This week on the Retreat West Blog, I have the pleasure in talking to SV Berlin about her novel ‘The Favourite’, published by Myriad books. My review of the book comes after my interview with Sarah:
Thank you for giving me the chance to read your book; could you give us a quick intro and tell us who are you and how you crafted your way to publication?
I was born in London, in the spot where Dick Whittington ‘turned’. Years later I moved to Manhattan because I saw it in a movie and thought I’d be happy there. At this point I have lived there for most of my life and have had more careers than George Osbourne – wilderness SAR professional, textile designer, corporate facilitator…the list goes on. I’m far too inquisitive and have all kinds of obscure interests. These days I’m a freelance marketing and branding copywriter, and an occasional speechwriter for the self-styled titans of Wall Street. As to getting published, it was graft and craft in equal measure. I had a hazy idea for a book and promised myself that I would not only write it – but finish it. After about three years, I began the yucky bit: submitting the manuscript to agents. A depressing number of rejections later I happened to hear about Myriad Publications, who accept submissions directly from authors. I not-very-hopefully sent in my first three chapters and was almost bemused when they wrote back and said they’d like to chat…
There are a lot of triangular relationships in The Favourite, echoed in the way the chapters move between the three main characters, going over events from their perspectives – the mother and two children, mother, son and girlfriend, even the girlfriend’s sister’s marital problems are triangular – was that a conscious decision to explore the potential unbalanced nature of that sort of relationship?
Yes – and no. The dynamics of power change dramatically as the novel progresses, and in some quite shocking ways. Even the cat is caught up (somewhat obliviously, it must be said) in its own power triangle. However, aside from the more obvious tensions between the three primary characters, I did not set out to create a sophisticated set of inter-connecting triangular relationships. So I’d say that some of it evolved organically – clever me! More seriously, I am discovering one of the great pleasures of being a published writer, which is that you get to have readers. And readers spot all kinds of interesting themes and associations that a writer may have completely missed.
There are moments when the characters are both intentionally and unintentionally funny in quite sad situations, all of which come across as being very well observed and authentically derived from both their character and the plot – is that something you work to include or does it just develop as part of your character writing?
Who hasn’t experienced an uncharitable thought at a funeral? Or giggled when a newsreader describes a devastating flood as a ‘very fluid situation’? Despite all my years in America, I find it impossible to maintain an entirely po-faced approach to misery. In writing, as in life, my English self feels compelled to inject humour into overly sober situations. Whether that’s through a character’s wry observations, or that same character behaving in a manner that’s ridiculous or unintentionally amusing, I just can’t help myself.
The self-improvement book “Pathways to Possible” is a wonderful…shall we say homage…to a number of books I’ve come across. What are your thoughts about self- improvement books like this?
Yes, if we’re being diplomatic, ‘homage’ is certainly is the word, isn’t it? I had great fun with ‘Pathways to Possible’. There is a rather pernicious strand of dopey self-improvement dogma that’s been around, in various guises, for many, many years – mainly in the US. The general idea is that anything you desire can be acquired or ‘achieved’ through ‘positive thinking’ and by ‘manifesting’ your thoughts on the ‘physical plane’. The corollary is that if you don’t single-handedly cure yourself of cancer or ‘manifest’ your way out of poverty, it’s your own fault because you didn’t think hard enough. As a ‘philosophy’ it’s morally and intellectually vacant, and blatantly materialistic and acquisitive – but also very funny. In my novel, Edward’s shy and devoted girlfriend Julie stumbles across Pathways to Possible and is hugely taken by it. For potentially self-regarding souls (most of us know at least one) belief in magical thinking justifies a good deal of extended navel-gazing. Like a lot of people who feel anxious or powerless, the pseudo-scientific logic of self-improvement is a tool that helps Julie make sense of the world and reach for a life that she has – until now – felt deprived of. The book gives her a sense of control. Edward thinks it’s absolute bollocks. And he’s right. And yet…Julie’s commitment to Pathways to Possible has far-reaching consequences and changes both their lives in ways that are unimaginable.
This quote from the book really resonated for me and brought me up short – “Each cupboard, each shelf or drawer, was set with its own booby trap, a snare of precious objects. Whenever she got up her courage and managed to make an actual decision – to tackle a shelf of ornaments, say, or the postcards stuck into the sides of the dining room mirror – she would make her approach only to find the object suddenly caught in the glare of some imaginary spotlight – Exhibit A – and feel instantly guilty. It was like being asked to go round with a Sharpie and perform triage in some mass-casualty disaster. Who would get loaded into the ambulance? And who would get the ‘X’ on their forehead? In the interim, as some sort of unreliable insurance, she had gone through the process of imprinting each object, each ornament and every piece of furniture, on her memory.” – I have to ask, and having cleared out my own parents house after they died younger than everyone expected, this is so redolent of the feelings you go through at this time – have you had to do this yourself, or been close to someone going through it?
It’s a sad and surreal experience, isn’t it? When my mother died, I found myself sorting through her house and all her belongings. Some years earlier, a friend had told me that it’s often the smallest, fairly mundane-seeming objects (e.g. a pair of spectacles) that are the hardest to dispose of. In the event, I found this to be true. The real challenge lies in the everyday things we use the most – yet think the least about. Perhaps something of the lost person’s essence seems to us embedded in these objects, so that discarding them feels like discarding the person (and losing them all over again).
The book is a very elegant and real discourse on the nature of grief and the subtle, insidious way it sneaks into life long after the dramas and ritual of a funeral is over, however it’s organised. Do you feel that as society, we’ve got a handle on how to cope with death, or is that a stupid idea anyway, the idea that we can ever really cope with it?
‘Time heals’ and all that, but there are some deaths that will undo a person utterly. They may never be able to fully accept or get past it – and if you think about it, it’s astonishing that this isn’t the case for all of us. Some of us might be lucky and skate along for some years on mere nodding terms with death – elderly neighbours, friends of friends, tiresome cousins, etc., gradually popping their clogs. But when it happens to you it’s like a bomb going off. The experience puts you on the other side of something. For Isobel, in the immediate aftermath, that ‘Stop All the Clocks’ feeling is extremely vivid. She is struck by the realisation that, though her mother has died, people are going on with their lives as if nothing has happened. While intellectually this makes total sense, in the midst of grief it can seem absolutely unbelievable.
Then, after weeks or even days, the tasks to be done are done with and you’re faced with this sort of…blank bleakness. (In the novel, Isobel likens it to being the last one left at a party.) We cope with death very badly in our society. It’s the club no one wants to join, taboo in the way that sex or cancer used to be. There is this feeling, too, of death as somehow ‘catching’, like a disease. No one wants to talk about it, and no one knows what to say – least of all to the bereaved!
While some friends will rush forward, others may go quiet or take a step back, and this provides yet another small devastation in what can seem like an absolute sea of them. You understand that your task is now the work of mourning, thence to ‘move on’ in the New Age way of things and spare yourself and others any further embarrassment. But how? It’s a question no one has the answer to.
What I loved about the book is the ability of the writing to draw the characters and to give their stories such power, without resorting to big weirdness and spectacle to make them interesting. I always think that takes real skill and is much harder than creating unreal monsters, how are you able to capture people in such detail?
Thank you! In the novel, Edward misses a lot of stuff that is sitting right under his nose, but like him I take great pleasure in observing people. I note all the details and little things that make them who they are – their mannerisms, their habits, their tics and speech patterns, how they dress and the way they carry themselves. As a child I loved drawing; I was also a passable mimic. As an adult I trained as an actor and learned how to achieve this in a more technical way. Each of my characters is constructed from a whole collage of experiences, encounters and observations. (That said, I made a decision never to physically describe Isobel, Edward or Julie. One character might think the other ‘mousey’, but that’s about as far as it goes. Otherwise I pretty much leave it to the reader.) I can see each of my characters in my mind and they feel absolutely real and alive to me. So, to answer your very good question, I suppose there’s a sense that creating characters comes naturally to me, but it’s thrilling to hear that it all comes together for my readers.
What are you working on at the moment?
A literary thriller set in New York City.
Thanks for taking the time to answer, and best of luck with this and all your other books.
The Favourite – My review
Everyone has their type of book, guilty pleasures which they sneak in between the more worthy tomes you want random strangers on the tube to be impressed by. My guilty pleasure would probably be thrillers, with lots of action and grim reveals, the sort of thing which get turns into unbelievable films with stupidly high body counts, so The Favourite would not necessarily be my usual go-to relaxtion read.
However, and you knew there was going to be one, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find myself turning pages to see what happened next; it’s just that the scale of the writing is wholly opposite to a boom and bang head-line grabbing thrillers.
I remember an artist who spent years photographing the Great Lakes and then set himself the challenge of photographing puddles with the same sense of awe and majesty. The Favourite reminds me of this because it looks at huge topics on a tiny scale, picking apart the intimate details of three ordinary lives and the micro-aggressions, unspoken thoughts and festering, unfinished arguments that slowly and inevitably grow from puddles into vast, un-navigable lakes.
The book works on the power of three, the relationships it describes always three sided as such ungainly and unequal, the narrative never quite joining up as it moves between each of them, seeing only what they see.
It opens with the death of Mary, sudden and unexpected, and the impact this has on her two children, Isobel in New York and Edward, the dutiful son at home and his girlfriend. the mousy, apparently brow beaten Jules.
If you’ve ever been involved in the clearing of a house after a death, or during the upheaval of divorce or a move, you’ll find the passages detailing the wasp-nests of emotions and practicalities this throws up really hits home. It’s the sort of reading which catches you out, and jerks you out of the story with a memory, pulls you up short with an image from your own life.
I found myself wanting to shake each character in turn, to demand they stop behaving like an idiot and say something, but this is the truth at the heart of the book and at so many lives – people just don’t say something, do they? As the book moved along, I found myself first hating Edward and feeling sorry for Jules with her terrible self help books – to feeling desperately sorry for him trapped with Jules and her monstrous family – and in this way the book never lets you be wholly sure of the empirical truth in a way which is both unsettling and all to real. This is not a book of extremes, there are no dragons or psychopaths, but if you want a book which knits you into the lives of ordinary people, full of their quiet desperation, passion and tragedy which you could imagine all too easily happening in the house down the road, then you’ll love getting wound up in it’s world. Find a quiet corner, a packet of custard creams to go with your tea, and enjoy.