A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Perhaps you could start by talking about The Eyrie. War seems very important in the novel – from the Spanish Civil War to the most recent Iraq War.
I think perhaps The Eyrie is the child of the Iraq War: that bitter day when we woke to find we’d invaded Iraq – again – in March 2003, the year of lies. I’d been on the Million March and realised that the antiwar movement would be ignored. That we’d entered with the millennium into an age of total cynicism. As the war progressed, I began to meditate on the passing of the 20th century age of ideologies, to wonder what remained to the Left in Britain. From this were born Dora Urquhart and Eirlys Harries – and from heroic ageing women I’d met or glimpsed.
The novel centres on ‘Red Dora’, 92 year old socialist veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Paris barricades. Still raging in her twilight, never-say-die Dora opposes an unnamed Prime Minister, ‘the Butcher of Baghdad’, and devotes her declining energy to learning to hack into US military websites. My editor insisted that I should not name Tony Blair, as she did not want the book to be penalised as slanderous. She allowed me to call the Unnamed One a ‘warmonger’, though not a war criminal. He is a war criminal.
How interesting that ‘warmonger’ was allowed but ‘war criminal’ was not. I kept smiling every time Dora mentioned ‘Him’ or talked of ‘He’ with such fury. Right, I always hate it when people ask me this question but what the heck: how would you summarise the novel?
So I was asking in the novel: What is left to those of us who have in some sense outlived our lives? In the little world of party walls, a honeycomb of solidarities is built by the women of my novel – especially middle-aged Eirlys, veteran of Welsh language militancy, and Hannah, 20-something survivor of a commune upbringing and a stale marriage. What happens is that politics turns inwards, to the micro-community – towards our neighbour through the party wall – the politics of the heart, if you like. Is that reactionary? I don’t think so. It’s not always the easiest thing in the world, loving our neighbour, accepting her or his difference to ourselves. Dora, Scot and Trot, has come out on the bitter plateau of old age where the left wing seems to have failed. She’s the eagle in its last nest. Loving our next of kin is not always easy either: Dora learns to love the daughter she failed half a lifetime ago – Rosa, named after Rosa Luxemburg, with whom she’d quarrelled. The novel leads to unearthing of buried memories and the grave of Rosa.
So the novel is to do with history and memory: those are its deepest preoccupations. But rather the past experienced in solution with the present than the heroic past. Whereas in The Element of Water (2001), I took the reader back to Nazi Germany, The Eyrie is a lower-key reflection on the Spanish Civil War, important solely in its importance to Dora. And similarly Welsh language militancy as it affected Eirlys. I took inspiration for Dora from Republican women Nan Green, Margarita Nelken, Patience Darton. But she is close to home – I felt that, eerily, I grew to know her as a real person, though all the while I was inventing her. I do believe we get second chances in life – all of us – if we can just take them. It doesn’t matter if you are 92 or 29: growth is possible and even growth triggered by illusion (Dora mistakes Hannah for Rosa) is still growth, and valuable.
The novel is packed with the memories of its central characters. Old letters, old newspapers and old photographs appear and shake up the characters. It seemed there was real power in these artefacts from the past and I found that fascinating.
My novel retrieves memory for its people. And of course I am down in there with my characters – after all, they are all my children, their need forged out of mine, their histories my history. I’m completely obsessed with history. Wherever we look, history surprises us. So I planned that in – the books on Dora’s walls in which she’s thrust old letters like an external memory. We keep secrets even from ourselves. The garden of rest at All Saints, Oystermouth, where my parents’ ashes lie (with no monument – but I know) – is where I placed the remains of Rosa in the novel. The pouf Dora and Hannah tear open is full of old newspapers, which they read. Public records – censuses & certificates & reports published on the internet preserve history. The novel subverts MI5’s spying on the Left in the 50s, by letting Dora find her records – a sort of diary kept for Dora by the powers that be. I liked the irony of that.
I thought that moment with the old newspapers was incredibly moving. And Dora using the internet to track down her MI5 file was wonderful. All of these everyday moments, which M15 had helpfully catalogued and remembered. It was ironic and yet also quite beautiful. Right, so tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing and how did you get into writing?
I’ve been writing since I could hold the pen and always wanted to be a writer. I don’t know why – perhaps because of my childish passion for books. It was just what I did. My parents fostered my intellectual interests always, at a time when girls of our class (my father was a sergeant in the RAF) were not usually interested in their daughters’ education – or not as interested as in their sons’. I was an impossibly naughty child – and it says a lot for my parents’ patience that they stuck with me while I found out my own quietly rebellious path in life. Yes, I am a feminist: have always been one, for as long as I can remember.
Me too. So, you write and you’re also the Director of Creative Writing at Swansea University – how do you find the experience of teaching creative writing?
I have been teaching creative writing at Swansea for four years now: it is a beautiful thing to be able to share students’ writing with them and to be able to offer what fruits I have gleaned from experience and to be open to the special gift every one has. I learn a lot.
The Eyrie is set near Swansea and has a very Welsh flavour. Kith and Kin was the same. How important is place in your work?
Place is central to my work – as a nomadic RAF child, I lived in many places without putting down roots – Egypt, two trips to Germany, Scotland, as well as some years in Cornwall. In retrospect, I realise that each one of these places (in some of which I was very unhappy and out of place – two brutal Forces boarding schools in Germany, for instance) has given me the setting for a book. We see so vividly as children – colour is cardinal and the lights and shades so highly defined, our feelings are unmediated and we paint them on to scenes. Later we modify our judgements, of course – but the glowing or wincing responses are always there, exultation and despair. All emotion is valuable to a writer, both happy and painful response: it is an instrument of perception, a form of knowledge. The root and source of empathy. When I came to live in my hometown six years ago, I came home – where I shall remain.
Finally, could you share some thoughts on the book industry at the moment? Is it a good time to publish a novel, do you think? (I’m particularly interested in this as someone who’s just beginning to dip her toe in the book industry and finding it quite chilly…)
I think it’s difficult and can be painful – so many non-literary factors seem to be involved. To be young, beautiful and remarkable, or odd in some glamorous way, is perhaps a help. My advice though would be: just write – write your heart out and then worry about the industry part of it. Truth to self, terrific stories and inventiveness or beauty of language do seem to make their way through the grid, in the end.
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