Questions & Answers
How did you decide on the unusual spare, poetic form of your novel? Did it start out this way or did it become what it is over time?
It started out this way, after years of trying other things. I was writing poems about motherhood, particularly about the physicality of the experience, stories about water, essays in diary-like snippets, and a novel about the births of successive generations of women. When I started The End We Start From the form seemed to be a meeting point of all these attempts. As I wrote certain rules, or aims, emerged; the book seemed to have its own imperatives, and I just needed to keep bringing the prose back in line with these. This sounds rather programmatic, but it felt quite instinctive, as though I was feeling my way in something that had its own logic. The image that comes to mind is of a thief picking a lock, waiting for the click.
It often felt important for the sentences to be unexpected in some way, to tell an engrossing story but also to draw attention to the language it was conveyed in, to the shape and rhythm of every line. My hope is that the spare form helps to give each word a particular weight and strangeness, as well as leaving space for readers to build their own relationships with the text.
How central was the editing process to achieve the economy of the final work? How conscious were you of having to strip and pare?
I treated each chapter as a discreet entity at draft stage, and would work over each one, weeding out anything that seemed to prevent the book from becoming what it wanted to be. I also did this as I worked, writing many lines that I just deleted immediately. But it wasn’t written as a longer work that was then pared back: it was always going to be very short. I knew immediately that it would have a certain scope, length-wise, and there was always a barrier in my mind that kept it at these limits. The formal editing process – once the book had been sold and I was working with my wonderful editors at Picador and Grove Atlantic – was actually mainly a process of extending, rather than stripping and paring. It was mostly a case of adding a little here and there – it was the most nerve-wracking part of it all for me, as I was terrified of adding too much!
Can you say something about the mythological and religious texts you’ve adapted for the book and which have the effect of universalizing what the characters are experiencing? Why were they important to you?
It was important to me to place the contemporary story in a very long-range context of human history, particularly in terms of our relationship to the natural world. Since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by disaster movies, by people being overwhelmed by natural forces, running from gigantic waves etc. As a culture we are increasingly obsessed by our own collective doom – understandably, in the face of climate change and nuclear weapons – and I wanted to situate this preoccupation in a larger time frame. I wanted to place different images and tones – modern and ancient – alongside each other, and see what atmospheres and insights this generated. There is a wealth of mythological and religious texture that lies behind a lot of our reflections on our place on the planet, but much of the time this doesn’t enter the contemporary imagination. So I wanted to place within the novel traces of the ancient roots of our current anxieties, a broader temporal framework to house this very present-moment, present tense narrative.
Why did you choose to use initials rather than full names?
I did this instinctively, but looking back it seems that the initials give the text dimensions of both intimacy and distance that are crucial. There is a sense that the narrator is writing to herself, and in this way there is no need for her to use full names for people – it is a form of shorthand. But my aim, of course, is for the reader to inhabit this same space – to see the characters as the narrator does, as people so real that they transcend their names. The people are in this sense very specific – beloved – but also non-specific, ‘every people’ who could be the reader’s son, or husband, or friend. In this non-specificity they are like characters in a myth or parable or fairy tale. But there is the other side too: in the way the narrator describes them I hope they are fully present, particularly in the case of the baby, Z. I suppose the closest thing I could compare this contrast to is people in dreams; they are both intimately experienced and at a distance: they are utterly themselves, and they could be anyone.
The narrator says, ‘Most past things are ridiculous now.’ Would it be healthier, do you think, or simply impossible to see the ridiculousness in our everyday present? How did writing about the future change your perception of your own present?
I think this is probably one of the main functions of literature, for me: to illuminate the ridiculousness that can otherwise go unnoticed. If something seems to be normal or socially acceptable, it can take time for people to trust their own judgement and intuition and voice their dissent (if ever). To take one relevant example, I see this to a degree in many of the discourses around parenting: so many things are now regarded as normal or desirable that years ago wouldn’t have been considered so. Some of these are probably helpful and encouraging, but I would venture that many of them are not. Many of them seem to drive people (often women) towards guilt and doubt, rather than confidence in their ability to care for their child.
Writing about a dystopian future definitely allowed me to strip everything back to the essentials: a woman and her baby, trying to form a relationship in the best way they can, in the face of change and danger. And, of course, that is what we are all doing anyway – trying to love each other despite our ultimate mortality.
Having a baby often feels like an upheaval and overturning of everything one previously knew. But here, it is Z that keeps those around him anchored: ‘There is only Z holding me to the earth.’ You dedicate the book to your mother and son. How did the experience of motherhood feed into the writing of the book?
For a long time, motherhood and literature seemed to be separate entities, and my experience of child rearing sometimes seemed at odds with my ambition as a writer. With this book, I wanted to bring the experience of having a baby right into the heart of a novel – not a peripheral event, but the main show, with the rest of the narrative shaped and anchored by this central experience. It felt like a powerful thing to bring motherhood, at a very corporeal, elemental level, into the core of my work, as though I was bringing these two spheres of my life together.
The dedication to my own mother reflects the fact that I wanted to write not only about motherhood, but also about babyhood: about the earliest experience of having a mother, which is (almost) universal. Everyone is a baby at some point, and the experience of forming a relationship with a primary carer is crucial to the formation of the mind. Considering this, I think it is remarkable how little of this early relationship is depicted in literature.
Z was conceived in safer times but how much of a leap of faith is any pregnancy? Were you conscious of making that same leap yourself?
I think pregnancy is a massive leap of faith, yes. There is a line in the book about pregnancy being ‘The great bravery’, and it’s amazing how much the body changes and shifts in this time: how the very landscape of the self is re-formed. In the book, this change is echoed in the world around the narrator in a very dramatic way, but we are all born in uncertain times.
Is it a blessing ‘how quickly the everyday fills up time again’? Is this what enables humans to continue even in the face of the most challenging, life-threatening circumstances? Are the British particularly ‘good’ at it, do you think?
In this part of the book there is a glimpse of the kind of utopian hopes that can emerge from disasters, and that form a strong part of our collective fantasy life now (going back to the land, house in the country, #vanlife etc). The narrator thinks that she has found a partial solution to the terrible situation - by withdrawing from it – but then discovers that she cannot fully withdraw, and also that daily life will always re-appear, wherever she goes. I always think of those Frank O’Hara lines: ‘the only thing to do is simply continue/is that simple/yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do’. With regard to Britishness, I’m not sure – there is a reference to making tea in a crisis, but I imagine that every culture has some version of this: ways to cope, things to hang onto.
The long-term inhabitants become refugees in their own country. Were you conscious of the irony of their having to inhabit makeshift camps, much like many refugees in some countries are having to do?
I wanted to imagine what it would be like for this to happen to someone in a familiar and nearby place, perhaps as a reaction against narratives about refugees that are couched in very abstract, distant terms. I also wanted to explore precariousness in all its forms: emotional, physical and existential. In the book, precariousness becomes all pervasive, and danger and home become synonymous: the threat of disaster can no longer be projected elsewhere. Suffering – on a large scale – is no longer something that happens to other people.
Do you feel we are on course for an environmental disaster of the scale you describe?
I fear so. Certainly people around the world are already being affected by flooding right now, and all the evidence points to this getting worse and worse, and to global sea-level rises which will threaten many coastal (and river-based) cities. The disaster in the book is deliberately vague, partly because I wanted to explore how any disaster of this nature could affect people’s sense of themselves and their relationship to their environment. It is difficult to conceive of threats to the planet far in the future, but babies being born now may well have to face serious, life-threatening consequences of climate change. That ‘fleshes out’ (literally) the reality of the situation: centres it on a real, living and breathing human life.
Can you say anything about other projects you have on the go or are planning?
I have found that talking (or writing) about current projects can threaten their continued survival! But I can say that I am currently working on some new sentences, which will hopefully become new short stories, and a new novel.