Francis Spufford: ‘I felt that to call myself a writer would be a boast’ | Francis Spuffford

FRancis Spufford, born in 1964, is an uncommonly gifted, adventurous and versatile writer. He began with nonfiction that included a powerful apologia for Christianity, unapologeticin 2012. I published Golden Hill in 2016 and it was golden: an outstanding debut, set in 18th-century New York, it won the Costa prize for a first novel. Light Perpetualhis second novel, was longlisted for the Booker prize and is a bold departure in fiction that imagines how it might have been if people who died when a German V2 rocket fell on south London had been able to live their lives.

Tell me about the starting point for Light Perpetual.
I’ve been walking to Goldsmiths [where he teaches writing] every Wednesday for the last 14 years and there’s a small, round memorial plaque on the branch of Iceland on the corner of the New Cross Road. There’s no reason to look at it, it’s part of the south London landscape. The plaque says 168 people were killed on that spot, one November lunchtime, in 1944, when a V2 fell on Woolworths and destroyed it. As well as beginning a fascination with that story, it began a train of thought about the extraordinary things cities ordinarily contain, then lose. I wanted to find a way of remembering the event that was faithful but not literal, so had to invent a London borough and drop a V2 of my own on to it, not to trample on anybody’s real grief.

To what extent, as a novelist, do you play God?
The idea of ​​a novelist being omnipotent is straightforwardly impossible. The best novelists can come up with, even at their most megalomaniac, is a cheap substitute. I wanted to come up with a viewpoint wrenched enough out of the normal human to keep us looking at our lives in time in a way we usually don’t do.

You’re a prodigious reader – what were you like as a little boy?
I was a solitary child, with a pudding-bowl haircut and a selection of acrylic polo necks, who got on more easily with adults – who enjoyed me being precocious and having the world’s largest vocabulary – than with children of my own age. It wasn’t emotional precocity, it was verbal precocity – I had elaborate ways of saying simple things. I was frightened, almost permanently, of my younger sister’s serious illness, of which she would die in her early 20s, and it had the effect of keeping me turned away from feeling too much, too directly, about things in front of me. I lived in books for a long time. There was definitely some flight going on. I was a compulsive reader but it did not make me want to be a writer. I read for escape and did not want to do any of the hard work of providing that escape. I wanted to be a reader when I grew up and actually worked as a reader at Chatto & Windus [from 1987 to 1990]which was an education.

Why and how?
Carmen Callil [Chatto’s managing director] was a feminist icon but [Chatto] was also, weirdly, the last act of gentlemanly British publishing. It took place in a Georgian house, full of shabby, grand furniture. They had me in the attic reading and typing reports on an enormous manual typewriter. It’s a lost world now but felt like modernity at the time.

You started writing in 1989, the year your sister died. Was that significant?
I think that is too tidy. There must be some connection between an old sorrow reaching its end and becoming grief and being freer to start writing, but being ready to write also had its own independent timetable. It was about becoming less paralyzed by perfectionism. It took me a long time to decide I wanted to be a writer. And then I felt that to call myself a writer, let alone a novelist, would be a kind of boast. I accepted it gradually, once I could see the objects I’d made.

Your wife, Jessica Martin, a former Cambridge academic, is canon of Ely Cathedral. Are you still a lay representative of the diocese?
I’m no longer a representative of the General Synod because I was really bad at it. Being a good talker as a writer does not translate into being any kind of successful church politician.

Yet reading unapologeticI kept thinking:Come on, Francis, you have to get into the pulpit.”
No! I haven’t – I have the freedom of being a layperson, I don’t have to speak for an institution. I’ve preached the odd sermon by invitation and found it very nerve-racking. Performing something usefully devotional – it’s not my thing. And my wife is really, really good at it.

How successful are you at practicing what Light Perpetual almost preaches: living your life with mortality in mind?
Mortality is easier to be on easy terms with when your death is further away. I have moments in the middle of the night when timor mortis takes me by the throat and I’m profoundly glad when morning comes. I’m not unafraid of death. I’m not reconciled to how temporary all this is.

In unapologeticI was interested in what you say about guilt as a necessary emotion.
As a culture, we’re unkind to ourselves by eliminating guilt because it forces us into an unstable oscillation between an impossibly perfect self-image and a dark, despairing self-image. It is as if we were constantly being taken by surprise by news of our own fallibility whereas we should accept we are hopelessly fallible, that our intentions are not always good. I am not that nice – and can live on easier terms with that.

You have a 16-year-old daughter. How worried are you about the future of this planet?
Deeply worried. I became a parent late – I’ve been a stepfather for longer. Not long after I became a father, I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a horror-stained version of a universal parental emotion: the fear of having to leave your child somewhere unsafe. That, writ very, very large, is the situation of the planet in the 21st century.

What books are on your bedside table?
I’m going to count those on the floor as well… Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, a strange experience because I didn’t know Mrs Dalloway turns up as a walk-on character in it. I’m rereading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and there’s more…

What’s the last great book you read?
Sarah Hall’s burnt coat was astonishing about pandemic times. It’s a short novel about a virus – not Covid – and an artist who hides with a man she does not know well.

Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
I’m ashamed only to have read one novel by Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native… I understand he’s quite good.

What book might people be surprised to see on your bookshelves?
Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet – four fantasy novels from which I partly lifted the time structure for Light Perpetual.

Which author do you always return to?
Penelope Fitzgerald.

Are you working on a new novel?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a strange noir crime novel, set in 1922, in a different version of American history where there’s a city on the Mississippi largely populated by Native Americans. Gore, Jesuits and jazz – it will (probably) be called Cahokia Jazz and (probably) be out in 2023.

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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