We chat to the award-winning novelist and author of the nervy and lyrical new novel Reasons She Goes to the Woods about her writing and the inspiration behind the book.
What prompted you to write Reasons She Goes to the Woods?
I wanted to explore the memory of a sneaking, deeply-felt feeling I’d always had as a child that my father put up with my mother and younger sister, when really he would have preferred it to be just me and him.
What made you choose to write the novel in such short, condensed snippets?
The memories we have, at least the memories I have, especially early memories, are often blasts of colour, or vivid stand-alone scenes that leap out across the years. They consist of smells, glints of sunlight, desolate feelings, unexplained euphoric moments, new tastes, all sorts of potent, often perplexing snippets. I wanted to pick each one up and examine it, shape it into something else, something beautiful and mysterious. I wanted the book to be like an album of old photos you come across, start flicking through, and get drawn in to. It seemed a perfect way to tell this particular story. It was the best way to express the very singular way Pearl experiences her world.
You have described the book as ‘the kind of story that many people do not want writers to tell’. Where do you think this reluctance comes from?
Have I? How very all-seeing of me! I do think there is a reluctance to look at the sometimes troubling, often surprisingly dark complexities of childhood. Children have secret, inner lives. Because of the liminal, partially grasped understanding they have, children’s perspectives and interpretations of the adult world are unique and sometimes unsettling to think about. Of course, my book looks at something that makes us squirm. Pearl loves her father. She wants him for herself. She thinks he understands that. For her it is very simple. She needs to get rid of her mother. And so her quest begins. There is a way in which her desire is entirely (or almost) innocent; she does not fantasise about her father as a sexual partner. I was not interested in telling that story. In fact, from the tale of Electra on, others have already been there. So yes, this is a troubling idea, and rightly so. Hence the reluctance.
Do you expect people to identify strongly with the novel?
I have no idea if people will identify with it. Maybe we have all, at some time in our lives, experienced a wrongheaded desire for something that is so strong we have been overcome by it. I don’t know. That’s the joy of writing; you can push some one out there into the arena, under the hot sun, and prod them mercilessly to see what they’ll do next. I hope readers will understand Pearl, and care about her enough to go on reading.
How much of the book comes from your own childhood?
One of the wonderful things I experienced when writing this book was the opportunity to go back. I could smell the exhaust from the ice-cream van that visited our street, taste those glowing blackberries, visit my damp bedroom, smell my musty bookcase. The nature passages especially were close to idyllic reverie. So many things came from my childhood. But of course, the book is fiction. Dear reader, I made lots of stuff up.
Which other authors have influenced your writing? What similarities or parallels are there between Reasons She Goes to the Woods and other novels?
I agree that the girls/women I write about appear self-destructive. It’s not something I deliberately do, but each time, there they go; careering around, hurting themselves and others, battering their hard little heads against the world. What I am interested in is looking at individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they think they want. I like that tunnel-vision. That single-mindedness. Maybe because I’m not like that. I am a compromiser, a see-er of all sides of the argument (essential for a writer, I think), so I get excited about creating characters who are fearless and passionate, bonkers and tough. I like warrior-girls. I like to see how they crash and burn.
Without claiming anything grandiose for myself, I see Pearl as a tiny link in the long chain of much-loved, fascinating females I’ve grown up with; Millie Molly Mandy; Jo March; Jane Ayre; Lucy Snowe; Emily Bronte’s Catherine; Claudine; Lolita, and Nancy Mitford’s Linda Radlett, to name but a few. All (well, maybe not M M M. She’s a pleaser.) have a singular quality I find alluring. Nabokov and Colette are hugely influential. Both these writers showed me how limitless the possibilities are. Similarities? I’m not sure.
You write poetry, short stories and novels - do you have a favourite form, or find any particularly difficult? How did you start writing and where do you take your inspiration from?
I started to write in my mid-thirties when I embarked on an Eng Lit degree. I didn’t even consider my choices. Poetry came naturally to me. It fitted with what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Years before, as a fifteen-year old, I devoured poetry and drifted around the fields with a notebook wringing out limp verse like a lot of adolescents, so when I started writing in earnest, poetry was my thing. From that BA portfolio I published a collection of poems called Things You Think I Don’t Know. Then I embarked on a Creative Writing MA and had to make a hard-headed choice. I knew I wouldn’t be able to churn out a huge collection of poems to order for the required portfolio. Short stories seemed the way to go; less emotional digging out required. So I wrote short stories, and loved it. I published selected stories from that portfolio and called it Grace, Tamar and Laszo the Beautiful. Then I fell into writing novels. I don’t know why. And now I can’t contemplate writing in any other way.
See all of the above for reasons why I stared writing. I trawl through my own life for inspiration. I find a little idea or memory, and pull it like you’d pull a scrap of dry skin from a nearly-healed wound. And underneath I find something juicy to work on.
Is there anywhere that you particularly enjoy writing, or anything that you find helps you write?
I have to sit at my desk in front of my steam-powered computer. And nothing helps. It’s the blank screen and the battle to fill it, every time.