An Interview with Melissa Harrison
Melissa Harrison’s new novel At Hawthorn Time is out now, published by Bloomsbury. Her first novel, Clay (Bloomsbury, 2013), won the Portsmouth First Fiction award, was selected for Amazon’s ‘Rising Stars’ programme and chosen by Ali Smith as a Book of the Year. Ben Smith speaks to her about her recent shift in focus from the city to the country, as well as the role of walking, photography and politics in her work.
Your first novel, Clay, has been described as an ‘urban pastoral’, and your new novel, At Hawthorn Time, has been called a ‘modern pastoral’. What does the term ‘pastoral’ mean to you?
It’s interesting that the term has been used about both my books; it seems to indicate a need to fix them in a tradition; to say, here is a new practitioner of a certain form. Clay was also called a ‘nature novel’ (in The Guardian, I think). The qualifier seems to suggest that there is some difficulty about how to define them.
Since writing both books I’ve come to see that perhaps they’re unconventional because they don’t focus on exclusively human concerns. When you make the world of a novel larger, by including non-human lives and concerns, it risks making the people in it seem slightly smaller. I don’t mind that; I think that given all our depredations we’re long overdue a bit of a demotion – and moreover, I find the world beyond humans almost unimaginably rich and interesting. A big factor in my enjoyment of nature is the refreshing feeling that I am part of a large cast of creatures, rather than always in the lead role.
Fiction can certainly be a powerful tool for changing perspectives, and I think it’s healthy to question the anthropocentrism that has led us where we are. But I didn’t write either book with any conscious intention to add to a tradition, either of pastoral, or the broad genre – if it is one – called ‘nature writing’. In fact, I’ve learned that for me it’s important not to try to force a work into any particular form or genre, despite how much I want to. The more I try to control what I write, the less successful it is – which is deeply chastening, and at times painful for someone like me: a planner and list-maker by nature. Writing is, I have found, a process of learning to sit with the discomfort of not knowing what I am producing, or whether it will be any good, and keep going anyway.
Is your writing process affected by the particular landscape that you are writing about? What were the differences between writing about the urban landscapes of Clay and the farms, fields and villages of At Hawthorn Time?
There was no difference in process for me. Both books are about landscapes I know well, though when I was writing Clay I was living in the place I was inspired by and seeing it daily, whereas writing At Hawthorn Time meant drawing more on memory – although I did visit the village on which I based Lodeshill several times during those two years.
As well as place, at the start of a project one of the most important decisions I have to make is what time of year it is set; I’m not sure I could write anything, no matter how short, without knowing the season as it affects so fundamentally the landscape, the botany, the birdsong – the entire world in which the piece will take place. It can be harder to write about a season I’m not in than about a place I’m not in, so sometimes that affects my decision; with Clay, which takes place over the course of a year, I drew on detailed daily notes I had made about what the natural world around me was doing through the seasons. At Hawthorn Time takes place in one spring month, which meant making notes during that time of year, and taking photographs, so I could draw on them even in midwinter. I went on a four-day walk up the A5 as research for Jack’s pilgrimage and waited until April to do it; afterwards, I revisited the sections about his walk to bring in everything I had learned.
So, is it important for you to spend time in the landscapes you are writing about?
I’d find it challenging to write about a landscape I didn’t know intimately, I think. It’s not just the worry that I’d get something wrong; far more importantly, I wouldn’t feel the pull of it, the thisness of it. I need to care about a place, I need to be able to draw on my feeling for it for all those long hours at my desk. Facts aren’t enough.
The one location in At Hawthorn Time I didn’t know well was the places just north of London that Jack passes through on his trek north – which is why I did the solo walk I’ve just mentioned. I’ve already written about this walk here and here so I’m loath to repeat myself and bore your readers, but suffice to say that while it didn’t turn out as I expected, it was really valuable to get out and engage with that part of the country, despite (or perhaps because of) how hard it was to walk in, and how psychologically challenging the trip was.
Both your novels deal with the ways in which different places affect people’s psychologies. Is this something that you’ve experienced yourself?
Human psychology is such a huge subject that I’m not sure I know how to answer! Our state of mind is informed by so many things, from the kinds of attachments we were able to form as children, to our education, our health, our beliefs, our life circumstances, our stress levels… because of that, I think it would be facile to suggest that particular landscapes affect our psychological make-up in any kind of general way; there are just too many variables. Some people get a great deal of joy out of living somewhere rural; others, like Howard, will barely notice it, or may even find the countryside oppressive and instead flourish in towns. And of course the effects of place on each of us may change with time, too.
It’s my belief that having a regular, positive experience of the natural world can benefit most of us, both physically and mentally, but that can be achieved in all sorts of landscapes – including cities.
In the character of Jack, you present us with someone who has chosen a life on foot. How important is walking for you (as an individual and as a writer)? Does it influence your writing process? Do you carry a notebook when you go out walking?
Walking is enormously important to me, whether it’s taking my dog out before bed each night, climbing Helvellyn or hiking on Dartmoor with my husband, or going out alone to hear nightingales or watch the dawn rise. You can’t connect with the countryside from a car or through books; you have to get out there and put your body, your physical self, into it. Walking is a kind of thinking; it’s also a way of connecting with the past, of establishing a sense of continuity with the generations of people who have left their mark on places using their feet, their hands and their imaginations.
This year I was invited to speak at the Hay Festival, and straight after my event my husband, my dog Scout and I headed into the Black Mountains, parked at the first interesting-looking footpath sign we saw, and set out. As well as the lovely little whitewashed chapel at Capel-y-ffin – which reminded Frances Kilvert of an owl – we discovered a ruined, roofless farmstead inhabited only by sheep and entirely inaccessible by road, only a mud-thick holloway, long lost and overarched by trees, leading down from it to a ford. Places like that, redolent with history, are the reward of the walker – not to mention the birdsong, the smell of cow parsley, and the warmth of the sun on your face.
I don’t carry a notebook when I’m walking, no; I give myself up to the walk and to the moment, and try to drink in everything I can with all my senses. Some of it will be lost, but I don’t think that matters: it all counts in the end, consciously or unconsciously. I do take photos, sometimes with my DSLR but often just with my iPhone, although I use these more as prompts than accurate records. The discipline of photography teaches you how to look, and was a big part of learning how to be a writer for me.
That’s an interesting connection. Could you say a little more about how photography ties in with your writing process? Why do you find photographs more useful prompts than written notes? Are there particular photographers who have influenced the way you see (and write)?
I do make written notes about the natural world, and I note down ideas and scraps of dialogue all the time – but I don’t take a notebook with me on walks. I find it interrupts the process of the walk and the natural development of my thoughts too much, whereas snapping a photo makes barely a ripple in the flow of the journey.
It’s worth distinguishing here between iPhone snaps, which I use as prompts for memory, and the ‘proper’ photography I do with my DSLR which is something separate and an end in itself. I’m self-taught and under no illusions about how basic my skills are compared to professional photographers, but even so the process of learning to use a camera fed into my writing in two ways. The first was that, while I really wanted to do it, it didn’t matter to me half as much as writing did – which meant that there was much more ‘play’ to it. It wasn’t achingly serious, it was fun – albeit challenging fun – and I felt OK about making mistakes because it wasn’t as though my whole identity hinged on it. Having a second stream of creativity that had a totally different feel to it freed up my writing to be more playful and take more risks, I think.
The second way it contributed was the process of learning to see. Photography forces you to slow down and frame and think in a different way; and while having a compact or an iPhone to snap with is fantastic, it was the big camera with its difficult settings that really made me engage with light and shade and form and composition. I look back at my early photographs now and it’s not just as though I couldn’t use the camera properly, it’s as though I couldn’t see. That’s been really valuable.
Having said all that, there’s a lot of technically accomplished landscape and nature photography out there that leaves me utterly cold. A rocky stream on a long exposure, or a shoreline sunset with a violet filter, a moody, black and white shot of some pylons… that kind of stuff may be popular on photography websites but it usually has no feeling to it, no guiding aesthetic other than competent use of the camera’s settings. I have no time for that. Give me Tacita Dean’s dreamlike landscapes or Jane Bown’s affecting rural reportage any day.
One of the major debates running through At Hawthorn Time is the issue of what constitutes ‘real’ nature. One of the main characters, Kitty, stops painting bluebells and starts painting plastic bottles and electricity pylons. Do you agree with Kitty that this subject matter is more ‘real’? Or could her new paintings, perhaps, also be accused of a kind of romanticism?
Is romanticism necessarily a bad thing? I’m not sure. There are many different ways of thinking about the countryside, and I’m more interested in exploring them all, and looking at how they interact, than saying that one is more valid, or ‘real’, than another. To the wealthy city-dweller the countryside may be an idyll, all Agas and bunting and heritage chickens; to the farmer, a workplace in which productivity trumps aesthetics. To the psychogeographer it might be an unpeopled, liminal palimpsest ripe for decoding; to the ecologist a patchwork of biodiversity habitats. What’s interesting to me is that all of these things are true at the same time; it’s why I tend to write books with multiple viewpoints, including the non-human. I’m guessing that’s what Ali Smith meant when she said I had a “communal style”.
Kitty’s halting progress in the book is to do with letting go of the broad-brush, picture-postcard dream of the countryside she had when she lived in a city, and starting to notice what is actually around her – which isn’t always bucolic or pretty, but has its own value, and is worth bearing witness to. In doing so, she finds a way to come into her own, authentic relationship with place.
There is a moment in the novel where we suddenly get a glimpse of the effects of ash die-back. How important is it, for you, that contemporary fiction addresses these kinds of large-scale environmental and political issues?
I can only speak from my own experience; I don’t believe it’s anyone’s place to set out an agenda for other writers. Choosing to make art of any kind is tough, and requires real commitment: the results are a gift to the world, freely given. I don’t think any writer has a duty to write in a particular way.
When it comes to fiction, all writers have different concerns. Some want to change the world; some want to be successful; some want to tell a good story. I’m glad of every new voice, whether it addresses environmental concerns or not, because I believe that storytelling itself is so important in developing empathy and imagination: vital tools in living well and responsibly. Stories, I believe, are central to our ability to be good humans.
For me, it’s hard to keep my fears and hopes about the natural world out of my novels because they permeate my life; my books represent what the world looks and feels like to me. Admittedly, there is an evangelism about what I write – although I hope I don’t proselytise. It’s my experience that while some people are ready to engage with the big issues around the environment, many are turned off by issue-based narratives and campaigning literature, and it’s those people who I hope I may reach: with emotional engagement, rather than paralysing guilt. That doesn’t mean I think this approach is better than anyone else’s; the fact is, we need all sorts of voices doing all sorts of work if we are to reconnect people with the natural world. There is no single, right way of going about it.
It seems to me that hope – both for us and for our fellow species – lies in our ability to rediscover a pleasurable, deeply felt connection to nature and place, and I believe that storytelling (and, of course, getting out and walking) is a powerful tool for doing just that.
You can find out more about Melissa Harrison at www.melissaharrison.co.uk A 10” record featuring two tracks inspired by At Hawthorn Time, with an individually silk-screened and hand-stitched sleeve by artist Lucie Murtagh, is available now from www.caughtbytheriver.net.