Having now read the first two extraordinary novels in your trilogy, Jan, I am teeming with questions. But, to begin with, how did this project start for you? Do you remember its inception? And did you plan it as a trilogy from the outset, or did you write the first novel This is the End of the Story only then to discover that there was scope to journey much further with your main character/s and themes?
Thanks for this question, Fiona. This is the End of the Story has been with me for a very long time – over 40 years, in fact. Although it is full of impossible things, it’s nonetheless based on a real relationship, lived with the kind of intensity that probably only occurs for most people in adolescence; those friendships full of jealousy and anguish that revolve around a formative myth making. It’s highly fictionalised, but it was such a profound experience that I’ve always wanted to explore it in fiction. I’d got to a stage where I had enough distance to deal with the relationship as story at the same point as my son was doing a lot of reading around Don Quixote and that made the whole narrative click into place. I realised that a central question that would help me frame the narrative is the question of how one person ends up supporting the internal fantasy life of another, exactly what Sancho does for Quixote.
In addition to carrying around this coming of age story from 1970s Teesside, I’ve also remained haunted by a children’s book I read aged 11, Casilda of the Rising Moon by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. It’s a highly imaginative, romanticised account of a real person, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who became a Christian healer, solitary and saint. It’s a story that collides religions and cultures and it’s a story that became entwined with my personal story through this extraordinary friendship.
So these narratives plus the backdrop of late 70s politics in a rapidly crumbling industrialised area gave me the material. I wrote it thinking that it would be a one-off stand-alone book but towards the end of the writing I began to have dreams of another character. A lot of material comes in dreams and I once dreamt the structure of my PhD, but this character was particularly insistent. Selene Virág was a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising at the of 1950s and all I knew was that she had something to do with Catherine, my protagonist from This is the End of the Story. I was reading the poetry of Attila József at the time, a brilliant Hungarian poet who took his own life in the early 30s and from the outset I also knew that Selene had some strong but strange link to him too. So A Remedy for All Things was born and I realised that it wouldn’t end the story, that another part would be needed to bring all the threads together.
I’ve spent this summer on draft after draft of the third and final part, For Hope is Always Born, writing and researching in Spain in places that are part of Casilda’s story, Toledo, Burgos and Zaragoza.
I am interested by what you say about dream here, Jan, the significance of it and the way dream has helped guide you – in practical ways, such as helping you structure your PhD, as well as delivering main characters, such as Selene Virág. That’s a welcome validation of unconscious processes and the life of the imagination. One of the fascinating things about this second novel A Remedy for All Things is the centrality of dream – how your main protagonist Catherine dreams Selene’s life, and vice versa. The writing reflects this segueing quality, being lyrical, elliptical, and musical in the way you repeat motifs, including some from your first novel, with references to the characters Miriam and Liam and their legacies. How did you find your style, your form? I must admit that I hadn’t heard of the poetry of Attila József prior to your novel, so it was a pleasure to go and read some. It was a strange feeling, too, seeing it ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ after ‘meeting him’ so vividly in your novel – your version of him, anyway. Nor did I know anything very much about the Hungarian Uprising at the of 1950s. Your novel brought it to life in an inhabited way. What attracted you to Attila József in the first place – and to his context? Was it something you had formerly studied?
As with using dream to find characters and suggest story, I work fairly intuitively with style. I also write poetry and I think what you say about being lyrical comes from that. I love compressed, highly honed language and I think sound and rhythm are vital in all writing. When I set out with a new piece of writing I’m always convinced that the material will suggest the form, even if it takes me a while to ‘hear’ what the material is telling me. With a previous book, Stale Bread & Miracles, I began with a very long, linear miserable novel. It wasn’t readable, but the story wouldn’t let me go. It took years to realise that each rambling chapter could be compressed into a less than one page prose poem and it remains one of the books I’m most pleased to have written. I think every book has a natural form and shape and we have to pay close attention to the material to discover it.
With A Remedy for All Things, it isn’t written as stream of consciousness, but it has some influence from it. I wanted to capture something of the qualia of how memory is experienced – how memories loop back on themselves and form emotive associations, how the stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us both repeat and subtly shift as we rehearse them.
Finding Attila József was serendipity. I was sent a review copy and wanted to read more. I was attracted to his range and depth – his combination of psychological acuity and political critique; his amazing energy, brilliant use of metaphor and unwillingness to go with the flow. He’s a fascinating person as well as a tragic one. Selene appeared in a dream at the same time as I was reading József. Perhaps reading of a Hungarian poet opened me up to meeting her, though she is from a different period and I knew very little about the Uprising except for another chance encounter – this time with an extraordinary documentary photography book, which I saw in the Leica Gallery in Prague.
So synchronous events led to a period of intense research. I read a lot of Hungarian poetry from earlier and later, several histories, books about the Uprising, countless websites, translations of interviews with members of József’s family, accounts of those who fled during the Uprising and also books about Hungary in the 1990s, which is when Catherine is in Budapest as her dreams of Selene take place. When I had a full draft, I spent a month in Budapest and had helpful conversations, particularly at the tiny but incredibly detailed Attila József Museum where we were the only visitors, with the head of Corvina Press, László Kúnos, who was so generous with his time, and with the lecturer and novelist, Gábor Schein. In that month the novel went through several more drafts and there are many details that would never have been discovered without immersing myself in the place.
That’s a fascinating account of the process, where there’s a mix of the organic and intuitive – going with what has presented itself to you inwardly – and then the more conscious ways of working the material through research and placing yourself in situ. One of the many strengths of this novel is its sense of place, both in Selene and József’s 1950s, and in Catherine’s later residence there during the 1990s – with food being especially evocative, by the way! I confess that I restarted eating porridge due to this particular passage, where Catherine is preparing for her lover, Simon, to join her in Budapest from Prague:
Before she leaves the apartment she soaks oatmeal in milk in a little copper pan, leaves it on the unlit stove ready to cook when she returns. It will be the first treat – buttery oats, dark chestnut honey, blueberries, blackberries, swirl of thick, rich cream.
What this kind of sensuous evocation is juxtaposed with, of course, is Selene’s harrowing experience in jail. She has to exist on slops, a scummy barely-edible gruel, and you take us right into the suffering of her cell life, along with the guards’ cruelty. It is visceral. As you say, you were working with ‘the qualia of how memory is experienced – how memories loop back on themselves’. How did you imagine your way into Selene’s plight, to be able to create it in such a ‘lived’ way? And, of course, Selene’s and Catherine’s lives merge, which leads me to ask you about the key themes of the novel: the fluidity of self, the imagining (or otherwise) of past selves, the mystery of time. This has links with the first novel, too, This is the End of the Story, and Miriam, your character from that novel, is also present in this one as memory. Did these themes emerge, or did you start out with them? How did they evolve?
I love that you started eating porridge again – I’m a big fan, including cold porridges with fruit and seeds done in the fridge overnight in the summer.
In terms of imagining my way in to Selene’s suffering in prison, it’s one of the oddities of memory that something that has stayed with me since I was doing A levels was an account of someone who developed rituals in prison to maintain his sanity and an inner sense of autonomy. I can’t remember who it was, only that he was a theologian. The man walked his tiny cell constantly varying the amount of steps he took. It was the only thing he had any control over and it made all the difference. This came to me again when I started to write about Selene, who not only walks the cell in different patterns but also recites poetry to herself. I mentioned this use of rituals to try to retain some human dignity under terrible circumstances to László Kúnos when I met with him in Budapest and he told me he had known someone who was imprisoned and used poetry in exactly this way.
I also read many harrowing accounts of imprisonment during and after the Uprising and visited the building now known as the House of Terror. This infamous place was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party and later, under the Soviet regime, became home to the communist secret police, the AVH, and was the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population. In the novel, Selene is held in the basement cells of this building before being moved to a permanent prison. The building is very controversial as a museum but what is clear is that many citizens were tortured there, sometimes dying of their injuries and the cells are appalling. No photography was allowed, but my husband, Adam, managed to get a picture that became the book’s cover. Just looking at the dank walls, the tiny space, the lack of light and toilet facilities, is enough to stir anyone’s imagination and empathy.
The notion of the fluid self is one that fascinates me. As I said earlier, the first book has a real relationship at its core, so I have some experience of being, like Catherine, someone who allows others to define her before realising that self-invention is also an option. The first philosophers I encountered were existentialists and it’s something that continues to intrigue; what makes the self and how it is either manipulated or re-invented and how we effectively become different people in different relationships. Identity, I think, is much less monolithic than we often imagine, but I still come back to the question of what, if anything, might be definitive or at the core of a given individual. I think the novel is a wonderful tool for exploring existential issues without becoming didactic because story is such a flexible space in which to explore the human condition.
I started out with the question of how and why someone might collude with the fantasy life of someone else – how some people become enablers – and it grew from there. The evolution of the themes seemed organic, dictated by the story and the experiences of the characters.
One of the effects of this novel is disorientation – in a good way. Because of the centrality of ‘dream’ which, as a state, allows for the segueing of characters’ viewpoints, a fluid narrative is created that the reader is carried along within. The inclusion of journal entries and letters operate like little islands, where Catherine thinks aloud. In the first of the letters, early in the novel, Catherine tells Simon about Tanasukh, ‘an Islamic theory of the transmigration of souls, a heretical notion, but one adopted by the Sufis, who also believe in bunuz – that one soul can project into another’. I had never heard of these theories within the Sufi tradition, thinking of reincarnation largely as either via Plato and his followers, or within Indian traditions such as Hinduism. Now I learn it also has roots in Norse mythology and even Druidism. It is another reason for enjoying this novel! In our materialist times, it is refreshing to find fiction that explores big ideas. Did this also emerge ‘dictated by the story’, or was it something you were already interested in?
A novel has the permission to explore all levels and layers of human ‘being’ and ‘doing’ – and that, after all, is what the imagination permits – but it takes courage to follow the story. Did you need to find ‘permission’ from anywhere, within or without – or was it already there?
One of the motifs of this novel, and the previous one, is Miriam’s citing of Quixote: ‘the unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ – and goodness, never a truer phrase spoken when we look at our world today, and certain key players strutting about on the world stage. How intrinsic – essential, even – is story to our own times?
And, perhaps finally, when Catherine says ‘This book is changing who I am …’, would you say that this is also true of yourself?
Notions like Tanasukh and bunuz, ideas about the transmigration of souls or the projection of one soul into another, certainly arise from the material in the novel. The use of dreams, the themes from the first novel set up by the character Miriam, who believes that Catherine is a reincarnation of the 11th century Islamic princess turned Christian saint, Casilda, are layered into this. But it’s also the case that I’ve always been interested in big ideas without wanting to subscribe to or advocate theories. My first degree was in theology with a good dollop of philosophy in there and I later did a PhD in feminist theology so there’s a both/and quality to the questions I’m exploring. These are enduring questions that I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about, but don’t want to be didactic about. They are also questions that arise organically from what the characters are experiencing.
And this leads into your next question – the permission to explore all levels and layers of human ‘being’ and ‘doing’ does seem increasingly rare and does require a leap of imagination and perhaps a certain kind of courage. I think I would have been hard-pressed, though, not to follow this story – the first book took over four decades to percolate from some real experiences and the second presented itself to me in a way that would have felt wrong to ignore. I do think I probably needed to be in a particular phase of my life – I’m very lucky to work with words in all I do at Cinnamon Press and to have this immersion in amazing writing that I admire and also to share my life with family and friends who ‘get’ what I’m doing, who give intelligent feedback. I think it would be hard to give myself permission to dive into a project like this in a negative environment. So that’s a long way of saying the permission came from within – from being at the right stage of life to reflect on and respond to the story, and from without, from being in a good space.
Quixote is a crucial thread through the two novels to date and will be in the final one too and the quote: ‘the unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ is crucial. This is the story of people – their struggles, loves, suffering – but it’s not cut off from context. Whether it’s the conflicted history of Moorish Spain or the three-day week in Teesside of the late 1970s or the repression of authoritarian rule and imprisonment after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the ordinary, daily lives of people are impacted by a wider stage. And, as you say, there are always players strutting about on the world stage in ways that diminish those lives. And there are always those who do something, however small, to resist. So, without implying that each of these periods can be collapsed into one another, there are nonetheless common, human threads that bear on our own times. Perhaps it’s best summed up in a quote from poet and activist, Adrienne Rich:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
And finally – yes! I think if we dive deeply into the creative process and into imagination and wrestle with myth, we always emerge changed. I run a blog call ‘becoming a different story’ and I think as writers we always need to be pushing the boundaries of the story we write, but also that if it has any authenticity it will also push the boundaries of who we are and how we are constantly evolving. Catherine’s story has forced me to reflect on how I engage with the world and I’m richer for having met her and Selene in my imagination.