In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.
Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?
In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.
The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.
The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.
The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.
I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.
The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?
The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.
In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.
It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.
The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?
We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.
There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.
I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.
What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.
The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?
I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.
I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.
I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?
It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.
I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive sentences.
How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?
I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.
And what a shortlist!
I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.
The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.
What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.
Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific, Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.
I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.
I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!
Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.