RR: How did you come to write fiction?
PH: I fell ill. I was going to join the Foreign Office after I left university. But I’ve always been a reader. Even at university when I was supposed to be reading textbooks, I was reading a couple of novels a week, which I guess is a sign of where my interests really lay. But I was seriously ill for quite a long time and I was unable to start work. About two years in I got over the worst of it. I had a lot of time to spare – I was still unable to get out and do much. And so I began writing short stories – really poor imitations of Borges and Calvino, and there is nothing worse than trying to imitate Borges and Calvino.
Why did you choose Borges and Calvino?
Because I was reading a lot of them and because they made the act of writing look like fun. I guess I wasn’t the kind of writer who read Turgenev or Dostoevski or Proust and thought, ‘That makes me want to be a writer’, because their books just made me want to be a reader. But Borges and Calvino were so playful with words and with form, and they’re easy to imitate badly. Then very quickly I found that I had my own things to write about – partly as a result of my illness – and my own ideas about how to do that writing.
Would you say that your illness was a defining episode of your life?
It defined every second of my life for the best part of ten years, no question. When you’re seriously ill, that’s it, that’s the only story there is about your life. I guess that phase lasted about three years, and I was still pretty ill but convalescing over another five years. It’s really not until the last year that I’ve been one hundred percent well, and it’s changed everything, changed the way in which I react and the ways in which I think about things. The hard part is writing now that I’m no longer ill. It had never occurred to me that there might be a problem when I got well, because illness does change how you see the world, it opens you up to fundamentally different ways of thinking.
Illness is solitary, because suffering is something you always do alone. It impacts phenomenally on your world view and on your experiences and on how you see the external world. It creates all kinds of limitations on the freedoms you have. If, like me, you’re fortunate in your upbringing – a happy childhood, good education and good parents – you’re used to freedoms in your life and their sudden removal is a huge shock. Also, illness makes you tremendously sensitive, physically sensitive. I had terrible shivering and nausea. The shivering would start even when I was watching a film or a football match, because the boundary between emotional reaction and physical reaction is, I think, tied together in the nervous system. Emotional systems of the body get woven into the physical – so emotionally I was also very sensitive and that influenced what I wanted to write about and how I wrote. Illness forces you to confront a few things and it’s not unusual for writers to have started writing during a period of illness.
You said that illness makes one reevaluate and reconsider what one previously took for granted. I think that good fiction does this too.
I’ve forgotten who the quote is from, ‘Illness is a foreign country and you always go there alone’, and there is that sense with illness of one occupying a distinct world in very much the same way that a novel occupies a distinct world. Both are an odd kind of transport.
Have you read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor?
Illness is Metaphor is a really good text – I came to it quite late, pretty much when I was recovered, but I thought it was very smart and well observed.
Your debut novel, The Short Day Dying, the interior monologue of Charles Wenmoth, a Cornish preacher in the late nineteenth century, isn’t sexy or sentimental but it feels somehow elemental and exact. How did you come to write this book?
It came to me slowly. I had been writing short stories for about two or three years; I guess I had written forty or fifty stories, which became the collection that was published as I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train.
So that collection predates The Short Day Dying?
Ninety per cent of the stories in I Could Ride All Day were written before The Short Day Dying. It was partly the way that the publishing industry works that spurred me to get going on The Short Day Dying, because Faber had shown interest in my stories and asked if I had a novel. And I really didn’t have a novel and I was very happy not to, because I wasn’t really wanting to get published – I was just writing for myself and to pass the time. And very slowly, over the next couple of years, I realized I did have a novel. I don’t really know how it came to me, just lots of things came at once: the setting, an idea of the beginnings of the voice, an idea of the shape of the novel. I wanted to write a short novel in a straight line, without plot really but with a narrative driven by the voice of the protagonist, which would allow me to explore his language. And all the themes were already built in from my last few years: the curtailing of freedom, how we cope with emotional or financial or physical constraints; the inaccessibility of the past (which I’m writing about again with my new novel).
The setting for The Short Day Dying came from real family history. Both my parents were local preachers, so in that sense I was writing about what I knew. Before my dad, who is Cornish, there were apparently four or five generations of Cornish lay preachers. Although I didn’t do any research for the book, I was fairly familiar with the world of rural Methodism. I had lived in Cornwall as a child. I didn’t go back to Cornwall to write but I used my childhood memory to recreate the place, to recast it. The setting seemed to naturally fit with this introspective life of the character, and it all came together.
Why did you set the novel in the nineteenth century?
That’s just how it came out. I suspect there were reasons why it came out that way. One of them was that I wanted to write a very internal and emotionally direct novel. The nineteenth century seemed to be a better circumstance in which to place the character: it was further away from the distractions of computers and emails and telephones. It was a time of real crisis in the church, so Charles would have spent a lot of time walking a great distance to places and this gave me all the time I needed to be able to give him a large and wonderful, vibrant internal life. It just seemed to be a good time to reflect on the internal crises. I wasn’t trying to write an historical world – I just created a world for Charles. I thought I was writing a very contemporary novel but, you know, appearances can be deceptive. I didn’t have an audience in mind for the book. I wasn’t trying to write a bestseller or to carefully craft a literary book.
How did you find a voice for Charles?
The voice was a real challenge because it didn’t flow, it didn’t always come. I was lucky in that I was able to indirectly write about the problems I was having writing that voice in the book, because it’s a novel partly about Charles’ failing confidence in his voice as a preacher, which is simply me writing about the extent to which you can have confidence in your voice as a writer, even when you are not hearing it, even when it’s not true, how much of it can you fake, how much can you make true and beautiful, even when it doesn’t come to you in the middle of the night. Although, bits of it did come to me in the middle of the night, which was fantastic. It’s great when it comes for free.
The stories in I Could Ride All Day are very different in tone and theme, but they are unified by an overwhelming sense of sadness, alienation even.
I was terribly depressed when I wrote most of these stories, so that’s not too surprising. But I wasn’t aware of this emerging in my writing, in the strange way that you are not aware of most obvious things in stories and have to have other people point them out to you. One of the earliest reviews of I Could Ride All Day began, ‘Peter Hobbs writes about people in various states of mental distress’. When I read this I was genuinely surprised. I had thought that these stories were quite playful and some of them were comic and surreal – there were even some damn jokes in the book, which there certainly weren’t in The Short Day Dying. So I was surprised that the bleakness still came through, although I was also pleased because in a way that’s what art is, it comes from true experience in something. In this sense, the fact that the roots were still visible was great.
You said you wrote the novel and stories for yourself. Is there too much pressure put on writers to write to a certain formula or to write what publishers or agents think will sell?
There are different pressures on writers and many of them are either directly or indirectly financial. I was very fortunate to be in a position where I could write what I wanted, and to be with a publisher (Faber) that backed with complete integrity what I wanted to write. To have a publishing house willing to stick its neck out for a very unfashionable first novel with no punctuation, set in nineteenth century Cornwall, was remarkable. But if you’re writing seriously – if you’re writing to make a living – that creates its own kind of pressure. The way that fiction is being received these days by media and by prizes, there is this slide towards populism and mediocrity. But then, even in the last few years the book-buying market has changed drastically, and it’s increasingly rare for publishers and editors to have the freedom to back the books they love, rather than the ones they calculate will sell. So at the time I wrote The Short Day Dying I was extraordinarily fortunate. But I still have to write books to justify the faith certain people have put in me, and those books have to sell. I still believe there are readers out there for good, difficult books, but it’s tough going, both for writers and publishers.
Can you tell me about your new novel?
I find it so hard to say sensible things about what I’m working on, mostly because I find it hard to have sensible thoughts about it. But it’s called The Book of Imaginary Worlds and it’s very different stylistically to The Short Day Dying. I guess The Short Day Dying was primarily a response to romantic and even modernist literature. The Book of Imaginary Worlds is much more postmodernist in terms of influences. It’s also me playing around with things I haven’t really played around with before. It’s part metaphysical thriller, part love story and mostly a meditation on the nature of consciousness. This ability we have to imagine, whether we realize it or not, is pretty much what it means to be sentient. So the nature of imaginary worlds is a good metaphor for me for consciousness.