Questions & Answers
Interview About Winter
You’ve said that Autumn was about shock (following Brexit and the ensuing turbulence) and the frozen state we were in; whereas Winter is about a frozen state but there’s a thaw at the back of it. That sounds dangerously like optimism?!
No, it just sounds like winter! I realised, while I was writing this book, and it’s something I’d never properly registered before though it’s as obvious as anything, that winter is predicated as much on the coming back of the light as the waning of it. And one of the things about writing on very contemporary times in a close interweave with the perennial passing of the seasons is that the short view and the long view meet and remind each other about context, continuance, consequence, cycle, and above all the fact that time passes, will pass, no, more – that a time can pass. Long range optimism is built into the seasons (though running alongside that too is the fact of the damage we’re doing our own long range possibilities not just for optimism but for survival by messing up the world’s natural structural cycle with the force of our pollution). But, right now, winter still means both freeze and its aftermath, thaw, both of which it holds in its power.
As with Autumn, the book is teeming with literary references and in particular to the play Cymbeline. Winter also has very Shakespearean features, including mistaken identities, confused parentage and people lost and found... How conscious were you at the time of mirroring the play in your own structure and characters as well as referencing it directly?
I’ve known for a long time that Shakespeare’s late plays would be informing these four books, but with no idea how, and still no idea until I start to write them. You never know what you’re doing until the story tells you. The late plays are what you might call the most integrated of his works in that they cocktail together comedy, tragedy, history and the unexpected, unthinkable, always miraculous-seeming potential for rebirth that’s both literal and of the spirit, and they also produce, each time, a pure new kind of myth, a refined and transcendent storytelling completely of its time and its individual imagination yet simultaneously made communally from all the stories taprooting across the world’s literatures. It’s a rich and endlessly giving source. Certainly these seasonal books seem to want to be about the ways in which we tell right now and have told over the centuries the stories of our lives and our times, and I feel blessed and lucky that his late plays, with their breadth of vision, their layered understanding, seem so determined to be part of the mechanism of anything I’m writing.
Iris is subversive, outspoken, political, whereas Sophia is ‘never trouble, she is not a girl who ever does anything wrong…’ I’d expect your sympathies to lie far more with Iris and yet you manage to create sympathetic portraits of both sisters. Was that a struggle for you?
No. As soon as the human being enters the equation instead of the dividing factors between human beings, things become, well, more human. Grace Paley says it best: Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life. Right now in such a divided and divisive world we need the human factor more than ever and we need to protect it, and honour it, and work for it as soon as someone or something suggests that one human being is worth less or worth more than another. The last time I saw John Berger speak, he defined fascism. He said fascism is what happens when one group of human beings thinks it has the right to decide about the worth of (or the superior rights of or the right to exclude) another group of human beings. I think this is bedrock for this Winter book.
Where did the idea for the disembodied head that occupies in particular the early pages of the book come from?
God knows. It was just what was happening to that character. It just was. But when I read that question from you I remembered that a few years ago I read an account by a young man running away from a county where he was no longer able to live, and who had watched as border guards played football with the head of one of his parents. And now that I think about it I remember a moment in, I think, The Wings of the Dove (though it might be in a different Henry James novel, I might be misremembering) when one of the characters thinks about a moment from the French Revolution, a woman looking out of a window and seeing, going past on the top of a pointed stick held aloft by someone in a crowd, the guillotined head of one her best friends. In other words, it’s probably about what happens when history or regime means we lose our heads – or when history enforces a pretty literal mind-body split, you might say.
As with Pauline Boty in Autumn, this book features another undersung artist, with a famous sitter, this time Barbara Hepworth. How did Ethel Walker find her way into the book, did you have to seek her out? And do you feel any pressure to find two more, for Spring and Summer?
Well, the artists are already there waiting in/for the other books. They’ve already announced themselves, and there’s no pressure in it, it’s a gift, or maybe the only pressure is to tell the stories as they ask to be told. I just have to hope my ears and eyes are open enough. The momentary story of Ethel Walker – massively famous back then, meeting Hepworth when Hepworth was a very young woman and painting a portrait of her, and then the portrait turning up all the years later on eBay – it’s a momentary gesture towards what becomes of our lives, and to what history and the canonical will do with our fifteen minutes of fame, but also to the under- or unsung, as you say, and to the ways in which what survives of us is, yes, love, as Larkin puts it, but also energy, an anonymised creativity, the torn-up rag of a name, the great artist herself become a vivid picture of a girl.
Although the books work perfectly as standalones, readers will enjoy spotting the reappearance of characters from the earlier parts. Did you know from the outset which characters would reappear and how, or do they manifest themselves when the time is right?
I am thankful and relieved that they work as standalones, and also that the connections, while the books are being written, turn up by themselves, throwing lines to the pasts and to the futures, rather like in life. The connectivity, quite electric, conducts itself. ! Phew. Lux brings both wisdom and truth to a world of fake news, lies and secrets.
Given the hold the internet has on us all, is ‘truth’ fast becoming a distant and impossible memory?
Never. It never will. Thank God, because we need truth, we always will, and we suffer when truth suffers, and truth isn’t relative. It’s always there. It happens that fiction is one of our most mysterious and yet clear conduits to the hidden or difficult-to-articulate truths.
In flashbacks Winter describes how Greenham Common came about. Do you think the internet at least allows for effective forms of protest, or has too much online noise rendered it an ineffective tool, in which case, what is the alternative?
All our forms of protest are crucial. Successive governments here over the past couple of decades have been working to render protest inneffectual and illegal, but as soon as you try to corral protest, protest will break down the fences. What I always bear in mind is something I once heard the American artist, Martha Rosler, say, she was talking about Vietnam, and she said something like: protest takes a long time. We said no to the Vietnam war every day for ten years. You have to be ready to commit, and you have to commit for the long term.
In order to be absolutely topical, you write and deliver your books almost impossibly close to their publication date, implying a huge amount of trust on all sides, the publisher of the quality of your work and you of theirs. Can you say something about your experience of this partnership and what it means to you?
It means the world. It means a way to talk about the world as it is. It means an extraordinary communal galvanising. I’m thrilled by the generosity and the expertise and the open-heartedness of all the people at HH and Penguin who work so astutely, visibly and invisibly, not just to make this possible but to make it so stunningly beautiful, the finished book in the hands of the reader, too. It’s a kind of energy I couldn’t have dreamed possible. But it is possible. It’s more than possible. It’s what carpe diem, seize the day, literally means.
Do you have ideas for other books that you’re dying to explore while still tied to the quartet? Are you able to park them easily or is it a battle?
I’m in the middle of these books and they devour it all. Good. Here’s my left shoulder, with its what-feels-like-new-forming-RSI-and-all. Here’s my rubbish four-finger typing style. Here’s all the waking and sleeping hours. Will it work in the end, the idea? God knows. But is there a choice? Nope.
Interview About Autumn
You deal with such timeless themes as life and death, love, parenting, nature, time, what it means to belong, but your book is also contemporaneous to a startling degree: you were writing about the outcome of the Brexit vote when the ink was barely dry on the voting slips and it reads as if there could have been no other outcome. How were you able to process, assimilate and write it all without any time to absorb the impact of events?
Short answer. Very little sleep.
Long answer. I began thinking about the book – well, twenty years ago, as I'll say below, but the specifics of *this* book, really, at the beginning of last year, and I began drafting it at the turn of the new year this year. What I was writing, I saw, turned out to be very much about the divisions happening all across the world, and the calls for fortification and even more division, and as the month of May turned into June I knew the book was asking of me very specifically, about the very contemporary things that were happening, not just day to day but eventually hour to hour – so I asked my publisher to give me a bit more time on what was already a fairly hair-raising tight deadline, and he did. After which I worked myself and the book very very hard (anathema to me, I am quite lazy really), and met the new deadline. It's a miracle Hamish Hamilton's been able not just to publish it so astonishingly speedily but so stunningly beautifully. I'm amazed.
Plus – the things that have been happening to us over the past half-year, they're ancient as well as brand new. And to some extent they're as cyclic, historically speaking, as the seasons themselves. What's new is the speed of information, the slippery surface of media attention and the fast, no, *instant* synapse reaction (and the attendant forgetfulness, the on-to-the-next-thing reaction) expected of all of us. I thought I ought to meet and question that speed. And the novel form in any case takes its name from the notion of news and newness; so I was also (and will be, with the other three books, if life allows and they get written) asking of the form, seeing what would happen if I did. The idea behind these four books was always to ask them to be utterly contemporary (and fast-produced so they'd still be contemporary when published) and about the consecutive and linear surface of time at the same time as about its stratification, its cyclic dimensionality. What I wasn't expecting was the time itself to be being suddenly quite so electrifying when I decided it was time to begin the cycle.
You’ve said you’ve been planning this cycle for 20 years and yet so much of the setting is so very much in the here and now. How did the two come together for you in the writing and why now rather than at any other point in the last 20 years?
Ah – see above. And I have a theory now, after this year especially, that the novels we write choose *their* time, rather than are produced by any real choice of ours.
You’ve also said that there’s no point in writing if you know what the end is going to be. How does that sit with writing a quartet of novels, in which connections and continuity must play their part?
I'll find out! It means I've no idea what will come of it. But as I'm suggesting above, there's always a dialogue with what you're working on – if there isn't, it probably won't be alive, or any good – so it's a risk you've no choice but to take. The connections make themselves pretty clear as you go along, I've found, working with a few of the different shapes the novel can take. They can be surprising, but they'll be there. And there's always continuity. Along with time itself, and the shapes society takes, continuity is what the novel form's about.
Your book is in many ways a love letter to literature and a tribute to the power of storytelling – the presence of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens and many others is palpable. Do you agree with Daniel when he says, ‘whoever makes up the story makes up the world’?
He also thinks that being able to read the world is one of the ways of staying vital, which is why reading itself is vital. 'No one who can read ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.' (Dickens)
Dialogue plays an important part in the novel, Elizabeth feels we have reached ‘the end of dialogue’. Are emails, texts, tweets and so on, eroding our power to properly converse, to exchange ideas rather than just inform or announce?
Elisabeth also knows Daniel – from whom she's picked up the notion of dialogue as a form of life. And we will always use our technologies in all the human ways, bad, good, indifferent, different. All they are is just more proof of who we ourselves are, how we conduct ourselves and what we make of our engagement with life while we're here, as Daniel might say.
Daniel is connected to the world and the elements in literal, linguistic and metaphorical ways even as he is also taking his leave of it, almost as if he is re-merging with nature. Is it this fundamental connection with the natural world that makes him special to you?
He's no more special to me than any other character. They come on their own terms each and all of them. But Autumn, as a book, and autumn, as a season, were and are always going to be about the shortness of life – even a long life, as well as the fruits of the life. He's a fine old tree of a man, and I'm very glad he came.
The lies that were told by the governing parties were among the most bitter aspects of the Brexit campaign, but not the first time the public have been misled by its leaders. What made you choose the Christine Keeler case as a counterpoint?
Ah. See next question just below.
Art has always been important to you and features in your earlier novels. How did Pauline Boty become part of the story, was she a happy by-product of your interest in Christine Keeler?
Autumn (the book, and the season) being about the shortness of life, I realised quite soon into thinking about it, that Boty would feature, somehow. She's a person whose fruifulness and whose spirit, up against the shortest of lives and saddest of goings (like Keats's but closer to us, more recognisable in contemporary terms) are vital and formidable up against the worst odds. And I'm interested, too, in the lives which get to be expressed and the lives which don't, depending on how history treats us.
As I worked on Boty and learned about the Keeler picture/s she'd done, I did what I always do when I'm writing and followed my nose. This meant I read a lot about the Profumo scandal, and the more I read the sicker I felt – there's nothing like hanging around a lot of foul power-mongering lies for making you feel ill, as Elisabeth says something like at one point in the book. And these were parliamentary lies. It reminded me of the time around our invasion of Iraq (and we're still – and rest of the world is too – dealing with the fallout from that). Then ... everything round us this spring began to ring with the same force of power and lies. The parallel was unavoidable.
And art?, by which I mean all the arts? It's one of our best ways of reading, interpreting, the possibilities of life. It interprets us. It opens us. We see through it. It makes us think. It is, itself, incapable of lies.
Autumn asks fundamental questions about identity and belonging, about integration from within as well as without. Do you agree with the Remain spokesperson Elizabeth hears on the radio who says that the old notions of ‘society’ have gone forever?
The old notions of society are cyclic, they turn up again and again dressed as the 'new' notions of society – until those new notions give over to the 'new' new notions, and so on, old to new to old to new, and the cycle moves on. I never lose hope. I always think of something the great writer Grace Paley once said to me. 'The wheel is round. If you're at the bottom, it'll be an uphill push, but don't worry, keep pushing, the top comes around again. Have faith. The wheel never stops turning.'
Your love of language shines through every page. Daniel talks about language being ‘like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about…’ Are new technologies driving a wedge between us and our language?
No. They're just adding to the unending organic possibilities of more and different languages.
How do you feel about the commitment to complete the quartet and in short order? Is there any sense of burden, given what an exuberant and spontaneous writer you are?
Ask me next year, and the year after, and the year after that, and I'll tell you.
Interview About There But for The....
The first question has to be, where did the amazing starting point of a dinner-party guest locking himself in his host's spare room come from?
I started the book first with just a title, then just an image of a man by himself in a room who's unsure as to why he's in there and has no way out.
Then the shadow of Kafka began to interplay with the image. Was he there against his will? Why? What outside forces were holding him there, or were they psychological, or both, and how are these related? Anyway, at this stage I was envisaging a classic, first person narrative. Ha ... when I came to write it, of course, it refused first person, would only be seen from the outside, and from a multiple point of view since the question, the conundrum, is the impetus rather than any answer. It became a book about living with the strangeness and the knownness of others, and the strangeness and the knownness of ourselves.
Despite the ascetic nature of his seclusion, Miles becomes - very plausibly - a celebrity. Were you making a comment on the superficial nature of celebrity culture?
I think it's exactly that - plausible, in terms of this story. That's what would happen. I also sense that celebrity culture is a kind of huge cavernous racketing edifice, a huge wish-fulfilment need and vacuum, so if it's a comment on anything it's on our human facility and desire to make things, and ourselves, meaningful. Plus, it's also maybe a reflection of the original Greenwich Fair, which Dickens recognised both the healthiness of and the feveredness of, in terms of what it's like, to live in a city.
The only character to establish communication with Miles, in the novel's present, is the delightfully precocious nine-year-old Brooke. Why does she manage to do so when he is unresponsive to the others?
She's the only one to try a door which most people believe is locked, and finds it's open, finds it's been unlocked for months. In other words, she's the only one to respond in a spontaneous way to an ostensible status quo.
For much of the book, Miles is seen through other people's eyes and through their memories of him. Do you think this makes for a more realistic portrait of someone new to the reader, given that generally our impression of the people we know of but haven't met is formed in much the same way?
I like this reading very much. I think reader engagement is pretty much the whole point. I tend myself, too, to prefer the sort of fiction which asks me to be there, to be present, take part in the act of putting it together.
In a way this book asks its readers to be communal too, to take part in it.
The two elderly characters in your book, May and the grandfather in Miles' story, are perhaps the most subversive. Do you think they contrast with the liberal middle-class characters who think of themselves as free-thinking but are perhaps more conventional than they realise?
I think both those characters have their subversions and their actually really terrible conservatisms much as all the other formed adult characters have. But age, like youth, confers certain freedoms and particular wisdoms, and can come in at an unexpected (because often unheard or overlooked or ignored) angle on things, as people find themselves confined to category and fight back against it with all their/our human individuality and originality.
It is the outsiders in your book who are the most original and open-minded thinkers. Do you feel that contemporary society is becoming more unwelcoming to alternative points of view?
Hmm. I think everybody in this book is in some way an outsider, to be honest. And I think as the world grows informationally both larger and smaller there'll be new widening of the mainstream, what you might call a global mainstream. But humans are erratic and original and gifted and different, and always have been, and always will be, and that's a fruitful source of life, dimension, fertility and survival regardless of the pressures of any streaming, main or otherwise.
This is by no means the first time in which you've written about the manners and mores of the middle class. Why do you feel you're drawn to this sector of society?
It's where I live.
The futures of many of the characters are left quite open. Do you think writers are often under pressure from the readers' expectations to tie things up neatly?
The satisfactions of tied up neatnesses are huge, and comforting, and a real pleasure. There are lots and lots of writers who do it beautifully. I think my impetus is probably to offer other satisfactions, other neatnesses, other comforts. Fiction is fantastically elastic, as shapeshifting as human imagination itself. I like very much the notion of an open book, a book that's still open even after you've closed it.
Much of your published writing is short stories and even this book and Hotel World are multi-stranded narratives which belie this. Do you have a preference for writing them or has it been more about suiting the form to the stories you've wanted to tell?
I don't really get a choice. And, at the heart of things, I think I believe that there's never just one version or story, and that stories exist multifacetedly, multivocally, plurally, and that their wholeness is the revelation of a coming-together, a necessarily communal act.
You've established yourself as an author with a very devoted fanbase. Why do you think readers have developed such enthusiasm for your writing?
I'm bloody lucky to have such readers. Here's to them.