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