Ambition, Art, and Late Capitalism: An Interview with Caoilinn Hughes

Taylor Lannamann

Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, has the fluid gait of something alive. You want to run after Gael—Hughes’s protagonist—as she emerges from a complicated childhood and into a young adulthood marked by quick thinking and interpersonal finesse. At once exuberant and incisive, Hughes’s writing escapes simple characterization while somehow remaining welcoming; you’ll want to luxuriate in the prose, even when Gael’s wit and impressive calculations skyrocket the story to new heights. This is not simply a coming of age tale, nor is it an experiment in narrative philosophy. What is it, then? I’m not sure, other than that it’s something new, and that the best way to describe it is to speak circuitously—which is the case for most things worth talking about.

I first encountered Hughes’s dynamic voice several years ago, when I was in graduate school and interning at Tin House. An early excerpt of Orchid & the Wasp circulated amongst the magazine’s editors, and I remember the thrill I felt when that crackling piece made its way into my hands. Eager to read more, I bought her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence, and was equally floored by her expansive language and searching eye. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Caoilinn, and have had the honor of publishing her poetry in a journal I co-edit. The following interview evolved through a series of emails while Caoilinn and I languished in separate Brooklyn apartments in the breathless heat of early July.


TAYLOR LANNAMANN: I’d love to know how you developed Orchid & the Wasp’s fields of interest, because the novel has so many constellations of knowledge and expertise. The narrative is fluent in a number of niche areas—orchestral conducting, economic theory, art dealing. The list goes on. Did you begin with prior knowledge of these subjects, or did Gael’s development as a character prompt unexpected research?

CAOILINN HUGHES: I am a hopeless multitasker and a procrastinator, which means that when I’m writing, I’m writing—slowly, excruciatingly, obsessively and all-consumingly—but I will put off that writing for as long as possible. I await peak self-loathing. A foxed wallpaper of unpaid bills. By the time I sit down to write, I cannot give myself anymore excuses to put it off. So I haven’t to date written a single thing for which I have had to do more than a cursory amount of research. A day here, a day there. (Albeit, you can learn a lot in a day.) But I read a lot and broadly, I am lecherous about other people’s knowledge, and I have had some life experience besides sitting at a desk! I do believe it makes sense to write about what you’re interested in, meaning what you know something about by way of being interested. Also, never underestimate the consolidating power of a good gestation period! I could never finish a story or poem or novel and immediately start another. However useful it would be to be able to do that, I’m not overly concerned that I can’t, as downtime is when I discover new interests and when I observe things freshly and openly. Going from one piece of writing to the next would make a skipping record of me, stuck on the same note.

TL: There’s an indescribable bond between Gael and her brother Guthrie. Their connection feels quite strong, but also delicate and complex, made up of layers of tension and forgiveness. What goes into crafting such real and nuanced relationships? Did Gael and Guthrie’s rapport emerge as a by-product of who they are as individual characters, or did you have to hone the way you wrote about them as a pair?

CH: I have four siblings and, to me, sibling relationships are some of the most beautiful, rich, centring, complex relationships there can be. They can also be the most stagnant, false, judgmental, traumatizing, sickening and tortured relationships, in which individuality is denied. Can the same be said of friendships and collegial relationships? Can the same even be said of romantic relationships? The answer to both of those questions could be ‘yes,’ I don’t know. Perhaps it’s personal. For example, if you learn of one man’s indifference to the tragedies befalling his older brother, to me, that is inherently fascinating. Whereas, in non-familial relationships, one man’s indifference to another could be fascinating, but not necessarily. I think that’s why it’s so hard to pull off a novel with only non-familial relationships—to build an equally complex emotional entanglement. That said, I did want to contrast these relationships to non-familial bonds in Orchid & the Wasp. For at least half of the book, the protagonist is away from familial and intimate relationships. She has intense, complex, caring connections with strangers. She has shallow, judgmental, misleading and meaningless encounters too. This is an intentional disruption of the family saga arc. But with Gael and Guthrie, it’s not only that they have an intense relationship; how their deeds, decisions and ideologies play off one another constitutes one of the book’s central thematic motifs. Some days, they seemed to me like two sides of the same coin. Other days, they seemed irreconcilable. As soon as I got to know them both, I knew I had a novel.

TL: Is it important for an author to know at the outset what questions her novel poses? During your writing process, do you gradually find your way to such concerns, or do you begin with an animating question?

CH: I don’t believe you need to know a book’s concerns from the outset: in fact, I hold that you shouldn’t! My writing process is to write into the dark—I don’t like to know where a novel will go, what it will ask, do, think, say. I had to abandon a new novel recently after four months, with only 1,250 words to show for it (and tiny scars on the backs of my shoulders from where I’d torn my skin in histrionic writerly angst) because I had done in those 1,250 words what I’d imagined would take me several chapters to bring to life; to realize the central concern on the page, in a scene. There was no way I could continue beyond that point. I knew too much. I’d already arrived at a place I thought I wanted to go. I did start Orchid & the Wasp with something, though: with the charge of Gael’s character, and the title. I need to say more about the title before returning to your question…

In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, philosophers Deleuze and Guattari refer to the relationship between a wasp and a rare orchid that resembles a wasp. (Besides mimicking its physiology, the flower emits mock female wasp pheromones. When the wasp tries to mate with it, pollen latches to his head or rear-end. The wasp eventually gives up, aware of his new burden but unable to shake it off. Soon he’s lured by another orchid and so becomes the pollen-bearer.) The philosophers use this relationship to describe the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of each species, proposing that both are transformed without being assimilated. It’s impossible to paraphrase, but suffice it to say that on some level, I took from Deleuze and Guattari the latent rejection of capitalism being written into theories of evolution, and also the possibility of “becoming” … but the character I was hosting in my subconscious kept wriggling out of the philosophers’ ephemeral, reciprocal, intricate, rhizomatic interpretations of the orchid-wasp relationship. She wanted to keep only its simple ecological utility: the wasp gains nothing. It’s rare to have a non-symbiotic system in nature. In society, however, mutualism and commensalism are what’s rare; especially in late stage capitalism, or this vortical Neo Liberalist corporatist corruptist oligarchy-in-the-making epoch.

I also happened to be reading about the Libor scandal at the time (the collusion between major banks to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, by which banks illegally profited from trades and/or appeared misleadingly creditworthy) and wondered to what extent any individual might have been effected (likely unbeknownst to us/them) via savings, mortgages, pensions, student loans, derivatives, holdings etc. Settlement payments from banks including Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and HSBC are now in the billions … and yet, the wasp flies from flower to flower, falling for duplicitous interest rates, I mean pheromones. (A quick note here that this makes it a historical novel already, because the public consciousness is vigilant in such a different way now than it was in 2002, in 2008 and in 2011, when the bulk of the book takes place.) The orchid and the wasp became a shorthand for referring to non-mutualism in nature. With it came the question: is it really exploitation if the loser isn’t aware of his loss? On personal, familial, national and societal levels, this question pervaded my thinking. I hadn’t quite articulated this to myself from the outset, but it was close enough to a fully-formed idea to be worrisome. So I decided to put that right upfront in the book, blatantly. So that, even if it was still hovering throughout, there would be no threat that that was all the book would be exploring, a hundred thousand words later. If I put that upfront, the book could become something else. What it becomes, I will leave to the reader.

Intellectualism can ruin good art, so I try not to prove any point or advance any notion or agenda when I write. I try to know as little as possible, and to let the characters and novel reveal to me what I was interested in all along. I only know and see that once I’m in neck-deep, when I have all the perspective of Winnie from Beckett’s Happy Days. In my next novel, I only discovered what the book was about as I wrote the final 300 words. It was an astonishing, devastating discovery.

TL: In terms of not letting intellectualism ruin good art, can you talk more about how you so seamlessly wove the novel’s thematic and symbolic material throughout the narrative?

CH: As I wrote Gael’s character into being (through abandoned scenes), I saw that I was writing a book about a woman in the world. If she had relationships, they wouldn’t be the engine of her narrative. It would be herself—her mind, ambitions, ideology, interests, actions—that would drive the story and the reader’s interest, not in the context of anyone else. So many books that excited me when I was in my early twenties were about individuals out in the world, up against it, exploring it, getting their kicks, doing stuff. Frankenstein. Endurance. Candide. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Things Fall Apart. Steppenwolf. Hamlet. Heart of Darkness. The Places in Between. The Stranger. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Books by men, about men. This might sound like a roundabout answer to your question, but the fact that the book became picaresque—pursuing the protagonist’s deliberations, movements and actions over and above her ties, troubles and community—quite naturally accommodated various thematic interests, because they’re the things with which she was interested or concerned. It wasn’t patching anything together. It was just paying heed to her mind and drives in preference to her love interests and vulnerabilities. Although, the way she was brought up informed the some of the concepts explored, such as risk aversion, the mediocrity principle, negative liberty, negative capability (which isn’t named in the book, but it’s there!) and so on—so some of that is situational. I worked for Google for a while and ran a small business, and the experience and knowledge gleaned during those eye-opening soul-shrivelling years perhaps allowed for the organic inclusion of such ideas, in that they were readily available to me. Life experiences do feed into your writing, ideally in indirect ways, so here’s hoping my next novel won’t have to resort to chapters on the ethics of ‘butter flavoured’ popcorn and whether it’s possible to use a nail file to smooth out a chipped molar. (It’s not.)

TL: Artistic proprietorship comes under scrutiny in this book. Do you think a person can justify appropriating somebody else’s talent in the interest of ushering beauty into the public eye?

CH: What a question. What trouble I could get myself into! The logic and principles of art and ownership would require a book-length response (I hold some contradictory and contrary opinions on this, being a privacy fiend to the extent that I feel sick when dead artists’ correspondence are published without their instruction to do so, and I’ve had a detailed will since I was 20!) but I can say that my take on what is ethical, prudent and justifiable is very different to Gael’s/that of the narrative voice. I would say that bringing awareness to beauty in the public interest is a generous take on her motivations! The book is concerned with notions of worth, value, merit, due reward and the commodification of any citizen’s output. It considers late stage capitalism’s dilemma—built on the foundational quicksand that is the American dream—in both a philosophical and a pragmatic sense. Gael is convinced of the fallacy of meritocracy, as am I, though Gael is a lot younger and surer than me, and her response is more radical. I’m still a sucker-apprehensive-artist with a just-published book, strategically liking reviewer’s tweets (where’s the merit in that? who but the privileged few have time for that nonsense? and yet—appallingly—there are outcomes), hoping against hope that the novel’s merit will lift it to the front of the bookshelf, to the ink of the newspaper, to O Magazine’s Books column, to Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram feed … but I’m contending with my own cynicism and a lot of industry knowledge about nepotism, networks, privilege, foregone conclusions, and if my book gets more attention than any other worthy book (particularly books by less privileged people) I will try not to delude myself into thinking the book deserved it. It would be lucky, is what it would be. A quantum mechanical royal flush.

Gael’s journey also explores what place there is for ambition, within such a fallacious system; especially if neither power nor money are sought. We should be heading into a post-boring-job utopia of universal basic wage, free education, the eradication of poverty and the re-imagining of value, citizens’ contribution and what makes for a good life. Instead we have a retrogressive farce centre-stage (that is, stage right … far right) in the UK and the US, tugging us farther and farther back into the mire of defunct legislature, seeking out nostalgic notions of inherent superiority, godliness and inalienable rights. When the labour politician and sociologist Michael Young—who coined the term ‘meritocracy’ in a 1958 satirical essay—saw Tony Blair adopting it as the fundamental philosophy of the New Labour project, he wrote in the Guardian: ‘It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.’ And here we are, with ‘winners and losers’ back in the political parlance and the Tories insisting that talent will rise to the top, regardless of background. In her first statement as Prime Minister, Theresa May told ‘ordinary working class families’: ‘I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. … When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. … We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.’

As far as your talents will take you. It is absurd that this satire is still tendered to the patrons and populace for hope and solace, but it is. As the art world is meant to be the one arena where meritocracy has a place, it made sense that the book would go there, though that happened organically. It was unplanned.

TL: In case the world doesn’t already know, you’re also a fantastic poet. What has it been like transitioning to fiction? Have you carried over any practices from writing verse?

CH: Why, thank you! I grew up reading poetry and plays, because that’s what was in the house (all it would take was some character recalled or a cloud’s shadow cast across the kitchen window to prompt my father to quietly recite reams of poetry from memory—that had its impact) and, then, because I’d become accustomed to density and concision, the novel seemed a laborious, intimidating thing. Poetry and plays were slim and had all this blank space around them for you to take up. They were by definition dialogic. Not everything was spelled out or filled in, but everything included was essential. It didn’t matter how much was lost on me—a spoonful of such stuff was sustaining. Yevtushenko. Neruda. Dickinson. Shakespeare. Pinter. Cane. Coward. Lorca. Shaw. Marina Carr. I began to answer back with verses and scenes from an early age. By ten, my primary school was staging my original episode of Father Ted. The production might have launched my career if the script hadn’t been so priggishly censored. How can a budding writer do her best work on a measly quota of ‘fecks’?

Probably because I didn’t read novels, I got a B minus in English at school and I couldn’t get into any college in England or Ireland to study literature. I flung To Kill A Mocking Bird out the window. I made an erasure poem of The Scarlet Letter. I begged my parents to make a trip to Belfast so that I could show a fusty old professor at Queen’s the score of poems I’d had published in magazines. Belfast was the U.K., which meant they counted fewer of your grades, and it was not the done thing to go up North back then, so even though I didn’t have the grades for there either, I thought they might need my demographic. ‘Southerner’ or ‘Irish’, depending on who you asked. One little word here, one little word there, and oh the implications! I remember imploring the Medievalist, whose skin—I later scribbled down—had the hue and texture of Pritt-stick to consider the fact that I had rhymed the word ‘duty’ with ‘beauty’. I got in. However it happened, at university, I finally found some novel that was enough like a poem or play to take me by the hand into the realm of prose. But before long I discovered story and the many joys of fiction intrinsic to the form, as a reader. I still only wrote poems, then.

In terms of writing, the transition to fiction came because I’d moved to New Zealand after my MA, and part of the culture shock was moving from Belfast’s smoky, dark back rooms full of hook-shouldered people conversing sombrely about the sucker punch of a good end-stopped couplet to a place where there were huge bright blue open skies with sunshine and mountain biking and volcanoes and a sea with orcas in it and slightly awkward New Zealanders (highly endearing and endlessly capable) who I didn’t know yet how to talk to, certainly not about gnomic verse. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It didn’t help that this coincided with getting a real adult job and the like. So I let a year or so go by where I wasn’t writing much, and self-loathing and existential angst began to accrue … I had to do something! A loosely connected series of haikus? Anything! A fecking Limerick. Even … Higgs save us … prose.

I had never so much as written a piece of flash fiction. Not a single short story. So the obvious thing to do was start a novel. With no training, no guidebooks, no clue, no writer friends in the hemisphere to drive me home when I’d had too many adverbs. Then I met a writer friend who read a few chapters and told me I should stick to poetry. Upon hearing those words, the volume went up on my inner mission impossible soundtrack and I knocked back a cartridge of fountain pen ink. A few learning-wheel novels later, hey presto, watch me go! steadily accruing #DNFs on Goodreads (Did Not Finish), which I try to apprize for their Beckettian dramatic irony.

TL: Now that Orchid & the Wasp is out in the world—accruing more stars than acronyms—will you return to poetry? Are you working on anything now?

CH: I hope to get another poetry book together next year, but meanwhile, I’ve been writing short stories for the first time, and am editing a new novel, which is a big departure from Orchid, except that it took from Gael that risk aversion is the same as loss aversion and, if the status quo is what you’re protecting, what’s to lose?  

Caoilinn Hughes is an Irish writer whose debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, is just out (Hogarth, July 10th). Her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Irish Times Shine/Strong Award and was a finalist for four other prizes. Her work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, POETRY, Poetry Ireland, Best British Poetry, on BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere.

Taylor Lannamann’s fiction has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Literary Review, and Joyland. His essays and reviews have been published by Kenyon Review Online, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Tin House Online. He holds an MFA from The New School and is an editor of Poet’s Country.