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.
Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel “What Was Lost“, published by small independent publisher Tindal Street Press , has enjoyed the most extraordinary success – nominated for most of the major literary prizes and finally bagging the Costa First Novel Award (formerly the Whitbread) late last year. Despite being bombarded by press attention, Catherine kindly agreed to be interviewed by me (RosyB) for Vulpes and I promised not to ask the same old questions about her time as a postman back in the day. Most of this conversation took place over email with Catherine at various hotels and departure lounges as she set out on a US and Australian tour.
SUMMARY OF WHAT WAS LOST
What Was Lost is the story of Kate, a neglected child during the 80s, who occupies herself by dreaming of becoming a private detective and spending her time “investigating” and stalking “criminals” around and about the new Green Oak shopping centre. The book then changes gear to move forward in time and follows the lives of some of those working in and around the shopping centre in 2003. Kate has disappeared and a man has been forced to move away. But then, one night, a security guard at the centre is certain he sees a small girl bearing a distinct similarity to the child detective on one of his monitors…
You can read Leena’s Review of What Was Lost for Vulpes here.
INTERVIEW (with RosyB)
Q.”What Was Lost” is an ambiguous title and seems to describe many things about the book: specifically a lost child, but, more thematically, a lost way of life (many reviews have made a lot of the encroaching shopping mall and loss of community this implies) but I was also interested in something you said in an interview I was reading. You described the detective books that Kate is reading as being ones you had as a child and how they encouraged children to follow strange men down dark streets: something people would NEVER encourage today.
As one of the strands of the book deals with the accusation of a young man who was friends with Kate, I was wondering if there was also a sense of lost innocence, both symbolised by a child of course, but perhaps more to do with wider society itself? Maybe even in attitudes and suspicion. What would you say about this – the title and themes of loss – and how conscious were you when writing the book of these themes?
There were various forms of loss that I wanted to explore in the book.The loss of a child, the loss of that childhood sense of purpose, the loss of a landscape, the loss of direction in life, loss of loved ones etc. Set against the loss though, was friendship which was another important theme in the book. I wanted to write about friendships that maybe seemed less conventional – for example between an adult man and a little girl. I didn’t want Kate just to be a symbol of innocence, I wanted her to be someone real with a vivid personality and as such she could form a friendship with another personality regardless of age. Like most people I think it’s sad that such friendships are far more difficult now. I don’t think that’s due to the world being more dangerous, but more due to a certain heightened sensitivity and, at times, hysteria about children and predators in the UK.
Q. What you say about loss, suspicion and lack of different friendships really interested me. Do you think things like the tabloid hysteria about paedophilia and the suspicion of strangers has lead to the more fractured, impersonal world you seem to be depicting in What Was Lost? That people’s own fear is fragmenting, their sense of community (very Michael Moore-sounding but hopefully you know what I mean.)
I think the media hysteria and prurience has engendered wider distrust and a certain
ugliness of thought which I don’t think has improved society or made us safer. I don’t suppose suspicion or fear have ever done much to bind communities.
Q: I know you will probably hate me for asking this and a lot has been made of this particular strand, but the Green Oak shopping centre certainly dominates the landscape of the book and does seem very symbolic. Did you have a symbolism in mind? Or is the use of the shopping centre a lot less concrete than that?
I never saw the need for Green Oaks to symbolise anything wider, because what it was in itself was fascinating and rich enough for me, but having said that, certainly the emptiness and purposelessness I depict there is not something I think ends at the sliding doors to the centre. I didn’t intend the book to be a straightforward attack on shopping centres, or some hymn to local shops. My feelings are more complicated than that – the idea of the smiling, benevolent local shopkeeper can be comically far from the truth. Similarly I don’t think spending time aimlessly wandering around a shopping centre is necessarily any more empty or lonely an experience than spending time walking in the countryside. I think maybe many of us aren’t really sure what to do with ourselves or our lives and consumerism is just one manifestation of our flailing around.
Q. One of the things that struck me is the use of disparate anonymous voices. Being from a drama background, I immediately read this a bit like a chorus and, linked to above, this seemed to indicate a widening out of the themes into society. How did you get the idea for this approach? What were the initial reactions from publishers and agents and indeed from reviewers to this unusual device?
Some of the voices were the first things I wrote and for me they were always absolutely integral to the book. I never thought of them as at all unusual, or problematic but it’s true to say that some people early on weren’t so keen. I suppose over the years I’d seen a fair amount of devised/non-narrative theatre and so some small hint of fragmented voices and narratives seemed natural. I always thought of them as the background hum at Green Oaks – the voices in the static.
You say ” I’d seen a fair amount of devised/non-narrative theatre “. Me too! And I loved that effect of fragmented voices that you achieved. As you say, very theatrical. I, too, have found that using, what seem to me to be, conventional methods in theatre can throw people in the book world – do you think books are slightly inward-looking and could borrow more from other forms?
A lot of writers already do borrow from other forms, I think ideas and forms of expression naturally cross-pollinate, but yes at the same time some people will always resist that and be entirely thrown by any variation from established patterns. Some people dislike ambiguity and blurred edges, not just in books but in any art form. That sounds as if I think I’m really out there and incredibly experimental – don’t worry I’m not so deluded, but I do enjoy that hybrid process.
Q. Leena was interested in the fact that some people defined your book as crossover teen/adult – in fact I think that certain reviewers like Susan Hill recommended it for teenagers. Perhaps this is because you wrote with such a convincing child voice. How you relate to genre?
I don’t really think about genre. Some people see the book as young adult, others as mystery, others as a ghost story and others still as none of those. If young adults like the book then I’m delighted. Based on the readers I have met and spoken to about the book I think you could probably just as accurately describe it as ‘senior citizen fiction’.
Humour and Sadness
Q. For me it is the humour that really lifts this book above the norm, it makes it engaging and also more human – something I felt was very important to your themes. But I have read some criticism of your use of humour. Did you ever question using humour with such sad subject-matter and do you think the book world tends to misunderstand or devalue humour in books?
It really wasn’t anything I did self-consciously. A mixture of humour and sadness seems to me to be an honest representation of the world. I can’t understand people who think it is in someway contrived. Who doesn’t see the absurdity in their job, in their family and in the people around them? It seems rather limited if you can only appreciate sadness, or humour, but not a mixture of the two.
Q. It is a bit of a cliche but it is often said that prizes usually go to bleak books. Do you think that people misunderstand comedy/humour when it comes to things like awards?
I don’t really know what goes on with awards, but perhaps some people feel a conflict between importance and humour. Maybe they feel that a book isn’t making serious points if it makes them smile. I’ve never found that humour in writing detracts from the bleakness or tragedy that might also be there. I think of writers I love like Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace and see their works combining humour and sadness and more. I’ve just read Joshua Ferris’s ‘Then We Came to the End’ and think it’s another excellent example.
The Journey of an Award-winning Novel
The progress of “What Was Lost” has been incredible to watch. For a small, independently published, debut novel to be nominated for most of the major prizes is phenomenal. I was reading on Eve’s Alexandria about the journey the book had undertaken with the support of Crockatt and Powell and the blogosphere. Could you tell us a bit more about how that all happened (and big up book blogs a bit for us too while you are at it!).
My agent, Lucy Luck, deserves full credit for Crockatt and Powell’s early involvement with the book. She recommended the bookshop as the venue for the London launch and I’m so glad that she did. I was fairly terrified at the prospect of a London launch, and the image I had of independent booksellers (sadly having virtually no models in Birmingham on which to base my preconceptions) only added to the terror. I’m not sure what I had in mind, but Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady was somewhere in the mix. Instead I found Matthew and Adam who wanted to talk about the Stone Roses and share customer anecdotes.
Their support and enthusiasm for the book from that early stage was amazing. They run a great bookshop. They love books and can talk about them with love but without pretension and they are more interested in serving their customers than the empty gestures of ‘customer service’. Because of these things, people respect their opinions. Through the C and P blog, through word of mouth and other mysterious means other excellent booksellers like Wenlock Books and The Bookseller Crow on the Hill picked up on the book, as of course did literary blogs.
Everyone knows how easy it is for a book to sink without trace if it doesn’t have a big marketing budget behind it or if it fails to make the chain store promotions. Literary bloggers who seek out books, who see beyond the big promotions and who can then write clearly and honestly about those books and enthuse other readers about them are a powerful antidote to that. I sense I’m preaching to the converted here, but as Chuck D once said (it’s possible he wasn’t writing about independent booksellers and literary blogs – but I’m sure he’d extend the sentiment): ‘we got to fight the powers that be’.
Q. Much has been made of the fact that What Was Lost took a long time to find a home. What would your advice be to new writers?
I’m not sure I’m in a position to give any. It’s laughable that I get described as dogged, it’s a great disservice to all those genuinely dogged writers out there who have overcome far greater odds than I did.
My family and friends are incredulous that I am in any way perceived to have qualities of tenacity and determination. I sent the manuscript to 15 agents, which didn’t seem that many to me, and in all honesty I probably would have given up after not too many more because getting published wasn’t the most important thing in the world to me, so I’m hardly a shining example.
I suppose my very trite advice would be to write because you enjoy it and because you have something you want to write about, not solely in the hope of publication. As writers, we have no control over that, and there is a chance it will never happen because it’s a lottery, so we shouldn’t let that rejection determine the value of what we’ve done.
Perhaps that sounds defeatist but I don’t intend it to. I think be ambitious for your own work and for what you can achieve, but not for things you have no control over. Send it out by all means, but only if the rejection won’t hurt you too much.
Q. Lastly can you recommend 5 favourite books for our readers?
Today I will choose:
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
Ripley’s Game – Patricia Highsmith
Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
– but tomorrow it could be a different
Vulpes would like to thank Catherine for answering our questions (despite the difficulties of finding internet connections in airports all over the world).
Other coverage of What Was Lost
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