How conscious were you of other novels about millennial experience?
I think we’re all saying that life right now is shit. Every book I read about someone my age includes someone having a panic attack: good intentions, Milk Teeth, queenie. When you have a book about how difficult life is, sometimes people say, yeah, I hear you: life is shit, look at house prices, look at the cost of living, no one has a proper job, you’re scared to have kids because you’re worried your house’ll be underwater. But sometimes the books just wallow [in it all]. i wanted [to write] a novel that asks, why is the world like this? How do I intervene? It’s not just: “I’m a millennial who can’t afford a deposit and I voted for Corbyn and don’t like Trump.”
A note at the beginning of the book asks the reader to speak aloud with Melissa and Catarina when they chant at activists’ meetings.
I wanted to make it as difficult as possible for the reader to pick up this book, say “that was really educational” and then just put it back down again. When Melissa and Catarina have to chant with other activists [for the first time], and Melissa’s thinking, this is so cringey, she pushes through and is like, wow. I wanted the reader to go through that as well – to feel embarrassed by the earnestness of believing we can have a world where everyone is safe, where we don’t have prisons and where there are no borders, but ideally to finish the book by asking if we can create a radically different world.
The novel suggests sex plays a part in that journey, too.
I didn’t want to elevate sex and romantic relationships – they’re just one of a number of types of relationship in the novel – but it’s gesturing in a very gentle way towards a world where who you have sex with, or whether you do it in a relationship, isn’t super-important but just a part of how we live; if Melissa enjoys having sex casually, great, if Catarina wants to be with her boyfriend de ella for ever, great.
The writer Claire-Louise Bennett you have called your storytelling “distinctly unhampered”.
I do find normal prose conventions cluttering. I grew up on MSN Messenger: you don’t need a full stop, you do a line-break: that’s how you know a new person is speaking. My dad’s the only person I know who puts a full stop at the end of texts and it feels really aggressive to me! I wanted a book that formally disrupts what you expect from a novel, but I didn’t want to make it difficult to read; Maybe if you like poetry, or you don’t read a lot, you can feel welcomed by it, despite the fact that it looks a bit weird.
What have you been reading lately?
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel is wicked. It’s not as grim as the title sounds: it’s a novel about multi-parent families, and mothering as something a community of women can share. I’m also reading a bunch of what there is by way of British abolitionist books: there’s one called Brick By Brickwith Hajar Press, by Cradle, a group working for prison abolition in the UK.
What did you read growing up?
I was raised on Zadie Smith. NW‘s my absolute favorite of her books. I love her even though her books by her show the political limitations of the imagination in that period. She talks about the London I grew up in – at my school, 10 kids went to medical school and two kids went to prison, that’s the kind of school it was. What’s brilliant about her books by ella is that she shows us that [world]but [the problem for me] is that she never takes us to a place of thinking, OK, let’s have a revolution so it’s not like this. I guess that’s what I’m hungry for.
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