An interview about “The Bellboy”
Recently, Zagava has published her novella The Bellboy. Martin Ruf spoke with her about this new book but also about fundamental aspects of her writing in general.
Maybe we should begin with the beginning: with first sentences. Different stories demand different beginnings. But could it be true that you prefer a particular kind of first step into a story: the almost perfectly unobtrusive sentence in which no more than, for example, a single adjective hints at something strange? And does this kind of beginning just come natural to you or is it the result of a patiently developed skill? How do you find your first sentences?
The only honest way I can answer this is to say that because I’ve been writing for so long, different elements of fiction writing such as the importance of the first sentence, are not things I consciously think about any longer. I might have done many years ago, and on teaching other people to write, I’m bound to have talked about them. I suppose it’s a bit like when you’ve learnt to swim, you don’t forget how. But if a story I’m writing is leaving me feeling flat, I’m likely to consider the idea of starting it at a different point, and very often I just plunge right into the middle of a drama and weave in the past and future as I go along anyway. I rarely write a linear piece of fiction. Maybe I don’t live in a linear world myself. So I suppose in the end, I’d have to say elements like first lines come naturally to me.
Maybe Lovecraft is right and searchers after horror „haunt strange, far places“. Your stories, however, make an important addition: searches after the weird hardly have to leave their homes. A family reunion or a stroll through the neighbourhood is likely to confront them with all the weirdness they might wish for. Would you approve of such an observation?
Yes, absolutely! I came from a strange and disfunctional family myself and although I’ve never written about it directly, it certainly has informed my fiction. In my story Dust to be made into a podcast by Escape Artists in Pseudopod this year, there is a dinner table scene that I did model on my childhood experiences of mealtimes. And I have always felt that all human weirdness is right there under our noses. We just have to look and listen to find it.
No matter how thoroughly you describe your characters, you always let them keep their secrets. This seems to be a fundamental aspect of your attitude towards them – sometimes to an absolutely heartrending effect. What is your attitude towards such character secrets?
Well, this is tricky… I think very often the less you say about a character, the more you invite the reader to fill in the missing parts to their own satisfaction and this gives the reader a proactive role in the business… if you think about a story as being a collaboration between writer and reader. A story can be so much more fulfilling if the reader has invested his or her imagination into it. I certainly find as a reader, that if a writer has given me a detailed description of a character, I’m very tempted not to read any further because it suggests that I’m unable to do that job myself. I’m aware that in the 1920’s and 30’s there was a tendancy to give what I’ve always called a police report about the characters, and that was simply a common writing style of the time, found in genre writing rather than literary writing, though. A good example of a writer from that time and a little before who doesn’t reveal everything about a character is Katherine Mansfield, the writer that Virgina Woolf envied.
Most of your stories are weird or strange in the broader sense of the word, and sometimes only a recurrent metaphor hints at a greater reality behind the everyday life of your characters. However, you’ve also written ghost stories in the strictest sense of the term. Thus, my next question is almost inevitable: Do you belive in ghosts and how does this belief or lack of belief influence your attitude towards the writing such stories in particular?
That is probably not something I can answer about myself in that I don’t know how I would approach writing ghost stories if I did believe in ghosts, therefore I have no comparison to draw on. But what I’m really interested in when I do write them, is other people’s belief systems, or, if you like, other people’s imaginations and superstitions. I worked in a remote part of Africa for a couple of years back in the day and the lives of the tribal people I lived with were entirely dictated by belief systems and superstitions. Witchcraft ruled our daily lives. It was frustrating. But one of my earlier degrees was in Anthropology, so at least I was equipped to glimpse the real functions of witchcraft there. But I am always terribly aware of the huge limitations superstition creates in people’s lives, as well. (Mind you, having said all that, I have had more than one experience in my own life for which no rational explanation could be found.)
In some of your stories horror is indeed „the soul of the plot“. But it isn’t the theme. The theme is love, faithfulness, friendship or, to quote the title of one of your stories and collections, mercy. Would you like to comment on this important difference?
Mercy, would be an example that fits the bill here, and this story was based on the real life of a man called Carl Tanzler, so that’s another example of how horror, like the rat, is always present within a few feet of us, so to speak. However, what was most interesting in Tanzler‘s real life was the attitude of local women to him when what he had done was revealed, and so I was examining a much wider, subtler horror in the story than Tanzler’s behaviour itself. I am drawn to horror, partly because it’s got to be the hardest thing to write about sucessfully, and so it keeps my writing skills honed. But if my characters are to feel real or true, their preoccupations are going to be love, or friendship and so on, or at least an attempt to find those warm and human things. If I then thwart them by creating horror around them … it’s because I’m mean. Not really… but one of the things I‘m interested in examining is where the real horror lies, and that was my intention in my story The Monster Orgorp in Seven Strange Stories with Tartarus Press. So, I suppose again, I’m interested in characters‘ attitudes to the horrible, rather than the horror itself.
An experienced author will probably under almost all circumstances be able to write a halfway convincing tale. But it is almost impossible to create a truly excellent story without a tiny spark of sheer good luck. Do you have made any similar observation? For example, do you have worked with material that didn’t seem very promising at first but finally turned out to be the basis of a complex and really beautiful story? What was, for example, your very first attitude towards the raw material of The Bellboy?
I have worked with difficult or flabby material in the past and managed to make it come right, and quite often just for the sheer exercise of doing so. The Snow Room in my collection The View from Endless Street might be one such story. It started merely from a random thought I had about what storage rooms could be used for other than the keeping of physical posessions. But anyway, the three characters in it, soon showed me the way after I inhabited them. I think working with tricky material is more likely to occur for me in the writing of short stories rather than in novellas or novels because I wouldn’t start a longer piece of writing off unless I was pretty sure of it in a number of different ways.
I’ve become interested in how people lived their lives in past times and have attempted to write stories set in the past of late. The Monster Orgorp is set in the 18th century, and The Child Cephalina, yet to be published, is set in 1852. The Bellboy, (originally The Alabaster Boy) is set in the 1930’s. I think your question here depends on what you see as the raw material. For me, the raw material was to do with a kind of eccentricity I don’t believe exists any longer in the 21st century, and as with all of my stories set in historical time, the nub of it was something that happened in reality. My attitude to it, and to things of that nature, is one of awe, I think. How could people have lived that way and how could those things have happened is what I often ask myself. The change of title from The Alabaster Boy to The Bellboy came about because I looked on Amazon and found two or three books called The Alabaster Boy, and so with much regret, I changed it to The Bellboy . . . but of course the main character, Walter Matthews, was a bellboy, so no real harm was done there, except that The Alabaster Boy sounds more mysterious and romantic.
We probably shouldn’t disclose more of the plot of The Bellboy than one can find in the publisher’s presentation. Instead, I would like to make readers aware of some of the more technical aspects, for example your unobtrusive treatment of leitmotifs. Already in the third paragraph you introduce the river motif in an absolutely inconspicuos way. Like a single thread in a complicated texture it appears and vanishes again and again. Do you somehow see such structures in their entirety before your inner eye or are they the result of a large number of rewrites?
They aren’t the result of a large number of rewrites, but they are also not structures that I see in their entirety. The simplest way I can describe much of my writing process is to say that I attempt to become each of my characters, to inhabit them in fact, and to go with the flow of where that takes me. No different perhaps from being an actor, except that you’ve got lots of parts to play and nobody is clapping you. Then once inside the head of the character, the things he or she thinks about, may often repeat throughout the story. In the case of the river in The Bellboy, you can see why Walter refers to it from time to time when you read the story. The river was the Thames, a river I love and have written about before… the river for Walter was one kind of escape and his job another. It’s always difficult for me to talk about technicalities in the writing process because I think I probably just feel my way through by instinct, backed, I hope, by simple logic and diligent research.
The fragility of seemingly unchanging conditions or, in a milder form, the sudden broadening of the previously limited perspective of a character are of some importance in your short stories as well as in The Bellboy. Could it be that such epiphanies, no matter whether they are dark or liberating, are a fundamental aspect of your view of the world in general?
Yes, and it all goes back to my fascination with how humans in all their fear and frailty behave. I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to quote myself because I think I’ve only ever written this succinctly once: ‘Characters in my stories often create and justify their own darkness, yet find ingenious and sometimes insane solutions for predicaments as they slip between their own invented worlds and the shared world. What interests me most as a writer are the inventive ways in which people deal with what life throws at them.‘ And that is exactly what I observe in real life around me also.
If there is one truth most authors of the weird genre generally can agree upon, it’s probably this: The ability to see the funny side of things and the experience of weirdness don’t go well together. On the other hand some of your short stories as well as The Bellboy show a wry, dark, or grotesque kind of humour. Would you like to say one sentence or the other about this rather intricate relation? I’m thinking of „Teuthida“ although this may be a special case.
I think that most authors of the weird are probably wrong then! I don’t think Teuthida is a special case… you know it’s a story about Lovecraft as a boy, I guess? So there was a lot of horror and humour combined in what I read about him before I started writing about him… wish I could’ve done the same in ‘Little Black eyes and Tiny Hands,‘ a story about Aleister Crowley, although there wasn’t much to laugh about in the life of that old fraud. I’ve just had a look at some of my titles, and yes there is humour in a number of them. Where my characters are pompous ones, I can very often make humour out of it.
And maybe a last question. Despite a subtle and recurrent foreshadowing, The Bellboy takes a really sinister turn that comes as a shocking surprise even if most readers will be fearing the worst after they have read a certain part of the novella. What can scare you in literature?
As an adult reader, I am still waiting for a piece of fiction that scares me because for a horror writer being scared every so often must be a good thing. When I was a young teenager, I was scared by My Bones and My Flute, (Edgar Mittleholzer 1955) . . . but since then diddly-squat, I’m afraid!
Rebecca Lloyd, thank you for this interview.
Thank you for interviewing me, I have enjoyed it.