Q. Set the scene of The Monster’s Wife for us.
KH: The novel takes place in late 18th century Orkney, on the tiny island of Hoy, where the local people live off the land as their forebears have done for hundreds of years. The main character, Oona, is a sixteen-year-old girl who knows no other way of life. She feels increasingly distant from the other islanders, though, because of her heart defect, an illness which took her mother from her when she was still a small girl and which she knows will kill her sooner or later.
When a mysterious doctor arrives on the island, he makes a good subject for gossip, but his tenancy in the manor house along with some strange natural occurences are taken as ill omens.
May, Oona’s best friend, goes to work as a housemaid for the doctor in order to save money for her wedding. She makes Oona party to a dark secret involving her new employer and Oona finds herself working at the big house too, becoming the doctor’s confidante and aiding him in his experiments.
Tensions deepen between the doctor and the tight-knit religious community on Hoy, and not without reason: Doctor Frankenstein’s investigations into the line that divides life and death disturb Oona more the more she knows about them.
Then May disappears and Oona’s world changes forever.
Q. Are there any particular events that inspired you to write it?
KH: About three years ago, I went to see Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the roles of doctor and creature. It was a mesmerizing production and the first time I’d seen the monster portrayed as vulnerable and damaged rather than ploddingly violent, as he is in some of the (albeit wonderful) early twentieth-century creature-feature interpretations.
There’s a part of the play where Victor Frankenstein (very much the antagonist in Boyle’s interpretation) stands in a dark room with a naked woman he has just created and is about to destroy. That particular scene haunted me: the idea of such an intense act of scientific creation so swiftly followed by brutal destruction was to me the most horrifying moment in the production. I thought about that woman’s brief life and wanted to know more about her.
Q. So your reaction to Frankenstein as a reader/viewer turned into a literary response to Shelley’s work?
KH: Yes, after seeing the play, I went back to the book and was reminded that the bride is created on one of the Orkney islands. In chapter 19, Victor chooses the most desolate place imaginable to create a second creature, a bride for the monster. “I traversed the northern Highlands,” he says, “and fixed on one of the remotest, the Orkneys, as the scene.” In this secluded location, he creates the ‘bride’ to satisfy the demands of the creature for a mate and to prevent his own family from being murdered. But, disgusted by what he’s attempted, he destroys her before she is fully alive.
I was as curious as I was horrified: Had the monster’s wife once been a girl living on a remote island, or more than one girl? Who was this bride? How did she die? What did she feel? I had an image of a young Orcadian girl living a quiet life, a naive girl whose world would change forever when the doctor’s boat landed with the creature on his heels.
Q. Did you spend time on the Orkney islands to gather in the detail for this book?
KH: I made an amazing trip to Orkney, not least because Highland Park is the finest single malt I’ve ever known. The Orkney islands are full of cairns and stone circles, sites of pagan worship thousands of years old. I saw fascinating places on the Mainland, like an 18th century farmhouse recreated exactly as it would have been, with a central hearth and spaces for chickens to perch in the rafters and straw for pigs to sleep on alongside their human owners. But I’d already settled on Hoy as the island Doctor Frankenstein lands on.
Hoy is a haunted place in its own right, a tiny island dominated by a dead volcano. To this day it has a very small population, barely more than the thirty I mention in the book. During World War II, it served as a naval base for the British and was home to 20,000 servicemen. When the war ended they abandoned the island, leaving bunkers and trucks, submarine parts and boats and fuelling stations to rust in the thick heather and ferns that cover the island.
I wrote most of the novel in a cottage let to us by devout Christians who had come to Hoy for spiritual reasons. As I walked through the volcanic valley and over the beaches with their red rock cliffs rising sheer and high, hearing loons calling from everywhere, the character of Oona became increasingly real for me. Not only the girl she is to begin with, who roams the island longing for adventure, but the tortured woman she eventually turns into.
Q. Frankenstein was written by a woman in a pre-feminist era. Your story is filtered through a maidservant. Do you see it as a feminist take on the earlier work?
KH: I think of Mary Shelley as an ardent proto-feminist. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and really launched the discussion that developed into modern feminism.
But for all that, Frankenstein is quite a masculine book. Women linger in the background. They are wives, servants, victims. I wanted to bring those female figures to the fore and let them drive the narrative. The working classes stay in the background of the novel too. So, retelling the story from the perspective of a female maid was a satisfying way of interacting with Shelley’s book, though I never set out to make an ideological statement. I’m a woman and a feminist, though, with generations of working class ancestors and it was probably inevitable that the book raises those sorts of questions.
When I wrote about Oona slaving away in the big house, I often had in mind my grandma Hilda who partly brought me up. She was adopted by childless parents who wanted a maid as much as a child and she was put to work as a barmaid aged fourteen. She worked behind a bar for the next sixty years and in my mind’s eye I often see her scrubbing the steps and polishing glasses when really she had the potential to do so much more. The character of Oona owes a large debt to my hard-working and endlessly friendly grandma.
Q. You’ve mentioned in your biography that you come from ‘a family of eccentrics’. Can you tell us a little more about your background?
KH: I grew up in an Edwardian house on the outskirts of London with my family and a shifting succession of unusual people, including my uncle Alan, who had been a Communist spy, an odd-job man known alternately as David and Penny depending on what he was wearing and Andrzej, my father’s PhD student. The house was haunted, so my grandmother said, by the ghost of the previous occupant, Mrs Vale. Her spectral piano playing could sometimes be heard under the right weather conditions, and she was known to appear on the stairs dressed all in black, with a bemused expression on her face.
My father was a mad scientist. When I was eight years old, he took my brothers and me out of school for ideological reasons, and we were educated at home. He taught us maths and science, and was given to staging experiments in a whimsical and dramatic fashion. When I learned to tell time, it was not from a watch but from first principles, and I remember vividly creating a candle clock of sorts and watching it burn down far into the night, in an attempt to deduce how time might have been told before clocks existed. To this day I don’t quite know how you would tell time from a watch.
We were all quite eccentric, I suppose, most of all my father. He called a psychic hotline before making any important financial decisions and spent much time communing with foxes and engaged in impassioned battles against encroaching magpies and the local council. Once, we returned from a trip to Cornwall to find that he’d buried all of our shoes in the garden. When I was eight years old, he was lecturing at the LSE and acquired a graduate student, Andrzej. Homesick and far from his native Poland, he was finding life in the student dormitory hard so my father invited him to stay for Christmas. None of us then knew that he would remain in our house for the next twenty-five years. Perhaps that last detail is the reason that mysterious guests are a bit of an obsession of mine, especially scientific ones like Victor Frankenstein. For the same reason, I would hesitate to ever invite anyone to stay for Christmas.
Q. Has this unconventional upbringing influenced your writing as a whole, or the writing of The Monster’s Wife in particular?
KH: Absolutely! My father’s experiments gave me a lifelong fascination with science – in books, in films, in real life – and with mad scientists. Hence my rewriting of Frankenstein. Meanwhile my mother, a crime fiction expert, taught us literature and history, and, best of all, how to tell stories. It’s my mother who passed on to me an obsession with the supernatural and all things mysterious. I think that is very much reflected in my current interests in horror films and crime fiction and in the dark undercurrents in my own writing.
And not only writing: everything around me always seems full of potential stories, tall tales and monsters. Growing up, I felt that our house had its own mythology. There was a shoe-eating beast living under the stairs, a Hopi Indian god that guarded the door of our bedroom, and a Norwegian imp match-holder on the kitchen wall that gave you the evil eye if you didn’t walk past quickly enough.
Although I don’t think I’m especially superstitious, I grew up with a vivid sense of invisible friends all around us, some from existing mythologies, some invented on the spur of the moment. It’s meant that I’ve always felt compelled to embroider reality to make it a little more entertaining. Although of course what I have just told you is all completely true.
Q. There seem to be quite a few rewritings of classics at the moment. Why do you think that is?
KH: I think we retell our favourite tales because we love them, and the characters from them become almost like real people to us, and we want to share them with our children or our students or anyone who will listen, perhaps making a change here and there to keep the story relevant for each generation. I never intended The Monster’s Wife to be part of a trend, but around the time that I finished the first draft of it I started to realise that there were quite a few literary rewritings being published, ranging from Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter, which reworks The Island of Dr Moreau, to the ‘Jane Austen and zombies’ series. In the past I have read literary responses such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and a couple of months ago I read Jo Baker’s wonderful Longbourn, which is Pride and Prejudice retold from the servants’ perspective.
It’s strange to find yourself part of the zeitgeist, particularly as I always feel myself to be a little out of touch with fashions of any kind, but I think this current vogue for rewriting the Victorians is really just a recent example of a general human tendency to re-imagine favourite stories. After all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is itself is a retelling of a classical myth, and that fact is spelled out in the subtitle – the Modern Prometheus. Her rewriting reflects the issues of science, ethics and gender that obsessed her and were so of her time. In The Monster’s Wife, although I set the narrative in the late 18th century, a lot of the themes that emerge through it are very much of our time too – issues that are near to my heart: equality between the sexes; the double-edged sword of religion that both creates communities and divides them; the wonders and dangers of scientific experimentation, which always seems to me poised on an ethical knife-edge. I think Mary Shelley’s work still holds our fascination because everything she writes about from her time is even more central to ours.
Q. Frankenstein now has this as a sequel. Do you sense a sequel for The Monster’s Wife?
KH: I was sad to part from Oona. She had been my constant companion for the better part of two years and she felt like a friend to me. I was genuinely bereft when I finished the last draft and (as Martin will attest!) it was really hard to let the book go. But no, I never had a sequel in mind.
In fact, the novel I’m working on now actually couldn’t be more different, since it’s a psychological thriller set in the present day. Having said that, there are similarities. The narrator of The American Girl is sixteen, like Oona; and like Oona, she’s a lone figure thrust into conflict with a small community where she’s suspected of wrongdoing. On top of that, the novel is set on the coast and much of it takes place in sight of the sea. Perhaps my seafaring Norwegian origins have made me fear small communities and long for that kind of landscape. Or maybe I just need a holiday.
The Monster’s Wife is out now in paperback and ebook.
Nicola Solomon, who heads the Society of Authors, laments that well over 90% of the cover price for a physical or ebook doesn’t go to the writer (in an article by Alison Flood in the Guardian). The implication is that the publishers are at fault.
Having crossed sides recently, to add publishing to writing, I’d say she needs to shift her focus. To have any chance of widespread distribution for books in the UK you need to go through one of two wholesalers, Bertrams or Gardners. The big boys doubtless get deals, but the wholesalers’ standard discount is 60%, some portion of which is passed on to booksellers. You still need a distributor, so there goes an extra 10%. Out of a cover price of £12.99, that leaves around £3.90. Out of that, you need to pay for design, typesetting, printing, postage and packing, review copies, competition copies (and entry fees … £180 to enter the Guardian First Book Award, for example), and in my case I throw in my editorial and everything else services for free. You get to see where that 90%+ goes … and it’s not to the publisher.
The only way a publisher can possibly make this pay is by achieving economies of scale. Printing costs take a dive when you print 500 copies, so that’s the goal for a small publisher like ourselves to head for. It’s puny – but our whole financial planning is based on the fact that most Man Booker shortlisted titles have barely broken that 500 sales barrier when the shortlists are first announced. Committing to printed copies is also tougher since it’s hard to estimate the proportion of sales that will be derived from ebooks. Print in the 1000s and you get deeper discounts from printers and wholesalers. It becomes still more economically viable if you severely reduce the font size and so print fewer pages on poorer quality paper.
I was in Waterstones last week, browsing for a new novel to read. Many I simply put down because the font size was too small. At least as a reader I can make an ebook readable. Part of my policy as publisher at Barbican Press is to deliver what I wold like as a reader and a writer. So our print books look grand, they have a handsome font size and generous line spacing – they are physical objects a writer can be proud of. The authors get true buy-in with their cover design and how the book looks.
That’s important – authors put years of care and love and inspiration and craft into a book, so we give due honour to that. What do we pay? We’ve tried for more, though have settled on 10% of RRP (recommended retail price) on the print books. Sticking with RRP is something of a throwback position where most contracts are shifting a portion of net sales. My own contracts with the big houses had that 10% of RRP on hardback sales as the starting point, the percentage figure declining with volume and paperback, and that always seemed minimal to me so I don’t want to offer less. Other figures (print costs / typesetting / design / postage) are fixed so it seems fair that the author should have some point of fixed unit sale. And we don’t pay advance royalties. But you can see that leaves us with £2.61 per copy to play with, including printing costs etc. In physical book sales, the publisher is left with pennies at best.
Then why do it? In Barbican Press I’m providing what I felt the need of as a writer – a house that offers a home to real quality, daring writing that the big mainstream houses might not be able to risk. One writer pal lost her contract for her next book because her previous one had only sold 30,000+ copies: it sounds crazy because I would love such numbers but I can understand it. Margins are so horribly tight that with the likes of discount sales through Asda it becomes a penny business for all. I also provide what I want as a reader – the very best books I have read lately are the ones we are set to publish (great ones already out and ten in the pipeline for next year).
That’s the romantic side of it all. There has to be an economic side too. In 2014 we are investing in publicity for two titles: a major digital marketing campaign for James Thornton’s SPHINX: THE SECOND COMING and a publicity campaign for Kate Horsley’s THE MONSTER’S WIFE (possibly with digital follow-through). The hard-copy books are a lead: for reviews, for competitions, for those proud book-in-the-hand moments: a book as a luxury object. We distribute through Central Books and for the moment avoid the 60% Bertrams / Gardner discount – it would be good to be everywhere in Waterstones, but I know too many instances where small publishers have been killed when Waterstones has returned unsold stock. The wholesalers do provide our books, but not in great volume. We give bookstores a 35% discount so they have something to play with (and make more than the authors and us, for sure) and may well go the Bertrams / Gardner route in the future, but that would be because it offers returns in the current bookselling environment to the author rather than because it’s worth the risk to us. We are part of the Amazon Advantage programme. The main hope has to be in ebook follow-through.
For ebooks, our contracts give the author 25% of net income. RRP percentages don’t make sense because an ebook RRP doesn’t really exist: discounts are the norm and the hard copy book sets the discount point. As an author I’ve argued in public forums for a 50% net share of net ebook income and been shot down. Publishers told me that would be totally unsustainable. Now I am a publisher, I know they are right. The ebook is where all those editorial, design, typesetting and publicity costs – that sheer production factor of a book – can be recouped. There’s an argument for increasing that author percentage when production costs have been met.
The Waterstones branch I browsed in was in Trafalgar Square. That’s prime real estate and I was frankly surprised to see it was still in business. I wouldn’t bet any publishing business on the future of bookstores. I was in the store because I had gone into town without my Kindle and needed a book. I indeed bought one (Rawi Hage’s Carnival from Penguin, £8.99 in the store but it would have been £6.29 with my free Amazon Prime delivery or £4.32 on Kindle) because it seems immoral to browse books in a store and then save money online. In the end though I downloaded the Kindle ap onto my phone so I could continue reading the novel I had left at home: Robert Harris’s splendid An Officer and a Spy , RRP £7.99 but bought as a £1.99 ebook.
I used to love the books of Picador. Their books had the dare and flair I liked. John Calder, Peter Owen in this country, Black Sparrow Press and City Lights in the USA, those are models for Barbican Press. The Press reflects my editorial tastes … one of our authors recognized it as a blend of darkness and humour, which seemed astute. We are building a terrific list that features wonderful writers … and is for a large community of readers who should love us and spread the word once they find us. We are small enough not to need to compromise. Digital allows for international publishing. The plan is to transcend formats, flow with the best means of delivery, and focus on what publishing at its essence is all about – great books.
Martin Goodman @MartinGoodman2
Q: Your first novel Immediate Harm was a legal thriller with science fiction overtones – a virus jumping to humans from GM corn. Sphinx: The Second Coming is full-blown scifi. What drew you to the genre?
JT: Since I was a boy, scifi has given me a place my mind wants to go. How many novels about bourgeois angst and infidelity can you read when there are other worlds, even other universes to explore, in stories that explore the full range of human capacity and passions? Over the last five years or so, I’ve been going back to read classic scifi tales of the fifties and sixties, from the likes of Blish, Silverberg, and Simak.
Q: Sphinx has elements of scifi, fantasy, even quantum fiction. How would you place it in terms of genre? What books influenced it?
JT: It has all of those and I would add that it has elements of historical fiction as well. I wanted to take my favourite genres and blend them into a convincing whole. So the story line is compelling, I hope, and then there is this separate pleasure to be had. The reader can emerge onto the plane of the writing, if they would like to appreciate the weaving together of all these techniques. Ben and Jerry’s have a new line of ice creams that blend two flavours in the same container and have a sauce in the middle. I am aiming for that kind of fun. What books influenced Sphinx? Really, the avid reading of a lifetime. But let me give it a try: from hard science, like David Deutsch on the multiverse, to shelves of books on the history and the religion of Ancient Egypt. Space epics had an influence, particularly Olaf Stapledon, and the historical fiction of Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary Renault and Allan Massie
Q: Sphinx starts with an origin story of Ancient Egypt. You go on to recreate the priestly world of Saqqara in the mode of a historical novel, and then the action shifts to modern Cairo. What’s the pull of Egypt for you?
JT: I have always felt a strong pull to Ancient Egyptians and have been amazed by what they accomplished. They invented mathematics, astronomy, astrology, were among the first to use the written word, to create complex legal systems, to give women rights, they created some of the most powerful art ever made, what is still the world’s largest temple complex, and of course there is the enduring majesty and mystery of the pyramids and Sphinx. And they did all of this overnight, in historical terms, going from a fairly primitive predynastic culture to the magnificent Old Kingdom, around five thousand years ago, which already possessed most of what was to make Egypt great for millennia, and whose buildings and art are if anything the most elegant ever produced in Egypt.
Q: Did the novel take much research and travel?
JT: It grew out of many years of research into the history and religion of Ancient Egypt. There was a long time when I simply could not get enough of it, and there is such a course of its history there is a lot to read. I did travel to Egypt while I was writing the book, but had much of my first draft done by then, and was happy to find out that I had been able to travel there very accurately in imagination based on my reading, even to the number of steps on entering the Great Pyramid. Of course nothing does really compare to going there, being in the sun and sand, being inside the Great Pyramid with the lights turned out, the chamber illuminated by a single candle, while you and your friends invoke the gods. It’s also hard to top meditating between the paws of the Sphinx, by the Dream Stela of Thutmose IV.
Q: Sphinx opens with a prologue that tells how the whole story came to you. It claims to be real but clearly sets the reader up for fiction. Are there any grains of truth in the prologue?
JT: The astounding thing is that everything in the prologue is real. I was travelling to the psychiatric institute where Carl Jung was trained, because I ran a neuroscience institute at the time. The visit to the countess is just as described. Even more remarkably the hotelier in Grenoble acted just so. The boils and the dreams of the Sphinx followed. There was really a kind of compulsion to write the book. I would lie in a foetal position and scenes would unfurl in front of me. It was as if I had stepped into another world for the years from that day in Grenoble until the book is published, and I suppose, beyond.
Q: You introduce the Consilium, a parliament of galactic forces that keeps an eye on stripling Earth. Earth is in an early stage of development and could yet make fatal moves for itself. Is that how you view this planet?
JT: We are a teenage species, and the question is whether we will survive our teenage pranks long enough to mature. The big threat is global climate change, which we’ve brought about from generating electricity, driving cars, making cement and so on, before we even noticed it. Martin Rees, British Astronomer Royal, has written an elegant little book our chances of survival. It is called Is This our Final Century? A pillar of the scientific community, he estimates the probability we will cause our own extinction by 2100 as fifty/fifty.
Q: Do you see Sphinx as carrying an environmental message?
JT: Absolutely. Sphinx starts with the idea that the gods have gone quiet. In studying Egypt it became clear that just like the Jews, the Egyptians believed early on that their best people spoke right to the divine, who spoke directly back to them. After Moses, the god of the Jews stopped talking, and around the same time, so did the Egyptian gods. I wondered if the gods had gone quiet and might come back. Turns out the Egyptian gods made this world and are uniquely fond of it. When they do come back and find that we are mucking it up they are far from pleased.
Q: I see you were once head of a brain science research institute. Does neuroscience colour the book at all?
JT: The speciality of the Heffter Institute, where I was Executive Director, is investigating the mind through the use of hallucinogens. My speculation on the use of a hallucinogenic communion by the Egyptian priests is based on discussions with ethnobotanists. Much ancient religion, in the Americas, in the Indian subcontinent, and I believe in Egypt, was based on using hallucinogens to gain access to perceptions closed to everyday mind. By stimulating the brain’s serotonin system, the priests gained visions that were of deep meaning to them and were core to the belief systems they created.
JT: Science is a very important part of science fiction for me. There is much about hard sf, say the work of Greg Egan, that I’ve always liked. And the reason why is that I like science. Right now I’m reading Richard Feynman’s QED. Who knows how it will come into my writing? When you read the papers and watch the news, it is soap opera. When you read about science, as in New Scientist and Scientific American, you are learning something new and real about the world. Soap opera repeats itself. For the first four years after I moved to the UK the headlines in the papers every day was “Blair Defiant.” This was an epic of tedium. In that same period there was a welter of fascinating science that emerged; it’s where the real news is.
Q: Egypt is one of the political hot spots on the planet. Is that political aspect current in Sphinx at all?
JT: I started writing Sphinx about 15 years ago, well before the Arab Spring and its aftermath. There are dark political forces at play in the book that have been in play for decades in Egypt, and that I believe still are. Conservative forces are present that would be unquiet should others see value in the ancient ways.
Q: Lots of cool stuff gets labelled as Zen nowadays. You’re in fact a Zen Buddhist priest. In what ways is Sphinx a Zen novel?
JT: There are a number of deep mystical experiences in the book. I can tell you they are real. And there is a deadly mind combat between two of the main characters, which gained inspiration from Zen dharma combat.
Q: Priest, CEO and novelist … what part of you does the novelist reach that the other roles don’t?
JT: Being a novelist activates the part of me that is a fantastical storyteller of the unbounded. In Zen we incinerate stories and experience emptiness. In my CEO role, I have talked into being the first public interest law group at pan-European level. These are stories of a certain form and content. In novels, we can make dreams real enough to share.
Q: What characters most surprised you?
JT: The Sphinx himself surprised the hell out of me. Talk about unbounded. He simply will not behave.
Q: What’s your best hope for how readers will experience Sphinx?
JT: I hope that by reading Sphinx they enter a new world, a noumenal world in which the gods are real and speak to us.
Sphinx: The Second Coming is out now in paperback and ebook.
Q: You wrote Ectopia as a PhD. Why?
Martin Goodman: I wrote complete drafts of the book before any Creative Writing PhD came into existence. They were sent out into the world by top agents like Mic Cheetham and Deborah Rogers, and kept coming back. I told Deborah to forget it and I would write her a novel that would sell instead – (On Bended Knees, to be reissued by Barbican Press in March 2020). That worked. Editors’ responses showed Ectopia was already too edgy for the mainstream. I didn’t want to trim it back and compromise it. The PhD gave me some really tough and knowledgeable readers, top lecturers in a top university, whose job was to push me beyond my limits. Nothing I could write was going to scare them. They had to make sure it was good enough to get through a viva. It made no difference to them whether it sold or not. The times I kept going back to this book, starting it from scratch, meant it was elemental in some way, one of those books I had to write. The PhD was my commitment to doing that as well as it could be done.
Q: Did the PhD process make Ectopia more formal or academic?
MG: Part of a PhD is that it pushes the field forward. To do that you have to study the field. It’s called action research. You read those writers who have been brilliant at what you’re trying to do, and see what you can learn from them. I was writing a dystopia, so I checked in on classic dystopian fiction … Zemyatin’s We, Brave New World, 1984, Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Never Let Me Go and lots more. They helped me answer questions, and find ways to go and not to go.
Q: Such as?
MG: Writing about the future, you need a new language. You don’t want it dated and you don’t want it obscure. Clockwork Orange showed ways to go and not go. The final chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale is set way in the future and treats the novel as a found and ancient text. I was going to do that too, and this taught me not to bother. Oryx and Crake ends without a resolution – it leaves the reader to decide. I’d done similar things with my own books, but as a reader I was unhappy with Margaret Atwood’s decision, so I chose to write a proper ending. A lot of dystopian fiction, from Huxley through Orwell to Atwood to Ishiguro to Ray Bradbury, is secretly about a writer’s sense of threats to their livelihood and a state’s attack on literature. Once I recognized that, I decided to avoid it. The references in those 20th century books are literary. In Ectopia, they are filmic. My teenage character isn’t me. I’m into books. Film’s where he’s at.
A: You wrote an ‘exegesis’. What’s that about?
MG: For the PhD you write 20,000 words about the process of writing the novel – the ‘exegesis’. That’s when the process can get academic. I’m a novelist. I invented this character of an academic and wrote in that voice. It wasn’t good enough. Literary critics do a much better job. My supervisors kept pointing out that expertise was in being articulate about my own process. So that’s what I went for.
Q: Was the PhD funded?
MG: I paid for it myself. I did it in distance learning mode, which meant I could continue my day-job as a secondary school teacher. It was hard work, but worth it. Part of keeping sane as a writer is keeping the creativity flowing, not letting the day job swamp it. The PhD gives that discipline. If you’re working and writing like that you have no time for holidays and a social life, so you save enough to pay for it.
Q: Why did you call it Ectopia?
MG: I ran with a lot of titles. That one stuck. It sounds like dystopia and has a classic ring to it. Read to the end and you’ll discover the medical links as well. For me it’s got another meaning. ‘Ectopia’ is the state of being on the outside of things. Writers have that marginal sense – themselves as witnesses rather than participants; books as more real than life. Being gay adds to marginality – and Steven, the main narrator of Ectopia, is the gay brother of the last girl. A big part of my finding the courage for this book was reading all the novels of James Purdy and then flying to New York to interview him. He was my favourite living writer and one of those gay writers who influenced me … like Patrick White, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Francis King, Denton Welch. His books never compromised. He wrote from the heart of himself and against the grain. it was an ectopic life and, in writing terms, as rich as they come.
Q: You say it’s narrated by a teenager. Does that make it a teenage book?
MG: It’s a book about teenagers. Teenage readers who are into edge fiction should enjoy it. ‘Teenage fiction’ is an adult label though – it’s censorship. it says this book doesn’t cross limits about sex and drugs and language and violence and whatever. Ectopia does cross all those limits. I didn’t censor the book when writing it so I’m not going to start censoring it now. It’s a subversive book. If I was censoring it, I’d probably give it a 15 certificate. Pre-teens shouldn’t go near it.
Philip Gross dons several hats. He’s winner of the T.S.Eliot Prize for poetry; writes terrific fiction for readers of any age who like to explore the young adult world; and he is the Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan.
He is also gracious enough to give Barbican Press a few cheering words as we launch our ‘doctored books’* list.
“Who knows what writing is evolving into, in our time? The market makes its cautious guesses. Meanwhile (and against the odds) a fertile niche has opened in our universities, especially in the postgraduate study where free play and deep investigation can go hand in hand. Let’s welcome a publishing venture that brings to light some of the unaccountable, the brilliant mutations on which evolution might just depend.”
* Philip does challenge the term doctored books – our play on books that were written for a PhD. For him it smacks of neutering, like a cat, books that have something snipped off rather than exist in all their vulgar glory. It’s a fair comment. Still, we like ‘doctored books’. It has a sense of traditional books undergoing surgery somehow to come out radically different. It makes you think again – exactly what our titles aim to do.