Interview: Naomi Booth

Naomi Booth is a novelist, short story writer and academic from West Yorkshire. She is the author of two novels (Sealed and Exit Management), a novella (The Lost Art of Sinking), and an academic text (Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out). Her short story, Sour Hall, was included in the Audible/Virago collection, Hag.

Naomi’s fiction is so beautifully written that it took me a while to spot the horror that underlies it, (even though Sealed is billed as Eco-Horror). Through her lost and drifting characters, she explores how we cope as human beings when family or community are denied us, either through personal tragedy or societal breakdown.

Our conversation trundled down numerous sidings as we discussed our shared geography of West Yorkshire and South London. And while she forensically analysed the serious business of writing fiction, we laughed a lot.

Craig Smith: Did you always write?

Naomi Booth: Yes, I did. I was susceptible to getting lost in my own stories as a young child. I had the feeling that the real world was no more real than what was happening in my imaginative world. There are a number of events in my childhood that I now find difficult to ascertain the veracity of because my mind has embellished them so extensively.  

In my 20’s, I did an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Sussex, which was when I started to think seriously that I might turn this thing I’d always loved doing into something I could produce for other people.

CS: There’s a real sense of place in your stories, a going away and a coming back.

NB: Lots of my work travels between Yorkshire and other locations, particularly London. There are well-trodden narrative paths for characters graduating from the North to the South, the coming-of-age stories that see a character leave behind what’s often characterised as insular and backwards, those stereotypes of cultural and economic deprivation in the North. I’m interested in ways you might subvert that. The Calder Valley, for instance, is a place I come back to again and again in my work. I lived in Hebden Bridge for a couple of years, and my parents now live on the moortops above Todmorden. When I was a kid from Dewsbury going to college in Huddersfield, I met a group of people who made music and danced and wrote poetry who were from the Calder Valley. It made me think of the Calder Valley as a crucible of art. I often get asked about the North and my work, and there are specific places in the North that I return to, but I’m also wary about certain constructions of the North: the Lakes and Sheffield, Newcastle and the North York Moors are wildly different places.

CS: What other northern writers do you read?

NB: I grew up with Ted Hughes and the Brontës as big literary presences in my life. There was always that sense of a landscape that I knew, that I’d walked in, having inspired literary work, and that in turn was inspiring for me. Many of my favourite contemporary writers come from the North of England, writers like Jessica Andrews, who wrote Salt Water and who works wonderful magic in getting across voice, place and character. One of my earliest loves was short fiction, and Sarah Hall made a big impact on me, especially the relationship between land and narration. I’ve recently read new work by Tom Benn and Melissa Wan that I’ve loved—and I’d recommend the recent anthology, Test Signal: New Writing from the North, for anyone who’d like to read brand new work. 

It’s been my good fortune to be published by Dead Ink, who are based in Liverpool. They’re an independent press working as part of the Northern Fiction Alliance, and publishing with them has helped me to learn more about writers and publishing in the North. These publishers are not necessarily focused on what you might first think of as ‘northern writing’. They have a global outlook. For example, People Trade Press in Leeds are the world’s leading publisher of diasporic writing from the Caribbean. Comma and Tilted Axis Press are brilliant publishers of work in translation.

CS: How do you approach dialect?

NB: I work with many students who develop writing that is true to the spoken language of particular areas, and there are lots of brilliant experiments in capturing dialect. I can think of a number of Scottish writers who do this particularly well. But capturing regional speech patterns can be tricky: English is not a phonetic language, so attempting phonetic presentation for particular characters has always seemed risky to me—the writing risks inadvertently reinforcing the idea that certain voices are the standard by which others are judged. What I tend to do is include dialect terms when a word is different, like ‘me sen’ for ‘myself’, but I don’t attempt to render accent on the page. For me, it’s about giving enough clues in the language of the kind of voice that you’re dealing with but, hopefully, without othering particular voices.

CS: Your characters walk away from community or embrace it, depending on their situation.

NB: I’m interested in where the communal fails, and in where and when characters are able to access support or communal undertaking. For me, Sealed is about the attempt to create yourself as an entirely sealed entity, using the macabre exaggeration of this particular condition, where you are literally sealed in. The final stages of the novel are about the impossibility of being able to exist as a single entity during points of crisis, of having to embrace the communal, and of that being both a possible source of horror and celebration.

I’m really interested in female relationships, particularly the way the figure of the mother is overloaded, is required to act in the way a functioning community or society might, and what happens when that isn’t possible. In my narratives, I often depict mothers who are removed or unavailable to fulfil that role for various reasons. So, what is life like with insufficient mothering? I would say that all mothering is insufficient if you haven’t got a functional social structure working around us.

CS: How do you approach research?

NB: I think of research in two stages.

The first is the idea stage, where I explore the ideas I want to bring together. Often, those present themselves to me through direct experience or through reading around certain topics. For instance, my first book, The Lost Art of Sinking, was inspired by research into the literary history of swooning, (This research became the academic text, Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out, which was published by Manchester University Press).

There’s a secondary stage of research, where I look for the sort of detail that makes the world of the characters come to life for the reader. For Sour Hall, for instance, which tells the story of two female dairy farmers, I watched a lot of videos of cows being born, and read about milking and farming. One of the pleasures of writing, for me, is attempting to get the lexicon right, the precise details that someone would use in the world that you’re attempt to describe.

CS: At what point do you do that research?

NB: It varies from book to book. In Exit Management, I needed to learn about Hungary before drafting sections about a character who was born close to Budapest. So, in that case, there was research before I drafted, then I drafted, then I researched again. ‘Exit Management’ is a term from HR that started the idea for the book. I was thinking what a horrible euphemism ‘exit management’ is, and came up with the idea for the novel. Then I did more research into HR practices to make certain elements of the novel (hopefully) plausible. 

CS: Three of your four books use the present tense. Does present tense work well with horror?

NB: Tense is one of the final things I decide on. I’ve re-written entire novels to change the tense. Present tense is not necessarily my default. The Lost Art of Thinking started in present tense and then moved to past tense. But for horror, I think present tense has often felt like the right choice because it doesn’t give away who might survive to tell the story; it creates a sense of the end of the novel being radically uncertain.

The work I’m currently developing is mostly told in present tense but moves repeatedly into future tense. It’s actually a past tense narrative, because we know from those moves into future tense that there is a moment beyond the story being told. But it remains in present tense because there’s something about the immediacy of the experiences I’m exploring that works best in that tense. It’s a novel about obsession, and present tense is, I think, very useful for communicating experiences that are totally consuming.

CS: In Sour Hall, George pretends the boggart doesn’t exist. In Exit Management, Lauren and Callum both pretend to be something they’re not. There’s a conflict between appearance and reality in many of your stories.

NB: I’m not a natural plotter. I don’t write in a plot-driven way. I work with settings and characters and ideas. But I’m interested in the things that people conceal from each other and the things they conceal from themselves. That trajectory is in all my work: a main character or several main characters who don’t have the language to express the things that trouble them or that have harmed them. So the way that I approach plotting is often to work with what is concealed: when I’m teaching, I often find myself saying that the most interesting thing about a character will be the thing that they can’t say to themselves.

CS: But there’s a lot of hope in your stories.

NB: I hope there’s an openness in my work. I spend a lot of time editing the endings of my fiction. Because my work deals with difficult subjects, such as violence and loss, and I’m prone to pessimism, I often have to work hard to make sure my endings aren’t too hopeless. I try to find the balance between hopelessness and possibility. If you seal something off too completely, if you make something too pitiless or too desperately optimistic – first of all, I don’t think that’s true and, secondly, the ending is the place where the reader takes over, where they create a sense of what might emerge from this mess the author has presented, so you have to leave the right kind of provocation for them to take over.

CS: How do you engage with politics?

NB: Eco-politics informs a lot of what I do, grappling with how we got where we are, how we manage this collective repression that many of us – myself included – go about in our day-to-day living, as though we’re not in an emergency situation. I’m interested in animating that question of how we exist in a world that we know is full of suffering, and what kind of thinking do we do to adapt to or to challenge the world around us.  

CS: Talk me through your writing and publishing history.

NB: During my MA, I spent several years writing 2000-word short stories: for a long time, I never thought I would write anything longer than 2,000 words! But I extended my work while doing a PhD, and on the basis of my short fiction, I got an agent. The short stories were taken as an indication that I might one day work on longer form fiction.

The first thing I published was The Lost Art of Sinking, a 24,000-word novella. It was published by an independent poetry press, Penned in the Margins. Sealed was written just after, quite quickly, in about nine months, and was hardly revised. Exit Management was a much longer journey. I had a rough version that I abandoned. When I went back to it, having not read it for two or three years, I saw it with fresh eyes. I gutted it and rewrote it, and was very glad that the earlier version hadn’t ever been published. Some books take a lot longer than others to mature, and for you to be able see how to revise them.  

It’s taken me about fifteen years of writing short fiction to publish a collection of short stories. Animals At Night will publish this year. None of my original short stories have survived in their initial forms, but the ideas behind them, the very first little stories that I wrote, have evolved into the stories in this collection.

CS: Do you have a writing routine?

NB: I find that each book, along with practical constraints, dictates its own routine. I wrote Sealed in 40-minute bursts before work each morning. Early morning writing hasn’t been possible for me since I had a child, but I’m now in the fortunate situation of having windows of time to write. I teach at Durham University, and I have portions of the year where I’m able to write. Still, there are whole stretches of the year where I don’t get to write, for work and family reasons. I find it useful now to think in terms of the span of a year: what can I achieve in a year? When in the year can I work? There’s a lot of value in fallow periods, I think, when ideas can gestate, I try to take heart in that when I haven’t written for several months.

CS: What was your experience writing Sour Hall?

NB: Audible employed an eminent professor of folk law, Carolyne Larrington, to identify folk tales that were at risk of dying out, and they commissioned women authors from around the United Kingdom and Ireland to write short stories based on those tales. I was given the folktale of the boggart, which is predominantly connected to Lancashire and Yorkshire. We were given absolute freedom with regards what to do with the original source material, which in my case was a newspaper report of a farmer fleeing a boggart. Virago created the print edition, and it was great to have a publisher with a feminist history making available the work of female writers who were revitalising these folk traditions. The story was then adapted by a brilliant script-writer, Laura Kirwan-Ashman, as an audio drama, and listening to her reimagining of the work was one of the best experiences of my writing life.   

CS: What does success look like for you?

NB: It means having the chance to continue to develop my work by writing different things. The chance to learn from the thing I just published in order to develop my craft, my scope and my thinking about writing. There are similarities among the pieces I’ve written, but they’re also all quite different, so being allowed to do new things—that feels like success to me. And while I’m sure every writer wants a sizeable readership, most important to me are those experiences where you feel like you’re being read carefully, where people give your books a generous and thorough reading, through reviews, or academic work, or just in conversation.


28 April 2022