On writing

On the trail of the Famous Blue Raincoat

Samantha Harvey writes about the Leonard Cohen song that provided inspiration, shape and definition to her novel, Dear Thief

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

I expect I’m among millions of people across the world who think Leonard Cohen’s song Famous Blue Raincoat is an act of strange genius. One day I was listening to it and I thought, I want to know what this is really about. I looked online; there are entire forums debating the topic. It’s one thing to this person, something else to that person. Someone comes up with a fluent interpretation, then writes a few days later to say they’ve listened to it again and have changed their minds. Equally fluent interpretation #2 is laid down. When Cohen himself was asked what it’s about, he said he couldn’t remember. 

The ambiguity made the novelist in me light up. I think most novels are born in an adventurous space of conjecture and not-knowing, and the act of writing is one of finding out, even if what’s found out is nothing more than your own tiny, arguable version of a possible truth. Dear Thief is that. It’s a fast-and-loose reckoning with Cohen’s song. It’s a letter and there’s a love triangle, but almost everything is made up – genders are reversed, locations changed, biographies invented and all sorts of imaginative leaps taken. 

But I’ve tried in certain, specific ways to be slavish too, by making an exact tracing of certain shapes and lines in the song. There’s a verse that repeats twice: 'Jane came by with a lock of your hair, she said that you gave it to her, that night that you planned to go clear'. The first time it appears it’s followed by a question: 'did you ever go clear?' The second time, at the end of the song, the question is gone. Cohen just signs off. This mood shift became the backbone of my interpretation – from 'I’m interested in you', to 'I’m no longer interested in you'. At its core Dear Thief is a novel about a woman pretending, through a prolonged act of fierce interest, to be disinterested in a person she’s fundamentally compelled by. 

Maybe glaring influence isn’t a very fashionable thing in novel writing. I remember when Graham Swift won the Booker for Last Orders people called for the award to be rescinded because it was based on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, therefore unoriginal. But I love both of these books; I loved to see Swift riff on Faulkner’s theme, to his own music, in his own key. I think this is art in action – there’s a beating heart, and it jumpstarts another heart, and now that beats too, but to its own rhythm. Famous Blue Raincoat is a song that jumpstarts my heart each time I listen to it (even now), and Dear Thief is the result. It’s a kind of ‘cover novel’, and a homage to a song whose seduction lies in everything it doesn’t say, and in the things it says and doesn’t mean, and in the meaning it betrays when it’s trying to mean nothing or little. 

There’s so much blank space in this song; those who like it write their own thoughts into this space, and Dear Thief is my stab at this, my thoughts written novel-length into the spaces the song leaves behind.

Dear Thief

Samantha Harvey

Shortlisted for the 2015 James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
Longlisted for the 2015 Jerwood Prize

In the middle of a winter’s night, a woman wraps herself in a blanket, picks up a pen and starts writing to an estranged friend. In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, she writes, and so begins a letter that calls up a shared past both women have preferred to forget.

Without knowing if her friend, Butterfly, is even alive or dead, she writes night after night – a letter of friendship that turns into something more revealing and recriminating. By turns a belated outlet of rage, an act of self-defence, and an offering of forgiveness, the letter revisits a betrayal that happened a decade and a half before, and dissects what is left of a friendship caught between the forces of hatred and love.

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