What are the challenges of writing historical fiction?
It is a difficult process. I think the real challenge is to absorb material that you have researched enough that it becomes so much part of your internal world that it feels continuous to the rest of your imagination. Obviously, I was drawn to this particular historical subject matter because it already corresponded to things that I was interested in, so it was to some extent easier to internalise it that way. I was inspired in part by looking at novels of the period, like the works of Dickens and Austen. Seeing that those writers are not desperately trying to convince you that the novel is set in 1847, it just happens to be set in 1847, so the thing is to avoid that kind of historical writing where the research is very obvious and it feels slightly disconnected from the character’s experience.
The main character in your novel, The Quickening Maze, is John Clare. Why did you choose him? He is not as well known as other British poets.
He is getting better known. At the university I was reading about John Clare. At the time I was immersed with poetry and Clare was someone whose poetry I liked and found very powerful. I was writing an undergraduate essay about him and I came across this obscure coincidence that John Clare and Alfred Tennyson had been at the same place in the same time. No one really sort of knew if they had met, so there is an interesting historical “what if?” about this moment. Also very compelling to me was the fact that it happened in Epping Forest on the edge of which I lived from the age of eleven, so, suddenly, in my own back garden, these two very powerful ghosts materialised. John Clare has been becoming a more culturally resonant figure for a number of reasons; arguably he is the great ecological poet in English language. He writes nature poetry of a particular kind, there is a sort of loving but unsentimental reaction to the natural world. John Clare would describe landscapes coming in through his senses and out of his words. What he sees he connects together. He is a poet, he is very alert to the connections of things and hence one could describe him as an ecological poet, as much as a nature poet.
One of the main conflicts in the novel is nature vs. the asylum, the guards vs. the gypsies.
What is interesting is that pivot point between the end of the romantic period and the beginning of the Victorian period and the pivotal moment in industrial revolution.
Clare represents the past and Tennyson the future?
In a way. They are different generations and they are heading in different directions in their lives at this point. But I wanted to contrast different ways of looking at the natural world, John Clare’s very alert sort of rhapsodic reactions to the natural world vs. a version that sees it for industrial purposes.
Do you believe that it is the place which has an effect on people or the opposite?
I don’t think that they were changed by the environment. Clare writes very beautifully about woodland solitude, how he enjoys the forest but I don’t think that it significantly altered him.
But also Tennyson often mentions nature.
Tennyson and Clare come from different writing traditions. Clare is a very sophisticated literary writer. He has been prized for being kind of natural prodigy. Actually he was steeped into 18th century poetry and in particular the works of Thomson. Tennyson comes from the central kind of Miltonic, classical tradition in English literature, which would admire Clare’s nymphs and dryads in a way that Clare wouldn’t. I would say the big difference is literally how they see the natural world. Clare seems to have a vision, Tennyson is incredibly short-sighted and that explains quite a bit about how Tennyson’s imagination works. He was surrounded by a kind of misty sense of presence, very unlike Clare’s sharp-eyed seeing of the world. A friend of Tennyson once said that for him to actually see something, he had to get so close to it that it looked like he was smelling it.
Clare was also characterised as peasant poet. Do you agree with that characterisation? Do you think that it is insulting?
It was not intended to be insulting when it was made. At the time there was a fashion for peasant poets or labour poets. I guess this comes out of the prizing of innocent and unpolluted culture. It is obviously a definition which is limiting and distorting the true nature of their talent. There is no doubt that Clare was from a very particular rural background that is not much represented in English literature.
You are a poet as well. How has poetry affected your prose?
I have published a long poem, The Broken Word. People who have both read the Broken Word and The Quickening Maze, have commented that the latter feels more poetic than the Broken Word does and that the Broken Word feels more scripted down. That was in some sense deliberate. I really admire prose writers like D. H. Lawrence. His prose is so alive, rhythmical and there is a kind of mimetic sense of being that is really poetry. It also works the other way. The best poetry has that sense of clarity that comes with prose.
Your first novel is about the relationship between an old man and a little boy. Broken Word is about the Mau Mau uprising and the Quickening Maze is about the meeting of the two poets. This is quite a broad range of subjects.
I think you can say that there are some writers who have a central novel they are writing versions of. Saul Bellow is a novelist, who I admire; he is someone who has a central cast of characters that appear in different manifestations in different books. For me it’s more the particular stories that compel me. I have been compelled by different things.
Your novel, The Quickening Maze, won the European Union Prize for Literature. Do you define yourself as a European? Do you believe that a common European identity exists?
It depends on the moment making that kind of definition. When I am in France, I feel British, when I am in US, I feel European. Different context, different self-identifications emerge. I read literature from all over Europe. The European literary inheritance is significant: Thervantes, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Pessoa.
Should an author be concerned by the reaction of the readers to his work?
Yes and no. I think it is reasonable to think about your readers. It depends on how you think about your readers, how that affects your writing. I don’t believe in that extreme version of artistic integrity that is not interested in how people are experiencing your work. I think it is reasonable, like Shakespeare or Dickens, to think about your work as something being received by someone who is going to interact with other people.
Do you think that writing material is important?
Yes, I do. Everyone has particular habits and preferences. I write everything longhand on a blank piece of paper before I type it up. I can’t write directly onto a computer. I need the organic sense of my hand. It is a very biological way to write.
What are your literary influences?
There are many. The most interesting stuff happened during the interwar period: Joyce, Fitzerald, Elliot. The inheritance of the 19th century novel is very rich. I find that the writing that most compels me comes from that period.
Are you familiar with the work of modern Greek authors?
I have read 20th century Greek poetry, Seferis, Ritsos, Cavafy. I also met Panos Karnezis during the MA in Creative Writing at UEA. I liked the Birthday Party and Little Infamies, the short story collection. I am looking forward to his next novel.