what draws you to that idea.

There are some myths about women in general and we’re completely stuck with them. For instance, you said to me, that’s very unusual that people don’t know how to drive when they’re 40 and no, it’s not. For instance, that’s very unusual that women don’t have children. I go, no it’s not. There are a lot of women out there who don’t have children but we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about how they might have chosen that for themselves. Why they might actually have selected the option of not having children. We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush. I know a lot of women who don’t have children. I’m middle aged now and at one point I suddenly found out that there’s a lot of liberty from not having children but when you add to that that you’re no longer young and sexy, you sort of disappear. It’s like you become transparent. That was the idea I wrote on. If I had had kids, these structures still make me visible to the world but I don’t have children so the only thing I have that makes me visible is my being, as such. I love to investigate these things. I also do that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and in two of my other books where I try to figure out what is a woman. If we take all these typecast roles that we’re supposed to play, if we take them away, what is a woman then?

Along these ideas of myths that we make about women, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about unlikeable female characters. I find this really frustrating, particularly the idea that we should all be likeable and then we fit into a box and do as we’re told. I’m interested in what your stance in the debate is and how you feel about likeability in relation to your own characters, particularly as I think there’s something unlikeable about most of the women in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.

I completely agree with you. I mean, what bullshit is that to say that women are supposed to be likeable? We’re supposed to be typecast into some patriarchal system that we’re supposed to sound like that, look like that, be like that? We’re full blown existences. We do all kinds of crappy things. We’re not always nice to each other. We have weird ideas, we manipulate, we drop ourselves on the floor. We’re full blown human beings. Of course, we will be incredibly annoying at times. But what I tried to add to that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a sort of compassion for that so that even the annoying women in this book are sheltered by a kind of love and care for them; a way of understanding them and also understanding the structures that created them. In this book it’s some quite political structures that are sketched out in the background. For instance, Jytte, the driving instructor, she’s been forced to leave the rural area. Her destiny has been to better herself through urbanisation and that has not left her in a good place. The same with Molly. All these women have tried to better themselves, to gain more status in life from moving to the cities and they’ve not turned out well.

Linked with that, Sonja’s quite nostalgic for where she came from but it doesn’t exist anymore. I wondered whether you were linking that to current society or whether it’s the thing that’s within us all that it’s what we desire when things aren’t going particularly well?

I think it’s double. There’s this existential thing that you can never return to a place that you have left. You can’t, it’s not possible; you’re not the same anymore and the place that you left is also changed. It’s an existential rule, it’s a rule that we all have to abide. The other thing is, for instance, in Denmark, which is a small country and we have one big city, which is Copenhagen, throughout the last twenty-five to fifty years, everything has been centralised and people have moved to Copenhagen and left the rural areas and, therefore, there are no schools in the rural areas, there are no hospitals, there are no jobs for the women. People keep on drifting from these areas. That means there’s a big decay in some rural areas in Denmark. It’s also a literal thing; the place Sonja came from doesn’t exist anymore, not in the form that she knew it. There is no grocery store, no butcher, no school, nothing. If she wanted to move back, there would not be a job for her because they closed down all the stuff that women are going to work with in these areas. All the women can’t live out there because there are no jobs for them. She wouldn’t be able to go home.

I’m interested in the fact you write in English as well as Danish. When your fiction’s translated into English, do you work with your translator because you understand the language?

Yes, we work very closely together. His name is Misha Hoekstra. He’s American and he lives in Denmark. We send it back and forth. The only thing he translates primarily is my fiction because I still prefer to write that in my mother tongue but essays and articles and other stuff, for instance the Lit Hub piece, I wrote directly in English. I’m toying with trying to write fiction in English, that could be quite challenging, quite interesting to try. Perhaps one day, who knows.

It’s something Jhumpa Lahiri’s done recently; she learnt Italian and then wrote in it.

Yes, and Yiyun Li, the American-Chinese writer who completely denounced her mother tongue. There’s an essay in The New Yorker about that, ‘To Speak Is to Blunder’, it’s amazing. But I’m not quite there yet.

I’m interested in something you said in your essay ‘A Wolf in Jutland’. When you talk about a writer needing to be familiar with the literature of her own country. Do you feel your work’s in dialogue with other Danish work?

Yes, I do. I think you will always be part of the culture you’re trained in, schooled in. I would say I belong to a minimalist tradition which is very contemporary Danish. I studied literature at university but my primary focus was Swedish literature. There’s a lot of Swedish literature in there.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that the Danish minimalism is not too keen on staring too long into darkness. It’s more playful. It’s a stylistic playfulness. The Swedish tradition, I just have to say Ingmar Bergman. They’re not very funny but they’re really really good at looking into the existential abyss. They’re really good at looking at psychological structures and sticking to them and observing them and describing them. That has my interest more than anything else. I’m completely interested in human behaviour in existential structures and psychology and what happens when we’re under pressure. That’s not that normal in Danish literature. But the minimalism is very Danish.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite women writers?

Good question. It changes through life, I would say. There are some writers that really mean a lot to you in your twenties and then some in your thirties. In my twenties, my favourite writer was a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman. Right now it’s an American writer called Claudia Rankine; I love her. Flannery O’Connor is also one of my favourites.

Thanks to Dorthe Nors and Pushkin Press for the interview and review copy.

Interview with Fiona Melrose

I’m delighted to welcome the author of the superb debut novel Midwinter, Fiona Melrose, to the blog.image

Where did the idea for Midwinter come from?

The entire book came out of a short story I wrote as a course requirement for my MA in writing at Birkbeck. I knew as soon as I had written the story that this was not a self contained piece of writing, but that what I had written was the end of a larger story involving the older farmer I had written about. He became Landyn Midwinter and I then set about writing my way towards that end.

Landyn came to me, clear as a bell. One sentence dropped into my head and I knew it was someone other than myself speaking, neither my internal voice nor my public one. He said: I found a fox in a field, dead.

That was enough.

But, He needed someone else. I knew he was a farmer and so I thought, a son would be a good thing for him to have, in life and in a narrative sense, so I gave him Vale.

But all of the characters were suggested to me by all the men I was meeting in Suffolk, coming to the farm to deliver this or ask about that. Younger men too, that we had hired to help with fencing or odd jobs. I was so struck by their lives. There never seemed to be any women around and they never spoke of any. They were clearly uncomfortable with me too. I liked them all though and liked to listen to them telling me about their work: moles, small scale farming, pig rearing. One of the younger ones in particular was what I would call a lost boy, he seemed to drift, structurally un-parented.  He worked on the farm for about a year and over that time made increasingly bad decisions, falling further from anywhere he wanted to be. He was a basically good person, wanted more for himself, had a sweetness to him, but that wasn’t enough somehow. He gave me Vale, in a loose form.

I’m really interested in your portrayals of masculinity: Landyn and Vale’s inability to discuss the death of Cecelia and how this presents itself in different ways, and Vale’s struggle with the consequences of Tom’s accident. What is it about masculinity that interests you as a writer?

I think it is related to the above, it came out of my daily direct contact with a community of men who were slightly unfathomable and yet I could sense that they were all basically good, trying and not always succeeding. Which is how life is in the end. We don’t always end up where we planned.

I am a person who naturally has girl friends, I’m attracted towards a feminine energy in both male and female friends and am not comfortable with hyper-masculinity and yet, that is what I found myself confronted with. I found that interesting. What struck me most, and I think some of this is a function of Suffolk, which has a reticence to it, the men had no idea how to talk to me and yet I could tell they wanted to, out of basic inquisitiveness or interest.

Also, I am interested on the effects of a patriarchal system on men themselves. There have to be consequences that aren’t all positive. Access to privilege doesn’t make you emotionally astute and resilient, it makes you privileged.

I am interested in groups of men, the kinds of rules and restrictions that seem to self govern those groups, this is allowed, that isn’t and all are within this unspoken range of what is considered masculine and what isn’t. The language that defines that is often extremely aggressive too, it makes it very clear what is acceptable and what is not.

The town where the book is set is a military town, endless parades and talk of heroes and sacrifice- all the traditional masculine ideal and then side by side are these men, boys who can never fit that ideal. But there is also something very positive and wonderful about male friendship bonds that is immensely powerful.

Chisongo is a victim to this –  he is Vale’s doppelgänger. They have the same job, we meet them at the same age, both are fairly truculent and reluctant, both argue with their employers and make increasingly bad decisions, both are forced to face life changing consequences for decisions on a drunken night out with a group of friends. Vale even looks at a picture of Chisongo and thinks it is himself. This was important to me – there are no good outcomes anywhere in the world for a young man who finds himself struggling and can find no support or language to express that. And we tend to afford white western young men the open door of mental health issues, isolation, whereas no such questions are ever asked of Chisongo. His drunken night has much more dire consequences than Vale’s though they are at their core suffering the same traumas.

I also very consciously included other types of men. Mole Boy is the exact opposite of everything he is “meant” to be. He does not speak well but tries against the odds to express himself, he is kind and considerate, he is sensitive to the fluctuations of his friends needs and emotions, is upset by their trials and failures and carries himself with a wonderful quiet stoicism despite his own sorrows. And while all his peers are flailing about he is quietly building his mole business, getting ahead, improving his life. I liked using him as the bell that chimed differently, with a lighter, higher call. I am very fond of him. I can reveal that soon after the book ends he falls in love with a girl who adores him. She works in the dry cleaners and they eventually marry. I would love to be at that wedding!

Landyn becomes fixated with the idea that a vixen he sees is the spirit of Cecelia. There’s a lovely passage where he talks about being haunted: If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around. So we allow the thing that haunts us to take up home with us and then, the magic happens. Why did you choose a vixen?

It may sound self consciously dramatic but they demanded it. I was haunted by foxes from the moment I arrived on the farm in Suffolk where I lived on my own for a spell. I found them extremely confronting, their barking through the trees in the middle of the night, their ability to suddenly appear and stare one down across a field, then disappear though the bracken leaving one wondering if indeed you had seen them. I kept finding dead ones, once a kit. That was a terrible day, I was deeply, primally upset about it.

There was a small, beautiful woodland on the farm and I could always smell them in there, would track their prints – the connection to them was entirely visceral, Pagan even. I do believe in animals having a very powerful totemic power and energy, that each animal brings its own set of challenges and questions into our lives. (Max Porter’s Grief is The Thing With Feathers is just the most exquisite embodiment of this, the book itself becomes a familiar, it is extraordinary, yes?)

I am very immersed in that belief system and very much appreciate Ted Hughes as a result. His poem ‘The Thought Fox’ was an early inspiration for this book. And the “hot stink of fox” really stayed with me until this book was written. I don’t think writing from inside an animal’s energy is a comfortable place, and this was a very uncomfortable book to write, but, that is simply how this work presented itself.

The vixen was perfect for the narrative, for Cecelia, partly because of the foxes shape shifting ways but also because foxes have a tricky energy. They aren’t straight forward. The problem with writing Cecelia through the first person narrative of Landyn and Vale is that as mourners in chief, they will be prone to elegise her life. And time has passed. Nostalgia is no friend of the story teller. Cecelia was not blameless in the troubles the family endured. Her marriage to Landyn was in jeopardy and there is never simply one guilty party, she was complicit in that disaster. She behaved badly in Zambia, was haughty and dismissive of Chisongo etc. A fox is a magical, beautiful creature, a fierce motherly protector but, she also steals chickens, let’s not forget.

Your editor has spoken about your ability to write about the emotional core of people. Is this instinctual or something you’ve worked on?

My editor (Sarah Castleton at Corsair) is much too kind. I would hope that one day I can hone that, really work at it over the course of a writing career, but in the end Midwinter is just a starting point.

In the mean time though I think it must be intuitive as I have never thought about it and hadn’t realised I did that. Having said that, it is what interests me in people. I am not interested in what people are acting out publicly, their words and responses. I am interested in what the drivers are that sit deep, deep underneath that all. For example very few people are simply angry (worth considering in the current political climate). Anger is a fragile, surface, externalised expression of a deep primal fear.

That is what interests me in people. If someone is being a pompous arse at a dinner table, I’m interested in the fragility driving it, why they need to be that pompous arse. Something rather less aggrandising is going on.


The book’s very rooted in nature both in terms of the general setting/atmosphere and working on the land, both in Suffolk and Zambia. What is it about the land that interests you and how do you create its presence in words?

The natural world is my instinctive home. Most of my closest friends are creatures. I understand weather before I understand humans. I seem to have more of a nose for it and it is a very safe place for me to be. Not without its terrors of course but they strike me as a more honest affront.

The book is also very much the product of a time in my life when I was thrust into the natural world, suddenly living in the English countryside after having lived in cities (Johannesburg, London) before. I do find the English countryside slight more eerie and strange than in other countries. And I do think some of that has to do with its original, native magic. It is the same energy that allowed me to look at a fox and see not just an animal but also an energy system, an archetype. I suppose I am a natural witch too which allows me level of comfort with nature’s shadow side. Which is not to romanticise it, rather that was my experience of it at first exposure and that is something that has remained true.

As a writer the natural world is a gift. How could you not use it? Instant drama! I like a lot of weather in books. Even if a character is in the city I like to have the full feel of their atmosphere, temperature, relative humidity. These things seems to complete the book for me. I like to know how many leaves have fallen on a pavement, it will make a difference to how the character walks through them or over them.

I grew up reading the Romantic Poets, they were my rockstars (so handsome!) and that has, I think, given me an exaggerated sensitivity to nature and the words we use to describe it, our relative role as hand maidens to its power.

I live in Johannesburg now, a huge sprawling city and still, I am always looking for the moon, the height of Venus on the sky, the birds I see daily and have a relationship with. It is very much an instinct to keep myself whole, to survive.

The cover of the book is absolutely beautiful; did you have a say in the design?

I can’t lie, I do love the cover and feel the designers really got a sense of the energy of the book in it. Much of that will have come from my editor Sarah Castleton’s cover brief. She asked to see any images I had used for the book so I shared my Pinterest board and any others that were important for me. And she (being magnificent) put together a Spotify list to give a sense of the pace and pallor of the text which I think (if I am not mistaken) the designers had access to.

The design is a woodcut by Raquel Leis Allion. I was so moved at the appropriateness of a someone using their hands, working with wood and tools to create this little scene- it feel so honest and appropriate to the environment of the narrative. I love its physicality.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?

My second novel is complete. It is called Johannesburg which is, as the title suggests, a million miles away from Suffolk. It is a circadian novel based on Mrs Dalloway and is set on the day Nelson Mandela died.

It may seem far from Suffolk but I think my concerns remain the same; the human impulse to seeking moments of redemption, moments of grace, when there is very little to suggest these will be found, the connectedness of communities when it appears there is none, what it means to belong/ to be home and, of course, love.

My relationship to the city of Johannesburg is the most enduring and complicated of my life and I tried to interrogate that.

I manage to get quite a lot of weather in there too.

Johannesburg is for me a very personal book, it’s very political and I felt an incredible urgency as well as a terrible discomfort while writing it. I had any number of tantrums over it and threw it in a bottom drawer for 8 months too yet all the while could feel it prickling and bristling in there every time I entered the room.

Hopefully you will be hearing more about that soon.

I am now onto the next but I am not yet ready to talk about it, partly because I am still juggling it around as I write- it is a great unruly octopus of a thing. I had a screaming headache for the 6 weeks it took me to get the first 100 pages down. Writing is a miserable business.

I also have a first draft of what might be called biographical bodice-ripper which has been my abiding joy to write. Sex and sword fights are always good to read and write. I make light of it, I have taken its writing very seriously and am incredibly fond of my characters. But am still deciding its path and it still needs a lot of work.

I am a terrible short story writer but am trying to work on one at the moment too – a kind of fable. Don’t expect to hear any more about that any time soon. I fight for every word. It is nothing short of guerrilla warfare. I so admire story writers.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Oh Naomi, where do I start? I suppose for me always and forever, everything always begins and ends with Virginia Woolf. I feel I will never fully understand the reach of her work, both in fiction and in activism. I am re-reading sections of her diary at the moment and a single entry can leave me fizzing for days.

She is so much a part of my thinking that some days I swear I can feel her sitting next to me in the writing cafe, prodding and interrogating and coaxing me on.

Early influences were Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer, later French feminist philosophy writers like Julia Kristeva etc

Deborah Levy is a favourite. My second novel was partly a response to her collection of short stories Black Vodka. It affected me so profoundly.

I do read a lot of non-fiction and Rebecca Solnit continues to be a marvel. And as a student I read Susan Sontag, bell hooks, Joan Didion and so many more.  I also loved diaries: Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Woolf again – the journal as a place of transgression for women remains something that interests me.

Recent fiction from Ali Smith, Han Kang and Eowyn Ivey have been very inspiring to me and I think we are still absorbing how important Ferrante is for women’s fiction and fiction in general. I mean this both in terms of her writing and in her challenge to our consumption of it, our consumption of the female writer along with her fiction. I could give you ten pages of bristling and charged writing on women’s writing, the devaluing of imagination in women (the strange insistence many women’s novels must be in some way autobiographical) and how that negatively impacts our ability to explore/ expand and live in a deeply, radically democratic space. To devalue imagination is to devalue empathy, the possibility of imagining another sorrow or distress or joy.

See…. I’m off again….

Naomi, thank you for you questions and your support of women writers. You are a marvel for your energy and commitment  and your work is so necessary, an important project. And by the way I am expecting this little paragraph to be included in the full post. No false modesty please, I demand you include it or I will complain and expose you.

A huge thanks to Fiona Melrose for her time and her wonderful responses.

Interview with Anakana Schofield

In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.


Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?

In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.

The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.

The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.

The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of  clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.

I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.

The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?

The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.

In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.

It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.

The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?

We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.

There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.

I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.

What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.


The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?

I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.

I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.

I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?

It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.

I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive  sentences.

How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.

And what a shortlist!

I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.

The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific,  Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.

I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.

I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!

Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.


Interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika

When the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced, there were two books I was thrilled to see on the list. One was Martin John by Anakana Schofield and the other was Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Both books made a huge impression on me when I read them earlier in the year. I’ve re-read them both since and I stand by my initial thoughts, they’re both brilliant. I’m absolutely delighted then to have had the opportunity to interview Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who, I hope you’ll agree, gives good interview.

Your protagonist, Dr. Morayo de Silva, is glorious: turning 75, well-travelled, well-educated, lives alone, aware of her sexuality, drives a sports car, dresses in colourful clothes and planning her first tattoo. Where did she come from?

Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that if there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t yet been written, than you must write it yourself. This was what drove me to write Morayo’s story. I was finding plenty of books about older men but few about older women and even fewer about the lives of black women. Yet, all around me I kept meeting older women who’d led colourful lives. There was my neighbour, an opera singer in her eighties, who upon seeing my handsome, septuagenarian father inquired as to whether he was single. He wasn’t, but that didn’t stop her fancying him. And then there is my 95-year-old Zimbabwean relative who recently acquired her first cell phone and keeps it hidden in a bright blue purse tucked into her bra. When the phone rings, she announces to the world, “phone ringing,” but doesn’t bother to answer. She simply enjoys the sound of it ringing. Another woman that inspired my writing was a single, elderly Jewish woman, whom I met when I first moved to San Francisco. She was not as flamboyant as many others that I’d met, but she was just as fiercely independent. The last few years of her life were difficult ones and so I wrote this story – a more upbeat story, one that I would perhaps have wished for her.


Sarah with her 95-year-old relative

I love the way you use books in the story, particularly when Morayo’s torn ones are thrown away and how Morayo writes her own version of Auster’s Winter Journal at the back of her copy of the book. How do you see books and the idea of writing our own narratives as part of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?

I believe that all books are in conversation with books that came before. And because Morayo’s books are in a very real sense her friends, her conversation with them is an embodiment of such conversations. Morayo, like me, is particularly attuned to some of the gaps in literature – to those voices and characters, that don’t often appear. Morayo, as an elderly black woman in San Francisco, is one such person. I find myself drawn to characters that are invisible due to socioeconomic status, age, gender and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in contrast to how others see them.

The story’s told from multiple viewpoints, which is some feat for a novella. How did you manage this so the reader wasn’t jolted from the story by a shifting perspective?

When I first started writing this story, I wrote it in the third person, but after some time, my characters grew tired of being represented by the omniscient third person and walked off the page in protest.

“Enough with the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’,” they announced in a cacophony of multiple firsts.

“Absolutely not!” I said. “This isn’t The Sound and the Fury! You’re just a short novel, so how can I possibly have you all talking in the first person. Readers will just get confused.”

“Says who?” asked my main character.


“Convention?” she scoffed, “But aren’t you the one that keeps saying that people like us hardly appear in literature? Why keep restraining us then?”

“We’re just trying to be helpful,” replied Morayo’s best friend.

“Yeah,” added another of Morayo’s friends, “and personally, I’m tired of people looking at me like I need pity ‘n shit. So if you don’t wanna hear our voices, count me out.”

The novella’s dense with themes – age, the lack of understanding people have of other people’s cultures, homelessness, women’s roles – how did you ensure the story didn’t collapse under them? 

I wrote the book, leading with character rather than theme. In this way, I let the themes emerge organically. There were times, however, when some of my personal concerns threatened to sink parts of the narrative. I was writing this book at a time when videotapes of police brutality against black men and women filled the news. I was, and still am, angry and horrified by the persistence of racism and police brutality in America and elsewhere. I quickly realized, however, that Morayo’s story was not the place to vent my personal frustrations. While racism inevitably features in the novel, I chose the vehicle of nonfiction to address racism more fully.


You published your first novel In Dependence with UK publisher, Legend Press, but Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is published by Cassava Republic, an African Press. Was it a conscious decision to go with an African publisher?

Yes, it was a conscious decision to choose Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company based out of Nigeria and now the U.K. I realized that by granting world rights to an African publisher I could, in a small way, attempt to address the imbalance of power in a world where the gatekeepers of literature, even for so-called African stories, remain firmly rooted in the west. Also, when I presented Cassava Republic Press with my manuscript, a novella, they didn’t shy away from a genre that is currently perceived by its European and American competitors as an “awkward sales and marketing proposition”.  Being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize is an honour that I share with my publishers.

How do you feel about the novella being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I’m delighted, thrilled, happy as lark, and also still stunned … a bit like a mule that’s over the moon and on cloud nine, surprised to find her load of ice cream, still intact. And what an honour to be shortlisted with such an incredible group of writers! The beauty of prizes is that it expands a writer’s readership. All of a sudden I have readers that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of my work. It’s particularly exciting to be shortlisted for a prize that rewards the unconventional. Many people told me that a short novel wasn’t a good idea, that it wasn’t advisable to frequently switch viewpoints, not to mention writing a story about an older black woman. Who would read it?

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m currently working on some nonfiction. San Francisco has a large homeless population and this is one of the things I’m writing about.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Several years ago, when I realized how few women writers I’d read, I decided to rectify that. I started with Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and what a treat that book was – so deceptively quiet, so deeply profound. I then eagerly raced through books by Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and revelled in these authors’ ability to write so confidently while experimenting with form and style. I also enjoyed the way these authors depicted the so-called “ordinary” and domestic spheres of life in a way that I found fresh and exciting. Since then I’ve been racing to catch up on what I’d been missing. I’m grateful for blogs such as The Writes of Woman that feature and highlight women’s voices. I don’t have favourite writers but I do have favourite books. Here are some current favourites:

Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds – Yemisi Aribisala

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Home – Toni Morrison

Happiness Like Water – Chinelo Okparanta

The Face – Ruth Ozeki

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters


Huge thanks to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for the interview.

The Power – Naomi Alderman + interview

Helen Simpson’s latest collection, Cockfosters, contains a short story called ‘Erewhon’. The bulk of the tale takes place between 3.29am and 5.20am as the narrator lies awake in bed worrying about their work as a teacher; not knowing how to approach their partner to discuss going part-time; thinking about the parent who told them about the domestic abuse they’re suffering; considering unrealistic media images of people their age, and so on. It sounds like a familiar tale, until you know that the narrator is male. Simpson subverts stereotypes, creating a picture of domesticity as it might be in a matriarchy. In her fourth novel The Power, Naomi Alderman mines a similar vein but on a global scale.

A framing device introduces the reader to the idea that the book we’re about to read has been written by a male academic which he’s sent to an academic called Naomi, seeking her opinion on it. He describes it as ‘a sort of hybrid piece […] Not quite history, not quite a novel’.


The book he’s written begins with the Day of the Girls. It’s the day that the world at large discovers that young women contain a power within them, a power they can harness and use. Tunde, a twenty-one-year-old journalism student in Lagos, becomes aware of this power when he flirts with and then grabs a girl at a swimming pool. On the Day of the Girls, he’s in a shop where he witnesses a man harassing a teenage girl. Aware that she’s about to use her power, he films the incident on his phone.

Tunde is recording when she turns around. The screen of his phone fuzzes for a moment when she strikes. Other than that, he gets the whole thing very clearly. There she is, bringing her hand to his arm while he smiles and thinks she is performing mock-fury for his amusement. If you pause the video for a moment at this point, you can see the charge jump. There’s the trace of a Lichtenberg figure, swirling and branching like a river along his skin up from wrist to elbow as the capillaries burst.

Tunde posts the video online which triggers a wave of films and a wave of incidents.

The story follows three key females: Roxy, Margot and Allie.

Fourteen-year-old Roxy is the daughter of a London gangster. Her story begins when she witnesses her mother’s murder in their house. She’s one of the first to discover the power, using it to disarm one of the men attempting to kill her mum.

Margot, the mayor of a town in Wisconsin, has to make decisions about how to manage the girls and their new found powers. When her daughter Jos is sent home for fighting with a boy, Margot asks her to demonstrate how the power works. What she doesn’t expect is for the power to awaken within her too.

Allie, the sixteen-year-old, mixed-race, foster daughter of white Christians Mr and Mrs Montgomery-Taylor, discovers her power as Mrs Montgomery-Taylor sits in her living room listening to the radio and sipping sherry while Mr Montgomery-Taylor rapes her in her bedroom, as he does most evenings. She kills him, leaves through her bedroom window and walks until she finds a convent where they take her in. There a voice speaks to her. She takes the name Mother Eve and preaches about a new nation run by women.

A revolution begins: women take power in the streets, in their homes, in political administrations, in religious affairs. Tunde travels the world, documenting the changes taking place.

The novel’s so compelling, the world Alderman creates so complete and believable that when the framing device returned at the end, I’d forgotten I was supposed to be reading a text written by a male academic. What’s so clever about this though is that Alderman uses it to question almost everything the academic has included which contradicts the established narrative in their society. You can tell how much fun she had writing it:

What you’ve written here contradicts so many of the history books we all read as children; and they’re based on traditional accounts going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. What is it that you think happened? Are you really suggesting that everyone lied on a monumental scale about the past?

All love, Naomi

What’s particularly brilliant about Alderman’s approach to all this is she refuses to allow her matriarchal society to be the soft, caring, fluffy world that some like to argue women in charge would bring. Alderman’s women are interested in power, in taking charge, in ruling the world. There is violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse.

When I first came across Simpson’s story ‘Erewhon’, I was present at an event where she read it aloud. It was hilarious, I howled with laughter the whole way through. As I read The Power I also found myself thrilled at moments, laughing and feeling as though I could punch the air. Hurrah for women on top, it’s about time! But seconds later as the full horror of the women’s actions were revealed, the joy turned to disgust. It’s not funny when you remember that the worries and fears of Simpson’s narrator and the actions and desires of Alderman’s characters are things women deal with every day in our current society. Here’s hoping that these stories allow more people to see this and they become catalysts for change.


Photograph by David Levene

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome Naomi Alderman to the blog to answer some questions about her work.

Where did the idea for a matriarchal society where women have special power come from?

Heh. Really, it came from living in a patriarchal society where men have a specially large amount of upper body strength! I imagine an alien from a planet without gender asking me this question and being very puzzled by sexual dimorphism, but as we do have gender all I had to do was turn it over and see how it looked upside down.

I took a long time thinking about exactly what power I could give women that would flip it over without feeling too unbalanced or different to what men have. It couldn’t be something that gave a total upper hand: men don’t have laser beams coming out of their eyes, their physical strength advantage (on average) only works in a fight at close quarters. And I didn’t want it to feel too *silly*. The power I give women in this novel is exactly what electric eels and other electric fish have – so at least it exists in a species that evolved on the same planet as us. Those genes exist, they could theoretically have evolved in us, given the right push at the right moment.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about unlikeable female characters. All of your lead females have unlikeable aspects to different degrees; how do you feel about these elements of your characters and the debate in general?

I really like difficult women. Ballsy, aggressive, demanding women are my bag. If I see that a woman is mouthy, if she’s ambitious and spikey and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, I make a beeline for her.

I find people who need to be liked very exhausting. Like children doing forward rolls and constantly looking back to see if you noticed and asking for approval. I mean that’s fine for children, but it’s not really the thing if you’re 43 years old with an MBA and are CEO of a company.

One of the best things I ever did for myself was to realise that not everyone will like me; and that’s not just OK, it is *desireable*. The only people who are actually liked by everyone are those who are so anodyne that no one really knows what they think about anything. They show no passion, no temper, nothing but a smooth bland facade of received opinions. For the most part, and within normal parameters of human decency: if you’re really hated by some people it means that other people will really really love you.

All of this is to say, I love the women in The Power because none of them are trying to be likeable, and those are my favourite women in the world. And honestly, how much of a shit would you give about whether people liked you if you could electrocute people with your fingertips?

There are moments in The Power which make quite uncomfortable reading. For me, this was because there’s something quite thrilling about women in positions of power until you realise that some of their actions are really quite horrific. Was this the reaction you were aiming for?

Oh yes, of course. We live in a world mediated by and patrolled by threats and reports of violence. If you don’t believe me, just think how comfortable you’d be as a woman alone walking home at 3am. And then think how often you’ve tried it, or known a woman who tried it, and how often a woman you *actually know* has been attacked. Not that it doesn’t happen of course. But mostly the violence we imagine all around us has been taught to us as a story about what it means to be a woman. And I’m offering a new story. Of course it’s thrilling, it would be!

So: of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence. The only conceivable route to freedom is to become the aggressor. So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor.

Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

You interweave a number of recent events into the narrative, I’m thinking particularly of the Egyptian uprisings and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Did you find the story changing as current events took place?

The wonderful thing about writing a novel about gender is that it touches everything; gender is everywhere, gender biases and assumptions are wild in our culture and in the way we think about everything. This is also the massive *problem* with writing a novel about gender! I had a first draft that was about 200,000 words long and I knew I’d either have to rewrite it from scratch or write another 200,000 and turn it into a trilogy. (I threw it out and started again.)

So yes, the story was able to touch on anything that seemed important and of-the-moment. It didn’t *change* the story exactly, but current events gave it an interesting flavour.

The journalist who reports on these events is a young African male. Why did you decide to have a male character witness this change in society?

It seemed to me that, right at the start, men would still have the feeling they have now: that the world is open to them, free and exciting and that there are very few if any places where they’re not allowed to go. Most women don’t have this feeling, and it would take us a while to get there. So Tunde made sense as the character who would instantly set off to investigate the changed world. And of course it gives him a nice series of realisations about how slowly and insidiously his freedom’s been curtailed.

It also became clear to me that if I didn’t have a man’s perspective in at the start of the novel, I’d have – in essence – no ‘woman’s’ perspective in by the end. Where the ‘woman’s’ perspective isn’t about genitals but about a position in the world, and a mental shift.

You use a framing device which suggests a male academic has written the text of The Power, while a female colleague critiques and questions the validity of the text. Why did you choose to frame the novel in this way?

In a way it was: to make myself laugh. Because I wanted to be able to write a bit of *full reversal*, where the whole thing was done and dusted several thousand years ago and this new world order is now just normal. But once I’d decided to do it, I found there were so many useful things I could talk about this way. One was: the uses of history. We use the stories we choose to remember from history as a way of justifying and shoring-up the society we live in: it must be this way, it’s always been this way. We forget the parts of history that don’t fit with our smooth narrative. I thought that if this really had happened there would be a lot of forces wanting our world, this strange “world ruled by men” to be forgotten. And that seemed a pretty mind-bending place to end up. And I love a mind-bending story.

A conversation about religion seems to be a significant part of your writing – in earlier novels as well as in The Power. Is writing about religion a way of working out your own feelings about it?

Funnily enough, I feel fairly settled in my own feelings about religion these days. I grew up an Orthodox Jew and now I say that God is somewhere between my imaginary friend and my ex-boyfriend. So: my ex-imaginary-boyfriend. We used to spend a lot of time together, and not all of it was terrible or I wouldn’t have stayed so long, but in the end I decided that I was better out of that relationship. This is – pleasingly to me – an answer that will satisfy neither the religious nor the atheists nor, I suspect, even the agnostics. I don’t think that “does God exist?” is anywhere near being the most interesting question about God or religion at all.

So why do I write about religion? Because I think that Matthew Arnold was wrong and the sea of faith hasn’t really receded – or it’s only receded among a smallish group of people in a smallish area of the world. Most people on the planet still worship, pray, practice their faith, for billions of people their religious life is the centre of their day or week. Or near the centre, anyway. I think the instinct to religion is as inevitable as the instinct to violence; of course we can learn to do and think differently, and maybe it’s advisable that we do, but that doesn’t mean the instincts will ever fully go away. I think at a time of global cataclysm – the kind that might happen if all the women suddenly developed the power to electrocute people at will! – some world religions would have a field day. Or would offer people wonderfully helpful comfort. Maybe those are the same thing.

You were paired with Margaret Atwood through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. What influence has she had on your writing in general and on The Power specifically?

Margaret is my dear friend now – as are her family! So her – and their – influence has been as much on my life as on my writing. She’s introduced me to some wild places in the world: we went birdwatching in Cuba and travelled to the Arctic together. That’s rearranged my head in some interesting ways. And I’ve been able to see the disciplined daily schedule that means that Margaret Atwood is able to get her writing done wherever she is in the world: inspirational and strangely calming, because all that brilliance doesn’t just come effortlessly. Good writers work hard.

As for The Power: it was Margaret who first suggested the word ‘convents’ to me in this context. So that was a good steer.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Han Kang, Joanna Russ, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Knox, Daphne Du Maurier, Josephine Tey, Elizabeth Goudge. I could go on, and on, and on….

Huge thanks to Naomi Alderman for the interview and to Penguin for the review copy.

Interview with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

If you’ve read my reviews of One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, you’ll know how impressed I’ve been with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s work. I was thrilled, therefore, when Pushkin Press asked me if I’d like to interview her to celebrate the paperback publication of Waking Lions. Here’s what we talked about…


Waking Lions combines a moral dilemma, people’s attitudes to immigrants and a portrait of a marriage in crisis; was it one particular idea that made you decide to write this book or a combination of things?

I always start with a particular idea, a specific question I have in mind. In “Waking Lions” it was the hit and run. It wasn’t a literary question, but a real event which struck me: I was twenty years old when I met the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared for nights. He had a dreamy face and long, light coloured hair. He was just out of military service and was supposed to be having the adventure of his life. But there was something wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything. He just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. Something was eating him up inside, that was clear.

Eventually I went to him and asked if he was alright. He admitted to me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.

I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn’t find the right path for the protagonist. I didn’t want to write a 300 page-novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I realized that this person is blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed did I sit down to write.

Your characters are complex human beings; does your background in Clinical Psychology help you in creating realistic characters?

I think both jobs demand that you’d be willing to leave your own skin for a while, and try to enter someone else’s mind. When you meet a patient who has done things that you morally disagree with – hit his children, for instance – you have to be able to try and understand his motivations. Otherwise you won’t be able to help him, or stop him from doing it again. In everyday life, when we hear of someone doing something bad we just say “asshole” and move on. As a writer and as a psychologist, you don’t have this privilege. If someone has killed his landlord, you want to know why. And to do that, you have to find the place within yourself that’s capable of murder.

However, I do try my best to keep writing and therapy separate. When you write a novel you are the master of the world you create. When you meet a patient you must never forget that this is another man’s story here, he’s the narrator, and you’re just there to help him create a better narrative than the one he’s trapped in.

I’m interested in your female characters. Both of your novels have male protagonists but it’s women – Sirkit in Waking Lions, Bella and Sonya in One Night, Markovitch – that are catalysts for change; can you explain why you chose women to take such roles?

That’s a great question.

It was clear to me that the hit and run driver was a white man, the most powerful animal in the food chain. At first, I didn’t know if it would be a man or a woman who would witness the accident. But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be a woman. The traditional female role – watch, and be quiet – is suddenly changed. Because what she sees when she observes the accident gives her power over this man. The roles are switched.

It was very important for me that Sirkit wasn’t this “black angel”, a saint, an African Maria. I wanted her to be a real human being, with dreams and desires and powerful ambitions. I think to portray her as a saint is just as dehumanising as portraying her as the ultimate evil. A “refugee” is no more a saint than a “middle-class man”. Both are labels, and behind those labels there are real people – who love, cheat, hate and trust.

Again in both novels, you mention people’s passions – in One Night, Markovitch there are many examples, including Yaacov’s passion for Bella, Bella’s passion for Rachel’s poetry and the passion of the soldiers who storm the fortress; in Waking Lions Sirkit’s passion for learning is something that Eitan recognises in her. What’s your interest in people’s passions?

I think passion and fear are the biggest motivators. It’s either what you long for, or what you’re running away from. When I think about my characters I always try to identify both. That’s the moment they start dancing on the paper



Waking Lions is a gripping, tightly structured book with a number of twists. How did you go about plotting the novel? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?

When I write the plot I see myself as the first reader of the novel: I don’t want to get bored. So I try to ask myself: what would surprise you on the next page? It’s a bit like playing hide and seek with yourself.  In both  my novels, I had no idea how the story was going to end until the very end of the writing process. It’s like going on a hike – you don’t want to know how the view from the highest point looks until you actually get there.

Waking Lions is very different in terms to tone, style and central idea to One Night, Markovitch; did you deliberately set out to write a very different book?

No. I had no conscious thought of “what’s the next move”. I finished the first novel, and I missed the characters. After spending so much time together, it was like losing a close friend. And then suddenly I met this new story within me, and I followed it. When the second novel was finished I gave it to some friends, and they warned me that readers who expected a light tone – as in the first novel – would be shocked by the second one. But the reason I love writing is because it’s the only playground open to adults. The only place where you don’t have to remain coherent, clear, predictable. You can do what you want, be who you want, whether it’s a tale set sixty years ago, like Markovitch or something much more rigid and realistic like Waking Lions. I’m working on my third novel now, and once again I’m using my right to do exactly what I want to do, regardless of what’s gone before.

Both of your novels have been translated into English by Sondra Silverston; did you work closely with her on the translations? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?

It’s really weird: my English is not good enough to read literature. I only read “Harry Potter” in English in high-school. So imagine what it is for me to open my own novel, and not recognise half the words! I simply trust Sondra that these are indeed the right words, with the right music.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?

Just that I’m working. Hard.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

I owe Virginia Woolf every word that I wrote after the birth of my first child. “A Room of One’s Own” is for me one of the most important texts ever written.  It made me feel that I’m entitled to close the door and write, even if I’m a mother.

I also admire Elena Ferrante, “My Brilliant Friend” is my book of the year.

The Hebrew poet Yona Wallach is a big inspiration, both as a writer and as a therapist.


Huge thanks to Ayelet and to Pushkin Press.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of Waking Lions and One Night, Markovitch, both published by Pushkin Press. Waking Lions is published in paperback on 1st September, £8.99 

Hope Farm – Peggy Frew + Q&A

Men were usually involved, in both the endings and the beginnings. Boyfriends, lovers, partners – whatever they were to her in the varied loose lexicon of circles in which we moved. I can glimpse them still, a collage of faces, mostly bearded, mostly framed with quantities of hair. I can dredge up the sounds of their voices, some of them, or a small physical detail – a bracelet of plaited hair flat strands of copper on a sun-damaged, ginger-haired wrist; a combination of long nose and bushy eyebrows that called to mind the letter ‘T’. But I have no memory of any actual break-ups, of men begging or raging at having been left. I recall no messy scenes. Ishtar was so good at it, I suppose, so practised. She simply withdrew and allowed things to collapse.


Ishtar and her daughter, Silver, go to live on Hope Farm, a commune in Victoria. They’ve moved there from Brisbane because Ishtar is in love with a man named Miller who’s part of the group. Silver’s thirteen but narrates the novel from adulthood, commenting on events.

Silver’s in awe of her mother – She could gild the edges of even miserable, freezing, grey Hope – but hates Miller. Largely, it seems, because he creates a distance between Silver and Ishtar.

I am always just missing her. In passing she might touch me, run a quick hand across my shoulder blades, kiss the top of my head, pull me to her so I feel the brief softness of a breast or the point of a hipbone. And then I am released, as she goes on, and on, to the next thing.

Frew explores the mother/daughter relationship through the two characters. This is largely done from Silver’s viewpoint but there are a number of entries from Ishtar’s diary. These tell her story from the point when she discovers she’s pregnant to a married man who lives on the street she’s growing up on to almost the end of their time at Hope Farm. The entries are written in non-standard grammar and bring a different perspective to Ishtar, particularly with regards to her own parents and how she’s come to live in a series of communes.

You would think I would have learnt some thing over all those years but now here I was at Hope and in a worse situation than ever before you could almost laugh it was so predictable. Some times I could just about hear my mothers voice saying I knew youd end up coming to nothing having no pride being taken advantage of there was always some thing wrong with you. Nothing to laugh about there. And nothing to do but keep going.

Alongside the story of Ishtar and Miller’s relationship – one that becomes increasingly complex as the story unwinds – is Silver’s friendship with a local boy, Ian. Ian attends the same school as Silver will and they bond over tips as to how to avoid the bullies. They meet every day after school and at the weekend by the creek midway between Hope Farm and Ian’s parents’ farm. As tension in the commune rises, Ian offers Silver a means of escape, one that might be more permanent than it first appears.

Hope Farm considers the control men can exert over women, mother/daughter relationships, communal living, freedom and friendship. Tension runs throughout the novel building to a gripping conclusion. A book well worthy of its Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award shortlistings.


I’m delighted to welcome Peggy Frew to the blog to discuss the novel further.

In Hope Farm you explore two difficult mother/daughter relationships and how that bond can frame your life; what drew you to the subject?

Families have always interested me, and particularly the matter of parental responsibility. Funnily enough, I began Hope Farm with the aim of writing a book that wasn’t particularly domestic. My first book, House of Sticks, is from the point of view of a mother of very young children, someone whose world has suddenly shrunk; it has an atmosphere that’s close, almost claustrophobic, and by the time I’d finished with it, I was dying to break out and write something that felt freer, more open. House of Sticks was set in an inner-city suburb and so I thought I’d set Hope Farm in the country. I should have known I wouldn’t get very far away from families, because the first two characters to arrive in my head were Silver and Ishtar, a mother and daughter, and soon enough I realised I was writing another book about motherhood. So this is clearly my territory, and I suspect I haven’t finished yet! I continue to find it fascinating, probably because I am both a daughter and a mother myself.

One of the key themes of the book is the power and control men can exert on women’s lives; was this something you wanted to explore from the outset or did it emerge in the telling of Ishtar’s story?

Not to imply that we can all now rest on our laurels as far as feminism is concerned – clearly there’s still a lot of work left to be done before women everywhere have equal rights to men – but I do think this question relates to the time in which the book is set. While the 1970s was a time of radical social change in Australia, and the second wave of feminism was a huge part of that, I was interested to look at what it was like for women within the hippie subculture, which, while questioning many social norms, I don’t believe was especially progressive when it came to women’s rights. So in Australia in the 70s, you could ‘drop out’, you could join a commune or live in an ashram, but if you were a women you would probably still find yourself expected to do much of the traditional ‘women’s work’. So for a character like Ishtar, who escapes her oppressively religious family and sets out to make a life for herself within the world of hippies, she is really only moving from one world in which men are in charge to another. Also, she is uneducated, poor, young, and all she has to trade on are her good looks. She is really up against it. Not sure if this answers your question! But yes, it all did emerge in the telling of Ishtar’s story – all I knew at the beginning was what kind of a mother she was to Silver, so I had to figure out her back-story in order to account for that.

The diary sections of the novel read like a young person’s complete with spelling mistakes, a lack of apostrophes and incorrect use of homophones. In a world seemingly obsessed with homogeny and ‘correct’ grammar, did you come up against any opposition to this?

Interesting question! I didn’t know the world was obsessed with grammar – I thought it was a dying art! No, I didn’t come up against any opposition. These sections – Ishtar’s writings – were written very quickly, and with the lack of punctuation you see in the finished book, as well as the run-on sentences and poor grammar. The spelling though was intact. My editor then suggested that we needed another element to give the sense of a semi-illiterate voice, so we agreed on a few ‘rules’ for misspelled words, and applied them. We were trying to strike a balance between something that was believable but also readable. Obviously if I’d written it exactly like a ‘real’ journal written by someone with an undiagnosed learning difficulty who didn’t finish high school it would probably be very difficult to read, the same way that books would be really boring if authors wrote dialogue the way people actually speak.

Hope Farm is a tense novel, it feels from the outset that the story’s on the verge of tipping into something big and it does for several of the characters; how did you go about weaving that tension throughout the book?

The book began with the setting and the two main characters. But it also began with a feeling, a sense of unease. It took me a while to find the voice that worked best, and I think the voice I eventually found – a retrospective first-person voice – fitted with that sense of unease. Here is a narrator who’s looking back on a time in their life, and they’re saying to the reader, ‘I’m going to tell you a story, about something that changed me forever.’ You know something big is coming, and you know this narrator has been profoundly affected by it, and there’s something in the tone of that style of narrative – a sense of inevitability perhaps – that I think creates tension. Plot has never been my strong point, so I worked very hard at the plot once I had the voice and the characters, and if the way the plot works helps with the tension then that’s great, but I can’t say that was what I set out to do – the plot, for me, was born out of the feeling of unease, the questions I was asking myself: who are these people, how have they gotten to where they are, and what’s going to happen to them now to get them to that ending I can vaguely see there on the horizon?

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite women writers? Are there any Australian writers we should be seeking out?

Some of my favourite writers who happen to be women are Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Jean Rhys, Marilynne Robinson, Katherine Mansfield, Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Frame. Some Australian writers I’d recommend (and who also belong in the first category) are Helen Garner, Mireille Juchau, Tegan Bennett-Daylight, Josephine Rowe, Joan London, Gillian Mears and MJ Hyland.

A huge thank you to Peggy Frew for the Q&A and to Scribe for the review copy of the novel. There will be more Hope Farm content on the following blogs throughout the week.

Hope Farm Blog Tour