Friday, May 19, 2017

An eerie isolated commune. The society of cults. Polish food, and so much more. The brilliant British writer Eleanor Wasserberg talks about her astonishing novel Foxlowe

 "Foxlowe is an unrelentingly eerie meditation on groupthink, societal taboos, parentage, and how the comparative morality of modern life can be taken to savage extremes." NPR Books

Oh, British writer Eleanor Wasserberg's review above had me at "unrelenting." I absolutely loved her novel for its darkness, its smarts, and the exquisite writing. I'm thrilled to have her here.

I love the whole idea of isolated communes, especially as seen through the eyes of a girl, rather than through the eyes of an adult. What led to your making this decision?

The decision to make Foxlowe that kind of setting came partly out of the landscape, which lends itself to spooky goings on with the pagan sites and moorland, and trying to find a place for Freya’s character to work. I’d been writing her for a while but she doesn’t have any power in a “real” society setting; she loses her teeth. Telling the story from Green’s point of view meant that it wasn’t (I hope) unremittingly bleak: she loves her home and finds a lot of joy in it. It also gave me the opportunity to play with unreliable narration, which is fun.

I mean this as a huge compliment—my skin crawled a bit reading this—and I couldn’t stop reading. What was it like for you writing Foxlowe?

Thank you, that’s oddly wonderful to hear! I really enjoy dark stories and I loved my characters so I was happy to hang out with them at Foxlowe and watch them be horrible to each other. I did veer away from writing one particular scene—I won’t spoil anything by giving details—which did break my heart a little bit, but it had to be done so I steeled myself to write that one. I also found the ending quite hard to write, but I think it was the right way to leave the story.  Both of those were saddening rather than chilling experiences though.

At one point, a character says, “Stories are everything.” I always write “stories save us” when I sign books, so you and I are on the same page here. Why do you personally think, in the context of this fine novel, that making a story of our experiences is so important? And does that story have to be true for it to be valuable?

That’s a lovely thing to write at signings! The storytelling element of Green’s experience is crucial to the novel for me. Stories are used by Freya as a form of control and almost world-building; Freya constructs a reality around them and clings to them as a way of making sense of what for her is a deeply frightening world. There are glimmers of truths in these stories—the Bad, for example, is of course “real” in many ways. When Green is striving to tell her own story, she is still hearing Freya’s voice and sometimes others from her past. I loved writing the moment when she starts to tell her own version: it’s a coming of age for her, even as Freya’s influence is still felt in the way Green attempts to take back some control through this method. I think claiming our own narrative for our experiences and telling our own stories—while recognizing that they are still only one version—is a huge part of growing up. Green is also quite self- aware about using fiction to tell truths at certain points in her story: that comes naturally to her after living in a storytelling culture like Foxlowe. 

There have been a few novels and shows about cults, The Path, The OA,  The Leftovers—and it never seems to work out very well for anyone. Why do you think that is?

I think writers and storytellers are drawn to that set up because there is so much interesting psychology involved. Group think, the tension between the indoctrinated self and that older self that is questioning and rebelling, how people operate without our version of society...that’s all rich fodder! As for why it doesn’t work out, apart from making a good yarn? I think that while the attractions of that kind of life can be very strong: living simply, rejecting what is frightening or exhausting about society, the bonds offered to people who are usually isolated and looking for a family or tribe...ultimately in order to work at all these kinds of places have to establish their own mini society with rules and punishments and hierarchies, which ironically seem to be even more restrictive and punitive than the social limits people were trying to escape. Someone’s version of this utopia will always have to be imposed on other people; someone has to lead and control, and people eventually start to rebel against that.

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?
Both. People very generously give me beautiful notebooks as gifts and I fill them with scribbles and doodles. I have lots of old notebooks full of Foxlowe ideas, sketches of the house and so on. Once I come to the real draft writing though I am on my trusty battered laptop, with an Internet blocker on!

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Polish food: I’m writing about a flight from Krakow to Lviv in September 1939, and my character is hungry—I need to decide what for! I’m also researching stuttering which is fascinating: I have a character who doesn’t stutter when she lies, which has led me to some brilliant psychological research and cases.  

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
These are great questions! I do love being given the chance to witter on about Staffordshire—the fact that the double sunset is a real phenomenon, for example, or that the Standing Stones are based on a real stone circle, or that The Cloud is a real hill in the area with a wonderful view over the moor. There is no cult up there, that I know of, but when you are walking alone in the misty moorland and you come across a pagan stone you really can imagine why there might be.

No comments: