Interviewed by Dan Shurley
You’ve said that what people don’t say can be more interesting than what they do say, and that there is power in silence. How did you square this insight with the expectation that a memoir give us the “soul laid bare”?
My novel, Swimming Home, explores the catastrophe of silence for Joe, the Polish-born British poet, in regard to what happened his Jewish parents in Poland in 1943. That is a very noisy silence.
As for memoir. Expectations for the memoir form are there to be upended. If we already think we know how a memoir behaves, why not give it another sort of behavior? There is a great deal of silence in The Cost of Living—it is a very partial “living autobiography,” so called because it is not written in retrospect at the end of life, but while I am living it. The “I,” that is the narrator, is an avatar for myself, but she is constructed in a way that is not so different from the ways in which I might construct a character in a novel. I don’t think a soul laid bare is the best way to go in any sort of writing—there is nothing left for the reader to find out.
Favorite Bowie album?
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I still think it has the best lyrics and the whole atmosphere is sexy, theatrical, poetic and somewhat hysterical.
A powerful chapter in The Cost of Living comes in the form of an imagined conversation between you and your mother, whose death was hard for you to accept. “I don’t see ghosts,” you write, “but I can hear you listening.” Have you written anything previously or since that are as directly in dialogue with your mother?
It is assumed that my novel, Hot Milk, is in part about my own relationship with my mother. This is not really the case—though I draw on some of her wit and some of her attitudes.
If you weren’t a writer would you rather be a shaman, a plumber, or an ornamental hermit?
Oh, a plumber for sure. They earn good money in the UK. I mean a plumber can also be a shaman and an ornamental hermit, right?
I do like taking things apart and putting them together again. It’s similar to writing. If there is a leak in your bathroom, the plumber has to find out where it’s coming from—where does it start? What writer has not asked herself that question?
There’s a scene in The Cost of Living where you try to explain a “technique for flashback in the present tense” to a room full of skeptical movie executives. Would you care to elaborate on this? You’re dealing with a much friendlier audience here…
Ha! You’re referring to that chapter when I got stuck for words in that meeting with the movie executives? My point was that we don’t have to tell the past in flashback. In Swimming Home, Kitty Finch hallucinates young Joe as a boy walking through the wall of the spare room. He carries an egg in his pocket. Later Jozef tells her the story of stealing eggs for his mother in Poland. She already knows about that time in his past, because she believes he is in telepathy with him. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that is true or not, but the point is she is revealing his past to the reader in the present tense.
If you think of a film like Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a 79-year-old man takes a long car journey and on the way visits his childhood house. So Bergman has him open the door in the present tense of the film, and sitting inside the house at the table is himself as a young man, with his family and his former sweetheart. Stuff happens, then he shuts the door and we’re back in the present tense of the film. Now that sounds like a crude, well worn, rather creaking technique, but actually, its cinematic effect is much more uncanny than it appears to be when described on the page.
In Hot Milk there is a very subtle slippage of time in a few paragraphs in the book. I have the present tense slip into the past tense and back again. I did not want this to be a big deal, otherwise I would have made it a big deal, but Sofia, the main protagonist, is losing her grip on time so the writer is moving the hands of the clock back and forth to make the present co-exist with the past.
You write in Things I Don’t Want to Know that “a female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.” The Cost of Living also takes on subjects that vex you—patriarchal standards of normalcy, the performance of femininity—but the writing is calm and clear. Have you found a way to harness the anger? How do you get to the calm writing place?
As Marguerite Duras told us, writers have to be stronger than their material.
Read anything good lately?
I am very much admiring The Little Virtues, by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s a portrait of Italy in the twentieth century, told through objects—worn-out shoes, moneyboxes, etc. Her prose style is deceptively simple and very complex. Its effect on the reader is both calming and thrilling—that’s not so easy to do.