David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Courtney Cook’s The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces, a witty and one-of-a-kind debut graphic memoir, detailing and drawing the life of a girl with borderline personality disorder, finding her way and herself one day at a time. Mara Altman says, “The book is audaciously human,” and adds that the way she feels is a rainbow during the rain. Piper Weiss calls the memoir, “A lifeline to anyone who’s ever felt alone.” The Way She Feels is out on June 29th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. In the time between the recording of my conversation with today’s guest and the recording of this intro, Anakana Schofield is no longer shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, which I mention in this conversation. But she has since won Irish Novel of the Year for Bina, her latest book. You might wonder if it is a coincidence that June features two Irish writers back to back. First, Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now, Anakana Schofield. It is somewhat coincidental in that I’m in conversation with many more writers now outside of the United States since the pandemic began but it is also partially thanks to a publishing house I didn’t know well but should have known better. Anakana’s new book, Bina, is out with a press that I’ve long adored, New York Review of Books. I’m surprised that this is possibly the first book from them I’ve had on the show. But her previous books, Martin John and Malarky, came out on a press I wasn’t familiar with, the Ontario-based Biblioasis, and when they sent me Anakana’s books, they also slipped in a copy of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, probably knowing I couldn’t pass it up. They are to thank honestly for this Irish double header. If you enjoy Between The Covers, consider becoming a listener-supporter for Between The Covers is a show that only endures because of listener’s support. Receive the resource-rich emails that come with each episode, join the collective brainstorm about who we should invite on the show going forward, and check out the other possible benefits from collectibles from the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Nikky Finney to bonus supporter-only audio readings that include everything from craft talks by Marlon James, poetry readings by Richard Powers, Jorie Graham, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and Jenny Offill to many other things. All this can be found at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Anakana Schofield about the Irish Novel of the Year, Bina.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Irish-Canadian Writer, Anakana Schofield. Schofield’s first novel, Malarky, won the 2012 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the 2013 Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction, and was picked the Best Book of the Year by the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Edmonton Journal, and the New Statesman among others. She’s also the author of Rereading The Riot Act, an art book that is part scrapbook, part research diary, which uses the 1935 reading of the Riot Act to unemployed workers and their families at a peaceful gathering as a frame to examine Vancouver’s history of public protest. Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John, told through the point of view of a groper and flasher, was a finalist for the 2015 Giller Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards, The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the UK’s Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction, for a British or Irish author that opens up new possibilities for the novel form. On nearly everyone’s best book of the year list for 2015, Thalia Field says this about it, “Martin John is singular in contemporary literature. [The novel takes] a deeply imagined, almost operatic view of marginal characters trapped in the absurdities and perversions of systems: mental, social, and familial. Anakana uses devastatingly specific prose that conversely portrays the poetry of human suffering. Moving, profoundly human, insightful, and darkly humorous.” Lidia Yuknavitch adds, “You’ll hold your breath while reading this novel. The story transgresses the body with or without our permission, and illuminates important ideas we ordinarily look away from. And yet it is now, more than ever, that we need to reread the body.” Schofield’s work has been anthologized in The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, and Alchemy – Writers on Truth, Lies and Fiction. She’s here today to talk about her third novel, just out in the United States from the New York Review Books, Bina. Bina was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize and is currently a finalist for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. The jury for the Goldsmiths Prize described Bina as follows, “Startlingly original and horribly funny, Anakana Schofield’s Bina is that rare thing: a black comedy about euthanasia. Composed as a series of warnings scribbled on the backs of envelopes from the safety of her bed, the narrator is a septuagenarian who has had enough. And we can see why: her front garden is filled with political activists, her back garden with medical waste; her lodger stayed on for an extra ten years and she is suspected of murdering her best friend. In all her despair, and empathy for the despair of others, Bina emerges from her elliptical missives, addressed to everyone but no-one in particular, as an eccentric heroine of monumental moral courage.” Kirkus in its starred review calls Bina, “A masterwork that should cement Bina (and Schofield) as one of the great voices in recent fiction.” The Guardian calls Schofield, “An unabashed agitator, a conjurer of discomfort: whether it’s the agonised mind of a sex offender, or the sorrows of a disintegrating marriage. Like her absurdist compatriots – Beckett, Joyce, O’Brien – Schofield’s novels are existentially confounding, syntactically wild, and buckshot with wit.” Finally, Rachel Cusk adds, “Bina is fiction of the rarest and darkest kind, a work whose pleasures must be taken measure for measure with its pains. Few writers operate the scales of justice with more precision, and… [the] novel’s themes—male violence, the nature of moral courage, the contemporary problems of truth and individuality, the status of the female voice—could hardly be more timely or germane. Schofield’s sense of injustice is unblinking and without illusion, yet her writing is so vivacious, so full of interest and lust for life: she is the most compassionate of storytellers, wearing the guise of the blackest comedian.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Anakana Schofield.
Anakana Schofield: Thank you.
DN: I’ve been really looking forward to talking to you. I was thinking of when I was talking to Elissa Washuta and how much I was anticipating her conversation because she’s so focused on form around non-fiction and I feel like, in a way, you have this same similar obsession with form in fiction—the ways you foreground form, the ways form can itself be content, the questions you have around how to move us a book forward with form rather than through story, the ways form can reflect or shape character—But before we talk about who Bina is or what the story is about, I thought we could start with form, but not with the form of Bina itself, but perhaps we could start with this interesting relationship between the three books. Because they all stand alone as discreet independent novels, but there’s a playful way they’re connected to each other. They’re not just connected to each other where minor characters in one book become central characters in another, there are also some formal ways they’re connected and I’m thinking maybe most prominently, the way the footnote evolves and births novels. Could you talk to us a little bit about what might seem like an invisible connective tissue between the three books and how some of that has emerged from the ways you’ve played with the form?
AS: The first thing that strikes me as I’m listening to you is it’s kind of akin to when people talk about humor, not to immediately cross the street from form. Humor to me is oxygen. When we’re asked to separate these elements, I don’t understand humorless people. It’s just the one thing I don’t understand because I think life is so sad and so awful for many people, that I don’t see how you could survive it unless you see the humor in it. [laughs] One of the things I constantly say when people come to me about my novels, so let’s just start with Martin John, one person really stands out and that is this BBC interviewer who said in the opening part of her interview, I will say she’s a great interviewer because she said, “I didn’t like your novel. I think I’m glad you wrote it but I’m not sure. Explain yourself.” [laughs] Now I have to say my memory’s a bit fuzzy, so it might be some other version of that. I’m sure there’s somebody out there on the internet who is going to rush off, fact check it, and come back and say, “She didn’t say that, she said mow the lawn.” That was what I heard. I remember being very struck that I’d reached this point with my work where I was getting on this program, it’s only for women and I was on this program because Martin John had been nominated for the Goldsmiths Prize. I just thought it was so interesting that I arrived at that point. It’s just so strange to me that the terms of art were absent in the equation, so why would you expect to like a novel about somebody who’s credibly disturbed? Although I would contend that there are likable qualities in that book. I often think, “Did somebody drop me on my head when I was a child?” because my brain just sees things so differently in terms of the novel. I don’t understand why people write these heapy paragraphic novels. Life is not really heapy and paragraphic. Is that even a word, paragraphic? It sounds good.
DN: I do want to ask you about your origin story around writing, I mean all these words are problematic, innovative or experimental, but before we do talk about any of that, talk to us more specifically about the footnote. Your books have moved farther and farther away from heapy paragraphic novels—one book to the next—but we also have had the birth of one novel from a footnote, then an explosion of footnotes. Talk to us about how Martin John came, then what happened after.
AS: Okay, woah, because it’s not quite that, just to put your back in your footnote folder. There’s one single footnote in the first novel, which is see, Martin John : A Footnote novel and that was pure devilment self-provocation. Did I know, had I written a book called Martin John : A Footnote novel? No, obviously not because it took me 10 years to write that first book and it’s lost. Now, I think back on it, it was a really stupid thing to do because what if I hadn’t written a next book? [laughs] A bunch of people on the internet will probably go, “Well, where is it? I’m not reading this book because you promised me.” But it was self-provocation. Even when I think back, it’s so weird to think, “Why did I do that?” Because that character was called Beirut. Was he called Martin John? I can’t remember. The first novel only has one footnote. The second novel is a footnote. The entire book is a footnote. There’s no single footnote in that book and it’s a footnote to the first novel. I have titles, so it’s Malarky: A Novel in Episodes, Martin John: A Footnote Novel to Malarky, then Bina: A Novel in Warnings. Then in Bina, somehow, I took a hammer to the footnote and it’s covered in these footnotes. That’s what happened. In essence, it’s true what you’re saying. In essence, the notion of the footnote was boring within that first book, which only had a footnote that had no purpose. It was absolute provocation—and I think self-provocation—because my books are already apparently provocative. [laughs] When you write them, you’re not sitting down going, “Well, how on Earth can I start all the world any further as I sit, scuffled by the world all day long?” [laughs] You’re just doing whatever weird thing you do. One of the things I wonder about is somehow, we’ve become so determined to pin down the process but we don’t know how art making happens. We don’t know that process because, God, if we did, Elon Musk or one of his soldiers would be right now writing an algorithm to make a downloadable program that everybody would just use to write novels.
DN: Yeah, I’m sure they’re trying.
AS: Oh, no doubt they’re trying. [laughter] I think it’s deeply frustrating though for them because listen to me, I’m just making it up, just now imagining all these people out there doing this thing that to be honest, I probably have no interest in doing it because at the end of the day, I’m sure, if you’re a programmer, you’re not necessarily sitting down at the end of your day. Who knows maybe, you are? I think people are mostly sitting down, watching true crime movies. [laughter] Everything seems to be about getting murdered these days. Also, the pandemic, in fairness, we weren’t expecting the pandemic, so we need to revise everything about life now that we’ve got a pandemic. I was expecting the pandemic. I’ve been ready for the pandemic. [laughter] I was ahead of the pandemic.
DN: I want to return to your statement that life doesn’t happen in a heapy paragraphic way. In your conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch when Martin John came out, she said the following, “When I first met you at Wordstock here in Portland, you took my breath away. We were both speaking on a panel about writing and the body. When you read your excerpt I couldn’t breathe. I was both smitten and I felt that thing I long to feel but rarely do: kindred. Your attention to formal investigations as equal in intensity to content investigations tickled me. I remain loyal as a dog to you and your work.” I think people would be interested. A lot of people listening are writers or artists or aspiring writers or artists. Was there a time when you were like banging your head against the wall trying to write heapy paragraphic literature? I’m thinking of George Saunders talking about how, for years, he tried to write like Hemingway and it was almost accidental when he started realizing he was graded impersonations, then he wrote something off the cuff and showed it to his wife.
AS: I’d like to thank George Saunders for stopping writing like Hemingway. That was good of him.
DN: [laughs] I think so too.
AS: I like George Saunders a lot. I like him. I actually really like listening to him. I did have some problems with his book about the Russians. I think I just like George Saunders being George Saunders, like writing these George Saunders’ Saunders-ish books.
DN: Yeah. Were you at one point trying to mold into, or conform to, expectations around the story in the 20th and 21st century, then something put you on a different track?
AS: Was there a time when I was banging my head off the wall? Yes, yesterday, I was banging my head off the wall. I’m banging my head off the wall consistently. I don’t think there’s a writer out there who’s making interesting work who isn’t banging their head off the wall. I think the nature of writing anything is totally demanding. I recently realized it’s really difficult to write a book—even bad books—it’s so difficult to write a book. Even a really bad book that’s terrible is so much work. Even trying to write a mediocre book is freaking tons of work. My favorite description I’ve ever heard about, because I hate the word good, it doesn’t mean anything, good pizza, good ice cream, but Vivian Gornick talks about books that achieve literature. I feel that most writers want to be moving towards that flight path. I don’t know if any of us ever really take off and achieve literature but I just love that as a measurement. I have to go back though to Lidia, because it’s so interesting, all the things she observed at that panel, because all I remember from that panel is the fact that I was really interested about her, she was eating banana bread. [laughter] First of all, she’s eating a piece of banana bread. Second of all, Lidia is a rock star in your city. I actually didn’t know her because this was in 2012, I didn’t know anything or anybody in 2012. I still don’t really know anything or anybody, so I rocked up in Portland and the place was stuffed to the gills. It was so busy. The person who organized the panel couldn’t even get in because Lidia, she’s like the rolling stones in Portland. So we sat on this panel, then I remember Lidia reading this absolutely red-hot thing about fisting. I had no idea, I never really heard of her, and I was just sitting there and I remember announcing before I read, “Beaming in from the early learning center here.” [laughter] Because I felt like we were on this panel, I think it was something to do with, I can’t remember the title of it because often, you end up on panels called ladies and lattes, but I think it might have had something to do with sex, I can’t even remember but I just remember thinking, “Oh my God, I have never heard anything like this.” [laughs] I think it was just something she’d written recently. It was very much like, “Here’s something I prepared 10 minutes ago.” Of course, it was great because it’s Lidia. I just remember thinking, “Oh, my God, I’m just beaming in from the nunnery here.” It was so funny just remembering that. I read the only scene in that first novel, which is where the mother is watching the son give—and sorry for people who might be having their omelets. I’m not sorry for you actually, it’s a lovely thing to be listening to while you’re eating an omelet—there’s a scene in Malarky where the son is anally penetrating another boy over a rock in a field and the mother sees him. [laughs] Is that a fair description of what happened? [laughter] I think some people will just call it butt f*cking but that just seems very contemporary for the mother watching it. But anyway, it’s very funny. I actually wanted to take that scene out of the book because I thought, “Oh God, it’s too much, too much, too much.” But then luckily, a friend of mine, the artist Marina Roy said, “Oh no, you can’t take that out. It’s fantastic.” Then I spent about three years dining out on that one scene. That scene saved me in Portland because I had nothing. That’s my memory of Portland. I just remember being astonished by the banana bread, the rock star reaction, and her fisting piece, which compared to what Lidia came up with is a bit basic really. Listening to all these quotes, it’s a bit embarrassing. This is why I can’t write blurbs because I’m terrible at it. So that’s the index. It was that and that, then the third thing which was your question, yes, I spent 10 years trying to write a novel. It was a lyrical Irish novel that I thought was how novels had to be written, like Colm Tóibín or John McGahern or any of these writers, who are great writers, but I’m interested in making something else. I just couldn’t contract my prose or constrict it to fit in that form. I remember one time a mentor saying to me, “Anakana, things happen logically for a reason sequentially.” That was probably the best thing anybody ever said to me because I just know that’s not right. That’s wrong. Nothing happens logically in life. If things happen logically, then nobody would ever die. There are people who want to be dead obviously but I don’t want my people to be dead. If it was logical, I would say stop dying or stop being nasty. I was going to say stop raining but that’s not true, I wouldn’t want the rain to stop because the rain is interesting. That’s my point. It was a disaster. I spent 10 years flustered, failing. I was a disaster. I thought I’d never get out of the blackberry bushes, the brambles, and all around me, people were publishing novels. I was just never satisfied, so I ended up writing three books essentially to write Malarky. Then that’s one of the reasons why these books have splintered off into these other works because, of course, I wrote so much to find my way to a form. I’m still doing it. I’m still trying to understand. I keep telling myself, “Well maybe, you should write easier books because you’d have more readers.” But then I remember the only reason I have any readers is because I do something different or unusual. It’s not that I set out to do it. It’s just that I’m constitutionally incapable of doing anything like a normal functioning person. [laughs]
DN: Let’s talk a little bit about the form of Bina in the sense that one of the ways it has a form is the form of the warning, so it’s a novel in warnings.
AS: Don’t you think this should be like an interview in warnings?
DN: You already have said stop dying. Bina talks to us, she is warning us, but tell us about warnings as form, telling a story through warnings, and what warnings tell us about Bina as a character.
AS: We’re living in a time, think about the last 20 years really, since 9/11—it’s 20 years since 9/11, isn’t it? I’m not very good at numbers—we’ve lived under a canopy of fear. I have a son, he’s 21—God bless him. He’s upstairs sleeping off a long night of video gaming, writing movies. He’s writing screenplays so one of us has a future around here. [laughter]—I remember thinking of his infancy as a young child and just remember thinking of how to let him know that not everybody was out to hurt him. That has to be even more thematic, depending on where you live and all those factors, it just comes to me as I’m thinking about black mothers, they must be dealing with this at a level that I can’t even imagine. But I remember trying to balance, giving him the idea that the whole world was out to hurt him. I just remember struggling with that and also, struggling with the fact that, on some level, you’re always afraid that your child will be in pain or you’ll do anything to prevent your child’s suffering. I just remember being conscious of that. I feel like a lot of my literary influences are actually the longer I go on as a writer—I’m 50 now, I’ve been at this since I was 20, early 20s—the more I realize how influenced I am by the liturgical.
DN: By what?
AS: The liturgical, like the liturgy. Sorry, I don’t know, is that even a word? Liturgical. It’s a nice word.
DN: Yeah. It is a word.
AS: I’m actually all for making up words. That’s what I love about language. I love the invention of language. I love the way language evolves, that’s why I love all of it. I love sound. Let’s think about the most basic biblical education, the commandments. The commandments tell you, “These are the things you should do and these are the things you shouldn’t do.” I understand people of deep faith in a way that surprises me. There’s nobody I like to listen to more than Marilynne Robinson. I love to listen to Marilynne Robinson. She is a person of deep faith and theological leanings. I think she’s such a brilliant writer because I can read her even though I could basically be considered a utopic pessimist/atheist. But what I am a person of is deep wandering in curiosity. Because I was exposed every single week to the gospels, the word according to God. I was constantly instructed on what was wrong and what was right. The founding principle of Catholicism is guilt, I mean it’s like bone marrow, so you can never really get away from that. Any Catholic you meet, you’ll always share that great bond of guilt. Now, of course, as I talk to you, this is a wonderful thing about publishing a book, it’s not actually that much is great about publishing a book because you always worry, many have to worry about writing another book because you feel like you’ll never be able to do it again. There’s a warning but that’s just a great thing about publishing a book, other people read it, then they tell you about what you’re up to because you can’t know. In my view, you can’t know what you’re up to because if you knew what you were up to, you’d make it better. [laughter] That would be disastrous because it wouldn’t be what it became, because something might be better on one hand but it also might be tidier. It might not be as interesting a piece of literature because it would be knowing, it would understand itself in a way that I feel the reader completes these things. I like the idea of Blanchot’s, that the writer is just the first reader of the work. I don’t know if he actually said this part but I’m saying this part whereby the reader comes in, then they complete it, and every time, it’s a different iteration. Now, that is really hard to stomach if you are foolish enough ever to look at Goodreads. Don’t do it or any of those. [laughs] Martha in the basement says, “Pete, in his pajamas, declares that this woman doesn’t know how to write and Pete in his pajamas knows better.” But that’s the point. Every time, it’s a different iteration. Think of how contrasting people’s experiences are when they open a book. Literally, some people, I’m sure, want me just banned. There was a woman online recently calling for a content warning. She’s given out saying that Bina needed kind of like they used to have, what was her name, not Nancy Reagan, whoever, Barbara Bush, or one of them said, “There should be stickers on rock music warning of explicit lyrics.” Somebody wanted one of those stickers on the front of Bina. She wanted it. On the front of Bina, wait for it, for animal abuse. [laughs]
DN: For animal abuse?
AS: [laughs] For animal abuse. I think it was because Eddie murdered her dogs.
AS: I’m just like, “Well, yeah.” Obviously, we know there are lots of great people on the internet but the point being, the iteration, so as I’m talking to you or listening to you, the subconscious is just making up stuff in relation to what I was up to and it doesn’t really matter because it does sound pretty good so far and you’re going to edit it, right?
DN: [laughs] Yes.
AS: My point is that maybe, there’s another process after you’ve written the book and that is finally being able to understand something about what’s in the book, even though you can’t actually remember what’s in the book because you’re 50.
DN: To take your completion of Blanchot’s thought about the reader completing the writer’s work essentially, I feel like there’s something ingenious about the opening of Bina. At the beginning, Bina says, “I do swear. in this place. you will find. warnings. if you heed them they will be yours. if you don’t you were warned.” But then you make it impossible for the reader to heed them. The first two warnings we get are No ditch and No door but the first two chapters that follow are named Ditch and Door, so from the get-go, we’re in a problematic relationship with Bina and her warnings. You’ve said in a couple interviews that the nihilistic penguin or the demented penguin in Werner Herzog’s film is one of the inspirations for this book. This is a penguin that, for some reason, doesn’t head back to the colony or toward the feeding grounds along the edge of the ice but instead is making this mysterious bee line toward the interior, going hundreds of kilometers towards the mountains and towards its certain death, and no one can stop it, yet no one knows why he’s going that way despite the warnings. I wondered if this is how the penguin is an inspiration because in these opening pages, you’ve made us all as readers into nihilistic penguins it seems.
AS: I think you overdid it on the penguin front. [laughter] I can’t believe you actually went and transcribed the whole thing. It was really just a fleeting image of that penguin and it’s also the voice of Werner Herzog. “He was walking towards certain death.” He has that interesting timbre in his voice. Although he also is a very knowing male, it’s a very knowing male voice that he occludes, is that a word? [laughs] We’ll use that. I love it though. I don’t think I’ve necessarily made you all into nihilistic penguins. I didn’t even notice this. This is what I love about it. I just skip all the rest of it. I actually skip ever writing another book as well because it’s so interesting. I didn’t even know that, that’s so true. She has that warning, I mean that sounded like it would be good on a gravestone. [laughs] The other thing is don’t forget humans are just inherently contradictory. If I’m going to give you a human, I’m not going to give you a really straightforward one. I don’t know any straightforward humans. I know wonderful, wonderful, wonderful humans. I do. I’m very, very blessed with very good friends but maybe, I’m just contradictory. I just think humanity is so contradictory and it’s such a disastrous mess. It’s just a big f*cking melt right now, it’s just a big meltdown, just melting into each other, melting each other away, melting the planet away, and what are we doing? What do you think would be the smart thing to do? Today, if your freezer or your fridge blew and everything started melting inside, what would you do? You’d take it out and you’d either preserve it or you’d eat it. What do humans do? They go, “Ah, f*ck it, we’re going to go to Mars.” [laughter] Excuse me. Elon Musk, as we speak, has sent his fridge to Mars. We’re like, “Well, we just can’t wait to, f*ck it, let’s not fix this. Let’s just take the whole fridge, shoot it up in the air to Mars, blend it.” [laughter] I’m sorry but right now, I’m really worried about the Martians and people are worried if there are aliens out there. I think the Martians need a no-fly list up there. I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again. I don’t understand it and everybody’s going, “Yay.” [laughter] They’re clapping. Anyway, don’t get in touch, Elon. Don’t get in touch. People say, “Oh, innovation.” Once, I went on a date with a guy who kept looking out the window pointing to Mars. That was interesting. [laughs] He also ordered a pizza with three types of fennel and I said to him, “I don’t like fennel.” He ordered a pizza with three types of fennel on it, so then, I had to order my own pizza. [laughter]
DN: You’re a living example of life not being sequential in this conversation, and so is that date for sure. I wanted to talk about the way you shape character, partially through withholding because the way Lidia Yuknavitch will say that you’ve rendered characters in bits and pieces of itself, it feels like that’s true, Martin John and Bina both. But there feels like there’s a difference in the sense that we get bits and pieces of Martin John partially because he’s trying to be in half denial about what he’s doing, so there are ways in which his own self-narration is a self-preservation of himself, his self-notion, of him not being as bad as he really is, so the gaps are where we fill that in as a reader. But with Bina, Bina is not presenting herself to us, partially because of constraints going on in the world that she has an upcoming trial, so she doesn’t want what she says to incriminate her. There’s this weird tension in reading Bina, the book, in that she isn’t fully capable of speaking to us, yet she also seems, by nature, to be someone, to be very upfront and direct. She likes to give commands, she likes to talk to us directly, yet we know that she’s constrained. When you’ve talked before about looking for ways to propel the story or the book forward, not through story but through form–
AS: Not through plot.
DN: Not through plot.
AS: It’s not not through story, it’s plot.
DN: Yes. That’s a good distinction. Is that one of the ways in which there are these story aspects that she has this upcoming trial and she needs to self-preserve and not self-incriminate, is that one of the ways you pull the reader forward formally without using plot?
AS: That’s such a good point. I actually have to say I just want to let the listener know that I’m actually having to write down notes as you talk because otherwise, I don’t ever answer the question. [laughs] I think that’s true. I would say maybe, they’re literary devices. Of course, like I say, if I knew exactly what I was doing, I would do it much better. There’s no question. If anybody wants to get in touch and diagnose what I’m doing, without mansplaining it to me, diagnose it in a useful way that will move my work forward, you will not get payment but I will get better at writing. That obviously, I’m being facetious. I want to go back to Martin John. Martin John is entirely in denial about what he does, but more importantly, his mother is in denial. The question I wanted to ask in that book was, would you protect your own child to the detriment of somebody else’s child? First of all, I want to be clear that Martin John, he’s a molester but he’s an adult. There seems to be some misunderstanding for some people. He’s not a pedophile because all of his abuse takes place but he’s targeting grown women on the tube. It is true that the book goes back and it divulges earlier incidents in his life. But I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that he is an adult when those things are happening, and he’s not. If you look closely, he’s a young man or he’s maybe a few years older. One of the things about that was really complicity. Obviously, he’s in denial because otherwise, he wouldn’t be going around abusing women, we hope. Then the mother is in denial because the mother doesn’t want to admit what she’s been made aware of, that her son is dangerous, so she sends him to England. Her position is she feels like just to get him out and tell him what to do. Actually, if you think about it, there’s a lot of warnings in Martin John. I only realize it now. Maybe, that’s where I picked up the warning from. But the other thing that’s important—and I didn’t realize this, it was actually the writer Joanna Walsh who told me I was doing this. She teaches the book—we hear Martin John’s mother through Martin John’s head. It’s the second person indirect. Now, of course, when I sat down to write that, I didn’t sit and construct, “Well, if I make the point of view like this…” I would like to know of George Suanders. Get in touch, George. [laughter] Can I ask George Saunders to sit down and go, “Well, I know what I’m doing. If I use this point of view and if I pick and mix these devices…” I don’t think he does. I think he sits down probably with a bit more facial hair than me. He grinds it out. He doesn’t know what he’s doing until he begins to see something of what he’s doing, then it’s over, then afterwards, he finds out what he’s doing. I think that’s true in terms of denial. One of the things I want to point out though and one of the things that I think is like a metaphor, perhaps, with Bina is that with Martin John, we cannot believe that people who commit these atrocious crimes are somehow other or different but they’re actually us, like we are Martin John. We are him. He’s us and we’re him. Maybe, that’s the point, that you can’t remove yourself from that equation, that as long as you imagine that’s just some distant aberration, that’s just non-human or non-humanity, then you’re complicit in it continuing. Then in a way, it’s true, in terms of Bina, she’s much more abrasive, she’s direct but she’s 74 or 76, whatever, she’s 74 and she’s an ordinary woman. Bina is invisible. Nobody’s coming to help Bina. Nobody sees Bina. I do think that we just don’t give a flying f*ck about old people, especially old women. We’ve seen that in the pandemic. We just left them all in LTCs and COVID just swept through, and killed them. It was a bit contradictory given the OK boomer thing. The boomers did okay, but I do see this invisibility of all people. Who’s going to listen to you when you’re old? More to the point, people go, “Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” But actually, you do know emphatically when you’re old because you’ve been around long enough. I just wanted to create a woman who would just give it to you as it is that there wouldn’t be any apologizing. You’ve been around that long and you’ve put up with the things you’ve put up with, partly because Bina lumbered herself with them. I was very curious about who do we lumber ourselves with? Especially as women, who do you inadvertently invite into your life and how hard is it to get rid of them? It’s easy to unload or upload and it’s really difficult to offload. The offload ramp moves so much slower than the onboarding. [laughs] I was really curious about that. In terms of the so-called story aspects, somebody said, “Well, they’re like mosaics, they get a little bit here and a little bit there.” That’s an interesting analogy. I impose the device that Bina, and I have this thing, the redacted. All those black stripes that you see throughout the word, underneath them is the word redacted, redacted. I created almost like this other character that was called redacted. Redacted from the group found. But the designer put a black stripe over them and the idea would be that there was this voice that we couldn’t hear. In a sense, that’s true because there’s always another voice. There’s always another voice that we can’t hear. That’s one of the perils of writing a novel, is you can only give so many voices, either the first, the third, the second or maybe, the ubiquitous godlike narrative, but there’s always another voice. There’s probably a redact in every single book that’s ever written, so I just put this one in and it just worked as a, formally, it was content because she’s been arrested and it’s a device that’s often used in court documents—It was used an awful lot under the Trump administration. [laughs] There was a lot of stuff that was redacted—I’m always curious about just writing in all its forms, that project that you referred to earlier, that art project that I did, Rereading The Riot Act, And On, that was really about the act of public reading, how can the act of reading be used against people publicly, that was really what that was about even though it was all tied up with labor history. I’m really interested in how you can create momentum in a narrative, how you can create momentum in prose without having a plot, a plot like, “Oh well, somebody died, then they got buried, then somebody discovered something.” I’m not interested in plot. I think plot can be created through these other literary devices. César Aira is really good at this. He creates momentum. He doesn’t necessarily have a plot. He creates momentum through prose, just through language. I suppose also, I’m interested in the velocity of prose, the muscularity of language. I guess I want that to be the mechanics, if you like, the anatomy of what might move the book forward.
DN: I want to return to two things that you brought up in this answer, and one of them is the invisibility of women, older women in particular. I think of how Bina stands out in this regard because in the 11 years of me doing this show, almost 200 episodes, the only person I can think of is Mary Ruefle who was on the show and engaged with this topic in depth, how women after menopause become invisible. She says in her piece in Granta, which is called Pause, “No matter how attractive or unattractive you are, you have been used to having others look you over when you stood at the bus stop or at the chemist’s to buy tampons. They have looked you over to assess how attractive or unattractive you are, so no matter what the case, you were looked at. Those days are over; now others look straight through you, you are completely invisible to them, you have become a ghost.” Then Katy Waldman in The New Yorker who wrote this really deep and smart review of Bina—she’s one of my favorite writers on writing—she said, “In a country that sees old women as foolish and disposable Bina is accustomed to swallowing down cruelty and coughing it back up as aphorism.” Then later she mentions Marella Gayla who said, “The much-discussed phenomenon of ‘women’s anger’ has grown intensely marketable.” Katy Waldman suggests that Bina has aged out of economic value and conventional desirability and that Katy is tempted at seeing your book as a pointed challenge to the feminist marketplace, daring us with the question, “Do you actually care about this lady?” I wondered how that analysis struck you, do you see centering a character like Bina who’s in her 70s who doesn’t have a heroic storyline? Do you see that as a challenge to the reader or as a corrective to the absence of those sorts of narratives?
AS: I found that aspect of Katy’s review great, fascinating. It was also a challenge for me to think about it. I have thought about it and I would say the answer is no, the marketplace doesn’t give a flying f*ck about Bina. They’re not interested in Bina. [0:54:31.8] basically, knowledge stands in anything unless it produces cash. It might be interested in Bina as far as selling our catheter bag. [laughter] The marketplace right now is constantly sending me the message that I’ve got a neck like a turkey and I need to lose weight, and all these things, so I just said, “Well, meanwhile, why aren’t they targeting me with basketball socks or something?” because that’s actually where my true concerns lie right now. There are few points in this. First of all, I’d argue that Bina is heroic. She’s epic. She’s epic in the fact that she gets 300 pages and you’re in her mind, and you’re in her kidneys and that gesture in itself makes her epic because that to me feels like she’s a Roman emperor. Nobody gets that space. I really love what Mary said. I haven’t read Mary work. She’s been on my list for a hundred years. I must actually look that up. The second thing that strikes me about Bina, again, if we just think of the book as a gesture, one of the things that interests me as well in so-called women’s fiction—which is another handy umbrella—is the extent to which it can revolve around domesticity and relationships. I think it was Ali Smith who once sat on some jury or other. Maybe it was the Granta thing and she remarked on this. I guess it breaks the question. Bina is not looking for a boyfriend. Bina isn’t going to give you some story about romance. This is what’s f*cking fantastic to me about being an old woman and I’d like to see more emphasis on this aspect of being an old woman but you basically don’t give a flying f*ck. I just think it’s so interesting to me, being now 50, I can’t imagine why any woman would saddle themselves with some new marriage or relationship, why would you do that? You can have absolute freedom to be who you are, what you want, however you want without any of that. I think that there’s a very interesting thing that happens and it’s got everything probably to do with biology, and that is the weaponization of romantic love against women. Fellows don’t have this. Fellows can keep reproducing until they’re 102, I assume. I don’t know about the biological truth of that, so get in touch, fertility clinics, and correct me. [laughter] But my point is for women, they have these years between 30 and maybe 44, 42 where if they want to be a parent, be a mother, under the traditional normative heterosexual binary if you like, that requires that some man deems them attractive enough to reproduce with. Now, of course, things are changing and women are breaking out of that, and there are all kinds of alternate families and goods, because I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. I think this is a huge pressure. I often have conversations with younger women about this where they have been sold the idea that it has to occur within this framework of, I mean this is the heterosexuals and the heterosexuals are obviously very regressive. The queer community is way more advanced in this regard but the heterosexuals are all still honey and boo, so boring. I feel very strongly, weaponization of romantic love needs to be usurped and we need to find alternatives and actually, I would go as far as to say that the people who want to mate together should not necessarily be in relationships at all. They should just be like random people who want to be parents and we should separate this all out, and stop this bullsh*t because what it leaves is a bunch of women feeling like they’ve somehow failed to thrive. Meanwhile, those women are actually making incredible strides in all manner of other things. They’re a lot more remarkable. To be honest, they are not just vessels of human reproduction. Obviously, I’ve gone on a bit of a tirade but my point being, it really does trouble me, the emphasis that is placed on this. I have a lovely anecdote to share. I ran into a doctor I hadn’t seen for a long time. I actually love this woman. We were walking along the road together. We had children that were in a similar age range. We live in the same neighborhood and I hadn’t seen her for 15 years or something. We went along the roads and she was telling me her marriage broke up, but she had a new fiance and she was going to get married soon. Then there was this beautiful moment, we both arrived at the traffic lights together and she said to me, “What about you?” She goes, “Still single, huh?” [laughs] I thought it was so funny and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to be single for 444 years.” But I just thought it was such a beautiful exchange, obviously, it was a bit insulting but whatever, I’m a novelist. It’s a very useful interaction. I thought about it and I thought, “Well, what kind of a measurement is that? What kind of a rubric is that?”
DN: I want to stay with this and this question that you raised just a minute ago of why in the world would you saddle yourself with a relationship at this juncture in your life because you did also refer back to the ways in which Bina ends up saddling herself. She’s heroic on the one hand. This book is a book about love in regards to female friendship.
AS: Yeah, this book is 100% a book about female friendship. I’ve been trying to say that for three years.
DN: No, I think it is.
AS: Like all my books, it’s a big complicated stew. It’s not popcorn. That’s the fundamental truth in the book. That’s I think the achievement of the book. I think, I hope, I pray I said something profound about female friendship.
DN: I totally think you do. But the other thing that I wanted to bring up in relationship to that also is about self-sacrifice for women and the question of saying no. Another way this book feels very much centered around women is around this question. It’s something that I also discussed with Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the last episode and it’s something that she also engages with. I’m thinking about how, in Martin John and Bina, you have characters who both have people living in their houses that they don’t want to be living in.
AS: And in Malarky.
DN: And in Malarky. But the significance is different in Bina, extends to many other things in her life. Eddie, who crashes in a ditch outside her house and ends up at her door is taken in by her but stays there for 10 years despite what Bina would ultimately want. She’s physically abused and psychologically abused by him. He conducts illegal activities from her house. Even when he ultimately leaves, the possibility of his return looms over everything that she’s doing. He’s there in a way when he’s not there. But this isn’t specific only to Eddie. She’s willing to risk and sacrifice her own well-being for the cause of the right to die.
DN: She won’t kick out the Crusties, the bearded activists who are camped out on her front lawn, who are defending her but honestly, she would rather they weren’t there. One reviewer quite accurately calls, “Empathy is her Achilles’ heel.” Yet she’s acutely aware and speaks to us about the importance of saying no. In fact, she herself says, “If I do nothing else in these warnings, I will train you to say no.”
AS: Thirty-two times. [laughter] She tells you how to say no. This is what it looks like. Thirty-two times.
DN: Yes. That feels like a very much another way the book is engaged with, it’s not exclusive to women obviously, but a gendered potential exploration and one of the ways you could look at the journey for Bina as a character is around this question.
AS: Yeah, it’s good. Your questions almost put me in a bit of a stunned state because I’m processing them because they’re all so thoughtful. Also, I’m sorry to seem so combative. I’m not combative. This is me just thinking. [laughter] This is a woman in thought. I probably seem very combative. I shouldn’t be apologizing for that because if I was male, I just think I was probably edgy.
DN: Good point.
AS: Maybe not. Men can phone up. You can call up and dispute that. [laughter] Here’s the thing—God, I keep saying here’s the thing, it’s very annoying—she does say sacrifice is a silly thing that women do. So hilarious. I love this because you’re prompting me to remember the text even though I don’t actually remember the text. [laughter] Sacrifice is the thing that women do. It’s true, she does say it. Bina essentially is fierce. She’s fierce. I like to think of her like a missile or something but yet at the same time, she is softened in ways, like the Crustie who comes in and wants to use her toilet. Sometimes, when she gets stern with the Crusties, then they say, “Oh,” because they’re very earnest, then she softens. I think yeah, in some ways, we want the whole picture of women. We don’t want these simplistic portraits that are all good. In a way, I’ve been interested, since the beginning, in the darker side of motherhood. My first novel opens with a woman saying she’s so annoyed by the grief counsellor. She’s having hallucinations of naked men at each other all the time. In some ways, maybe it’s about that, maybe it’s about the reluctance to complain that does seem to be a feature of the female condition. I know this because I complain all the time. As someone who gives out full time, over time, time that hasn’t even existed yet, [laughs] I’m just amazed at what women endure, what women have to put up with, and what comes at women. Now, I’m certainly not trying, for a moment, to suggest that nothing comes at me, of course not. I’ve always made this clear when I wrote Martin John, that book was response to listening to 10 long years of public inquiries into the most horrendous sexual abuse inquiries, the most horrendous infractions, and invasions of the female body. It has to be said that, of course, in all of those sexual abuse inquiries, there were very, very many men who were also concurrently abused. I just chose to focus on women. There’s going to be a lot of other writers who may focus on men. Maybe I will carry on and I will focus on men. I just want to be very clear that I’m certainly not denigrating or being disingenuous because abuse and suffering isn’t gender specific, just like there are all kinds of class injuries. It took me a long, long time to figure out that there are class injuries that I don’t know about because I didn’t grow up in the upper middle class or middle class. I grew up in a poor working class. I’m conscious of those class injuries but there exists other injuries that as I age, I’ve come to learn about. After issuing that caveat, [laughs] I think I want to make a right post to this notion of sacrifice. The very example of motherhood, we always blame the mother. Ultimately, fellows can just skip on out but it’s much harder for a woman to skip on out. I salute the women that have done that and do that. I’m sure their kids aren’t very happy about it. I’m sure it’s very, very damaging but it’s still a brave gesture to do it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the position that women find themselves in, and to some extent, put themselves in, encourages perhaps a degree of martyrdom. I think that judgment also exists between women. That instead of us being competitive, or maybe being conditioned to be competitive in financial environments or environments which actually move the quality of your life forward in a significant way, we can end up perhaps being interrupt competitive about domestic bliss or whatever. For example, that moment at the traffic lights with one of my former doctors who’s a really wonderful doctor, my life at that moment was summed up to who did or did not find me attractive since she’d seen me last, not the fact that I’ve written four books, three of which have been accomplished works, not the fact that nothing else, all I amount to really is whether or not somebody has deemed me attractive enough to want to marry me. God, help that poor person because I’m never getting married. In the event that happens, it was coercive. [laughter] I was trying to get someone a kidney transplant. They needed a passport. Those kinds of subtle messages that you get, for example, “Oh, you take your work very seriously,” as though being a writer and trying to achieve something close to literature would require you just do this on the side with a cup of tea for 10 minutes, no. I’m fascinated by this question of what does it take for a woman artist to get her work done? I mean perhaps unhealthily fascinated by it. I really, really loved Celia Paul’s book, Self-Portrait. I don’t know if you’ve read that one but I found it astonishing. I wrote Celia fan mail because Celia had a baby and left the child with her mother, and went to London to paint. I remember just being so grateful that she wrote that work because I sat here and I thought, “Yes, that type of focus is what it takes.” Of course, there’ll be a bunch of people listening to this who’ll say, “Who’s that harridan?” No, it doesn’t. You could do this in a very balanced manner. I’m happy for you. I’m glad for you. It’s just that it hasn’t been my experience. Maybe it will become my experience. But when you’re trying to make work that’s interrogative, you’re not necessarily going to have floods the same way if you wrote confessional essays. People will come to those essays because they want to find themselves or an element of their experience in those essays, whereas when you’re writing fiction—that also has been a thing, which I actually don’t like. I don’t want to go to fiction to find I’m boring. I can find myself in a f*cking mirror every day and it’s not that interesting. I want to go to fiction to find the people I don’t anticipate meeting. I want to be challenged. Does that make sense? I guess not because you’ve actually asked me about self-sacrifice and that Bina is teaching us to say no. Yeah, she is but don’t you think it’s a clarion call from a woman to women exclusively and if there are fellows around the edges tuning in who somehow benefit from this grant?
AS: If you actually think about the history of literature, I mean James Joyce sat down and wrote thousands of pages about some dude wandering around, breathing aloud. The central conceit of focusing on a man telling us all what to do isn’t abnormal or astonishing in literature. We love to be told what to do by fellows. How about, for a change, one woman? There aren’t that many women who do that, so I felt that it was time.
DN: I think this is a great time to actually hear a little bit from the book.
AS: Oh, okay. I really love that film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the judge. I love that image of her struggling with cancer or whatever but still doing her work. I found that so comforting to see. This is what I feel we need is more women in those positions, like the message getting out, that your work is as important as somebody deciding whether or not they want to bloody marry you. It’s as important as whether or not you ever own a property, which if you’re a writer, you should probably give up that ambition right now. [laughter] That’s the end of my advice to the writer’s section. Hope for a tent or a shed. It’s a cold reading because it was selected by Mr. David Naimon. I’m doing what I’ve been told for a change. It doesn’t happen very often.
[Anakana Schofield reads from her latest book, Bina]
DN: We’ve been listening to Anakana Schofield read from her latest book, Bina. One of the major ways that character and form are creating each other in Bina is around note-taking. She’s self-censoring to us but she also sees note-taking as her last chance to tell the truth of what is happening, so there’s this tension happening. But she’s also taking notes because her memory is starting to fail her and she’s also writing notes ultimately to be useful to others by writing down her warnings of what not to do, so other women won’t suffer what she’s suffered. But because she’s writing down these notes on scrap paper and on the backs of receipts, it changes the way the language is and also, the way you arrange the language. I have two questions for you from other writers that coincidentally both happen to touch on this aspect of Bina. I’m going to read those. The first is from writer, poet, and poetry columnist for the New York Times, Elisa Gabbert and she says, “I felt that Bina almost read like a novel in verse. This effect is partly due to the formal constraint imposed on Bina by the scraps and receipts she is writing her missives on.” Then she says in a parenthetical, “It reminds me of the part in how music works where David Byrne explains that pop songs are three minutes long because that’s how much music fits on a 45.” Then she continues, “The unit in these fragments feels closer to the line, the poetic line, than the sentence. As a writer who sometimes thinks in lines and stanzas, and sometimes thinks in sentences and paragraphs, I want to ask, how would you describe your novel’s relationship to poetry? How did the narrower margins, even if those margins are fictive in the poem-like passages, change Bina’s writing and yours?”
AS: First of all, hello. How are you doing, Elisa? [laughter] She’s such a good writer. I also really love her on Twitter, she makes me laugh. Wow, what a great question. How am I going to answer this? I might have to do an index to get through. First of all, I would say for me, poetry is the highest form there is. I do think the most interesting work is taking place very lightly in poetic forms in poetry. That’s why I never attempt to write poetry because I consider it the highest possible form. [laughs] But I think I approach the novel like a poet approaches poetry. In a way, I feel like I have the same relationship with the novel that a poet does to poetry. Although since I’m not a poet, I’m just making that up, what I imagine a poet has to poetry. It’s a really, really good question. I think that there’s one moment in Bina where I realized after, you know the way when you give readings from your book, you read this bit and that bit and there’s just one moment—and I never get this feeling very often in anything I write. I remember once, a writer asked me, “Did you never just write a line and think, ‘God, I nailed that.’” I said, “Never.” [laughs] I never write a line where I think that’s a great f*cking sentence. Never. Sometimes, I might write a line and read it, and there’s one side that made me laugh but I never think I’ve nailed it. The couple of times I thought I wrote something really strong, it got rejected. [laughs] I don’t have that experience—but there’s one moment in Bina and it’s that line where she says—it’s something to do with a well, and the women are talking—and she says, “Well. A deep well for me to fall into.” It’s a little stanza, I guess, that’s what the poets would call it. I think actually, at that moment, I truly did something interesting with language. I feel that is very interesting, what’s happening with language there. Also, that maybe sums up the entire book in the way that I use the word well, then I create this well, then somehow, it all comes together about this relationship between these women that we’ve been dancing around for 300 pages. Now, I think it occurs somewhere towards the middle end of the book. I really like her analogy about music with David Byrne. I wrote that down. I’m going to look for that book. I’m really curious about musicality. I’m really interested in the note. It carefully scored that novel. Usually, when I’m writing a novel about the first 90 pages, I just know it back to front and inside out because I’ve written and rewritten it, and I’ll take a word out, then I’ll put it back in and there are connections between a word that appeared three lines earlier. In that regard, it is like poetry, I suppose, but it’s not. It’s a novel. The question is that our concept of the novel is so limited. It’s unbelievable. Let’s think about visual art for a moment. We’re not going into galleries saying, “Art has to have a frame and art can only have a picture of a pear or flowers.” Our concept of what we’ll engage with in visual art is so much broader than what we will expect or anticipate to find in the novel.
DN: Or even the shape of the physical object of the novel.
DN: You’re never going to have a round novel.
AS: Why not?
DN: I know, why not?
AS: Write a round novel. What about having a book that’s 26 chapters long but there are 26 different items? There could be all kinds of shapes. Oh God, I’m giving away great ideas here. [laughter] All across the land, publishers are going, “Shut that woman up.” I will say this about poetry, I think I found my form because of poetry. With the first novel, that first novel that took 10 years, I struggled, and struggled, and struggled, I was dissatisfied, then I went to see this concrete poet, there was like a symposium thing about, it was like an anthology that was published, I don’t know, 60 years ago and had all these concrete poets. A number of them that were still alive because they’re not all still alive, stood up and gave readings, then there was this one poet, Judith Copithorne is her name. She’s a concrete poet. She did something very different. She just walked up and down and she just threw out these lines, these single words related to that time and that really helped me understand a human being could be comprised, instead of seeing linear arcs—I hate arcs. It’s so fallacious. I hate the way time gets tackled in the novel. I’ve always resented it. It’s tied up into these neat handy bundles but there’s nothing tidy about time in life. Ask anybody who’s ever been depressed, for God’s sake—but I remember being struck both by the physicality of the fact that she chose to move when she read and just this notion that these fragments would create a moment in time. That was where I found that more episodic fractured form, which worked because the novel was about grief. I owe that to poetry. I’m really interested, for example, in Anne Carson’s book. Hold on, I have to go look at the title, you know, the book in a box.
AS: Nox, there you go. It’s this concertina of a book. You pull it out and this is like a life. I just think it’s the most beautiful creation, the fact that it has all those really beautiful pictures and postcards. To go back to Bina, the other thing is I don’t want to write novels that are narrated by writers. I don’t want to write novels that have writers at the center of them but somehow, I’m still struggling to come to terms with how to deal with the fact that I’m aware that there’s a reader reading and I’m aware that I’m writing and how to bridge that because I feel the need to bridge that somehow because I use direct address in my books. I use that Brechtian because I want the reader to know that I know you’re there. I know you’re there and I know that I’m asking you to do a lot with me in this book. I guess it’s the empathy, as well maybe, it’s like the female writer who has empathy for the fact that people might be suffering. [laughter] I’m pretty sure people are suffering while they read my novels, like throwing them at the walls or burning them or writing vulgar things on the internet about me. I guess I would just argue on that point, or not argue but I would posit on that point. I had to also think about materiality, what does Bina have access to? If I’m not going to write from the point of view of a frustrated translator, I’m going to posit an ordinary woman, an ordinary woman of her generation was very much a feature people took notes off the radio. I guess I love this accrual, the idea that the ordinary person is constantly accruing knowledge. The idea that knowledge is reserved only for people in ivory towers, it’s something that’s tricky with social class. But I refuse to believe that the poor aren’t interested and curious in having interesting, curious observations and thoughts about the world, and accruing knowledge, collecting, reading, and digesting the world like everybody else. If I’m going to write about someone who’s ordinary, I have to use a material that they have access to. That’s why I thought about electricity bills, receipts. Also, people that live in rural Ireland as well are not necessarily under rural anywhere. Unless they pay, they don’t necessarily have rubbish picked up, it’s slightly different, it’s not like living in a city. They might want to redeploy those materials. I think it’s really important in fiction to make [01:30:15]. I hate the way that contemporary fiction has become so reliant on whether or not it rings true. It’s just so silly, the whole point of fiction is making it up. I don’t want to make out that Bina is a magazine editor so I had to make it appropriate but also creative. The idea that it was on receipts also gave me something spatially to think about as I wrote. It also was the way in which the prose unrolled. I think one of the reviews did was critical of that and said, wasn’t it somebody said something about, “Well, I don’t think the person computed that this was a gesture of social class,” this was a way of saying this is how much space this person has to write just as this is how much space this person has really to be heard or considered significant in the world and I want to take people who aren’t heard who may not, on the surface, be considered significant and create, on the page, a place where they have a stage and they’re significant, they’re wholly significant to that book. That’s not new. Lots of people have done that through literature.
DN: My second question for you, you’ve at least begun to answer with your example of the concrete poet and of Anne Carson, but I’m going to ask Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s question for you, which coincidentally is also about poetry, she said, “I’m in awe of the skill with which you render your character’s voices both in speech and in thought, in the ways in which you choose to structure these bursts of language on the page where space seems as necessary in holding those voices as it would in a poem. Your pages sometimes feel like prose poems. And you’ve briefly referred in the past to the influence of experimental poetics on your prose, could you please elaborate on how poets, or individual works of poetry, have acted as provocations in your own artistic development, and does this interest persist?”
AS: [01:32:43] Yeah, actually it’s funny because I did love the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which of course is the central poem in Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s memoir. I love that poem. God, these questions, I’m almost like inadequate in the face of such fine questions. In terms of voice, well I’ve got a new take on voice—and don’t forget, I revise my theories about 15 times an hour so this is my theory from the last 75 hours. [laugh]—I get asked a lot about voice and I just don’t really understand how you could have a novel if you don’t have voice. People will say things like, “Oh, it’s voice driven,” it’s almost pejorative as though voice is simple. Sometimes I get that and I get a little testy, a bit like the humor question like, “Well, what f*cking planet do you live on? The planet I live on, the people who have the hardest time on this planet, often have the most ripe sense of humor.” Anybody has ever worked as a cleaner, anybody that’s ever worked in a factory, or on transit or something, knows that you can’t survive unless you have a sense of humor—anyway, I already covered that so I don’t know why I’m going back to it—Likewise, voice, I just don’t understand what novel would anybody want to stay in if they don’t hear the distinctive voice of someone. That’s why it’s so tragic in some ways, anybody who’s ever done a jury will know this experience, that you can sometimes read a whole pile of stuff and you could take a knee, you could stitch the whole thing together, it would be the same book. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t have interesting merit in it but I’m really curious about, yeah, you have to have voice, if you don’t have a voice, you don’t have anyone, humans use voice. I don’t know. I’m not doing very well with this question, it’s such a good question. My recent theory on voice is this, so I really recently realized that instead of getting all testy about people saying, “Oh, it’s voice driven,” because I sometimes feel like it’s a little pejorative and that they’re underestimating the actual literary devices and qualities and the way that I’m working with language because it makes it sound like I just transcribed anthropological interviews when that’s not the case, I’m making this up. I’m constructing this language. I’m constructing these voices. They all have their own alphabets because every human voice has access to whatever language they have access to based on their influences and circumstances. But I had this, remembering recently, when I went to theater school, I was told that I had a speech impediment because, of course, when you go to theater school, they want everybody to sound like you speak BBC Queen’s English, now things have changed a lot and now we recognize there’s great value in regional accents. But when you’re in a theatre school, they basically try to eradicate your accent, they want you to speak in a neutral, to be able to have a neutral tone, which I found very political. I have this memory of this voice teacher saying to me, “Darling, you’ll never have a beautiful voice,” and God rest him, he’s dead now, he was a wonderful teacher, and he wasn’t lying to me. He was saying, “With these terms of engagement, you sound poor and you sound ugly. Your voice sounds impeded,” and it was, I had a pretty strong lisp. But I was thinking about it in terms of here I am, 30 years later and what’s great about this is, in many ways, one of the main qualities that people talk about in my novels are the voices. I feel like that’s like a beautiful circle in that you’re saying, because what he’s really saying is the product of your birth, you’re impeded and you’re damaged because of the social class of the way that you speak because you don’t speak like Judi Dench or someone. It was a very particular time. I think now things have evolved and we’re just more intelligent about these things. But I think that is interesting. The best advice anybody ever gave me about writing fiction was when somebody says something in your work is a problem, turn it up and make it a feature. I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever got.
DN: I love that advice.
AS: Yeah. Another one was always eat hard-boiled eggs.
DN: So turn what’s wrong into a feature and eat hard-boiled eggs.
AS: Yeah. When people say, “Okay, what’s going on here?” “Oh, no, you can’t do that,” then turn it up, make it a feature. That was true because people used to say a lot about point of view, they say, “I don’t understand the point of view in this,” and then I’d look at it and go, “Oh, yeah, that is a bit strange.” Then I actually started to push back against point of view and I’d feel like I don’t want first person present, third person past. I hate this. This is too neat and it’s fallacious. That’s not how we recall the world or history. It suggests that there’s no continuum. I’m interested in that idea of continuum, that things behind relate to things in front and the things in the middle, and they’re all in conversation with each other. Publishing has become such a strange singular gesture and we’re now literally appointing, whatever, three titles this season and all the resources will go into boosting, and usually, it relates to publishers having extraordinary amounts of cash, sometimes towards very imbecilic books, not always, some of the books are great obviously but I’m thinking of that nameless book recently that, anyway, I don’t want say it out loud or I get cancelled but you know the one I mean. [laughter] Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
DN: Let’s step away from poetry but stay with syntax a little bit longer in prose. Because several reviewers have compared you to your fellow countryman, Samuel Beckett. The Guardian compares the two of you in that your books are what they call existentially confounding and syntactically wild. The Walrus says, “Bina’s patterns of misremembering and epiphany sometimes resemble those of the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Not I. That unnamed narrator, seen as a floating mouth on an otherwise blacked-out stage, delivers a disjointed monologue about a childhood of neglect and loneliness that led to years of silence.” Finally, Katy Waldman says, “The women’s relationship—a bond forged against a backdrop of misogynist violence, sustained over tea—lends stakes and solidity to what might otherwise read as an exercise in tone, a séance to bring Samuel Beckett, with his absurdism, gallows humor, and lyrical foreboding, back to earth.” I agree as a reader with Katy Waldman that because there’s so much of the small details of life sustained over tea, that I actually never feel like I’m reading something that is Beckettesque or that we are hearing from a floating mouth either. But on the other hand, when you are asked to say in an interview what your favorite line of writing was, you read the following lines from Beckett’s Worstward Ho, “No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. The groan so long on its way. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up.” It made me immediately think of the lines from Martin John that Lidia Yuknavitch picked out, “Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him. He likes it too. He likes what they like.” It definitely made me feel like when I heard those–
AS: God, that’s amazing, I don’t know any resemblance at all between them. [laughs]
DN: Okay. To me it felt that the music of those two sentences were on friendly terms, not that they were–
AS: Okay, so there is an interesting Beckett story. I read Beckett’s journals and I read Beckett’s journals because I wanted to read what he read. I discovered stuff like his letters with Robert Pinget, I rediscovered Spinoza. That’s often what I’ll do, I’ll go to a writer’s journals, diaries, letters, and I’ll take out, I’ll go through and find out, “Okay, what do they read?” I was very lucky because I got to read this guy’s thesis. I think it’s going to be published and it’s about his time when he was young and he went to Germany for two months just to look at art. I was really, really struck by that and I came across that quite a long, long time ago. I think what he gave me was that it was reasonable to spend a lot of time with art, to think of art, to take art seriously. But don’t forget, my mother tongue, I have an interesting background because I’m not really one thing or the other but my mother tongue is the Hiberno English and that is also his mother tongue. What I did do—because somebody asked me this question whether Martin John was in conversation with Murphy, because Murphy, the man is tied in the chair and Martin John is tied in the chair. I said, “No.” But then I went on from, and that was the academic and writer Jon Day who wrote actually a great book about cycling, about being a bicycle courier, I loved that book and he’s written another one about pigeons—but what I did do was after Jon asked me that question, he wrote a piece in The Irish Times and I got really struck. You see, I just can’t help it, I’m a bit devilish this way so I thought, “Oh, I think what I’ll do is I’ll just take one Beckett title and I’ll work that in through Bina and I do that. Now, what’s the title? Because I just looked at my shelf, just took one and so I did that, I did darn in or tapestry in this one line and then I responded to it. It was like tipping sugar into a cup of tea because he asked me and then I thought, “Oh, what an interesting idea. Maybe I’ll use that as a pivot.” I actually do, in Bina, put in one reference to Beckett. It was, in a way, because people seem to be looking for Beckett so I thought, “I’ll actually give them Beckett,” but nobody noticed, which is often what happens.
DN: It’s weird because I never thought of Beckett at all.
AS: I guess I can see why. There’s another part of me that thinks that there are lots of other writers in the world, Elfriede Jelinek uses fairly staccato abrupt sentences. I always find it interesting that you always reach for men, but there are so many writers. Even if you look at the, what’s it called, that thing at the beginning–
AS: Epigraphs. Sorry, I always get confused with epitaphs and epigraphs. First of all, the first one is Clarice Lispector and the second one is Luisa Valenzuela. I’m amazed that nobody picks up on that and goes, “Oh, wow, she’s off down there in South America.” Valenzuela is from Argentina and Clarice is from Brazil. Clarice Lispector has a very interesting stuff going on in her books around language and voice.
DN: That’s an understatement.
AS: I find it really funny that even when I put signposts in– and I’m not upset about it, and mostly, the work of his that I know is mostly his plays.
DN: I wanted to ask you about plays because you have mentioned your background in theater and you have mentioned the direct address, this Brechtian move of Bina breaking the fourth wall and talking to her audience. But I was also thinking about—to bring this up back to other women writers—when you were in conversation with Thalia Field about personhood. She kept describing her own work, about the performativity of her own work, and about how she’s focusing on situations rather than stories, and on staging rather than setting. She kept connecting these elements to your work, the ways in which she felt like maybe there were some connections between what she was doing in this sense to your work. I also wondered, like The Irish Times said about you or said that you had a playwright’s impatience with description, for instance, am I stretching too far to connect that to your background in plays?
AS: I think I’m just impatient. Period. [laughter] I really resent this, there’s this technique that happens in literary fiction, it’s not even a technique really, it’s just like turning on the tap where people will just pile detail on top of detail and hope it adds up to something. The blue door that I came in with my blue socks on and I stared at the fridge and it was also blue. I just find it so banal and I really object to the way that the weather is abused in literary fiction, [laughter] because you know what, the weather is interesting enough, you don’t need to make the weather more poetic than it is. I’m a little impatient with that because I feel, I guess, maybe I object as well to that easy relationship where the readers’, basically, afternoon tea, they know they’re getting a cup and they’re going to have the tea and then they’re going to have a sandwich and then the reader settles back and the reader wants to be transported and they want to forget where they are and drift off to wherever. No, I’m not interested in that. There are loads of people who’ll do that for you. Knock yourself out. Now I’m more interested in the tea spilling on your legs and you’re noticing that it burns, not realizing how long your trousers could be wet for because you have to sit in it, because you spilt it on your leg on the way to work, and the bus is an hour and then you’ve got to do a 12-hour shift. Then you notice that the leg is still wet and you don’t have any clothes to change into, and you’re not allowed to go and to change because there are very strict rules on how often you go to the toilet. The reason that you can’t go to the toilet is because they think that normal human functions are an affront and then the problem is now you’ve got a bladder infection, that’s what interests me.
AS: Great. That’s actually quite a lot of detail, but I’m not interested in the fact that your trousers were checkered. I hate the way that landscape as well is deployed. I don’t know why I object to it so much. I don’t see anything to do with playwriting. I just don’t like being lulled. If I want to be lulled, I’d listen to [01:50:30] or something.
DN: Could you speak a little bit to some of what you’ve written outside of your novels about a common, or two common, line of inquiry about what of what you’ve written is something that you’ve actually lived. If I were to say to you now, “Well, have you ever spilled tea on your pants? Is that why you write this piece about spilling tea on your pants and a bladder infection?” You’ve written about not only what you find a problematic relationship to the imaginative and to seeking out the autobiographical within a work of fiction and how that devalues art, but also a gendered overlay on that, of course, men may get that question but women are demanded or compelled to give some confessional dimension to something that may be entirely imagined in a way that men might not.
AS: Yeah, it is demanded of women. It’s almost like we can take a book from a man, read a man’s book and go, “Jesus Christ, he’s a great f*cking writer,” close the book, carry on with your day. We pick up a book by a woman and we can’t understand, it’s not enough that she might be just very talented with language and she might be a good writer, we have to have some reason why she was able to do this that’s got nothing to do with her talent. That somehow, she must have borne this. It’s just so absurd. I would say, okay, so what you’re talking about are non-fiction pieces that I’ve written for places like The Guardian. In particular, I’ve written a few for them, and I do think there’s a gendered overlay, hopefully, it’s getting better. It’s complicated by the rise of autofiction, which again, is interesting because one of the things I really love about literature is truly great writing is indisputable somehow, so even if I say I don’t want to read a novel from the point of view of a writer, then I’ll pick up a novel from the point of view of writer and the person who wrote the novel is a brilliant, brilliant stylist, so of course that goes out the window because I’m in the presence of brilliant prose and every writer is hungry, hungry for language and prose. It’s complicated because in a strange way, women have actually owned that now and are making a space and they’re making autofiction and autofiction has become very significant and important. Also autofiction came through visual arts with writers like Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles, both women and writers in particular come to mind. It’s rude into some unique craft of its own. I’ve got nothing but regard for those works when they’re interesting and the work is somehow indisputable. What bothers me—and this has nothing to do with art or literature, it’s got everything to do with the market, it’s got everything to do with publishers, it’s got everything to do with the laziness of their taste and their taste making—that as soon as they decide of something, “Oh, that’s working,” we’ll just be flooded with it. The problem is it’s reductive because it puts everything into only that [01:54:22] and then everything becomes framed by that. Not every writer, not every woman writer is writing autofiction and we don’t anticipate men to be writing autofiction. We just assume that they’re curious and good at making things up. It was just important for me to make the terms of engagement literary terms and to understand that we do shape the conversation around literature. For me, the rise of confessional memoir writing has troubled me in some ways and then in other ways, again it just comes down to the writing, but styleless confessionals are easier to get published, especially when you’re an emerging writer and you’re just starting off. If you write a confessional type essay, you may find that much easier to find a home for that than say a complex prose poem that’s demanding, whereas bad boyfriend stories or whatever, there’s been a period of time where the style is confessional. Often when I went to talk at universities to students, I would urge the women, “Don’t put stylist confessionals in the world just to make publishing platform. Take your work seriously and put something in the world.” Why are we still reading Walter Benjamin’s memoir essays? Because he’s a really great stylist. That said, like most positions or arguments, you could probably drive a truck through everything I’ve just said, but just for me, it’s an uncomfortable place.
AS: If you think about it, it suggests autofiction that I am required to be living an interesting dynamic life, and the fact is that most writers aren’t living interesting dynamic lives. We’re indoors, deprived of vitamin D, surrounded by three fern plants. In my case, presently, going off to work at the COVID lab so we keep the lights on. That’s what troubles me about that, that I must put my experience on the barbecue and also that I’m required to supply biographic snippets about how my life, it would be much easier to have put Martin John in the world and said, “Oh, my dad raped me,” or something, rather than insisting this book be taken as a piece of literature with literary terms of engagement which are language, syntax, form, character, not, “Here’s a reason…” and I actually found that, in fact, when you insist on literary terms of engagement, people will give you literary terms of engagement and that somehow, it’s just become convenient for publishing—marketing is obviously on the writer these days—and in fairness to publishers, it’s really f*cking hard to get attention for books. They are competing with streaming services and in my case, penguin documentaries, you know what I mean. We need to, in some ways, maybe it’s just that publishing is so anachronistic, we just need to shake things up and I don’t know how. Good God, if I knew how, I’d be selling more books.
DN: I really loved your recent New York Times piece, for instance.
AS: That was an enigma, that piece.
DN: I want to ask you about it because one of the ways you could frame Bina is a book exploring a woman who feels like older people should have the autonomy to be able to choose when and how they die. I think autonomy is important in your books, whether you have autonomy over who’s living in your house over whether you’re being touched, how much autonomy old people should have over the choices as their lives are coming to an end. But of course, you could demand for the book to be taken on its own fictional terms. You wrote this really amazing biographical piece in The New York Times about a close friend of yours who committed suicide and about how you’re working in the COVID lab and you’re working as a legal witness around legal euthanasia in Canada–
DN: Volunteering as a legal witness for legal euthanasia in Canada, are partially motivated pursuits for you in honor of what you would imagine your friend would do. But I wondered, was this under the urging of your publishers?
AS: No. God, no. But I was deeply conflicted. I was deeply, deeply conflicted about whether it was intelligent to write or publish that piece and whether or not I was, in some way, shape, or form, betraying the sacristy or sacredness that is friendship. To me, friendship is very private, which is why I find it so strange when writers die and suddenly everybody just fills up the newspaper with emails from them. No, friendship is private. It’s not something that you should be monetizing, although of course, we all love reading writer’s letters. No, that actually had much more to do with the themes in the essay. It just was so weird the way it coincided because actually, The New York Times accepted that essay a year earlier, a year before I don’t think I even had a publisher in America for Bina, because Bina met a lot of resistance. It came out in 2020 in the UK and it came out here just now but it was originally published in 2019 and it was finished in 2018. But I don’t know why, but there has been a history of resistance to my books by mainstream bigger publishers, which is really silly because I’ve done it three times. I could understand the first time but I was a bit shocked that it keeps going on, but I just figured I must be doing something right. If you meet resistance, you’re obviously doing something that’s resistable. [laughs] It’s not irresistible, so maybe that’s a good thing. But the essay, no, the two concerns. I had volunteered as a witness for medical assistance in dying, we don’t call it legal euthanasia here, we call it MAID (medical assistance in dying) which is a federally mandated legal right, it’s a healthcare service now. For a long time, you needed two independent witnesses to sign your form before you could apply. I would go to the hospital, to people’s homes and witness the forms for them. It’s very difficult to talk about suicide, it’s very, very, very difficult to talk about losing a friend. But I was just so devastated and broken in a whole new way that I never imagined could be possible by the loss of my friends. I’ve experienced a lot of grief and loss in my life but this death just broke me in a whole new way that I didn’t think it was possible that I could be any more broken by that. I had such a hard time understanding autonomy in that act, that she had autonomy, that she had other choices. That’s such a hard time conceiving that I didn’t entirely fail that human, that human who had been so, so good to me, that human who had come and helped me in so many ways when I was at my lowest. That just broke my heart. I’m still broken hearted about it. But when I started to volunteer for MAID and I went into the room and I met those various people, it just reminded me so much of her and that’s the only way we can really carry on when we lose someone like that, is to try to reimagine their spirit as being with us because otherwise, you just crawl up in a hole and you just basically possibly die of a broken heart yourself. I think that’s one thing you learn when somebody takes their life who doesn’t need to be dead, doesn’t really want to be dead, they just want whatever terrible, terrible, terrible feeling is at them to end. They don’t want their life to end. That’s so distinct from somebody who is end of life, who has lived a long, fulfilling life and is encumbered by a terrible terminal disease and they are suffering, that’s so different from somebody who is just so whatever circumstances or whatever brain chemistry or whatever is at them, they want that feeling to end but they don’t want their life to end. When you lose someone in that way, you learn that all that happens is 42 new people become broken and that if only at that moment when they feel their life has to end, this is distinct from end of life because my friend was young and wasn’t unwell, you just wish that somehow in that moment—and I actually really understand that, I understand, I do on some level. I think maybe as a novelist, I’m not bereft of imagination, I can understand very easily what it is to feel suicidal—but if only there was a way that person could see how broken all of those people are about to become and that they are loved and that we want them to stick around—and then I believe there are circumstances where it’s very reasonable for somebody to end their life because maybe they’re in such a long-term mental suffering like this argument about whether or not you should be able to get medical assistance in dying as it relates to severe mental illness. But that’s not available in Canada, I think it’s available in Belgium—I was very conflicted about it and I was very conflicted about saying how my friend died but I realized that it was also, to go back to complicity that you’re complicit in that you add some level of shame to that and all I’d want instead is that nobody else has to sit where I sit and know that they failed a friend. People will always say, “Oh, you can’t think of it like that,” and rationally, I can go, “She had other choices,” but it doesn’t matter, you know that you principally know that you have failed very badly your friend, and not just you, everybody failed that person. I feel differently about this. I feel like no, let’s sit with that, let’s actually understand the implications of that and let’s talk about dying. Let’s have healthy conversations about dying. Because as soon as you’re born, you’re one step closer to dying whether you like it or not. Maybe people aren’t so isolated with it and maybe then people can have conversations. If there are daily conversations going on all around us about the fact that we’re all dying, then those who have an overwhelming, at that moment, urge to be dead, could find some conversation to be included in, in which they could, I don’t know, I guess because I’m a novelist, I have all these imaginings of how things could be better. I know it sounds ironic having just given such a Vivianshtinian pessimistic dismal view but I don’t want to just pick up and carry on. I don’t want to pick up and carry on without some learning. The only thing I’ve figured out to do now is to try to make pacts with people. Obviously, maybe everybody listening to this will never ever discuss their depressive episodes with me because they really don’t want me making a pact with them, but rather than saying to people, “Don’t kill yourself”—because it’s pretty difficult to say that unless the person says, “Listen, this is what I’m going to do,” and usually those aren’t the people we need to worry about, the people we need to worry about are the ones that are suffering quietly as I’m sure anybody that’s lost somebody to suicide can attest, the people who are broadcasting are not necessarily the most at risk—and so I just feel like saying to them, “Well, I need you to keep living to keep me company, to be a witness to how dreadful the world can be and also concurrently how great the world can be. With less frequency, it seems to be great, predominantly, it seems to be pretty terrible.” [laughter] That seems like well, maybe that’s all I found. The thing I read that really, really, really helped me, the only thing I read that really helped me was Yiyun Li’s book.
DN: Oh, I’ve heard great things about that book.
AS: I think it’s a memoir. There are two, there’s a novel, it’s just extraordinary and there’s a memoir, [Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life] Sorry Yiyun Li, if I have the quite lovely book wrong, but thank you for writing that book because it was the first time I read something I had this smallest sense of what the people I’ve lost to suicide would have been feeling at that moment. I realized, “Oh, they may actually have been calm,” whereas it’s very distressing for us to think of the person just like in heightened, heightened terrible, terrible distress. That’s actually the power of achieving literature when you can, in this circumstance because it was memoir, a non-fiction, you can release the pressure valve in someone and allow a more nuance into their understanding of a circumstance that they have no particular access to because it’s so emotional for them. It’s a bit like Bina says about Phil like, “It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s wrong,” sometimes things just feel wrong. But I found that really interesting, she’s a wonderful writer as well. Yeah, so sorry, that was a bit of a long soliloquy. But ultimately, I’m really glad I wrote that piece. I’m glad I published that piece. I was very afraid, I actually thought, “Well, it’s America, they’re probably going to give me death threats,” or something. Because at the time, when it came out, it was just after Trump had gone and actually it was the opposite, I had the most beautiful, beautiful messages from people, beautiful messages and I didn’t actually have anybody who said like, “You’re a sinner and shame on you.”
DN: There are states here where it’s legal, assisted suicide.
AS: Yeah, for sure. But I think that the voices that get heard the loudest when you write a piece like that are sometimes–
DN: The most outraged.
AS: Yeah, the most outraged to write you horrible things like “I want to cut you open and disavow you,” which does happen. But actually, that’s one of the great things, I always think people can surprise you, readers can surprise you. I say that to writers when I’m teaching like, “Never underestimate readers, they will surprise you, they’re able for a lot more than you might imagine.” It was so moving, the messages I got from people were so moving. I’m really grateful for them and I’m sorry that I couldn’t write back to everybody because I just would spend six months writing letters to people and it’s hard enough right now to write a paragraph, to write an unheapy paragraph. That was the story there but it was very unusual for me to do that because that’s a rule, I don’t really do that. But sometimes also, there’s something more bigger than you or whatever your values are on these things. I think COVID was a huge factor for me. I feel like with COVID, again, we’re broken in a whole new way that we never imagined it was possible, which is stunning to think because humans have been around for so long, and at the time, I just felt like people were so lonely and isolated, people were burying their loved ones online. I had to bury a friend last year and I couldn’t go to the funeral and I had to watch it on the bloody TV at three o’clock in the morning. It was just devastating that these people that have lived these incredible lives have been so important. I think the long-term care crisis as well really upset me, the isolation of elderlies. That’s the beautiful thing about actually having resistance to your book because when you have resistance to your book, the publishing gets staggered because nobody wants to publish it and then they decide they want to publish it and then three years pass or two years pass and meanwhile, your book has aged into the world. It’s so weird because, of course, Bina was finished in 2018, there was no pandemic and I have this woman taking to the bed which is basically what a lot of us probably had to do in the last year just like Martin John, Martin John came out maybe two years before the Me Too movement. But Bina has been lovely in America because she’s aged into a world and she has a different resonance in America now and also she’s had enough. I feel like the timing was great because, bloody hell, America had really truly had enough of that awful, I just can’t even find the language to describe that former president of yours, it’s like, “Yeah,” demented trumpet, I don’t know what you’d call him. But there was just this overall sense of “we can’t take another minute of this”, and so Bina was birthed in that country at that moment. It was beautiful. Thank God nobody wanted it until that moment, so there you go. Hopefully, she’ll find more readers there. I love Americans. I think they’re great. I love American writers. I always think they’re very great, they’re very direct. If you ask them a practical question, they leave you with a practical answer.
DN: How about one last practical question for you to come to an end? Because you’ve said that you want to write novels that explore what a novel might become rather than to reiterate what’s already been written. I feel like each of your novels is going farther in that realm, and I guess you’ve alluded to the fact that you’re working on a fourth novel and I wondered what the frontiers of form or what open questions for you of, because if you’re always placing yourself towards what it might become, you’re obviously also placing yourself in a place of not knowing, but I’m curious about what that frontier is like for you right now in working on your fourth book.
AS: It’s hell, really. [laughter] It’s like undulating despair where it’s like despair and despair and despair. It’s like a football match of despair where you’re scoring goals on the wrong hands. I would love to say it’s never uninteresting but it is frustrating because you can’t necessarily see the horizon. It’s definitely not a joyful process at all. I originally conceived of the books actually as a quartet and I was going to publish two books together. I was going to write them together and publish them together because I wanted to see what that experience would be like to make a diptych of works and then which way would the reader go. But in the end, when I wrote the draft of Bina, I realized it would just subjugate her to a lesser, it would mean that she doesn’t deserve a whole book and I realized, “Oh, I’m probably doing that because I don’t think it’s enough, one woman.” I had to recalibrate the novel that I’ve been working on now for four years because I was writing it concurrently with Bina and basically, it’s a bit of a disaster at the moment—it’s not really a disaster but you always think it is a disaster. I’ve always worried about my books. Even when they’re finished I still worry about them. It’s just really hard. I can’t believe how hard it is to write books. That’s what the frontier looks like right now.
DN: Is there a penguin walking towards the interior on the frontier?
AS: There are giraffes in it. Everything in it actually, there’s just so much in it.
DN: I’ve been wondering when you were going to start including giraffes in your work.
AS: [laughs] Yeah. God, you can tell, even as I’m asked about the book, my brain just goes into this horrible comatose state where it can vaguely hear the distant sounds of a trumpet sonata that hasn’t quite finished being written yet. [laughter] I don’t know. That said, at a certain point in the publishing process with Bina, it looked like she wouldn’t find a publisher in America, I started to lose my courage, I thought, “Well, maybe this is too difficult and maybe I need to write less challenging books because at the end of the day, I don’t like all this constant rejection.” Because you feel rejected, rejected, rejected and it’s like, “Okay, what’s it going to take? How much more do I have to prove that my books have value and that there are readers who want to read them?” Because they’ve been very critically acclaimed.
DN: New York Review of Books is an amazing place to land in the United States for a publisher.
AS: That’s true.
DN: You’re in good company there.
AS: I’m in very good company there and I love being on that shelf. Because you usually have to be dead to get published by them and I’m not dead yet—I’m feeling a bit dead—but having said that, that just came out and that happened, I guess, last year was when the deal was done, but it’s hard. I’m 50 and rejection is like grief, it accrues, you don’t forget. The other thing is you write these difficult books but then after you’ve written them, you’re just a human and you just really want people to like you and then you fear that no one’s going to like you because you’ve written a book that, for whatever reason, posits difficult questions and so then you want to take it back. You don’t want to take the book back [laughter] but you want to take back the idea that you’re unlikable, which again, is probably a problem of the female condition because I don’t think Philip Roth lost sleep worrying about whether or not people liked him.
DN: I doubt.
AS: I do feel a bit sometimes like, “Oh, I’m losing my courage. I’ve got to stop writing these difficult books.” But then I think I’m constitutionally incapable of writing simpler books and I don’t think I’d write them very well. There are people who write them really, really well, then I should just quit all together and just read. But anybody who writes a lifetime’s work—because I’m 50, I’ve been doing this for 30 years—knows that this is almost like a religious vocation or some chronic disease where you can’t function if you don’t work. You have to write in a way that you don’t feel. I think Vivian Gornick put it so beautifully when I interviewed her, because I said, “Do you feel unwell if you don’t write?” and she said, “No. I feel an unease.” I thought that was a really excellent way to describe it. I would say I feel unwell if I’m not working, and I’m always thinking about working. I’m always thinking that I’m not working like I haven’t written. I often think, “Oh, I haven’t written anything,” and I have to look at the shelf and see, “No, no, there’s one, two, three books over there and that artwork.” But I don’t know if other writers experience this, it’s like a strange amnesia where you feel “I haven’t written anything.” It has to do with the beauty that’s the blank page because like in almost every other area of life, if you’re a footballer, a carpenter, or a plumber, you get better at being a plumber, you get better at being a footballer, very few people get worse. But as a writer, you constantly have the prospect of getting worse, you constantly face the fresh blank page of new failures. In some ways, it’s wonderful, it’s liberating, it’s fantastic because it’s so equalizing. That blank page is always waiting for you. No matter what they take away from you, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, as long as you have a pen and you have a blank page, nobody can stop you from writing on that page. I love that element of it because there’s a lot of good reasons not to bother. [laughter] You’d have to have some deep-seated, obsessive compulsion in your bone marrow, your constitution that would make it continue. If you think about the history of literature, look at these writers who nobody read while they were alive. Thank God they made their work and left it in a neat stack above the soil so that 180 years later, we could come back and go, “Hey, this is really great.” I’m pretty sure Robert Walser, when he was counting buttons in the asylum, didn’t bank on this short woman on the second floor here, really happy to have Robert Walser on her shelves. Did that man in that asylum counting his buttons think about this old dame who’s born in 1971 with her various dodgy ailments? I just think there are so many writers that have given me such courage. If you look at someone like Henry Green, Henry Green stopped writing when he was 47. I was really fascinated by that. He also drank himself to death. I was fascinated by that, why did he stop when he was 47? I think it was totally fascinating because at the time, I was 47. [laughs] I think it leads to, personally, I think a very interesting life. It’s not an easy life being a writer but it’s not an uninteresting life. For me, I think it’s working out okay. Will it continue to work out? I don’t know. It could not. Lots of people just don’t write again. Who knows if I’m going to live? We don’t know. I think it’s like an interesting death anxiety that I’m propelled by. What will happen if I don’t make my work? God, I don’t think I’ve had enough success to warrant an obituary yet. I’m not sure how much success you have to have before they write an obituary of you. But I think I’ve actually given them some great lines to my obituary about how I felt about dying. [laughter] In fact, probably the most colossal measurement of my output is her remarking on how [02:25:13] worried about dying. [laughter] Maybe there’s the next novel. A novel in obituaries. All right, don’t steal that.
DN: Yes. I love it. I’m not going to steal it.
AS: I’m not worried about you stealing it. Don’t steal that, listeners, [laughter] donate to the ongoing obituary that is. Donate to this space. [laughter]
DN: It was a pleasure talking to you today, Anakana.
AS: Thank you. Thank you for such thoughtful, extensive, pondering questions. It’s so lovely to get such very thoughtful questions. But you see, the trouble is now I’ll spend the next six months thinking about some of these questions and then I’ll have the answers in about four books’ time. I won’t probably make four more books. I’ve only got 20 years left–
DN: If you do make the fourth book, it should be a novel on unanswered questions.
AS: Yeah, a novel on unanswered questions. Although I think Padgett Powell already did a novel in questions, didn’t he? Yeah, I’m really glad that in some ways, because you had that rule where we couldn’t be on the interview unless you went to Portland.
DN: We did.
AS: Now that there’s the pandemic, you had to lift that embargo.
DN: Yeah. I think it’s lifted forever now.
AS: But I have to say I love Portland. Portland, I love it in Portland. I would happily go to Portland. Portland, invite me to Portland. I want to come back to Portland. I used to go down to Portland to concertina camp but I’ve recognized that I’m sh*t of the concertina and so I have to stop that. [laughs] Great place, great tacos, great people, great houses as well, those old houses, great amount of rain. The only bad thing is we’re all on Cascadia and we’re all f*cking going down together. Once it starts rocking down there, it’s going to be rocking up here and basically, as I said to my family, “Well, based on the building I live in, don’t phone. We won’t survive the earthquake. Consider it fun.” [laughter]
DN: We were talking today to Anakana Schofield about her latest book from the New York Review of Books, Bina. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Anakana Schofield’s work at anakanaschofield.com. You can find out more about joining the Between the Covers community and supporting the show into the future at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team who help make this show run as smoothly as it does, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.