Having recently read Repeat it Today with Tears the author Anne Peile kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book. She sent me the answers as a written letter which in the day and age of email and twitter was something rather special.
In a nutshell the book told the story of Susie, a bright girl from a broken home who is destined for Oxford and a life away from her mother, sister and mother’s boyfriend. But her obsession with her father tips over into a sexual relationship that destroys them both. The story is set in 1970s Chelsea and is described in such vivid detail you can picture the streets that Susie walks down as if watching back old cine film.
Thanks Anne for answering my questions and good luck with the next book. The way London of the past came to life on the pages of Repeat it Today was quite wonderful.
Q. Where did the idea come from for the story?
“The story came to me more or less fully formed though Susie does, of course, have some pretty august literary ancestors – from Ovid onwards.”
Q. The old London you describe is so wonderfully done was it a world you knew personally or did you have to go and do a lot of research to be able to produce such vivid descriptions of 1970s Chelsea?
“I do know South West London fairly well, I also have a working background in 20th century social and cultural history which helps with contextual ‘props, including issues relating to the hospital passages.”
Q. Some of the scenes, particularly the intimate ones between Susanna and her father make difficult reading were they difficult to write?
“Overall, I did not find any particular scenes more difficult to write than others.”
Q. Is Susanna a character you would use in another book? She was left damaged but had a lot of life potentially ahead of her.
“I do not think that I shall write about Susie again although I will certiantly revist Chelsea and that era – indeed the book I am writing at the moment has some SW3 locations.”
Thanks Grant for taking the time to reply to my questions and a full review of the The Cuckoo Boy will be posted tomorrow.
Q. Where did the idea for this story come from? In some ways it reminded me of the James Bulger case in terms of the court scenes and the media reaction to James. Where did the inspiration come from?
Part of my inspiration for the novel was the Bulger case, and in particular in the responses of the public and the politicians. I was really shocked to read that John Major decreed that “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” When we’re vindicated in turning those who have committed crimes into ‘the other’, (eg the bad seed, the little monster, the worthless, the freaks) then we are also given permission to avoid looking at ourselves and our society. I certainly don’t profess to have any answers, but in The Cuckoo Boy I wanted to pose the question: ‘Given the wrong set of circumstances, what child isn’t capable of violence?’
Q. In places the book makes quite uncomfortable reading were there times when it was difficult to write, particularly scenes like the torture of David in the woods?
It sounds like a cliche but I find that once I am underway with a novel the characters take on a life of their own and they dictate what happens next. I tend to have an arc in place but then the narrative often veers off into new areas, and I tend to let that happen, especially in the first draft. Some people who’ve read the book have said it reads like a painfully slow car crash, and I think that that may be because, like the reader, I too was reluctant to reach and deal with the parts which were tragic and distressing.
Q. I found it almost impossible to sympathise with James but as the book progressed my dislike of his mother grew in tandem with sympathy for Kenneth. Were you trying to accentuate the fact that Sandra was as damaged as the son?
To my mind, and of course everyone responds differently to the writing, all three members of the family are – to a greater or a lesser degree – victims of their own natures and the limiting domain that they inhabit. I believe (or I’d like to believe) that if Sandra had been better equipped, if Kenneth had been stronger or if James had been raised by more receptive people, then most of the incidents in the book could have been avoided.
Q. David the imaginary friend is quite disconcerting where did the idea from him come from and although its an inevitable question did you have one yourself when you were a child?
I did have an imaginary friend, also called David, in fact. And he was very, very real to me. Likewise, in the book, David is very real to James, but I also wanted to have David as an ambiguous figure. He could be James’ dead twin, he could be his negative side, or he could just be a child’s imaginative plaything. That’s all open to interpretation. I made decisions in my head, but I wanted to leave it vague in the story.
Q. How long did it take to write the book and how do you write – a computer or paper and pen person – and how does it feel to have got to the end and now seeing it in print?
The Cuckoo Boy took me about a year to write, but the editing and publishing process took much longer. More and more I tend to write on the computer (now I have a laptop) but in the past I would write the first draft on paper in pencil and then the second draft as I typed it up.
I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is to have the book in print. To be honest I write because I love to write. On one level I never thought that my writing would see the light of day – rather than the dark of drawer – so it’s thrilling that it’s out there. I’m also an actor and as an actor you can’t generate your own work, you need other actors and directors and producers etc. Writing is a way for me to keep creative in an autonomous way.
Q. What next Grant? Is James a character that you might turn to again in your writing?
It’s funny you should ask, but I did research and start a sequel to The Cuckoo Boy, with James in incarceration, but then I thought that actually James will never be allowed to grow up. He is a child frozen in time.
My next novel, which is nearly completed in its first draft, is called There is the Sea and is about suicide, tsunamis and synesthesia…
The author of Tofu Landing has very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions following the reading of his book. I’m very grateful to Evan Maloney for answering my questions with such care and interest.
Q1. Where did the idea for Tofu Landing come from was this flat full of larger than life characters an experience you had gone through yourself?
I have never experienced anything like the world depicted in Tofu Landing… although I’m not entirely unfamiliar with it, either. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of inspiration for any story, I think that is part of the magic of storytelling. I worked in the Arts and the media in London so I was working a lot in Soho and had a peripheral experience of that mad-edged media world where talent was often subordinate to publicity and drugs were a tool that people employed to keep reality at a distance.
I was always a bit dismayed, as a writer, by the way the Arts and media industries worked. It seemed to be a world that lacked genuine reflection and insight in many cases – the publicity machine is not really something that values genuine reflection, it’s simply a means to an end. I thought a character like Pete Doherty was a fine example of all the worst aspects of that machine, and I obviously based Tristan Russell and some parts of the story on his life, but there was a pot-pourie of sources and inspirations and, finally, it’s all about imagination. Damien Hirst did a similar publicity drive to Bridget’s for one of his exhibitions, Tracy Emin was a hotel reviewer for a glossy magazine.
It might sound odd, but Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall was the novel that I read just prior to beginning Tofu Landing. Initially I had intended to stretch the narrative far beyond anything akin socially realistic representation, but I finished the first draft and realised, with a kind of bemused wonder, that even though the story was wildly far-fetched at times, it was far closer to social realism than satirical farce.
Q2. Art is a constant theme through the book is art important to you and in that respect do you share the views about the importance of Art voiced at various times by Declan?
As a young boy growing up in the country I wanted to be an artist and I thought I was exceptional. At the age of ten I moved to the city (Melbourne) and there was a boy in my class who was a better draftsman than me. It shattered my confidence a bit. I thought that his was the level of talent I had to compete with in the big city. I decided then that I would focus on writing, but I have always felt a bit like a painter who writes (which is ironic given Declan’s views on the literary nature of contemporary art) In fact, that boy I went to primary school with, Cameron Hayes, is still a close friend and now one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. He is represented by Ronald Feldman in New York City, who runs one of the most prestigious galleries in NYC. Cameron paints massive narrative paintings that work in man ways like a novel.
Regarding Declan’s views on art: I think it is important to note that Declan is an artistic person who is not productive. He has lost his creative potency. As such, his views are slightly aimed at self-justification. It’s a common trait among people in the arts who struggle to be artistically productive – they blame the industry when, ultimately, I think a genuine artist is always productive regardless of the zeitgeist. I think Declan is a sentimental character, too, and sentimentality is, like drug taking, another form of false comfort that corrupts a person’s vision of reality.
Q3. Drugs also play a massive role in dividing the past and the present and the idea of reality and imaginary lives. Was drug use meant to be used in that sense of blurring truth and personality in the first two thirds of the book?
This is a great observation. I wanted the drug references to be vivid enough to make a person feel a kind of specious euphoria initially. People take drugs for a reason: they can be a lot of fun, and I wanted to give a real sense of that at the start of the novel. But I also wanted to create a sense of overload towards the end of the story, so the reader would feel sick and tired of the drug taking, as if it were something they themselves had been subjected to and wanted to move on from.
The whole “drugs are so much fun” ground is a superficial one, and if you dig beneath the surface, what you find is that many of the characters in Tofu Landing have suffered some personal experience that is blocking their path forward in life. They are trapped in the past and the drug taking is one expression of that entrapment. Sexual abuse is one common experience that many of the characters are dealing with and yet it is not presented in a way that is particularly honest. It is sort of glossed over in the narratives the characters offer, and I think this is one of the legacies of drug taking – people do not approach their own experiences honestly and try to work through them like mature adults.
This unreal approach to personal trauma is also referenced in some of the art works discussed. Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which is one of the most beautifully sculptured works of art ever created, is about an attempted rape. I don’t think for a moment Bernini was cognizant of the event he depicted as one of great psychological trauma for the victim. The tone of the novel is, perhaps, inspired by that sort of work of art, it is trying to dazzle the reader with a story that works beautifully in an objective manner, but if the reader stops and thinks about the events described they might feel slightly disturbed, because the depictions are somewhat false.
Q4. There is a passage about the invention of Tofu being an accident and how sometimes life can mirror that. Is that something you believe and have experienced yourself?
It’s the Panglossian view of life, isn’t it, which Voltaire had such fun with in Candide. Voltaire was satirising the Leibnizian mantra through Dr Pangloss, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Having grown up Catholic, and carried a lot of guilt and remorse baggage through my life, I can see the appeal of this view, but it is an indulgent one as well, and one that has a distinctly Western, First World aftertaste. I’m sure all the kids working in sweatshops in 3rd World countries would beg to differ that what happens in their lives is all for the best.
Q5. Declan occasionally shows his frustration with some of the people he is living with but most of the time he is remarkably tolerant. Were you keen to make sure the reader made their own judgments about the characters?
Absolutely. I think the 3rd person narrator is oblique for most of the book. Tone was an issue I struggled with a lot while writing the book, because much of the novel is essentially toneless. The narration only develops some kind of tone late in the book, and that is meant to reflect the fact that Declan himself has developed a point of view in relation to his life and the world he inhabits. I think this was something that failed to impress some publishers, who probably only read the first third of the book and thought that that was as good as it got.
Q6. Finally as we leave Declan as a man who has come through not just an interesting experience but one that has enabled him to grow into a more stable person is he a character that would appear again in your writing?
This is a question I’ve been asked by a few people who have read the book. At the moment I feel the book is finished and I have moved on. I got the publishing deal in May 2009 and started my second book the same week. I finished the first draft of the second book a week before Tofu Landing was launched in February this year, and then I spent two months rewriting it. It is about as a removed from the world of Declan and the Posse as I am from the Roman Empire.
The second novel is about a group of multicultural Australians whose parents and grandparents arrived in Australia as refugees from Lebanon, Poland, Vietnam (and a “ten-pound Pom”), as well as an aboriginal, who have taken up arms and are resisting the occupation of Australia by a powerful Asian neighbour. It is set in the near future. This disparate group are all fighting together for their land, and it’s been very liberating to create characters that are so unique and distinct, and to set them in a dystopian society that requires a more pure from of imagination to create. Off the top of my head, Michael Ondaatje is the only writer I’ve read who has successfully reprised characters from one novel and written a second novel of great power (The Skin of a Lion and The English Patient).
There are probably others but, generally speaking, I find the whole idea of writing a sequel evidence of either a lack of imagination, a fear of trying something new or a desire for a paycheck. Of course, I might reconsider these views if Tofu Landing ended up selling a million copies.
The story weaves in several themes of love, class, duty and the scents and sounds of a different world in Cairo and Luxor. Into that mix are Sally the loyal maidservant and her mistress Lucie Duff Gordon. They are friends, at least Sally thinks so, and as Duff Gordon’s illness worsens and she heads to the deserts for drier air the two women become almost equals. But the arrival of the local man servant Omar changes the dynamics and his affair with Sally threatens to ruin everything.
How did you first stumble across this story? Did the Duff Gordon letters pull you into the story of Sally or was it the other way round?
In fact I first came across this story in Katherine Frank’s biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, which I read in 1995. It’s a wonderful biography, which tells the whole of Lucie’s life story, and the story of Sally is a tiny episode – just a few lines really. Frank described what happened that Christmas Eve on the Nile and my imagination was captured by the drama of that scene and the fact that Sally had hidden so much from Lucie.
Did the idea of setting a book in Egypt and the realisation you would have to travel there to do research excite you or were you wary of the amount of research and travelling you would have to do?
I’ve always been fascinated by Egypt – I spent several weeks there travelling when I was twenty. While writing this novel I was only able to return to Egypt once – I spent four days in Luxor in 1999. But being able to dwell in Egypt in my mind’s eye, in my imagination, and through the research, was pure pleasure. I’d done historical research for a couple of my other books (‘Weird Sister’, a contemporary novel, was based on an actual witch trail that took place in 1593, and ‘The Last Time I Saw Jane’ had one of three narrative threads that was based on a true story from the 19th Century) so I knew what it would entail. I’m not keen on historical novels where you can feel the writer’s research, so for me the bigger challenge was to find ways to leave the research behind and escape into the story. While I would have loved to have spent more time in Egypt, I told myself that I couldn’t visit Egypt in 1863! But Luxor is, basically, a sleepy old town, especially at night when the vast majority of tourists get on their Nile tour boat-hotels and leave. I found those four days gave me enough of the smells and sights – the night sky, the Nile – to go on.
There are at least two occasions where Sally voices her feelings commenting that she could find it easy to hate Lady Duff Gordon but she doesn’t. Did you make Sally voice those views to try and keep the reader open minded about the characters?
For me it was more about imagining how Sally would feel – she loved Lucie and she found it hard to stop loving her, despite Lucie’s awful actions. Also, I think when people feel guilty about something they blame themselves, and obviously Sally was as much to blame over what happened as both Lucie and Omar. So it wasn’t so much about thinking about the reader in that instance, but more about trying to figure out the complex cocktail of emotions that Sally must have felt. There was much to admire about Lady Duff Gordon, and Sally wouldn’t have forgotten that. She’d been in her household for so many years. Also, I think some readers will identify with Lucie as well and will see what Sally did as a betrayal.
You manage to paint a background of political unrest, conflicting behaviour because of religion and the tension between the classes without ever overdoing it. Was it a challenge weaving all those themes into the story?
This was a big challenge for me – to get the facts right at the same time as using the political backdrop to add to the tension. My North American agent, who always wants everything I write to be bigger and louder and more dramatic, felt strongly that I should make much more of these events, but I wasn’t comfortable with pushing the story in that direction. I stuck pretty close to the known facts of Lucie, Sally, and Omar’s lives together; I only really escaped into fiction when it came to imagining what Sally felt, and then imagining what happened to Sally once she left Luxor.
You mention in your author’s notes that this book too quite a long time to come to fruition did you ever fear you would not be able to tell the story?
You know, I never considered abandoning it completely, despite the fact I had to leave it to one side and write other things many times. I just had to find a way to tell the story, and the story never lost its power for me. The embarrassing thing is that it took me ages and ages to figure out that it had to be completely from Sally’s point of view – I didn’t do that with the novel until very late in the process, but it seems completely obvious now. Sigh! When I teach creative writing I bang on and on about the importance of point of view, getting point of view right from early on in the process, but I flailed about like an idiot with that on this book.
In a way the story of Sally is left with room for more exploration. Would you ever consider a follow-up novel? ‘The tale of Sally’s adventures in Cairo’?
I would consider it, yes! But not for a few years… I’m going to see what happens with this book before I make any decisions at all about what kind of book to write next. I’ve got a bunch of digital projects I’m involved in, lots of collaborations, as well as libretto for an opera based on ‘Dorian Gray’, so I’m really enjoying not having to grapple with a novel currently! Writing a novel can be so overwhelming – so many words, so many things to juggle – wonderful to be finished!