You’ve written in a range of forms including essays, novellas, stage and radio plays, short stories and of course novels. Do you decide on the form first or does the subject do the dictating?
Some ideas are just better suited to a novel than a short story – and vice versa. Obviously, the novel has a slower burn, there’s more for the writer and reader to do, more to reveal, more to conceal. A short story has to make a world very quickly - I love writing them for this reason.
Sofia describes her mother’s feet as being ‘on strike’ but her jaw still being fully functioning in order to express her resentment. Do you think people do consciously withdraw into illness as a way of not facing up to their issues, or is the process more subconscious?
It’s not a new idea that we can all withdraw in to illness as a way of not facing stuff that is too overwhelming. Or as a way of controlling other people, or of gathering love and attention to us. Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes unconscious, and sometimes we are just plain ill. This conversation is older than Hippocrates and Freud. Take a look at Susan Sontag’s play, Alice in Bed; it’s about how a fiercely clever woman, Alice James, (sister to Henry and William James) - takes to her bed because she is full of rage and anguish. There is a question at the centre of Hot Milk – Sofia understands that her mother’s own wishes for herself, 'have been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.’ Does this have anything to do with her illness? There is not necessarily a yes or no answer to this question - and there is a twist at the end, naturally.
There is a sense of menace in the observations made of Sofia by Juan, the student who tends to her jellyfish wounds. Ingrid is a similarly ambiguous character. How far are these ambiguities actually extensions of Sofia’s confusion about her own identity and sexuality?
Juan is onside with Sofia. He says, 'I appear to be softer than you are, and you appear to be harder than I am. Do you think this is true, Sofia?' He is hinting that she has had to make herself harder because she needs to defend herself more than he does – so it is a reversal of the usual gender stereotype. Hot Milk does not comply with the idea that we always choose what is best for us and that we are all sorted, articulate and confident – or that life has no ambiguity.
When it comes to her summer encounter with enigmatic, beautiful Ingrid Bauer, Sofia thinks, 'She is not a safe person to love, but I’m prepared to take the risk.' The nurse, Julieta, is very skilled, but she also has her problems. Sofia’s father has not made contact with her for many years – he is a religious man and he appears to have a more loving relationship with his God than with his daughter.
Life is quite confusing, so it would be a mistake to erase confusion and ambiguity from the novel – or any art form for that matter. If Shakespeare had deleted Hamlet’s soliloquy, 'To be, or not to be…' would we still want to re-read Hamlet, or go see it more than once on the stage?
Sofia is an anthropologist, though she admits she is not very good at studying herself. In fact, for all her insights there is a passivity about her, a sense of her drifting much as the jellyfish that sting her do. Is the book’s epigraph ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’ as much for her as for her mother?
Yes, it’s up to Sofia to break the old circuits. Some of these are political. Sofia tells us that the only primitive person she has ever studied is herself. This is a riff on the old colonial anthropologists who went off to foreign lands to study Others, with no investigation of their own Otherness. Hot Milk is written in the first person, in Sofia’s voice. So the book itself, is her anthropological study.
There is something almost Shakespearean in Sofia’s desire to lose herself in order to find herself: ‘I am far away from shore but not lost enough…’ Is the Spanish fishing village of Almeria a version of the Shakespearean pastoral idyll?
Yes, in a way it is. The desert landscape of Almeria is sun parched and infinite. This is the big setting for Sofia, who in contrast, feels very small in her own life.
There is a dreamlike quality to Almeria, where actually almost nothing is as it seems, least of all the Gomez Clinic run by what could be a genius or a charlatan. How difficult was it to find the fine line between absurdity and the genuine possibility of healing?
Yes, I make that Rose’s dilemma, too. She wonders if Gomez is a serious doctor, or an absurd charlatan. So Rose is voicing your question. Gomez insists that his patient comes off what he calls, 'the ritual of her medication.' He offers her other rituals instead, which can sound absurd, such as making a list of those she considers to be her enemies. Rose is uneasy about him wanting to know about her grievances, the effect of these on her body and mind; Gomez is as interested in her family history and the words she choose when she speaks, as he is in her physical symptoms. At the same time, he is also a conventional consultant. He is conducting a number of scans and tests. In medicine, all really skilled doctors admit that there are grey areas, things they don’t fully understand. So Hot Milk is also looking at the dynamic of trust – the difficulties of trusting those who are in a position of caring for us – and of accepting that uncertainty is as big a part of life as certainty. Healing is not always a straightforward subject, as Sofia begins to understand.
Which qualities do you admire most in your favourite writers?
J.G. Ballard for his ideas – see my introduction to the re-print of his novel, Kingdom Come. Same with Maggie Nelson’s, The Argonauts, which I am reading now. I admire Marguerite Duras for her spare, poetic and deceptively simple prose; when it comes to literary technique, Duras is able to do almost anything with the novel. I am a great admirer of James Baldwin for the reach of the subjects he took on in all his novels; racism, sexuality, history, family. I read the great Muriel Spark for satire. I enjoy the Simenon books - especially the character of Maigret. I always read everything by Darian Leader and Adam Phillips.
Do you have other projects on the go and can you say anything about them?
I am currently writing the sequel to my essay, 'Things I Don't Want to Know'. I might even be writing something else, too, and it refers to Simenon’s fictional detective, Maigret. Also making notes for my next novel – which is set in one particular winter in the snow of Berlin. So, I will be swapping a swimming costume for a heavy overcoat in my next fiction… better put something interesting in the pockets then?