Recently selected as one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013, Joanna Kavenna talks to Female First!

What can you tell our readers about your new novel Come to the Edge?

It's about what happens when you push people too far, when you keep whacking them with one injustice after another - when society gets too plainly iniquitous, and how finally they crack. And I wanted to take two archetypes - the archetype of the suburban housewife and the archetype of the rural widow, and fill them with inconsistencies, really let them break out of these roles and run riot.  So the narrator (the 'suburban housewife') is recovering from a failed marriage, and she answers an advert to be a lodger in a remote farm in the Lake District, to help a bit with the farm. She goes there expecting to find some genial little widow who can't manage now her husband is dead and instead she finds this rip-roaring maniac called Cassandra White - who is 6 foot tall, has masses of bright orange hair, runs her farm as if the apocalypse is coming any day, is self-sufficient in everything, won't even take water from the mains, and has all sorts of cracked theories about the world.  And so the novel is about their unlikely friendship, and about rural life in Britain, and the massive gap between rich and poor - and I wanted to write something that would move people and that is also deliberately outlandish - comedy is great for that, because you can exaggerate, be a little hyper-real. So everything is taken to an extreme.

Cassandra and the narrator see half the houses in the valley are constantly empty, because they're second homes and no one ever comes to use them. And then there are the rural poor who live in terrible conditions. So they develop a 'resettlement' scheme - to resettle the poor in the empty houses of the rich. You can imagine, after that, all hell breaks loose...

The premise is a little unusual, where did your inspiration come from for the novel?

A few years back I was living in the Lake District, in a wild, beautiful valley - the Duddon Valley - in a crumbling slate cottage, winds gusting under the door, rattling at the windows.

The valley was so beautiful, and yet half the houses were empty the whole time - I'd walk every day, past these luxury houses, all fitted out, condiments on the tables, paintings, lovely rugs, etc, you'd stare through the windows at these opulent interiors - and yet - there was never anyone there. All the beautiful houses in the village were second homes, and empty. The locals, many of whom were from families who'd lived in the valley for generations, were squeezed into the council rows, the former almshouses, the small pokey cottages that no one wanted to buy as second homes.

And of course this was just one rural place among many in Britain where this has happened, and I began to wonder why no one ever really cares - it seems - what happens to the rural poor. And I thought there was a lot of material here - for something quite dark and satirical...

You have written for other publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times and the London Review of Books, do you have a preference between this and novel writing?

I like both sorts of writing. Journalism lets you thrash out ideas before you commit yourself to a full-length book, or offers a respite from a book that has stalled. However, with journalism you always have to be quite rational and in your right mind - you rarely get into the state of mania and heightened awareness that you get when you'e been working on a novel for a long time. It's an intense state of concentration, possibly derived from focusing obsessively on something - I am sure it applies to lots of other things too...It feels as if you've slipped into a parallel reality where everything around you seems to be fundamentally related to your novel, you open a book you've never read before and the main character's name is an anagram of the name of your protagonist, or you see a random sign in the street that has some major significance to what you are writing. Do that too often and you go mad, so it's good to have it alleviated by sober-minded journalism from time to time...

You won the Orange Prize in 2008 and longlisted for it in 2011, how did this make you feel as writer?

Really great. You don't write to win prizes, of course, and you don't expect them.  I try to write without second-guessing the reader, just writing things out as I feel them, so I'm not thinking as I write, 'Oh, will people like this, I do hope they like this...' etc. But when you've done that, of course you hope someone, somewhere, will actually like it...And prizes are encouraging because they reveal the response of people who are reading your book not reviewing it. i.e. prize judges are not reading your book to write a review, which is a totally unnatural way to read something – i.e. critics generally read books thinking 'What can I say about this book that will make me sound clever?'  But prize judges are looking for something they like enough to reward with a prize, so it's about the work itself, not how they'll sound when they write about it. It's really one of the best things about writing - that sense that something in this book you wrote while sitting in a room on your own has resonated in some way with other humans.

What advice could you give to an aspiring writer wanting to write a satire?

Be as funny as you can be! And comedy is a great way to escape the drab protocols of literary 'realism' ie comedy is always an exaggeration of the real, so you can push things quite a long way from stolid documentary realism. So, enjoy yourself, don't try to be 'convincing' or all those other ghoulish epithets critics sometimes apply to fiction, as if a novel is a pamphlet from the council explaining local recycling policy...Write out reality as you experience it - who can say, then, that your reality is not 'correct', when it is your own? And just riot vividly across your page, and someone, hopefully, will relish what you've done...And if they don't, well, no matter, at least you wrote the novel you wanted to write...

Why did you route the novel in such a remote setting?

I wanted to set the novel at the edge of England. That part of Britain is very interesting because you have the Lake District national park which is beautiful and carefully regulated, you can't build anything without years of legal wrangling, and then suddenly you're on the western coast and there's all this guilty industrial history and debris - Sellafield, the nuclear submarine programme at Barrow-in-Furness, towns that have been so under-funded that they look as if they've recently been bombed.  I wanted to write about how the beauty of this region but also the inherent paradox that such remote areas are also often abused precisely because the assumption is that no one will notice. A few years ago I wrote a travelogue about the Arctic, THE ICE MUSEUM, which was also about this, that in the 20th Century the Arctic was used as a remote hiding place for so many clandestine military bases, and as a dumping ground for nuclear waste and so on. So that interested me, as it applied to my own country, to unveil this and then to take the unveiling to an extreme conclusion.  Because of this I liked the phrase COME TO THE EDGE - like a perverted holiday brochure, 'Come to the edge, lovely views, shattered towns, mad widows and desperate locals running around setting things on fire' - ie the weirdest holiday you've ever had. 

What plans do you have next for your writing?

I've been writing a novel about a character growing up in  Britain and then spiralling off into so many different realms of experience, various sorts of realities, so it's a mock-heroic Odyssey but with Odysseus as someone very ordinary - I generally return to the mock-heroic in my work and like taking classical paradigms and altering them in line with my own obsessions - to me the ordinary is completely extraordinary anyway.  So I wanted to write the Gospel of someone who has, definitely, absolutely, not been hailed as the Messiah, that sort of thing...

Did you have to go on a rural retreat to get an idea of what they are all about?

I grew up in Suffolk and every year we would go to the Lake District for our summer holidays. So the Lake District was the rural retreat of my childhood. When I was a teenager we moved to the Midlands and so I came to appreciate the Lake District summers even more. And then when I was in my 20s I'd been working at spectacularly dull jobs in London for a while and I decided to retreat to the far North - so I went and lived or travelled in various places such as Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Estonia for a while.  More recently I spent some years living in the Duddon Valley, which is the setting for COME TO THE EDGE.  So the novel came from this period I spent living there. But of course I've completely fictionalised the Duddon Valley and its inhabitants...

How do you go about writing something that is funny? What are a writer's secrets to making readers laugh?

I just write what I find funny, and hope to hell that someone else thinks it's funny too.  Humour is very weird and intangible.  I rely on sarcasm, absurdity and irony.  Life to me is fundamentally insane and very weird and you can either get very depressed about this or you can try to fashion dark comedy from it.  Secrets? - Long walks, trying out scenes on those around you ('victims' as they insist on calling themselves), and never, or only occasionally, writing when drunk...

Lucy Walton Female First


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