The Tryst – Monique Roffey (with Interview)

She had hoped for so much more in life, more than Bill. But mostly, she had wanted more from sex. But she had never foraged, been out there to find it. Most human females don’t, to be fair, for they get labelled sluts and sluts in the human realm aren’t respected, let alone celebrated as they should be.

Jane and Bill are happily married and madly in love, but their sex life is non-existent. We meet them on a night out with a friend of Jane’s and soon discover that Jane spends some of her time daydreaming about her sexual fantasies.

In the bar that evening is a woman named Lilah Hopkins. In the time it takes Jane to go to the bar and buy another round of drinks, Lilah has joined their table.

The change she provoked in my husband fascinated me. Bill was devoted to me, had been devoted since we met. It was love at first sight for him. He had never, ever, openly admired another woman in all our time together. But he was gazing, wide-eyed, at Lilah. My dear husband: my other kidney, my sound, reliable, decent, wholesome, utterly faithful husband was checking Lilah out.

Jane thinks Lilah is ‘incredible’ but also ‘cheap’ but, as the story’s told in retrospect, she also acknowledges that ‘I didn’t see her fully that night in that nondescript bar, barely guessed’.

Jane decides that Lilah is the solution to the lack of sex in her marriage and invites her back to her and Bill’s home. Eventually, Jane goes to bed alone, leaving Bill and Lilah talking, fully aware that they’re likely to have sex. What Jane doesn’t anticipate is both the size of the effect this will have on Bill and the effect Bill will have on Lilah.

Told from all three perspectives, The Tryst reveals a game being played between the women and Bill. Each member of the triangle is unaware of the extent to which they’re being manipulated by the others, each believing they have some control over the situation. What Jane’s failed to notice is that Lilah isn’t human: she’s a descent of Lilith, first wife of Adam, an imp from a race of enchanting Lovers (Roffey’s capitalisation). What Lilah doesn’t see is that she’s met her match in Bill.

Oh – what a pleasant surprise. This Bill was a Lover, after all. Not a Fucker, like the majority of human males. Not all please-my-cock-now neediness. He had skill and timing and he knew how to give, how to meet a woman and see to her needs before his own. This was a first.

Roffey explores desire and the effect it can have on a heterosexual couple and, also, on relationships between women. She questions whether sexless marriages can be fixed, even when they appear to be irrevocably broken. She’s unafraid – and unashamed – to write no-holds barred sex scenes and it pays off. The Tryst is an engrossing tale of love, sex and power.

I met Monique Roffey to discuss The Tryst.

At the very end of the book there’s an author note where one of the things you talk about is that the book developed over 14 years. Where did the idea for the book come from and how did it change over that time?

The idea came from meeting a particular woman, who was very short and had flaming red hair and who was sexually incredibly dynamic. The kind of person who you just think her clothes are about to blow off. A younger woman. I met her about 15 years ago. The Lilah in the book is really based on someone I met. She became a friend. She was a really intelligent, fellow author.

I was in a relationship a little bit like the one Jane and Bill are in, which was a really loving and stable relationship but there was something wrong with it, which was the sexuality part. I certainly felt there was something I didn’t know how to go about. I didn’t know how to resource myself on fixing it or what was wrong. How was it wrong if you love someone so much? It was an enormous problem for me.

I was busy writing the second novel but The Tryst was leaking out. I remember the opening line, ‘She had pointy ears’, that just manifest itself. Fifteen years ago, I wrote it down in a Moleskin notebook and I’ve still got that notebook. Something was leaking out; I leaked the book out and the character Jane leaks Lilah so there’s life imitating art.

I was a younger writer and I was less experienced about how to handle [the work]. I knew there were three points of view, how would I handle that? Would it work? How to make it work? Then, of course, there’s the whole shame thing which is a big feminist issue around writing about sex. When I was a younger woman in my 30s, I hadn’t quite breached that crossroads yet. I hadn’t crossed over into where I am today. I’ve been on a huge journey around sexuality. I was a bit like Jane, I was underdeveloped in my sexuality.

I was ashamed of what I was writing, to a certain extent. It took years; I kept putting it down and picking it up. It followed me round on different laptops. I knew it was good, I knew I had something. It wasn’t until 2012 I began to tweak it and then I saw the whole Lilah resonance, the Lilith story .Then I knew I had a really workable project. In 2013, I sold it to Simon & Schuster.

Now it’s been published by Dodo Ink. What happened with it?

I’d been with Simon & Schuster for a very long time and they’d published four or five of my books. In that period of time, which was about a decade, I’d had three or four different editors. One of them we had a fantastic relationship with but the one I inherited when she left, we had a weak relationship. She bought The Tryst, I think she felt she ought to, then she got cold feet. Interestingly, she said, ‘What if it wins the Bad Sex Award?’ and now people are saying it should win a good sex award. She just didn’t have it in her to take this book to publication. A deal was undone and Dodo Ink bought it about a year later.

It’s interesting that you mention the Bad Sex Award; did the thought of that put you off at any point?

Not in the writing of it but it certainly put my editor off. I think it puts a lot of writers off but not me at the time. I was so committed and I was so in this book and then I grew with it. I had this great sexual journey in my 40s which was why I wrote my memoir. As I grew more intelligent and more articulate and more experienced and I met more and more women, I became a lot more confident about what I was writing.

One of the things I really loved about the book was the different women in it and the way you talk about different women and sex. What made you decide to write about sex and the way women are seen?

Here we are in the West and the West is Judeo-Christian so we rest on these really ancient myths and ideas about womanhood. There was Adam and then there was Lilith and Lilith is a big whore who refuses to lay underneath Adam and is banished because she’s way too unruly. Then they make Eve – they try again with a wife for Adam and this time they make it from his ribs so it’s likely she’s not going to be so feisty. Of course, she causes the fall of mankind and then we have Magdalen. So we have these very sexually powerful women in our most ancient mythology and our understanding of the whole romantic dynamic or the male/female dynamic. Then we have Mary, the Mother of Christ, who’s a virgin, never had sex. It’s all quite fucked up. But those ideas of a split between the mother, Mary, who’s a virgin – she’s not sexual, she’s asexual, she above sex, she’s too spiritual to have a sex drive – is really still with us. We do have this split in femininity around motherhood and mothers being more chaste. God knows how they give birth to children. There’s definitely a split: there’s the whore and the mother and they’re diametrically opposed types.

I was in psychoanalysis for years and I’ve come across another archetype, which I feel I strongly identify with, which is the Tara. A lot of women who are very creative and have written – Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Wolff – and stayed unmarried and have not had children is the kind of opposite of the mother.

Lilah and Jane are basically playing out these polar opposites in womanhood. The direction I wanted to send the book in was towards an integration for Jane. She manifests Lilah from her dreams and she calls her in, she invites her in. My plan for her was that she ingests her. Lilah devastates them and also heals them. I wanted to look at this really well known split in female sexuality and I wanted Jane, at the end, to have it all. To have eaten Lilah, in a way.

You considered publishing The Tryst under a pseudonym; how does it feel to have it out under your own name?

It’s a good thing. When I was thinking about the pseudonyms, I think it was way before the memoir even. This book is a prequel to the memoir. I was writing it before the memoir. People pointed out to me: Monique, you’ve already written about sex under your own name, it’s ridiculous. With sex writing there’s a lot of shame, I’ve got all sorts of friends who’ve used pen names but that never works, eventually people get outed – horribly – often by other women. It’s horrendous. So I decided I wanted to be on the right side of the fence and, also, if you out yourself, no one can hurt you. No one’s going to shame you because you’re out, you own whatever’s dark and difficult, transgressive. I’ve got my name on it, that’s all true, so no nasty, weird stories are going to turn up about me. There’s no kiss and tell, no photographs. I wanted to be able to own everything that I’ve done and it has worked.

I want to go back a little bit to Lilah and the magical element. You’ve already mentioned she comes from a type. She talks about being a woodland type and there are conversations about whether she’s a nymph or a spirit. Why did you bring the supernatural element into it, rather than it being a straightforward love triangle?

That’s a really good question; I’m not even sure I’ve got an answer for that because this is a novel and you can do what you like with a novel, it doesn’t have to make sense. What I’ve been told is we can’t sell it in France or in Europe because they like a literal [story]. I even went to a well-known festival director – he really wanted to read the book – and he said, ‘I don’t understand it, she’s a pixie’. In a way, it’s a big risk but Lilah is a descendent of Lilith, in the book, and she’s also a manifestation of Jane’s erotic trysts, her dreams and her fantasies. She just turns up, she’s dreamed her into her life and she banishes her. She wins. She gets to live a dream, in a way, so I really wanted that otherworldly possibility. Otherwise you’ve just got bog standard realism, haven’t you? They met a woman, she’s a bit of a whore and I don’t want to stigmatise the whore. Lilah’s quite evil but she’s also very beautiful, isn’t she? I think she is. She’s a devil.

I liked the idea that she could possibly have just been a manifestation of Jane’s imagination. That she changed everything herself.

I think at some point in the book I say, ‘By the time I was so lost, I was so lost and overwhelmed by all my fantasies, by the time Lilah turned up, I couldn’t work out whether it was me that dreamed her up. Was she just another dream?’

There’s a power in that, isn’t there?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we all know that. Sexual energy is also really directly related to creative energy. Sexual energy is powerful. Women don’t really understand how powerful we are, let alone how to direct that energy, how to use it to get what we want, overtly, subtly. It’s all there for us to explore. Modern women haven’t really got the teachers, I don’t think, to show them the way to use their sexual power. Not just to get what they want out of the world but to be creative. Most creative women, I would say, are very in touch with their libido.

You’ve mentioned there about power and sexuality and there is a real power struggle in the novel. I wondered whether it was there to drive the narrative or whether there was more to that, whether you’d got something to say about sex and the way the two work together?

There is a power struggle, there is a triangle but before there’s a triangle, there’s a couple. I think in many relationships where there’s no sex happening, the person who doesn’t want it has the power. That person is the one who is silently calling the shots. Meanwhile, the other person is silently suffering. Sometimes they’re both suffering but there’s definitely the whole thing about it’s his house, it’s his mother’s house, she redecorated. All those subtle forms of co-existing between men and women. He ends up in the shed, he hasn’t really dealt with his ex-wife, he’s been depressed, he hasn’t really dealt with his mum. He’s got issues building up, she hasn’t dealt with her pain so there’s a whole lot of complex love story before Lilah turns up. And, of course, Lilah really just wants to fuck them up and hurt them and to say, I’ll probably be good for you, but she then loses her footing and gets drawn in and then, all of a sudden, she’s lost her power. She’s omnipotently powerful and conscious and aware of what she’s doing. Really in a different ballpark to the quite naïve and innocent Bill and Jane. She’s just come in there with a bag of tricks, everything she’s got to bring, and she slips because she’s met by Bill, which is a huge surprise.

I hope it’s one of the big surprises in the book that I’ve written a male who’s a really good lover and meets this witch, this little imp, and they fall in love. There’s something going on between them. I wanted them all to underestimate each other. Lilah sneers at them, Jane sneers at her – she’s quite cheap, stonewashed, court platforms, bangles, looks cheap, ‘like a novelty bar of soap’, she says, Alabama. She doesn’t realise that this woman is just playing her along. That’s what women do, don’t we? We size each other up, we’ve all got each other covered. We know who’s the Alpha Female, we know whether or not to get on the right side of that person, if we’re in with her, if we’re not, do we care? Are we Alpha? Who are we? All this stuff’s going on. Jane is an Alpha Female and Lilah is like a triple Alpha Female.

One of the thing’s that’s really nice in the book is the way they start to reveal they’re all playing each other and everyone thinks they’re not. That comes out in the narration. You’ve written it from all three points of view. Did you start with that or did it develop as you went along? And how do you tell the same scenes without making it repetitive?

I’m so glad you think it’s not repetitive because that was why this book’s taken so long. Initially we had three stories and it was all of Jane, followed by all of Bill, followed by all of Leilah. One after the other, they were all telling one long narrative and I just realised it was really boring. And you’d forgotten Jane by the time you were with Lilah. I realised it needed to be cut up, concertinaed, and if I split it right, then you would get overlap but you wouldn’t get repetition. I wanted them all to be giving us their different point of view because it’s really different, what they’re all thinking. And, also, that Bill’s no fool, he gets it. He’s in there, along for the ride. They’ve all got their grief, they’ve all got their story. I also had a really good editor who helped.

Back to your writing more generally. You’ve written books looking at a wide range of topics. The last one was House of Ashes, which I loved. It was my Book of the Year.

You’re kidding!

No, I absolutely loved it. I wondered how important it is to you to write about different subjects.

Well, I only think I’ve tackled two, which is sex and I’m also known for writing books which are based in the Caribbean, where I come from, where my family live. I think it’s really important to keep testing yourself and pushing yourself and trying new things but also staying within the realms of your expertise of what you think about, what’s important to you, what you know about, what other people don’t. For example, I teach creative writing up in Manchester and many of my students are from the north and they don’t seem to be interested in their own back yard. That is your world, I don’t know your world. I can’t write about the north, I’d get it so wrong.

For me, I’ve ploughed my areas, I’ve ploughed my back yard. For example, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’s all about my mum and dad and my family. This bloody bicycle which she brought with her from England. Archipelago’s all about my brother and this flood which destroyed his house. And then House of Ashes was a huge leap because, for the first time, I wasn’t writing about me. I’d been really worried because it’s historical fiction and the people who perpetrated this coup are still alive. They never got tried. Spent two years in prison and they were all released. There was that issue. And then, incredibly, as I decided to go ahead with it, to do some research, there was a commissioned enquiry, in Trinidad, 24 years later. So I got to go to court and I got all the witness testimony’s online and I got to meet people and witness them. That, again, is magical. When you decide to commit to a book that’s really risky and then the door just opens and goes here’s all the information you need. That’s my favourite book too. It got nominated for a couple of prizes but it didn’t sell very well because who’s interested in a coup in the Caribbean? I don’t know.

I definitely hope that there’s going to be more. There’s another Caribbean book, that’s now at second draft stage, about a mermaid. Most mermaids are not happy creatures, they’ve been cursed. If you seal up a woman’s legs, you’re sealing up her sexuality. She can no longer have periods, she can no longer have sex. This myth is an old Cuban myth. There was a beautiful ingénue woman who was singing. The men were so entranced by her that the women of the village banished her to a rock. The men still found their way up to see her sing and to try and win her. Eventually, they got the goddess down and said, what do we do with her? The goddess said, I will send a hurricane and we’ll send her into the sea. This young woman is banished, sealed up, sexuality sealed. Away, off, forever. If you curse someone today – and we live 70 years and die – that person’s still cursed. She’s still living with that curse long after those women have cursed her. She gets caught in the modern time so we have an old Shamanic woman who’s been cursed to be a mermaid with old language, old ideas, not quite Neanderthal, people who were living in the Caribbean four or five thousand years ago. So she comes back, has a love affair.

My blog’s about female writers. I always ask everyone if they’ve read anything really interesting by a female writer recently that they’d recommend to us.

I’ve just read, for the first time, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It’s absolutely, rivetingly brilliant. I’ve got so much to say about it; I’m teaching it next year at MMU [Manchester Metropolitan University]. It’s a thriller told from the point of view of the killer. He’s this kind of likeable sociopath, Tom Ripley. I’ve been asked to teach the novel, so I’m now ploughing my way through 10 novels and it was the first one I read and I was like, wow because I’m not really a thriller reader, generally.

A Caribbean writer who I think is just amazing, an amazing poet who’s going to be published in the autumn is called Shivanee Ramlochan who has a collection out called Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. I think that Shivanee is going to be really famous and hugely influential in the Caribbean. She’s got a queer perspective and writes about Lilith, sexual violence, rape, queerness, women, folklore creatures. She’s just got an amazing range, she just has this rich inner world: magic and realism and lore and reality. Everyday things and mum and dad and family. I think she’s amazing.

Rosamond King, another Caribbean poet. I read a lot of Caribbean literature.

Huge thanks to Monique Roffey for the interview and to Dodo Ink for the review copy.

Books mentioned:

The Tryst – Monique Roffey

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle – Monique Roffey

Archipelago – Monique Roffey

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting – Shivanee Ramlochan

Rosamond King

Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen + Q&A

A multilingual Russian novelist, poet, lepidopterist and chess composer once noted that the spiral is the spiritual circle: a circle set free. Had Camille and I spiralled out of the circle of life on Earth? Had that first cup of hemlock tea killed us? And then there were all of the other mishaps which could have resulted in the death of my body while my spirit lived on believing that the body was still there, like the phantom limb of an amputee. For all I knew I was my own hallucination. But in the end, what did it matter? Einstein had supposedly said: “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” As long as my imagination was intact, there were no limits. I could create meaning and purpose and that was enough.

Madsen’s debut novel, and the first to be published by new independent imprint Dodo Ink, is an exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction.

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Dodge and Burn is framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund. A notebook of hers containing a manuscript has been found in a cave in Altamira, Spain. The novel begins with an excerpt from it during which we learn about Lund’s childhood, and that of her sister Camille, following the death of their mother.

Their mother died after being attacked by killer bees at the home of Dr Vargas, with whom she was staying. As their father was on an expedition to Antarctica and could not be found, Dr Vargas adopted Eugenie and Camille in accordance with their mother’s will. They lived in Maine, the first two years in hiding as Vargas believed the children were at risk of being kidnapped. They had an unusual upbringing, learning how to survive in the wild, reading voraciously, practising gymnastics, learning to play poker and being classically conditioned. Eventually they were ‘re-socialised’ in the first year of middle school, learning to move ‘like ghosts […] We were to acquire the skills of espionage, infiltration, and sabotage most often attributed to ninjas’.

Occasionally schoolyard gossip would turn to Vargas. The general consensus held that he was a blood-sucking vampire and baby killer. It was true, Dr Vargas did, to some extent, have an air of Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu about him, except that his teeth fit properly in his mouth, his fingernails were shorter and he moved with more speed and agility. Vargas chose to cover his baldness from the world with a thick, black, luxuriant toupee he wore with authority.

By the end of the chapter, Vargas has revealed his hand and been dealt with and Camille has disappeared. Eugenie decides to go to Altamira to look for Camille.

When we next see Eugenie, we’re reading from seven notebooks that have been found in a backpack in Maine, she’s on the run with her husband Benoît after taking the Vegas strip, turning ‘two grand into sixty-three’, and being threatened by casino security. We follow them on a trip (often in both senses of the word) across the west of the USA from Nevada to Colorado as Eugenie searches for her sister.

Madsen’s created a novel that asks big questions about life: who are we? Where are the limits of our existence? Are we just writing our own narratives?

There’s a wealth of information about all kinds of otherwise disparate things in the book and it’s fascinating to see them all brought together. This is a story written on a relatively small geographical canvas but containing a vast backdrop of ideas and imagination. It fits within the tradition of the cult road trip novel – Madsen references Kerouac and Burroughs towards the end of the book – but by making her protagonist female, reclaims something of that movement for the women who were excluded from it in the 1950s.

The novel’s also very readable – if you fear you have an aversion to experimental fiction, you shouldn’t be put off this one – I gulped it down in an afternoon, desperate to know where it was going – literally and figuratively. Dodge and Burn is a joy. It’s a smart, often funny, wild ride. Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Emma Cline’s The Girls are the female-led, American novels people have been talking about this year. If there’s any justice, Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn should be top of that list. A gem.

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I’m delighted to welcome Seraphina Madsen to the blog.

Dodge and Burn began life as a short story you wrote on your MA course. What inspired the piece and how did you go about turning it into a novel?

The piece was a recollection or enactment of a short story I wrote when I was seventeen with a Dr Vargas and killer bees which was lost long ago when I ran away from home. At the time I was obsessed with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway. I had to submit a piece for an experimental writing module at Kingston and had no idea what I would do, so I decided the only thing I could do in that short period of time was to edit the short story I had tried to recreate out of a sense of plumbing the depths of my past. It was incredibly personal and I didn’t really want my tutors to see it but I had nothing else to submit. So it was pretty terrifying when they said I’d had a breakthrough and it was the best thing I’d ever written and Lee Rourke ended up submitting it to The White Review. I just told myself that in making art you had to have courage so I had to face my demons.

The novel fits into the cult California road trip, drugs and psychedelia tradition, which is dominated by male writers (some of whom – Kerouac and Burroughs – you mention towards the end of the book). How do you see yourself within that tradition? Are there any other cult female writers you think deserve to be better known?

There weren’t many women authors of Beat fiction. Joyce Johnson wrote the first Beat novel, Come and Join the Dance, published in 1962, which didn’t have any of the structural or stylistic innovations Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs were experimenting with, and was more like a memoir disguised as fiction. But what was contained within the pages of Come and Join the Dance was daring because it depicted women who were ‘real’ as Johnson saw them, not the demure housewives society wanted respectable women to be. At the time it was perfectly fine for a man to go hitch hiking across America, to drink and smoke and frequent jazz clubs and still remain respectable. If a women were to do the same thing she would have been considered tainted, ruined, and disgraceful. Upright, honest women of good repute simply did not do things like that and in the 1950s and early sixties did not go out without a chaperone. So, because of the civil rights movement and changes in perceptions of women someone like me has the freedom to write about drug fuelled adventures akin to something Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac would have gotten themselves into without the stigma of being louche or contemptible. There is still a long way to go toward equality between women and men, and civil rights for minorities for that matter, but it was much worse for women during the Beat Era in that regard.

With Dodge and Burn I wanted to incorporate some of the energy and concerns of the Beat movement into the postmodern mix, so I see myself as taking aspects of the tradition, venerating them and challenging them.

Alexandra-David Neel’s memoir Magic and Mystery in Tibet is work that comes to my mind that perhaps most people haven’t heard of and is phenomenal in every sense.

None of your characters are particularly likeable. In an industry that seems obsessed with likeable and relatable characters did you feel any pressure to soften them?

With complex characters and challenging situations, I don’t think you’re going to have completely likable characters, Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs certainly didn’t. The narrative voice of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was essentially a paedophile. Then there is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Nikolai in The Demons, the list goes on. Eugenie is dealing with severe childhood abuse and hasn’t had any kind of therapy whatsoever, so she is living in this disassociated state with PTSD, trying to make sense of the world. I envisioned her to be a lot like Edie Sedgwick. As my final project at Kingston I was working on another American road trip novel with a DJ male protagonist who was misogynistic and constantly trying to get his girlfriend into threesomes with other women. Everyone in the workshops hated him and said they didn’t want to read anymore because they detested him so much. So, at the end of the course, for fun, I decided to create another DJ, but this time an ideal, who ended up being Benoît. Everyone loved him and thought he was super cool. I scrapped the previous road trip novel and began Dodge and Burn.

One of the things that impressed me about the novel was the amount of knowledge that seemed to be contained within it – literature, music, film, surviving in the wilds, physics. How much research did you do? Is there a fascinating piece of knowledge you can tell us which didn’t make the final edit of the book?  

I have an inquiring mind so I’m constantly looking into things. The knowledge in Dodge and Burn took many years of research, maybe my entire lifetime. There were loads of things in retired Navy Seal Clint Emerson’s 100 Deadly Skills: the Seal Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation I didn’t have the opportunity to use.

Dodge and Burn is the first publication from fledgling publisher Dodo Ink. How does it feel to be the first writer published by a new imprint?

It’s pretty incredible. In my wildest dreams I wanted to be published by an indie publisher like Dodo Ink and they are proving to be even better than what I could have imagined.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Alexandra David-Neel, Carson McCullers, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter.

 

Huge thanks to Seraphina Madsen for the interview and for Dodo Ink for the review copy.

Interview with Sam Mills of Dodo Ink

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It’s always exciting to hear of a new independent publisher, especially one committed to bringing ‘daring and difficult’ fiction to readers. I’m particularly interested in Dodo Ink because I’ve been following and reading editorial director, Sam Mills, who you might know as the author of The Quiddity of Will Self and MD, Thom Cuel, who blogs as The Workshy Fop, on Twitter for ages, so I know they have excellent taste. (They’re also joined by Alex Spears, Digital and Marketing Director.) It was an utter pleasure then to interview Sam about their new venture. At the end of the interview, you’ll see that Dodo Ink needs your help *does Lord Kitchener finger point* to help them bring brilliant books to us all. To whet your appetite, the interview’s followed by one of the books Dodo Ink will be publishing in 2016, Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen. Enjoy!

How did Dodo Ink come about?

Thom Cuell , Alex Spears and I chatted about setting it up throughout 2014. Stefan Tobler and Nicci Praca of And Other Stories were kind enough to give us some advice early on.

And then one day in the summer of 2014, am email popped into my inbox. It was from my friend Tom Tomaszewski. Tom has written and reviewed for The Independent on Sunday and has been writing fiction for some years. He’d written a novel called The Eleventh Letter, said his email, and he asked if I would read it for him. I spent the weekend completely engrossed in it. Then I tried to help him get it published. I got in touch with various agents on his behalf, but it was deemed a hard sell because it isn’t easy to categorise. It is a ghost story, a crime novel, a literary novel, a strange novel. It seemed a shame that such an original, disturbing and brilliant book would never make the bookshelves, so we thought we’d put it out there…

You’ve said you want to publish novels that are ‘daring and difficult’, can you give some examples of the type of work you’re hoping to find?

Books we love include F by Daniel Kehlmann, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, Zone by Mathias Enard, Great Apes by Will Self, Money by Martis Amis, The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron by Carlos Gamerro , Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt, Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson to name a few.

Although some of the novels we are publishing are experimental in their structure, they are all damn good reads. So a good example of a novel we’d love to have published is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall – for its originality, for its moving love story, for its wild imagination, for its readability. It’s the sort of novel you can give to a friend and know they’ll love it; it’s also like nothing you’ve quite read before.

We are keen on novels that are weird, odd, dangerous, and daring. I think we’d prefer a book that had energy and big ideas and was a bit rough around the edges than a novel that was polished, safe, traditional and conventional.

You’ve described the first book you’re publishing, Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen, as ‘a wild, psychedelic road trip of a novel’, can you tell us more about it?

We first discovered the book a few months after we’d announced that we were setting up Dodo Ink. The novelist James Miller emailed me and mentioned that one of his students had written a novel; he added that she was one of the finest students he’d ever taught. Seraphina had published a short story in The White Review, which became the opening of her novella. As you can see from the story, Seraphina’s prose style is surreal, imaginative and beautifully crafted. Thom and I immediately started chasing her for the novella, and we signed it up as fast as we could. It begins with the bizarre childhood of Eugenie – ‘We were told that our mother’s life was terminated by an attack of killer bees whilst vacationing in San Marcos, Mexico…’ Eugenie and her twin sister Camilla are abducted and raised by Dr Vargas, a charismatic Svengali-like figure who educates them according to his own philosophy, an esoteric blend of anthropology and psychiatry. The novel charts Eugenie’s childhood and later years, when she is on the run across North America and Europe. This road trip is a weird and wonderful one, involving encounters with Candy ravers; meditations on the nature of time; psychedelic Teknivals; an insidious Mothman; and a sweet and tender love story.

What I love about Seraphina’s style is that the writing is crafted, but there is a wonderful raw energy pulsing beneath the surface. Sometimes students of creative writing courses end up writing books that have lots of pretty sentences in them, but can feel flat, too polished; on the other hand, a book that is too raw and lacks finesse can end up too messy. Seraphina strikes that perfect balance between the two. Her ideas are wild but her writing is always very controlled. Also, Seraphina has cited her influences as William Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson and Carlos Castaneda. There aren’t many female authors writing in this territory, which also excites us.

Dodge and Burn sounds as though it would fit perfectly on the ‘Cult Fiction’ table in a bookshop. Despite the recent #ReadWomen campaign, this table is the one still dominated by male writers. Why do you think that is?

I find this very frustrating too. The very term avant-garde is a military one, derived from the French for vanguard, suggesting masculine power and might in marching forward to smash the conventional boundaries of fiction. Consider how often critics use the expression this author has mapped out a territory all of their own when praising a novelist they admire.  Men are seen as forging ahead, fighting a literary battle, whilst women can stay at home and be domestic. Historically, women have been penalised more than men if they flouted the conventions of everyday life, let alone in their fiction. Perhaps something of these prejudices still remain. However, there are plenty of women who deserve a place on a cult fiction table. A few suggestions: Zoe Pilger, Joanna Walsh, Anna Kavan, Rachel Ingalls, Kathy Acker. Thom also just discovered Joanna Russ, a wonderful female author who penned On Strike Against God, and other gems. She was previously published by the Women’s Press.

In June, Kamila Shamsie called for a year of publishing women in 2018 to attempt to address the bias towards men in prizes, reviewing and book lists. And Other Stories and Tilted Axis Press have already said they will take up the challenge, will Dodo Ink be joining them?

We admire the campaign; we admire And Other Stories and Tilted Axis for signing up to it. However, we’ve had submissions from male and female authors we’d love to publish in 2018. However, we will definitely aim to achieve a healthy balance.

I also think that the issue raised is not really one of quantity. You can go into any bookstore and see plenty of novels by women. It’s the way that novels by women are sometimes published and presented that is the problem . There’s nothing wrong with a pink cover on a romantic comedy (provided the author is happy with it); but a pink cover on an ambitious literary novel by a female writer is misleading and frustrating. I also think that there are still certain expectations about what sort of novels women should write. I have also noticed, in recent years, that there have been quite a few novels by female writers that are compared to, say, Angela Carter, or Margaret Atwood. There is nothing wrong with this at all, given that Carter and Atwood are greats, but I feel there is also something quite safe about marketing female authors in this way. I would also like to discover and champion the female equivalents (or betters) of Will Self, Martin Amis, Michel Houellebecq. Women who are being ambitious, daring, dangerous and challenging in their fiction. Women who engaging with politics, big ideas, surreal subject matter.

Why are you running a kickstarter?

We all decided that it was a great way of connecting with readers right from the start. I remember my perception of the publishing world when I was first trying to break in as a writer: it seemed like a distant castle, surrounded by a moat and walls, occupied by a privileged elite, defended by gatekeepers. In reality, most people are publishing are actually very friendly and passionate about publishing. A kickstarter is a good way of tearing down those perceptions and boundaries, so that everyone can be involved.

People can make a pledge and get goodies in return. They can back us for as little as £5 and get a bookmark, or sponsor £30 for some free books and their name printed in the back of our books.

The 3 of us running Dodo are all pretty broke and working very hard on our company out of sheer passion for our authors, but we won’t use a penny of the kickstarter to pay ourselves. It’s all going on our authors and their brilliant books. So far we’ve raised 20%. The average donation is around £30 and they all add up. We have a way to go yet, but have been very moved by the initial surge of support. Everyone can be part of the Dodo Ink family (without sounding too much like The Godfather!) and know they helped to make it happen.

Our kickstarter is https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1528815432/the-grand-dodo-ink-kickstarter

Extract from Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen

Hunt for American Heiress Continues With Manuscript Found in Cave in Altamira, Spain

By ALICE SHIFT 7:00 AM ET

A notebook, bearing a manuscript, and the fingerprints of Eugenie Lund, an American heiress missing since August 19–, has been found in a cave in Altamira, Spain. Dr. Erik Lund, Antarctic explorer and heir to the publishing empire established by his late father, has offered a $2m reward for any information leading to the safe return of his daughter. The notebook was found by a tourist visiting the famous Paleolithic cave paintings, two hundred meters from its entrance. No further information regarding Lund’s disappearance has surfaced. Below is an excerpt from the manuscript found inside the notebook.

We were told that our mother’s life was terminated by an attack of killer bees while vacationing in San Marcos, Mexico with Dr. Vargas at his family home. Vargas described how the insects had gone for the insides of her ears – a deliberate technique to destabilize the victim. Mother fell off the horse, waving her hands in the air to beat them off and hit her head on a rock. Vargas thought it more prudent to spring the brutal truth upon us rather than the fiction of a prolonged stay in a Mexican hospital followed by eventual death. He bent down close to our faces with a pained expression, miming the scene – Mother inert on the ground, Vargas swatting his way through the lethal cloud of throbbing insects, his eventual defeat as he was heavily bombarded in a kamikaze-esque onslaught he likened to the attack of the USS Bunker Hill. All the way through this pantomime, a small shifty spot in his account brushed my brow like the wing of a bat. Vargas assured us Mother was unconscious and had not suffered. The killer bee specialists informed him that the perfume she was wearing (Fleurissimo, commissioned by Prince Rainier III for Grace Kelly composed of tuberose, Bulgarian rose, violet, and Florentine iris) had incited the bees to violence. If she and Dr. Vargas had been smoking cigarettes, the attack would never have happened. Killer bees abhor smoke, even from one cigarette.

Our father was in the midst of an expedition to Antarctica and could not be found. Dr. Vargas adopted us – as was specified in our mother’s will in the event of her death and the inability to locate any kin. The adoption process was quick in light of the fact it took place in Mexico. We ceased to be Lunds and became Vargases.

We moved shortly thereafter, with our beloved Great Danes, Viktor and Shiloh, from Mexico to the coast of Maine with bruise colored squalls, milky blizzards, crystallized winter wonderlands and picturesque summers. The house in the forest reminded us of the Russian fairy tales and Tolkien epics our mother and father used to read to us at bedtime. For the first several weeks we wondered whether we had been swooped up into the hinterlands of Siberia but the fantasy was dispelled when Vargas took us for a drive into the Arcadian mountains where, along the way, we passed rambling farm houses, mobile homes, mongrel capes and ranches, all with American flags flying on the front lawns, along with a proliferation of various lawn ornaments — windmills, geese, deer, flamingoes, gnomes, the occasional exposed buttocks in the form of a painted wood cut out meant to resemble a person bending over, for those who wished to turn their lawn into a smutty joke.

The first two years we remained in hiding, confined to the house and grounds. The great rambling Queen Anne edifice was concealed in the forest – elaborate and irregular, made of stone and wood with numerous towers, turrets, verandas, gables and dormers adorned with patterned shingle roofs. Vargas had reason to believe we were at risk of being kidnapped. For this, there were also armed men Vargas brought from his home town in Mexico who patrolled the area and lived in a hut we were forbidden to approach. We were of course not to have any communications with them whatsoever, not even pantomimes.

A regimented life began. We quickly apprehended that a surface obedience must be maintained, or else suffer the consequences.

In spring Camille and I collected flowers to make tea in the forest behind the house. After checking the rabbit snares we would follow a path to a break in the canopy of trees where white, lace-like flower formations fanned out, seeming to hover in the air from a distance. The plant’s stalks were mottled an enchanting blood red and in the color there was a message. It became immediately apparent to us both that the plant had been placed there by forest spirits to turn humans into faeries. If we could transform ourselves, we would be free. Then we could find father. Surely his love for us was so great that our change in form would be of no consequence. In fact, it was quite likely he would be impressed by our feat. We made a tea with the leaves, flowers and stalks and christened it Pan’s Elixir. To our great surprise, nothing happened. There was no discernible change in us or our environment. Then it dawned on Camille that the plant alone had little or no effect, perhaps because it was meant to be used in an alchemy with other plants, rituals, or spells we had yet to find, but which would be revealed to us in time. There was also the possibility the potion had a cumulative effect. We decided to continue drinking the elixir, in hopes its power would eventually come alive in us.

If we were lucky, four rabbits would be caught in the snares. We rubbed pine pitch on our hands before skinning them. A knife was never necessary. You can just tear their hides off. It’s like they’re wearing a snowsuit. In torrential downpours we gutted them in the shed. It was cleaner to do the skinning and gutting outside. In the snow was best, on a clear day under the ice encrusted canopies with the sun coming through. The guts are easily jiggled out onto the ground once the rabbit is cut open and best left for an animal to eat. We tied the skinned, hollowed rabbits around tree branches straight as effigy poles and carried them home, pink in the sun along with handfuls of the Pan Elixir flowers.

Some days, before checking the snares, we would walk through the forest to higher ground where underneath eighty foot pines stood a small cabin. Curiosity and the thrill of exploration had driven us there. The first time we set eyes on the scene it reminded us of Gustav Doré’s etchings, wreathing and humming, flickering before us with the darkness and light of fairytales. Camille’s cheeks flushed. I felt the throb of her exhilaration and surprise, her wide eyes darting into mine as we made our approach through beams of sun and twisting, cool shadows, until we reached the front wooden steps where Camille grinned impishly, batting off the gnats, mosquitoes and other flying insects. I knocked on the door. Then we found a crowbar in a shed and popped a window open.

This cabin became our church. We made an altar, burned sage and performed ceremonies consistent with accounts of the Passamaquoddy tribe described in a social anthropological study we had found in one of the libraries. Inside this book was an inscription in black ink in our father’s fluid scrawl, a pseudo-haiku poem he had written for our mother:

Two fawns in the wood,

A fire rages,

I would kill for your love.

(It was unsettling.)

According to our maps the Passamaquoddy reservation was a twenty minute drive away but Vargas never took us there, despite our pleas. He said that the foray would only lead to disappointment as the natives were hostile to white people on their land. We had to make do with the books in the library.

Along with Passamaquoddy rites we delved into other sources of ancient knowledge from around the world. We prayed to the Great Spirit, to the gods and goddesses, to the ancestors, making a plea for Dr. Vargas’ deliverance from earthly incarnation, thrust into a death not even the Ba or Ka could survive – a total annihilation of his soul and essence. In return we offered ourselves as sacrifices, in the service of those legions of supernatural beings to whom we prayed for protection, signs and direction.

Camille and I often smoked sage in a pipe we’d found in the cabin. One day we had a vision. There was a man. He walked around the room but he didn’t pace. Everything he did, he did with purpose – there was intelligence behind it. He spent a long time cleaning guns. He looked sad and kind. After he had left we could still smell his spice scented aftershave and gun oil. We suspected he was the ghostly double (vardøger in Norse mythology) who precedes a living person, performing their actions in advance. We weren’t ever surprised to see the man’s spectral form pass through the cabin door with his dog behind him, or to find him anywhere in the vicinity of the pine forest that contained the cabin, for that matter. His presence elicited mixed feelings of angst and attraction. Each time he appeared it was as though a spell was cast. We would go dizzy in the head for a moment and all would seem as though something had shifted but what, we could not pinpoint exactly. In this altered state was the certainty that our destiny was linked to this man’s, that our paths would cross and that he was, for us, some kind of a savior. (This knowledge did not stop us from trying to save ourselves, however –we continued with the Pan’s Elixir tea, ancient rites, occult practices, et cetera.)

The man stayed with us for minutes or even hours. His image would flicker, like on an antique TV screen, sometimes returning to full force, inevitably flickering out again at the end of the transmission. We knew the dog’s name was Brigitte because on several occasions we had heard the man’s phantom call to her through the pines. But the man did not speak clearly otherwise – we did not learn his name. In the beginning we referred to him simply as the man. At one point we thought perhaps he should be called the hermit, but it seemed to us he was not truly that. He appeared to be searching for something – a memory, something inside of his head. We toyed with The Seeker, but that was not right either so we had no other title for him. Then one afternoon we had the occasion to follow him and Brigitte on one of their hunts and finally understood what it was we should call him. When the flickering phantasm of the deer came into sight he stopped dead in his tracks with Brigitte not five feet from him and slowly raised the rifle. The buck stood frozen through the trees at a good distance, perhaps a thousand yards away. Before the animal could turn its head and bound off in the opposite direction, it fell with the crack of the rifle blast. The man was very good, an expert. From that day forward we called him Deadeye. We longed for the day we would meet him in flesh.

In our cabin we discovered that time was not as immutable as Dr. Vargas had led us to believe. He used this illusory ‘fourth dimension’, among other things, to contain us but one day we came upon a passage in an anthropology textbook on Africa which supported our own observations and empowered us:

Africans apprehend time differently. For them it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, its course, and rhythm (man acting of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).

Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is a subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man.[1]

Physics textbooks confirmed the fact that time’s rate of passage varies in perception, and also in reality, quite dramatically even, as one approaches the speed of light. For example, if a group of people were to travel in a rocket at ninety-nine percent the speed of light and orbit the earth for ten years, upon their return they would find that seventy years had passed down below. Because of the speed at which they were travelling, these rocketeers would have aged only ten years while everyone else left behind on earth had aged seventy. Dr. Vargas spent the many years of our captivity devoted to experiments which aimed to break the mechanism of time on earth. He used us as his subjects, as was the case for all of his investigations into the natural world. Vargas told us that if it were possible to travel the speed of light, one would be everywhere in the cosmos all at once. He said there was evidence to suggest that what we know as time is happening all at once, with all moments of one’s life accessible at any given point or node. Our biology creates the illusion that it is happening chronologically.

Camille and I applied the knowledge we’d gleaned from Dr. Vargas’ teachings to some of our own. Like this we were often able to steal time from Vargas, reaching states in which the minutes became hours. We sensed when it was time to leave – Vargas had a palpable, psychic radar he had acquired in India that would eventually find us like a heat seeking missile – a chill spooled up our spines and our palms began to itch.

On spring and summer afternoons we would go back to the white, clapboard guest cottage, our kneecaps and ankles pricked by undergrowth, over felled trees, through a meadow of forget-me-nots in the humid, fragrant wood with our rabbits on the effigy poles and handfuls of the white, lacy flowers. We didn’t bring the dogs because we weren’t allowed to hunt with them – only Vargas held that privilege. Vargas said we had to keep our hunting separate. He also told us that if we didn’t eat meat our teeth would fall out and we would grow hair all over our bodies like werewolves (facts we verified in one of his medical journals). If we wanted to keep healthy we had to learn to trap and hunt. Fishing would have been ideal because there was a lake an hour’s walk through the forest (according to our maps) but Vargas didn’t like us eating fish, or venturing that far off alone. We studied hunting manuals and practiced in the field until we were capable. The snares weren’t that difficult and the yield was adequate.

In the autumn we would accompany Vargas on deer hunts with the cross-bow. The cleanest kill was the one that hit the heart. If done correctly the animal would drop dead in its tracks. Once Vargas shot a charging stag in the chest. It died with its head down so that its enormous rack of antlers became stuck in the ground. Vargas called his men in with the walkie-talkie and they came with a four by four to pull it out. We were told to hide in the bushes until they left. Communication with the men was forbidden. The first deer we witnessed Vargas shoot down left us devastated. He told us we had to slit the throat and drink the blood. We both knew that there was no way out and obeyed. We tried our best to show no emotion, as that was one of the elements Vargas fed off, and did as we were told. The animal’s blood seemed to taste no different than our own. The bodies were cut up and stored in a freezer in the basement. Vargas ate most of the kill but forced us to eat it as well as the rabbits, for health reasons. He collected the heads and skins and gave us lessons in the art of taxidermy and tanning. We spent many hours perfecting his trophies and rugs. Out of the hooves and shins we made rattles which we kept at the cabin in the woods where we had crafted them according to an account in one of the social anthropology books on Midwestern Native American tribes. The rattles were used as instruments to cure as well as to call bison. Camille and I were allowed all of the rabbit pelts and made jackets and boots out of them for our Barbie dolls.

[1]Kapuściński, R. and Glowczewska, K. The Shadow of the Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Huge thanks to Sam Mills for the interview and the extract of Dodge and Burn.