- Welcome Ray. I have to say what a fine book Forgetting Zoe (your third novel) is. A powerful story of a kidnap victim and her relationship with her captor, the narrative voice is instantly compelling / convincing. How easy did the book’s voices come?
Thanks for asking me to do the interview, Tom.
Well, you’ve really opened up a can of worms here. The voices, as I’m sure you can guess, were a total ball-ache to nail. Naively, I’d set myself the challenge of locating the book in Arizona, where I’ve never been, and a set of islands off the Newfoundland coast, which are completely fictional. If the islands were to exist, then the islanders would speak with a mixture of the Newfoundland dialect -- Bristolian and South Eastern Irish -- and Anglicized Scandinavian, similar to the dialect spoken in the Orkney or Shetland Islands. This is based on the fictional premise that in 986AD, Bjarni Herjolfssonand, Erik the Red’s son, settled there after getting lost on his way to Greenland to find his dad. There is an actual Viking settlement, however, at L'Anse Aux Meadows, which was discovered in Newfoundland in the 1960s.
Narrated in third-person, with limited-omniscience, and a mix of protagonists each speaking different regional American dialects, the narrator had to speak a generic North American English. It was just too confusing otherwise, especially when writing dialogue.
One critic vilified me for not using British English -- though it was the fact that I was from Yorkshire that seemed to piss her off the most! How dare this Northern oik write a novel set in North America and write in American? Oh, the democratisation of literature. Can you imagine what a horrible, mid-Atlantic hodgepodge it would have been?
I wrote the novel when I was living in Manchester. I’d sit in a dark recess on the second floor of the Rylands Library, trying to imagine the arid heat of the Arizona desert and the frozen wastes of Newfoundland. I also watched many Westerns shot in Arizona, making notes on vernacular and jargon, etc, and read novels set in that area. Ultimately, it was a case of having to weigh up each character’s idiolect: the weight, register, and tone of every single word within their lexicon, making sure to get the general music and quality of the character’s voice right. Once I’d finished the novel, I ran it by my friends in Arizona and Canada and they helped me iron out any remaining issues.
- When teaching, I try to bestow my students with a sense of narrative silence, where details of plot / character can resonate more profoundly when merely hinted at, or glimpsed. There are wonderful examples of this in Forgetting Zoe, where, to great effect, you keep the reader at arm’s length from the unfurling narrative. How conscious are you of this during composition?
Writing is about what you don’t say. Writing isn’t expression, it’s communication, and you’re communicating with a reader you usually don’t get to meet. It’s a two way art form and also a freaky type of telepathy because the writer gets inside the reader’s head without once moving their lips and that comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I had the added problem of writing about subjects that no one wants to read about in too much detail (child abduction, incest, murder, rape – you know, my usual, cheery subjects). In addition, no reader interprets what you write in the same way (which is a beautiful thing, and sets literature apart from most other art forms). Therefore, you have to leave semantic lacunae -- gaps -- for the reader to fill. It’s what makes reading such a satisfying experience, because the reader gets to inhabit the work and create their own, unique inner fictional world. If you tell a reader too much, and there is no space left for their imagination to wander, all you’re doing is patronising them.
It’s just basic good manners, Tom!
- As I bed down into the long hours of writing my second novel, I’d almost forgotten how isolating and lonely the process can be (even my cat has stopped attending the office Christmas party). Fortunately there are some great pubs on Dartmoor. How do you tackle what Orwell termed the ‘long bout of painful illness’ that is writing a novel?
I think Orwell was referring to psychological illness, because we’re talking short-term physical solitude here, which is a beautiful thing. If you can’t stand your own company then you won’t last long as a writer. As you hinted at, writers are also very sociable because of this – you need to escape your own head, to be around people, to switch off, and where best to do this than your local boozer? I also try not to talk about whatever I’m working on at the moment, which helps. If you can talk about it, then why write it?
This might sound weird, but I also believe you have to be physically fit to be a writer, and take care of your back, because it’s probably the most sedentary of jobs. Hemingway claimed to write standing up, but he was a macho knob, so he would say that. I reckon he wrote in a silk smoking jacket, lying on a bed of rose petals, listening to Leonard Bernstein while having his daily pedicure.
Writing is also punishing on your eyes and wrists (or is that something else?). I’ve started running a lot over the past year and find a bit of exercise and fresh air really helps the writing process.
- People remain fascinated with the writing process, the alchemical nature that sees endless and terrifying blank pages become, we hope, a wonderful book. Can you reveal a little of how you work?
Writing isn’t an esoteric art, it’s a craft; however (and this might sound contradictory) I believe that any writer who says they understand what they’re doing while writing is talking out of their arse -- though writers lie for a living, so who can blame them?
Editing is different, of course, and the bulk of the novel writing process is editing, but when you’re there, in that moment, with the blank page screaming, “Who are you going to be today?” and you start hammering away – fuck knows? Whatever it is, I just hope it keeps on happening.
- In the parallel universe where you’re not a writer, what are you doing?
Not sure, but I think it would involve Ryan Gosling, Christina Hendricks, and baby oil... Seriously, though, I’ve just started working on a short-film, and I’m also doing a script writing course. I love travelling to unusual, far-flung places, and I love the natural world, so ideally, in a parallel universe, I’m a young David Attenborough.
- Meanwhile, back here, what are you working on?
I’ve almost finished the first draft of my fourth book (remember what I said about not talking about your work-in-progress?). It’ll be published by Random House next summer. It’s inspired by something tragic that happened to a good friend of mine, and he said I could whore his experience and use it as the starting point for my novel. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve written, has taken me to some weird places, and almost got me killed last year. But that’s all I’m willing to say for now.
- Once folk who haven’t read Forgetting Zoe get their hands on a copy, anything else you’d recommend?
Sure. I love recommendations. These are some of the best books I’ve read over the past few years. In no particular order (but I’ve saved my fave for last):
We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. Epic Danish seafaring tales that will blow your sou’wester off.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Bleak Osark Mountains. Crank. Ultra-violence. A heroine I want to marry. Totally stunning writer.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. Elegiac. Poetic. Really fucking weird. Oh, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Runt by Niall Griffiths. The best writer in the UK today. Kes in the Welsh mountains. Inarticulate young narrator. Beautifully crafted prose. Stunning ear for vernacular. Brutal, heartfelt, love it.
Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles. Bad acid trip in Morocco. Pisses all over Burroughs and Kerouac.
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. Innovative collection. Massive in scope, detail, and depth. One of America’s future literary stars, no doubt about it.
The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert. Published by Salt, one of my favourite publishers in the UK. I could easily have adjectival overload describing this almost perfect collection of Lamberts. Just buy it!
Tinkers by Paul Harding. Fuck me sideways, Mr Harding can write. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Old man in bed, dying of cancer, hallucinating his tits off. Clocks. Epilepsy. The sky falling in. An almost perfect novel.
The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Haves and have-nots in California. Racism. Greed. Mexicans. Natural disasters. The message is this: basically, rich or poor, everyone’s shit stinks, even in America. Amazing, Dickensian satire.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. ‘The Catch-22 of the Iraq War’. Indeed. Blame American society, not the government. Not released until July (Canongate). Instant modern classic. Fountain (with this, his debut novel, no less) will be regarded as one of the best writers alive. Absolute fucking masterpiece. Filled my mind with awe, and my pants with love-piss. Do yourself a favour: get it pre-ordered!
More about Ray here.