The Water Cure is your disturbingly beautiful debut novel. How did you find the transition to a full novel from writing short stories, and where did the idea for this book come from?
The Water Cure was originally going to be a book about an eco-disaster - a family living in a flooded world on an oil rig. But I realised, during the period of writing the book, that I was concentrating too hard on things like the logistics of how you would live on a rusty old oil rig, how you would get water etc - and this was because I was scared of interrogating what was at the real heart of the story. The heart was actually about how to be a woman in the world, how the relationships with other women (such as the sisters) can be a fortification against how dangerous it often feels just to exist. That was the real disaster, not a flooded world. So I threw away the oil rig and just thought: what if men were literally toxic to women? What if there was a place they could go to be safe from them? And I went from there.
I actually prefer writing novels to short stories. There’s something so satisfying about living with the same story for a while and seeing it develop and grow longer, creating a detailed world, and working everything out. I really enjoyed thinking about every aspect of the world of The Water Cure - the environment, their grand but decaying home, the mysterious history of their community - and then also having total control over what could be revealed to the reader, and when.
With this being your debut novel, and being a writer at the start of your career I was wondering if you could tell us about a book or author that inspired you to become an author?
I was very inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager - I think it was the first book I ever read that properly blew my mind, I read it in about two days flat. It lit something up in me because it was the first book to properly show me how powerful words could be, and also to show me how much possibility there was in science fiction - how you didn’t have to stick to one genre, but you could borrow lots of things.
I was also very inspired by The Magic Toyshop, which I read in my late teens. At that time I was making my first proper forays into writing fiction, and I wanted to be Very Profound And Realistic, so I wrote deeply boring stories about teenagers doing deeply boring, gritty things. Reading The Magic Toyshop reminded me that magic could exist everywhere, and taught me a lot about the power of the uncanny. There are plenty of very ordinary things in The Water Cure - tinned foods, household objects, sibling rivalries - but I wanted to give everything a sinister cast. Sometimes that can be the most frightening, magical thing of all.
Your book is on an island, and tells the story of three sisters kept away from society for their own protection, practising a mix of rituals and superstitions. The women use water to purify or punish themselves. I was wondering if this practice is based upon real rituals or events?
These rituals were loosely inspired by the historic use of hydrotherapy and spas, especially in the 1800s. There were many techniques all designed to ‘purify’ and fix the body, and there is this aura of miracle to water therapy, for example pilgrimages to Lourdes where people are miraculously healed. The history of hydrotherapy is really interesting, but to be honest I didn’t want to research it too much - I wanted the therapies to have a uniqueness to them, and to be ones tailored for this strange world. For example, there is a therapy that involves the girls sitting in a sauna, but in this therapy they are sewn into sacks and forced to remain in the heat until they faint, which is clearly not normal. Water has been used for thousands of years as a basis for methods of torture too. It’s an element that’s essential to your life, something we take for granted, but can also be dangerous and used for great harm - which is how a lot of things function in the novel.
The book is set at a time when society has suffered a horrific breakdown. Why do you think readers and writers are so drawn to the dystopic?
I feel like at the moment the world is quite a scary, rapidly-changing place, and maybe there’s a degree of looking at dystopian fiction as a way of coming to terms with this - a sort of ‘practice run’ for what the future might become, a preparation. Dystopian fiction to me is a way to explore what could happen, to look at our own world as much as the created one by positing hypotheticals. But at the same time it is a form of escapism, and maybe even a comfort, because it shows you how much worse things can get, and yet how there is hope even in some really bleak scenarios (think of the popularity of The Road, which was so dark, but still held up the enduring nature of love throughout). For me, the appeal of the dystopian was that I could elements of what was happening in our world and place them in a petri dish of my own creating; a claustrophobic, isolated community of women, then the men introduced at exactly the right time.
There is a large patriarchal presence at the heart of the book, ruling over most of the characters. I wonder if you could tell us what you think about the role of the patriarch within the more recent wave of feminist fiction?
I don’t find it surprising at all that there’s a renewed interest in fiction written by woman that challenges and explores the influence of patriarchy over us; it really is the air that we breathe, and with movements such as #MeToo it’s at the front of many people’s minds currently. Men still wield a disproportionate amount of power; so many policies and structures that harm and disadvantage women still exist, particularly marginalised groups. I know that I wrote the book partly because I felt angry; I didn’t set out to write a feminist polemic, but I did want to write a book of women’s voices, something which explored the frustration of being a woman in a world that feels harmful, even during the oil rig days. It’s not a coincidence that we only hear the perspective of the women in The Water Cure.
Could you tell us anything about any projects you are working on now? Are you still writing short stories?
I’m still writing short stories - I find switching between long and short forms very beneficial, I feel like it activates different parts of my writing brain. I’m working on another novel too, something that feels very strange after spending so long in the world of The Water Cure - remembering that actually writing a novel is this weird, sloppy meandering process (at least it is for me) is quite a shock to the system. But above all, it’s fun! I really don’t prescribe to the idea that writing is this tortured creative process. I love doing it and always have, and feel enormously privileged to be doing it, even partly, as my job.