27 February 2014

Granta Best of Young British Novelist, shortlisted for the Man Booker, winner of the Costa Poetry Award and the Encore. Are you feeling the pressure?

Of course. That comes with the privilege of there being people who might have come across me in those contexts and want to read my work.  But the greater part of that pressure comes from within.  I really want to write something unusually good.  I want to give the reader an experience that's worth having.

Can you describe your latest novel In the Wolf's Mouth?

Not easily, but here goes.  It's set during the Second World War, in North Africa and Sicily, and follows a few characters through the Allied invasions and the attempt to start the post-Fascist reconstruction of Sicily.  It might, in a way, speak to the attempted reconstructions of places after armed conflict that we are familiar with today – in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is a similar chaos of contingencies, of opaque agendas and individual helplessness, as well as real insight, human tenderness and useful work.  

In Sicily's case, some of the opacities have to do with the return of the Mafia with the Allies, arriving both from America and released from Sicilian prisons.  They immediately set about getting a grip on the island once more, a grip that has not yet been entirely broken.  My main characters are a Mafioso who returns from New York with the invasion, a British Intelligence officer, an Italian-American infantryman and a Sicilian shepherd who later becomes an estate manager.  So it's a book about war, about how individuals live inside these huge historical traumas, their suffering, their love and violence, about history as the accumulation of the irrevocable.

What drew you to the setting?

A visit to western Sicily for a holiday.  I was struck by how different it was to other places I'd been in Italy, how closed off it seemed and I wanted to work out why that was.  I also read in a short historical preface to a guide book that certain Mafiosi had fled Sicily during the Fascist period as 'corpses' in false coffins, ostensibly to be buried in America.  The coffins had air vents and latches inside.  Once they had felt themselves out to sea for some time, they would open the coffins, climb out and mingle with the other passengers.  Once I'd read that, it was hard not to write the novel.

You once said 'writing has warped me'. What did you mean?

I should have put that better at the time.  What I meant was that it has shaped my life, made my big decisions for me.  That meant I took risks - working in menial jobs for years, not qualifying myself for anything else - and that could have turned out quite badly.

What interests you most about writing? 

There's too much to say here.  Good fiction is a kind of whole-brain thinking and everything comes at once: thought, sensation, formal shape, scenes within plots, the vitality of the language, emotional power and psychological insight.  That's what you get in the writers I love, D. H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf and others.  

As for the parts I most enjoy, starting something new that has real possibilities is wonderful.  The only joy in life is to begin, said Cesare Pavese.  There's a cascade effect where one thought leads to another and another and this shimmering thing starts to appear in your life.  It's a bit like falling in love.  After that, there's nothing like finding just the right word at just the right time.

Which book has made the greatest impression on your life?

That's hard to say.  I read all the time and I'm indebted to many things.  The first thing I read when I started to read seriously as a teenager was Keats's poems, then Yeats took over.  (Any resemblance to any Smiths lyrics here is entirely coincidental).  Later on it was Madame Bovary that showed me how a novel could be as concentrated, as perfectly composed as a poem.  That really opened a door for me.

What next?

I'm writing short stories at the moment and I have a few other things in prospect.  I like to have a couple of ideas for things to look forward to.  It's reassuring to feel that there's a pathway through a landscape ahead and not a cliff edge.

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