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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things.

Remember those heady days when you set off for university? Young, fresh, desperate to see the world and all it had to offer? Eily has left Ireland for London and drama school. She’s intoxicated by the city:

Get out at Barbican.

Her first into the salient wind, fists of grasping hair. Me blinking the grit over the bridge and after her. Brick and towers. Lour and paint. Here’s nowhere like any life I’ve learned. Even going under, it goes on up. She’s saying how it’s ugly and I think not. I think it is Metropolis.

It’s also her introduction to drink, drugs and, she hopes, sex. Despite her Irish landlady who doesn’t allow her to have men in her room and complains constantly about her using all the hot water, Eily sets out to lose her virginity.

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She meets Stephen when the ash from his cigarette drops onto her hand as they’re standing at the bar in a busy pub. He’s a relatively famous actor, although she doesn’t know that. They have some tetchy discussions about reading Dostoyevsky, love and youth and Eily lies to him about how much travelling she’s done.

When they go back to his and begin to undress, she begins to worry about what she’s about to do: ‘But Oh my God, I just Oh God, exhale. Ah now Ireland too much shame.’ He attempts to ally her fears, acknowledges it’s her first time and gains her consent.

Kissing then sloping me, shifting his weight Ready? Yes. And he. Jesus Christ! No don’t pull away. It hurts. I know but it’s not quite in yet. I can’t. You can, just let me, he says It’ll never be as bad again. How do you fucking know? Educated guess. Then Oh fuck, he goes That’s it. And he is all against me. And he is inside. Attempting to kiss through a pain running wild from his body into mine. I bite my own lip and stare above. Ceiling swirls there. Cracks. Worlds beyond the pain not improving. Now. Or now. Or yet. I wish I hadn’t. I’d never done this. I wish he didn’t know.

It ends badly but he convinces her to stay the night. When she leaves the next morning, she doesn’t look back, choosing instead to remember how much she loves London: ‘This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily, I am in it now too’.

What Eily doesn’t bank on is seeing Stephen again, this time in the National Theatre, where he makes a beeline for her and convinces her to leave before the play’s over. Despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight – a relationship, of sorts, begins.

Remember this moment. I will remember this because, even though this morning’s not much of his life, it’s very much of mine. Whatever happens, nothing will be the same after and nothing will be like it again.

The novel’s narrated by Eily in a similar style to the one McBride used in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, although I think this is generally less staccato than her debut. Sentences are rhythmic and sometimes rhyme, with echoes of Shakespeare built into some of the phrases. However, at the mid-point of the book, Stephen delivers a monologue, in straight prose, telling Eily (and the reader) the full horror of his childhood. He has some dark secrets which he’s never shared before. It seems fitting that McBride chose a monologue for him, as he’s the type of character who would have to tell all in one go or not at all.

Events in both Stephen and Eily’s lives bring into question memory and individual viewpoints, of people choosing what to see and what to remember. McBride explores the damage the past can do to the present through Stephen and Eily’s behaviour and the constantly changing status of their relationship.

In a recent review of the novel in The New York Times, Jeanette Winterson commented:

There’s endless sex in this novel. If the writing were terrible, we’d be in “Fifty Shades” territory. But McBride is good at describing heterosexual sex because she doesn’t describe it in the usual ways…

Well, of course there’s lots of sex, this is a couple in the early days of their relationship. But I don’t think McBride’s success in writing about sex is merely down to the style of the writing, it’s also because she writes sex that’s messy and real. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s a bedsit in Camden and a thousand other rooms around the world.

I feel similarly about The Lesser Bohemians as I did The Essex Serpent; I didn’t read this novel, I lived inside its pages. McBride has a rare talent for placing you inside the character, seeing what they see, feeling how they feel. I was filled with joy and wrenched apart again and again; it was exhausting and exhilarating. I revelled in it. On the back of the book, there’s a quote from Anne Enright in which she declares Eimear McBride ‘a genius’, she’ll get no argument from me.

 

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

Transit – Rachel Cusk

Before the shortlist for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award is announced and shadowing duties begin in earnest, I’m going to cover The Goldsmiths Prize shortlist because apparently I have too much time on my hands I’m a glutton for punishment five of the books on the shortlist of six are written by women. Why’s this so exciting? On a broad scale, because experimental fiction writing by women is often confined to the margins. On a personal level, two of my books of the year – Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Martin John by Anakana Schofield – are on the list. (By the time I’ve finished covering the shortlist you’ll see that number’s increased to three, meaning that half of the shortlist are on my books of the year list!) What you’re going to get over the next ten days then are interviews with Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Anakana Schofield, coverage of Eimear McBride’s event at Manchester Literature Festival and reviews of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Rachel Cusk’s Transit, beginning with the latter.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time might recall that I didn’t enjoy Rachel Cusk’s Outline which I read when it was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for The Baileys Prize. I wasn’t intending to read Transit which is the second part of Cusk’s trilogy but there was a sense that people thought it was really good/better than Outline and then it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. I went in with an open mind…

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Transit, like Outline, involves a series of stories told to the book’s narrator. Each chapter contains a different story told by a different person, each of whom are in transit in some way. The first chapter is slightly unusual in that the stories come from an online astrologer, whom the narrator believes is an algorithm, and an estate agent from whom the narrator is buying a property.

It was a council-owned property: they were keen to find another buyer straight away, and the price reflected that fact. As I could see, he said, it was in pretty poor condition – in fact, it was virtually uninhabitable. Most of his clients, hungry as they were, wouldn’t have touched it in a million years. If I would permit him to use the word ‘imagination’, it was beyond the scope of most people’s; though admittedly it was in a very desirable location.

Here Cusk lays the thread that will run throughout the novel – her narrator buys the flat and her children go to stay with their father while she has it renovated. She, and the flat, are in transit. But there’s a device here too with the idea of using your imagination. Cusk doesn’t make this tale easy for the reader; as in Outline, you have to piece together who the narrator is and what she might want from the tales other characters tell which reflect back on her, ‘we are only the result of how others have treated us’, she says.

One of the things Cusk appears to be doing is considering how we create the narrative of our lives and how that narrative fits with or contradicts the narrative of those who shared part of the time or an experience with us. The first person to tell their story is an ex-boyfriend of the narrator whom she meets in the street.

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities. I was well aware, I said, that Gerard had constituted one such reality at the same time those events had occurred. His feelings had to be ridden roughshod over; the story couldn’t be constructed otherwise. Yet now, I said, when I thought about that time, these discarded elements – everything that had been denied or wilfully forgotten in the service of that narrative – were what increasingly predominated.

Other narratives come from the builder, a hairdresser, a writer at a literary festival, one of the narrator’s students, one of the narrator’s friends, and the narrator’s cousin.

Elements of the novel I found most interesting were the idea of creating a narrative from other people’s stories; the child in the hairdresser’s who doesn’t speak a word throughout the entire chapter but clearly has some sort of trauma going on in their head which is conveyed purely through silence and (in)action, and the literary festival where the narrator is the only woman on a panel of four (including the chair) and is treated appallingly both during the event and afterwards when the chair walks her to her hotel.

However, I also had a number of problems with the book: the first was that the majority of stories are told by male characters and when the tale-teller is female, the story inevitably involves their relationship with a male.

The second was the working class characters. There are three in the book, one of the writers at the literary festival and the couple who live in the council flat below the one the narrator buys. The writer has written a ‘misery lit/poverty porn’ memoir which has sold around the world.

It was poverty the modern way, everyone living on benefits, obese with boredom and cheap food, and the most important member of the family was the television. […] His mother was given a council house when he was born – ‘one of the many perks,’ he said, ‘of having me in her life’…

He left this way of life after taking a job mowing the lawn of a wealthy, foreign, gay, art-collecting couple whom he told his story to, after which ‘he’d blab his story to anyone who’d listen’.

The couple in the flat below bang on the ceiling when the narrator and her children make too much noise walking across the floor, cook foul smelling meals, have junk in their back yard and make misogynistic comments to the narrator about having men back to her flat. They’re definitely not the sort of people you’d want living below you but there’s some sympathy to be had for them when you realise they’ve been in the flat for forty years, during which time the area has become gentrified. None of their friends live there anymore, they can’t afford it.

The problem I have with these portrayals are they’re stereotypes and in a novel where the majority of characters are middle class and behave in a variety of ways – some poorly, some well – and are allowed to be people, having two sets of working class characters who read like something the Daily Mail might come up with is infuriating.

The third, and final, issue I have is exactly the same problem I had with Outline: that the reader is held at arm’s length from the narrator. We’re distanced by the stories she tells us, she’s not prepared to let us in. What this leads to for me, is an intellectual exercise, which in some sections of the novel is interesting and stimulating and in others – dare I say it – is boring, and it’s very rare I use that word to describe a novel.

I enjoyed Transit more than Outline; although I found it patchy, there were moments that I found illuminating and stories that were interesting. During the chapter at the literary festival, the narrator recounts:

I said I wasn’t sure it mattered whether the audience knew who we were. It was good, in a way, to be reminded of the fundamental anonymity of the writing process, the fact that each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay. 

The jury’s out as to whether or not I stay for the final part of the trilogy.