Lucie Elven is the author of The Weak Spot, out with Soft Skull. Madeleine Watts is the author of The Inland Sea, published by Pushkin Press. The two authors met in late 2016 in New York, after which Madeleine read Lucie’s short stories and Lucie read Madeleine’s essays. They met again in 2019, when Madeleine bumped into Lucie at London Pride, walking in the middle of a thronged street. A few months later, they caught up properly at a pub, where it was pouring with rain and they ended up drinking a fair bit of wine and gin. With both of their novels released this winter, the two authors emailed back and forth about temperature, atmosphere, blackouts, and bleary dreams.
Where shall we start? I’ve just been watching a video of a glass eel exporter who voted for Brexit is apparently now flabbergasted that he will lose his business as a consequence.
Maybe we should start there, then? Glass eels. I used to live in Brockley in South London where the local newsletter reported semi-regularly on the passage of eels from the rivers there to the Sargasso Sea, where they breed and then die, a migration that appears to be threatened by climate change.
Just over a year ago, when you were visiting London before The Inland Sea came out in the UK, we met in the pub and you told me you were going through a phase of reading books about the temperature, how climate can affect writing, so that just a few degrees more or less changes it or even renders it impossible. Can you remind me? I will watch the eel video as you type.
That’s right, I was! It was a book called Weatherland, by Alexandra Harris, about the history of the weather in England. There was a section about the impact of earlier ice ages on the very first works of English literature, which I have been thinking about a lot the last week as the first snow has fallen in Berlin. The winter then was so much colder in England than it is now, and it affected the language itself – there are Old English words we simply don’t have anymore, like ‘wintercearig’ literally, the cares of winter. And in a lot of poetry written around then, the opposite of winter isn’t the warmth of summer, but the warmth of the hearth. – It felt so intuitively right to me, that the weather affects our moods and our bodies, and so shapes our language, and what we find it important and interesting to write about.
I have found that I work better in the summertime, and that there’s something about the shifting of the weather that changes my mood. I’ve noticed it more this year, being especially attuned to the seasons. As I was re-reading your book this week, I remembered quite suddenly that I had started it for the first time at the end of summer on the edge of Stechlinsee, a lake in Brandenburg where I’d gone on a very hot day to swim. Your book begins in summertime, and those first pages pushed me right back into the long light and languid heat of late August. There is an eeriness to that first summer in The Weak Spot, and I wonder how you felt about the temperature, and the weather, as you were writing?
Like you this year I’ve been especially sensitive to the length of days. Our lockdown relaxed a little in the summer, and it felt like we were being given an extension of time with those extra hours of light. That was exhilarating. The moments of relief in this awful year that will stick with me are roaming around at strange hours, walking in the middle of the road.
Thinking further back, I started writing The Weak Spot in the spring and summer. I was working from a childhood memory of a specific place in France, where my family is from, to which I usually go in July or August. In the local folktales, the year is divided into ‘three months of hell and nine months of winter’. The weather is violent, as it is in Australia in The Inland Sea. Entering a pharmacy like the one my book is set in can feel like going through a portal into cool modernity.
I wanted to create conditions where my pharmacist narrator was incapacitated by the heat while her customers were comfortable under the fan – so that she stayed silent and listened to their stories, and gradually lost her sense of self. It was interesting for me to write about power in terms of temperature. Claustrophobia, not being able to express yourself, and being watched from all sides can all feel like heat.
When you’re uncomfortable, your boundaries break down, which is what happens to my narrator.
Talking of boundaries breaking down reminds me of the beautiful passages in The Inland Sea where the windows are open and the outdoors seems to come into the narrator’s life. She describes her feelings by relating them to the climate emergency – oceans rising, ice shelves melting. She is fascinated with testing her own personal boundaries – moral, sexual, mental . . . The form is also unboundaried – her story is interspersed with her ancestor’s colonial voyage to find an inland sea in the centre of Australia. Our capacity for destruction and also our interconnectedness came through very strongly. Was that on your mind from the start?
I’ve had similar experiences, wandering around at strange hours, walking in the middle of the road. When I was stuck in Australia early in the year, I could run to a lookout called Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains. The road down to the lookout is usually busy with cars and tourists, but the National Parks drew a boom gate over the road as part of the lockdown mandate. It meant that I could shimmy around the gate and run right down the dividing line of the road. I would run down there at sunset to watch the light, but when I ran back up that empty road the trees closed in, and there were a few times when there was no moon where I stopped in the middle of the road and felt like I wasn’t sure where my body stopped and began. It was a feeling I hadn’t really had since childhood.
That sense of dissolving boundaries is one I’ve always been interested in. When I started writing The Inland Sea, I wanted to depict a time of life when we really don’t know or understand who we are. Young women are used as vessels for a lot of cultural baggage, and encountering that baggage growing up can, I think, often make it feel like a struggle to find form.
I didn’t set out to write the book about climate or weather or nature in the beginning, but I found that it kept slipping in. My own fears and anxieties would sometimes become intertwined with fear and anxiety about mysterious fish die-offs or flowers blooming in midwinter, and as I began reading more about the history of environmental thought, I wanted the book I was writing to explore form versus formlessness through the blurry boundaries humans have with animals, plants, and the atmosphere.
We have always read stories about ourselves into the non-human world, whether it was Roosevelt tying American ideals of masculinity to the redwood tree, or Protestant interpretations of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that saw the city’s destruction as God’s punishment for Portuguese fealty to Catholicism. It is very human to blur boundaries, and to mix ourselves up in metaphor and language. The world of your book is threaded through with stories about a mythical monster that eats young girls alive, and dreams about the third floor of a house where dangerous transformations might be happening. I wonder how you thought about monsters, and what counts as a monster, as you wrote?
In The Weak Spot, I was trying to explore the dynamics between a person talking and a person listening, and there was sometimes something monstrous about trying to pin too much down, I think? The very controlling attempt to make an overriding narrative, to foreclose complication and ambiguity, especially on the part of my narrator’s boss, Mr Malone, but also by other characters.
I find my own capacity to build people up as monsters troubling. They’re all participating in a broken system, where some people are shut out from having the information they need to articulate what’s going on in their lives, so one version of the story becomes dominant. My narrator spends much of the book in denial about her boss’s machinations, trying to numb her own feelings and instincts, all the while pretending to be a decisive professional. She comes at her own experience in all these different oblique ways, never head on.
In her mind, her uncle is also a monstrous figure because he forces stories on her. I wonder whether something more physical has happened between them in the past, though the narrator distracts herself with narrative so much that the bodily realm remains remote. Part of that came from my wanting to write about the effect of the imposition of a false account on lived events on one’s sense of meaning and how you exist. For example, how it affects desire, your sense of direction and your feelings about taking control.
The topic of monstrosity interests me. In the story I’m writing at the moment, I sometimes switch the ‘I’ so that I can experience another perspective, one that I’ve distanced from myself, usually a powerful selfish person. You mention the beast in my book, based on the Beast of Gévaudan who ate mostly women for a few years between 1764–67, often starting with their throats. The account I read of this was in French, where the word for beast is feminine, so I wrote another story where I thought of her as a ravenous female appetite. I found this transformation of a cautionary tale I’d been told all my life satisfying.
Your narrator is very preoccupied – obsessed – with danger. It’s the water that she swims in. I was particularly moved by her fascination with her blackouts, from drinking, trauma and anaesthetic. I remember you wrote a brilliant essay for The Believer magazine about lost-children stories in Australian fiction, and their function in covering up the colonial past. Were you consciously pushing back against cautionary tales in The Inland Sea?
I was thinking about your email before I went to sleep and I think the idea of that transformation seeped into my unconscious overnight. In my dream one of my canine teeth came loose, and was hanging by a thread of flesh. I was trying to push it back in place with my tongue, but I could tell that any intervention I made was likely to make it worse. I wasn’t at home (I believe I was in St Paul, Minnesota, where I’ve never been in my life), and I was trying to find an emergency dentist. But I couldn’t seem to work any of the search functions of my phone, and woke up feeling like I was still in the middle of trying to type ‘emergency’, but couldn’t. It strikes me now as overly symbolic and silly – a really literal interpretation of Freud’s theory of the uncanny cooked up by my sleepy brain, but the uncanny is basically what I think of when I think of monsters.
I wrote that Believer essay after I finished the novel, but before I did the first round of edits and it helped me think through a lot of things. Many of the cultural narratives which loom large, not just in Australia but around the world, are centered around the danger posed to young white women. In a lot of older Australian stories, the genocide of Indigenous Australians and the violence of colonialism are so absent that the absence screeches through the story. The fear in these sorts of stories (like Picnic at Hanging Rock, but even something like Twin Peaks) revolves around the danger posed to girls, but that’s a distraction, that’s really not where the danger resides at all. I think there are ways in which the return of the repressed thing, whether it’s cultural violence or personal trauma, can return to us in the form of something monstrous. That’s the idea of the unheimlich, – the unhomely frightens because it is home.
I think my narrator resists those stories, but can’t help but buy into them because she’s a product of them. Everything terrifies her, and so the world appears terrifying. And that’s definitely where my thinking about blackouts came from. I am interested in alcohol-induced blackouts because of what they do to memory, but a physical blackout does much the same thing. If you can’t see what’s outside in the darkness, or you can’t remember a chunk of time, it’s very human to populate the darkness with monsters and ghosts. Monsters hide in shadows, but I don’t think it’s as simple as just pointing at a fear and saying ‘aha, but it’s really yourself you are afraid of!’ or whatever.
I don’t think there’s a neat narrative arc that would cast light into the shadows, reveal the truth, and allow us all to graduate from therapy. I’ve been thinking about this because people have asked me whether I see any hope or redemption at the end of my novel, and I don’t. It’s not the kind of story I’m interested in telling. I wonder how you feel about the way you ended your book?
Ha! It’s funny when you dream of specific places you don’t know. I once woke up from anaesthetic in Streatham in South London and when the nurse asked me where I thought I was, I instinctively replied ‘Chicago’. I put this detail into a story and Diane Williams changed ‘Chicago’ to ‘the Danube’. I found that an interesting edit – I can’t expect Chicago to sound as romantic to an American as it does to me.
You’re right that these ‘aha’ moments aren’t necessarily the full picture. It’s tempting to talk about writing as if it’s therapy, that putting things a different way can fully reverse things, situations, interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes taking another perspective does allow you to empathise, but it only goes so far.
Of course, this desire to identify and shift perspective is a problem for someone who, like my narrator, doesn’t necessarily notice her feelings before the feelings of others. Maybe at some points in our lives we have less of a direct line between how we feel and the words we use out loud, or even how much we articulate to ourselves. And some people are more encouraged to make use of that access than others, and others get very good at imagining others’ inner lives and reframing their behaviour.
I ended my book with ambiguity because it’s an alternative to all the narrator’s attempts to save the people around her by articulating their predicaments in language. We spend a lot of our lives not knowing, speculating, unconsciously inventing. We don’t have the words for everything, or the experience to fill in the meanings of existing words – which, in any case, are always shifting. Leaving openings to ambiguity, rather than defining and declaring and proscribing everything, is an acknowledgment that there is always more left unsaid. It provides a kind of resistance, and lets in a bit of air, though it’s not to everyone’s taste. Actually, to me it felt joyful, my narrator’s sudden ability to try a new way of being, the relief of being open to change.
If not redemptive, The Inland Sea persistently returns and circles back to a number of metaphors and ideas that make it very atmospheric. Was atmosphere important to you?
I love that story about ‘Chicago’ being changed to ‘the Danube’! I love hearing stories about edits Diane Williams has made to the work of writers published in NOON.
Atmosphere is a sensory quality we all implicitly understand, and articulating it in prose is one of the biggest challenges and pleasures. The Inland Sea is divided into four parts, four ‘seasons’ which have the capacity to turn extreme – summer is ‘heat’, autumn is ‘flood’, winter is ‘tremor’, spring is ‘wildfire’. I wanted the atmosphere of the book to get increasingly claustrophobic and intense, as the bad weather escalated and began to leak into the thoughts and behaviors of the narrator. I was very interested in breaking all of the narrator’s barriers down, so that she couldn’t distinguish between what was outside and inside herself. I knew it needed to end with water, and that’s how the book begins and ends – in the water, in the summertime.
It’s funny, at the beginning of our conversation you mentioned the eels in South London making their way towards the Sargasso Sea. For a long time I wanted to end the book on the image of eels in Sydney’s Centennial Park. On rainy days in the autumn, they leave the ponds and begin migrating, wriggling through Randwick Race Course and across a golf course, and through storm water drains out into Botany Bay, from where they swim to New Caledonia. In the end it didn’t fit with the seasons of the book, but I still love thinking about that return to water – there’s something about the eels which typifies the atmosphere, but I still couldn’t say exactly how or why.
The last twelve months have really changed my relationship to ambiguity, because everything that was unquestioningly stable fell apart. I am not somebody who likes change or limbo, but I’ve been forced to live inside it and just keep going. I’ve noticed that the way I think about writing and stories has changed as well. I have always felt ill-at-ease with conventional narrative arcs. Narrative arcs are comfortable, but maybe just as insidiously comfortable as anything that invites our complacency? At any rate, this year has calcified my suspicion of comfortable narratives. I derive more pleasure and meaning from being inside somebody else’s mind, following the pattern of thoughts, than I do from an ideology of storytelling that attempts to make sense out of the chaos of the world.