Fiona Melrose’s second novel Johannesburg was published in August 2017 by Corsair/Little Brown. Fiona talks to Lauren Miller about her relationship with the landscapes she writes about, her own feelings of placelessness and how this influences her approach to writing untold stories.
LM: You spend a lot of time in South Africa, and have previously lived in Suffolk while writing your novel Midwinter. Do you feel being in close proximity to the locations you write about helps when producing work?
FM: Yes. I am fundamentally lazy on the one hand, and like to write about something I am familiar with. If not the location then at the very least, the emotional weather. I would struggle to write about a polar exploration for example. I’m not interested in that exertion though perhaps I will soon begin to stretch myself in that regard.
I am someone who is hyper-sensitive to my environment, sometimes to rooms. So it would make sense that my immediate environment would be the raw material for my work.
Having said that I have written a novel (which I have yet to do anything with though harbour ambitions that it will be book four) and it is set in two locations I have never visited. I should probably do some travelling there before I send it to anyone.
LM: Are there moments during the writing process where you feel distance from a subject is required?
FM: No, I like to inhabit them as fully as possible. I want to wear their skin. It is not exactly healthy and I don’t recommend it. I always love my characters, I don’t necessarily like them but that is not my job. Distance does come and that is necessary, but that is with editing, and it applies to the work as a whole, the characters but also the sentences. It is a more mechanical process. Some characters are closer to me. I feel more protective over them. I do lack distance and don’t think of them as characters but as entire, real people (or dogs) who inhabit my life. On occasion, I struggle to separate my reality from my fiction. Again, not healthy, but necessary.
LM: Midwinter’s setting is primarily rural England, and your new novel Johannesburg is set solely in the city. Having spent time in both these places, are you more surprised by the similarities or the stark differences between the two regions? Did you find it hard to adjust to the more urban landscape of Johannesburg?
FM: Much of the writing of Johannesburg came about as I was so entirely overwhelmed by my return to the city, which has a much more visceral, immediate energy after the whispering hedgerows of Suffolk. Obviously Johannesburg announces its provenance quite boldly. The city is known to those around the world because of its past as a centre of resistance to Apartheid as well as the centre of Apartheid capital through the original gold mines. The title is also misleading because of course this is not a book about Johannesburg but rather a story about a few city blocks in one suburb on one day. It can never encompass the city, that would be arrogant and inaccurate. I was newly returned to the city after living in Suffolk for many years. I could still navigate the city as a local might but had all the anxieties and alienation of a foreign visitor. I knew that would not last and so tried to write as much as I could in notes and sketches before I became reabsorbed into the local landscape again. The same was true of Midwinter. I knew Suffolk as I had family there but was still very much an outsider looking in. I think the benefit of that is that one’s ear is more likely to pick up visual or auditory oddities, notice detail on landscape. The benefit of being an outsider for a writer is well documented. I think place is important to my writing for many reasons. Partly because it is my interest and instinct to look for weather, plants, animals wherever I am and that roots one in the topography very quickly. Also I have always had a nomadic life so I probably have an instinct to root myself quite quickly in an environment, create a home (an intimacy/ understanding) because I never really have one. As a writer though, the shift from soil in Midwinter to street in Johannesburg did not feel that radical to me as I am still looking for plants and creatures no matter where I am. Also, from a narrative perspective my writing does have a slightly internal way about it, I can’t really help that, it’s what motivates my work, and so a rooted physicality in the external setting helps to anchor the work outside of the head for the reader. In narrative terms too, it means the environment and place can force agency or crises or interaction amongst characters (and authors) who might otherwise be prone to hermitage.
LM: Your characters often find it hard to express themselves, I’m thinking particularly of the elder generation in Midwinter. Would you say giving a voice to silent communities is a preoccupation in your writing?
FM: Absolutely. I discovered with the writing of Johannesburg and looking ahead to my next projects that what I am concerned with is the gaps on the bookshelves, the untold stories, those on the margins. This might not be a community, though it often is, but a person, the one off stage, the one taking the picture. This of course often relates to gender which is something I am very much interested in, though not exclusively. With Midwinter, I had read very few books about rural England that didn’t have a whiff of the Archers to it. The quintessential Agga Saga. There are exceptions, Cyan Jones, Ross Raisin being notable. But I hadn’t seen the people I was meeting in Suffolk represented with any subtlety or nuance. The same is true of Johannesburg. On a day when Mandela, his life and extraordinary global legacy are the focus, what is happening on the side of the road, at a taxi rank, in a coffee shop? In the end that is where most people live their lives, in suburbs, quiet rooms, in falling down houses. Small public parks and traffic islands are the reality, not the global stage, not on CNN or the front page of newspapers. Parents of an age are also not over represented as a group in literature. Landyn in Midwinter, Neve in Johannesburg and, of course Mandela. I have been very affected by watching my parents age, (my father died a while ago now) their friends, people dear to me who are now all gone and I did want to capture something of that passing of time, its pathos.
LM: You’ve mentioned that writing a “South African Novel” as a white woman raised in you a “near crippling imposter complex.” Was it less overwhelming condensing the timeframe of your novel into one day, rather than trying to encapsulate South Africa’s sprawling history?
FM: Initially I didn’t think I was writing a book, simply spending a month on a writing exercise and so the first draft was an easy and unencumbered process. I had no sense of being audacious. I was simply working with words, trying to make each sentence work. It was joyful and energising. Only once I realised that this was a novel, something beyond a private exercise, that there might be a book, did the anxiety kick in. I have worked through that now, that sense of “dare I disturb the universe?” and have realised that if I want to write, properly, boldly, bloodily, then I need to get over myself and just do the work as it comes to me. That doesn’t mean I won’t fail but if that bothers me, then I must write the Agga Sagas. And I don’t want to do that. At the time I was insulated though by the basic struggle of the work, the mechanics. The challenge was to try and express, condense a sprawling city over the course of a single day. I am never sure about “sprawling histories.” I don’t think I have the correct brain for them or indeed the correct mindset. Form is not neutral. It is a political even moral decision. I think the universal and the fullness of history operates more powerfully in detail. Apartheid’s hangovers can be exemplified by white men in cars letting one eye flick down to check their door is locked as a homeless black man approaches simply asking for a few pennies for bread. Broad sweeps mean the humanity that accompanies daily domestic sorrow can be lost and broad sweeps tend to be written by the victorious. Love operates in detail.
LM: Your previous novel was very much about men without women. Was it the female voice of Mrs Dalloway that inspired you to base Johannesburg on Woolf’s work?
FM: Not so much that the voice was female. Though in the end it was a nice counter-point to my Midwinter farmers to write some women. And I do think, in retrospect there is something interesting looking at the fathers and sons in Midwinter vs the mother and daughter dynamic in Johannesburg. They are no less fraught and complicated as relationships, though in Johannesburg there seems to be an added dash of vinegar. But writing Johannesburg was a linguistic relief after the very limited and specific language and meter of Midwinter, which was closely controlled and exact to write. So, in the first few drafts to be able to take the hand break off was a joy. The relief was in the multiple voices, the freedom of language in general, the play and riff that a city allows and which Midwinter shut down entirely. So that was very freeing. Midwinter’s energy was very deeply bedded-in. The characters and story required it. With Johannesburg, I was guided by two words stylistically: depth and speed. I think with all books you want to think about the quality of the density and the kind of velocity you want to achieve and use that to guide you. It’s a good hand-rail if you lose your way a bit.
LM: You’ve mentioned before you are a “terrible short story writer”. Can I ask what it is about the novel form that draws you?
FM: I am naturally verbose (as this interview attests) and I think I like all of life to find its way in to my work. I am greedy. It is something I am trying to work on now in my work-in-progress and something Woolf was very much interested in, how to capture all of life, the fullness of it, all on paper. It is, of course, a fool’s errand and one that is doomed to failure but I feel I should like to at least try. And sometimes, usually, getting all of life down on paper means leaving most of it out, the fullness is in the exclusion. Also, as a practice, a daily work, I like a long term commitment, I like being immersed in something and seeing it entirely and fully to a conclusion through the course of a novel. This might be the researcher and academic in me; a very thorough, in depth investigation to feel I have done the full work. Some of it is also skill, I do not (to my great sorrow) have the poet’s precision to write a short story. It is a matter of word-craft and I just don’t think I am very good at it. I thought I was writing a short story last year but it has become my third novel, so it’s not from lack of trying.
LM: Before you came to writing you worked in various industries. Have any of these had a particular impact on you becoming a writer, either negative or positive?
FM: Much of my career work has been in politics, research, analysis. I am basically a political animal in the sense that I am always interested in power, who has it, who doesn’t. Community, networks and more importantly our obligations as citizens. In Johannesburg my primary question was: what is our obligation, as member of a community or a nation, to the ragged and torn stranger who comes to our gate? Is it unfair or merely unfortunate that he has his life and I have mine? These are the questions a political philosopher must interrogate even if they cannot be answered. These questions continue to knit the fabric of my enquiry. What is Justice? What is freedom? The many vs the few. In terms of basic jobs, I always found myself in hyper-masculine environments and I think this did two things; the first was it toughened me up which is helpful as a writer as you will be rejected over and over, your work unpicked publicly, people you have never met will denounce you as laughable or stupid. Not your work, you. Also, working as an analyst means having a mind that works in a very particular way. It means taking huge amounts of information from different sources, holding that in your mind simultaneously and then pulling out the pertinent fragments to form another entirely different piece of work, which none the less contains the DNA of the original source. There is huge value in that for me as a novelist. And it is the kind of brain work that I love. The other thing these jobs did with their 14/16 hour days and high pressure work environments was teach me how to work. I learned to be highly disciplined and as much as I didn’t like some of the environments I found myself, there is value in every job and every kind of work. I am a fundamentalist about the value of work and discipline. They also made me realise I am competitive. I want to work harder to be better at what I do, produce a better quality of work. To be complacent in these environments means that you will be the first out on redundancy day. For me there has been value in a determination to always push myself to do something more ambitious. I don’t ever want to be complacent.
LM: Woolf is clearly an influence of your new work, but what else inspires you?
FM: Politics and feminism in general. I am interested in exclusion, the untold stories in the margins. In words, poetry. I am influenced by the poetry books of my youth, the romantics, TS Eliot and Whitman. Growing up I read a lot of literature in translations, mostly French writers and thinkers and I think Camus’s The Stranger haunts the pages of Johannesburg. De Beauvoir is in there too, the idea that one is not born a woman, one becomes one. Shakespeare, always. When I am stuck trying to hear a voice for a WiP or need to switch between different voices and am struggling, I often return to poetry. I read a lot of Hughes and Heaney for Midwinter for example and, in the end, Heaney for Johannesburg too. I am always inspired by big weighty “masterpiece” type books. I recently read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Note Book. It frightened the bejesus out of me but I know such a visceral reaction to a book will, of course, find its way into my work. I already feel its influence on my current work. I cannot say what one thing inspires me though in specifics. So, all of it, all of life. Light, sound, poetry, the natural world, the geography in which I find myself. I should admit that I do not find people very inspiring at all, their work, yes, but not necessarily individuals. But I feel life is constantly throwing things our way, raw material and it is the writers job to distill that. In that sense writing is more a process of recognition, knowing when something is working on you. I am less interested in making things up and more motivated to write things down.
LM: It seems place is an important starting point for your work. I’m interested to know where you were when you first decided to dedicate yourself to writing?
FM: I was in Suffolk. I had hardly written before I wrote Midwinter. In retrospect I am not entirely sure why I signed up for the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA course but I don’t think I was particularly ambitious at the outset. It seemed a nice way to pass a few evenings and a good balance vs. my very intellectually barren rural life in Suffolk. At the first class I just drifted in and there were all these hyper-ambitious, organised people ready to write a masterpiece and get published. I was just looking for something to do. Having said that, in the first or second class I realised my writing was no worse than any of theirs and in some cases I admit I thought: I’m a better writer than him/her. By week three my ambition was off the charts and I had decided world domination was the only option. I am very competitive by nature. I don’t mind losing and I don’t care about how the other people in the game are doing, but I really do mind it if I don’t think I did everything I could to win. It’s a strange thing. So, Suffolk it was. I had a lot going on and felt there was enough there to just write it all down, work very hard and see if I had enough words in me and enough of interest to sustain a novel. It is all very well being a good writer but you must also have something to say.
LM: How did your studying at Birkbeck guide you as a writer?
FM: Hugely. I think the use was threefold. Firstly, simply the weekly focus and classes meant I had to just crack on and produce work of whatever quality and hand it in on time. There was no room for navel-gazing. There is value in a deadline. Secondly, I think the misconception is that writing courses teach you how to write line by line. For me the value was in learning how to read line by line. The reading is so much a part of the education and I was exposed to any number of writers I had not yet encountered. Thirdly, I think the under-rated value of the course is in creating a community of peers. I am still friends with many from the course, we meet when we can and are supportive of each others careers and efforts.
LM: I’m really intrigued to know where you may base your next work. Is there anything coming up you’d like to share?
FM: My work in progress is a sort of Suffolk Gothic, I suppose that is an accurate description. So far there are kingfishers, three women, (readers will recognise them, I think) and again, no single point of view. Readers will be relieved (or disappointed?) that as things stand, no dog takes a staring role. The first draft is written but we will see how it ends up. As usual, it hovers between glory and disaster. But, I know its colour (the exact colour produced by a magenta peony) and its specific texture (wet moss). I don’t think I can say more than that at the moment.
To find out more about Fiona Melrose’s publications please visit https://fionamelrose.com
Lauren Miller is finishing her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes fiction and was published in Mechanics Institute Review 13. Her work has been long listed for the Fish Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize. She has a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins and is the current Features Editor at MIR online. Follow her on twitter @LMillerwrite