About The Author
Luke Williams was born in 1977. He grew up in Fife, Scotland, and now divides his time between Edinburgh and London.
The Echo Chamber is his first novel. Luke studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where he was taught by W G Sebald, who was a huge influence on him. On his debt to Sebald, Luke says, 'What I hope I took most from him was his freedom with the novel form, his blending of genres and awareness of ghosts in fiction. I tried to approach writing The Echo Chamber with this kind of freedom and awareness'. Luke has contributed a chapter to Saturn's Moons: A W.G. Sebald Handbook.
Set in the dying days of the British Empire in Nigeria, Luke's debut novel charts the strange life of Evie Steppman, who can hear things no one else can. Later, alone in an attic in Scotland, Evie's powers of hearing are starting to fade, and she must write her story before it disintegrates into a meaningless din.
Foyles caught up with Luke to find out about his fascination for Nigeria, why he invited a friend to contribute two chapters to his book and how he pays homage
to some of his favourite authors.
Author photograph courtesy of Natasha Soobramanien
The Author At Foyles
Part of the story is set in Scotland, where you grew up. Did you also have a connection with Nigeria and if not, how did your fascination with the place at this particular moment in its history, on the eve of independence, come about?
I don't have a personal connection to Nigeria. My fascination for the country grew via the brilliance of Nigerian writers I read in my late teens, writers like Amos Tutola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri, Ken Saro-Wiwa and others. These writers gave me vivid and complex impressions of the country, drawing me into to the physical, social and cultural landscapes. When I went on to study West African history at university, focusing on the colonial period, my original vision of Nigeria was filled out with what I learned about the presence of the British there. It was the encounter between the two powers, and the resulting conflicts of belief, religion and language (coming to a head at eve of independence) that inspired the novel. The end of empire and the beginning of a new era for Nigeria released incredible energies. I hope some of those energies are captured in the book.
It's hugely ambitious for a first novel. Did it start out that way or did it take on a life of its own?
I started out wanting it to be much larger in scope. In my head it was to be a kind of luminous document, an encyclopaedic book that included all other books. Needless to say, this proved more difficult to realise than I'd imagined. One way 'around' my difficulties was to inscribe them within the narrative itself. So, as the book progressed and grew further away from my original ambitions for it, I had my narrator, Evie, start to doubt her own memories and the ability of language to capture her past, until finally she comes to lose her faith in narrative altogether - or faith in her own narrative at least. By the end of the book she shuts herself away with some papers and a few tins of beans for company, and that's just about how I felt on finishing writing. I guess the book became about the loss of wild ambition, amongst other things.
You are quite scathing about the role of the British in Nigeria, a 'muddled bunch' with 'something to prove' and largely arrogant, ignorant and cowardly. Did they leave any positive legacy?
That's a difficult question to answer. And I'm not an expert. If you judge the immediate political aftermath I would have to say no. Less than a decade after independence Nigeria was embroiled in a brutal civil war. Of course there were some positives. For instance, the British introduced the English language, wielded so brilliantly by many Nigerian writers.
There are some historical encounters that are difficult to speak about without a thorough re-examination of the historical record, even a reinvention of the critical language. And there are others that require simple polemic, a kind of myopia, because the encounter has been forgotten or whitewashed. An example would be the Benin Massacre and subsequent British military expedition of 1877, an episode recounted in The Echo Chamber. In the case of the colonial legacy more generally, I think the summary view is quite clear. The British presence in Nigeria inflicted violence on the country and its people and, whatever the aims, rhetoric, or positives, this was done primarily for profit with little regard for the human cost.
One of the book's themes is the power of stories and storytelling, both to preserve and even arrest life - did you always know you were going to be a storyteller?
I was never a very good storyteller. There were kids at school - I'm thinking of one in particular - who, speaking in the playground, could turn the tiniest occurrence into a fantastic series of events, a story. So I was always aware of the allure of stories and of a storyteller's power. But I was pretty shy and didn't like the focused attention you got through telling a story to a group. So when I found that in writing I could sometimes achieve what that boy at school achieved, it was an intoxicating feeling. But after a while the allure faded a little, as I began to think it wasn't enough just to tell stories. I began to want to use them to try and speak about impossible things, to reach a realm of meaning that is not quite sayable. That's still what I'm after. That's the really difficult thing.
It's hard to think of another book in which sound - and silence - and deafness take centre stage. Where did that preoccupation come from?
The preoccupation came from many things (including being teased mercilessly at school for having huge ears!). But perhaps the most fundamental reason is that, as well as wanting to tell a compelling story, I wanted the book to ask questions about language and narrative. I was inspired by writers like Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. As is well known in the case of Beckett, he mistrusted language and, while still writing, came perhaps as close to silence as is possible. I wouldn't for one moment compare my book to Beckett's work. But it seems to me that after reading him, it's hard to write innocently, to tell a simple story.
With this in mind I chose to highlight listening, sound and silence as a theme in the The Echo Chamber, which I then developed into an examination of language's ability to speak truthfully or otherwise about our pasts. My aim was to create this massively multi-vocal cacophony of a book that would end in silence, like the proverbial and literal silence after a storm.
You also embedded passages from, among others, Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, George Perec's Life and Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles. How do these books link to your own?
I mentioned earlier that as the book progresses my narrator loses faith in her ability to record her past. She discovers that the process of translating her primarily aural memories into words is more problematic than she supposed. Meanings get lost and twisted, and she realises that, in the process of writing, she's changing, perhaps even contaminating, her past. For that reason, she eventually decides she would rather stop writing than wield what she sees as a corrupt language. But this process is gradual, so her first step is to adopt the practice of transcription - that is, turning to other people's words in the form of their stories, diaries, letters, and so forth, rather than producing any more words of her own. In keeping with the spirit or trajectory of the book, it seemed natural to select passages from certain of my favourite books and to include transcriptions of these in The Echo Chamber too.
Inviting someone else to write two chapters seems an incredibly brave thing to do. How did it come about and how did you know it would work out? Did you have a Plan B in case you weren't happy with the outcome?
I met my friend Natasha Soobramanien - who wrote these chapters - when we were both studying on the Creative Writing MA at UEA. That's where I started the novel. So she'd seen it from the beginning and knew my ambitions for it almost as well as I did. Natasha is a hugely talented writer, so I knew she'd produce something beautiful and surprising.
The chapters she wrote are extracts from the diary of someone other than Evie, a past lover of hers, so there was no problem with this section being written by another author. And I specifically wanted the reader to be able to view Evie, whose perspective has dominated until that moment, through another's eyes. I guess if the experiment hadn't worked, I'd have found some way to inscribe this failure within Evie's own narrative. Because it wasn't just a case of my having written the whole book and then Natasha's section slotting in - it was more like a relay race where I handed her the baton and she ran with it for a bit (she only took up the challenge on the condition that I couldn't tell her what to write) then handed it back. In that sense it was more of a collaboration than a commission.
Evie's greatest tragedy, it seems, is being born and time does little or nothing to heal her, or indeed any of the characters. Did you ever envisage a different outcome for her or did her history make her future inevitable?
I really like that observation. There's a story I had in mind while writing The Echo Chamber. King Midas asks an old sage about the best thing for humankind. The old sage stays quiet for a long time, then laughs uproariously, before answering: 'The very best is unattainable. It is not to be born, not to exist, to be Nothing.'
That story was an important background for the book. And yet I think there is always the potential for an alternative outcome for Evie. Not only if events had happened differently around her, but also if she had been able to be less stubborn, less immutable in the face of change. Her character is idealist, and she is determined to live life, as it were, in the key of silence. When she discovers this is impossible, she doesn't know what to do. She refuses to adapt. But this isn't inevitable.
It's true that Evie's history is full of mishaps and misfortune, and by the end of the book she is silent and has basically withdrawn from the world. But it's also true that she is finally, although in a way she hadn't imagined, living as she wishes. And, of course, silence is an ancient form of protest. By withdrawing from life, Evie finds the time and ability to write her history, and it seems to me that to write, at least to write well, is to do something of value, is to come down on the side of life.
What's next, and do you have any plans for avoiding 'difficult second novel syndrome'?
My strategy for avoiding that is to work again and more extensively in collaboration with Natasha Soobramanien. We've begun a novel-length project, which will be a combination of fiction, autofiction and creative non-fiction. Like in The Echo Chamber, transcription will also be one of the narrative strategies. We're exploring the history of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago, a British colony, so this work obviously develops themes I've already engaged with. Natasha has explored similar themes in her own first novel, which she's just finished (it's called Genie and Paul, and it's stunning). I'd like to think that by working together we're moving from our individual first books to a joint third, skipping the tricky second altogether.