Her characters are off-beat, damaged, wholly inimitable. Her new novel, The Yips, revolves around Stuart Ransom, a broke, unlikable professional golfer stuck in Luton in the middle of a perhaps career-ending losing streak; Valentine, an agoraphobic tattoo artist who specializes in inking genitalia; Gene, a metre reader/part-time bartender/cancer survivor and replacement caddie from a family of palm readers; Shelia, his wife and a Church of England priest; Esther, the golfer’s pregnant Jamaican manager; Vicki, her abrasive environmental activist/lawyer sister; Karim, an unlicensed Muslim sex therapist; Aamilah, his burqa-wearing young wife; and more. Barker answers questions for Granta’s Yuka Igarashi about her latest cast of characters and themes that emerge as they interact.
YI: How do you come up with your characters? Do characters come first in your writing, or do you start with a premise or scenes?
NB: I always start off with a basic premise for a book. In the case of The Yips it was the idea of a double act – the relationship between a golfer and his caddie. The book was meant to explore the delicate power balance in this kind of a relationship, especially when the dominant power (the golfer) is doing badly in his career. I’m a huge fan of the golfer Tom Watson (he’s just such a gentleman – personifies everything I admire about the game, in fact about sports in general). I knew that he’d had a very strong relationship with a former caddie, Bruce Edwards, who died of ALS. They were together for years and were an amazing partnership. I was very moved by their story. So I guess the novel was intended to be fairly different at the start from how it panned out. In the book Gene, the caddie, works very little for Ransom, the golfer.
Generally I start a novel and then the characters just keep on popping up. Sometimes they’re quite unwelcome. I’ll sit back and think, ‘Oh! Hello? Who the hell are you?’ Jen, the barmaid, was exactly such a construction. She started off with a tiny role then ended up trampling all over the book.
On the odd occasion when I’ve used an actual person as the basis for a character, readers generally seem to find them more eccentric. Perhaps I just know a strange group of people. I don’t think I’m weird (in the same way a psychopath doesn’t think they’re a psychopath), I just think life is weird. In general I leave the weirdest things out. It’s a cliché, but life is always stranger than fiction.
The novel seems very much concerned with skin – what’s written or imposed on it (tattoos, the lines of the palm) – and, more generally, the ways a body can be afflicted and inflicted upon. Are you conscious of this as a thematic element in the novel?
The skin’s definitely one theme – especially in relation to the character of Valentine, who works with it and is obsessed by it. It’s the body’s largest organ, after all. But more broadly speaking I’d say the book is about the internal versus the external: how we appear versus how we actually feel. It’s a book about various kinds of mental toughness. The devices we employ to maintain our delicate equilibrium – be they sex, art (as in Valentine’s case), drugs, pop psychology, politics, faith . . . you name it.
Of course I love art and tattooing. I’ve spent many years obsessively watching those tattooing shows on Sky and attending tattooing conventions. But I wanted to take the tattooing idea to a whole new level. Valentine’s art is very particular to her and highly evolved. Intellectual – political, even. Her work is all about female power, female creativity and the restrictions of the body. This was something I discovered as the book developed. To start off with, Valentine was just a tattoo artist, a skill she’d learned from her father. The complexities of that difficult relationship led the character into modifying – and broadening – her skills.
There’s this wonderful part of the book where Valentine, who is agoraphobic, puts on a burqa and feels safe enough to venture outside in it. A few of the characters, especially the women, talk about how confinement sometimes leads to control and freedom. I wondered if you thought this was true.
I think it can be true if this is a choice women freely make for themselves. If it is imposed on them (by either patriarchy or religion), then no. It’s just a cruel form of bondage. Having said that, women – people – will always find ways of celebrating confinement, even when it’s imposed on them by others. These are all issues I deal with in the book. Often it’s easier to express contradictory ideas through fiction because things can be both right and wrong and only the reader can decide what they ultimately think. Sometimes I can believe things that are the polar opposites of each other. It’s very confusing.
This book is full of meddlers, intervening where they don’t necessarily have to. They’re competing forces: some are trying to cause chaos and confusion (like Jen, the mischief-making barmaid) and some are trying to help, to bring about some kind of resolution (perhaps like Sheila). The hilarious – and somewhat tragic – thing is that neither succeeds. Do you intentionally work against plot expectations in your writing?
I don’t really know what plot expectations are. If you mean conforming to a set of ideas about how a story should flow, then no. I have no interest in that. There are plenty of other people out there who do that extremely well. But I would be bored by that kind of an agenda. It’s difficult to be original in the modern world. Everything’s been done before. But I approach my novels in the way you might approach a very complicated, three-dimensional puzzle. There are dozens of characters and narratives but there is generally a universal idea behind all of these conflicting forces which shapes and directs them. I have a mission, in other words. And I am an incredibly fastidious writer. I reread and rework things endlessly. Some people don’t take enough time or step far back enough to see the little sphere, the floating, coherent entity that I like to think I have created. Sometimes people do. I don’t mind either way, so long as the book has entertained or challenged, then I’m happy.
You were halfway through writing The Yips when Tiger Woods had his fall from grace. Many of your novels draw on contemporary events – Clear, about David Blaine’s public fast in a glass box by the Thames, was written almost simultaneously with the event itself. Does reality ever get in the way of your fiction? How do you make sure it doesn’t?
Reality poses a constant threat. Often I’ll be halfway through a book and then something huge will happen culturally which renders several years of hard work old hat. It’s soul-destroying. But I definitely write for now. This is always dangerous. But it’s part of what I enjoy. For example (on a very trivial level) my character Valentine has a distinct forties/fifties aesthetic. I started the book six or seven years ago when this was something unusual. Now it’s completely been-there-done-that. It’s galling, but you just have to shrug it off.
This novel is set in Luton; many of your novels take place in desolate areas of Britain. To what extent do you think of yourself as a British writer, writing for British readers?
I grew up for some of the critical years of my childhood in Apartheid South Africa (my family emigrated to Johannesburg when I was nine) so – weirdly – I’ve always thought of myself as someone who writes outside of the dominant culture; an outsider looking in. I have no interest in class (for example) which is generally a strong theme in British writing. I have no interest in ‘the middle classes’, books about writers, dinner party novels. I suppose this means I don’t really think of myself as a British writer. When I started out I’d call myself an American writer, because for me the process of writing was all about large spaces – isolation. These things have obviously changed over the years, but I only ever analyse them when I’m questioned about it. Otherwise I’m just doing something I love for myself.
‘The yips’ is defined as ‘nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf’. I couldn’t help apply this to writing – the idea that self-doubt can once in a while overtake and paralyse writers. Do writers get the yips?
Well I suppose that age old malady of Writer’s Block must be a suitable comparison! So yes, writers definitely do get the yips. I’ve never had it before. I tend to think of it (perhaps unfairly) as a slightly more masculine construct. It’s something you can indulge in if you have the time and the status and the money. If women can’t get one thing done they’ll generally do another. There’s always a nose to be wiped or a border to be weeded. I love writing, but is it the most important thing in the world to me? Am I changing the world with my scribblings? Do I want to be remembered after I’m dead? Heavens, no. If the words aren’t flowing, I’ll just go and rearrange the cutlery drawer, then head outside to feed the squirrels.
The Yips by Nicola Barker is published by Fourth Estate.
Photograph by Eamonn McCabe