24 February 2014

'Mining for Diamonds': Q&A with Adam Foulds

Posted by John Clegg

Adam Foulds is in conversation with Andrew Motion at the Bookshop on Wednesday 12 March. We asked him a few questions about research, ideas, prose and poetry.

In The Wolf’s Mouth, like The Broken Word and The Quickening Maze before it, feels as though it must have required a lot of historical research (or at least fact-checking). How much preparation did you put in prior to starting writing? Or was the research simultaneous with the writing?

I spent a good while researching In The Wolf's Mouth, firstly spending time in Sicily and talking to people there, then reading a great deal of military history, Sicilian history, Mafia history, first-person accounts of the events, first-person accounts of other wars, books about PTSD and so on. For me, the research precedes the writing, although of course they can't be separated. The subconscious is churning away while one is conscientiously making notes, and part of the research process is mining for diamonds that will shine in the book.

The Quickening Maze grew out of the historical coincidence of Clare and Tennyson having lived at the same time in Epping Forest. Was there anything in particular which In The Wolf’s Mouth germinated from?

It came out of a visit to western Sicily and an immediate sense of its strangeness and opacity. I started to wonder why it was that way. And it has an amazing harsh beauty too, of course. It's not a seductive landscape, but it is a powerful one, with its heat and wind and low hills. It feels like a place where things happen, a place that's full of ghosts. I also felt impelled towards the book because of a sense that there were things I was trying to write my way through in The Broken Word that weren't finished with me yet – things to do with violence and trauma and breakdown of personality, and the human tenderness that comes to exist in the light of these experiences.

The chapter divisions in the novel are often very abrupt and intense; there’s even a moment when the prose lineation breaks down altogether. You’ve written about how the line-breaks of The Broken Word allowed you to ‘accomplish the violence’ of that verse-novel; do you miss the technical resources of poetry? And do you know, when you begin writing, whether a piece of writing will be in verse or prose?

I try not to think of particular formal limitations when I'm writing, which I do at first freehand on blank A4 paper. The scene where the prose breaks down in In The Wolf's Mouth has to happen to take the reader to the point beyond which is total breakdown, incoherence, and trauma which is precisely that which cannot be narrated and is outside history. The novel tries to explore how you get back from that point, how you put yourself and your sense of the world back together. It therefore tests narrative with fragmentation and acceleration. War is a kind of centrifuge for the characters' experiences and it prevents them at times from making sense in a traditional fictional mode. In a way, I thought of the novel as a poem of war and an elaboration of Walter Benjamin's vision of the Angel of History, who sees a heap of ruins left behind and wants to go back to fix things, but cannot because its outspread wings catch the wind of progress and it is blown backwards into the future.

As for knowing whether a piece of writing will be verse or prose, I do. I also know when something wants to be changeable and take various forms. There's something like that which I have in mind at the moment. I often return to early books of Michael Ondaatje – The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid, Coming Through Slaughter – which are formed out of prose narration, short poems, bits of dialogue, anecdotes and newspaper reports. I like the freedom, the agility and the concentration of those books.

How much of a responsibility do you feel towards your historical source material? And how much of a difference was there between In the Wolf’s Mouth and The Quickening Maze, where the characters were real people rather than inventions?

I feel a good deal of responsibility, particularly when it comes to describing soldiers' experience of battle. That was why I read so many first-person accounts of those events, and invented relatively little. A large part of the writing process was absorbing and fitting together elements of those accounts to make characters' stories. As a result, I was especially delighted when Patrick Hennessy, the reviewer for The Times, and a veteran of active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote that I'd got the 'fractured intensity of a real firefight' and that reading the book was 'like remembering war.'

There's less difference than you might think between In The Wolf's Mouth and The Quickening Maze in the handling and creation of characters. For In The Wolf's Mouth, the historical models are hidden and complicated by there being more than one per character. That gave me a greater plasticity to the material, but still I was staying diligently close to the historical sources.

Your writing circles a few themes very intensely – violence, betrayal, freedom and imprisonment – with the very obvious exception of your debut, The Truth About These Strange Times. Looking back, what are your feelings on that first novel? Will you return, at some point, to the ideas you began to explore there?

I loved writing that book and I learned a good deal doing so. It does seem obviously different from the three that came after, which are preoccupied with those things you mention and with extreme, psychically rupturing experience. I'm at work on a new book now which is back in the contemporary world and I suppose may bear more of a resemblance to my first. To be honest, that's not something I really think about. I just want to make the new thing as good and interesting as possible. So: nice talking to you, now back to the diamond hunting.

Hear more from Adam at the Bookshop on Wednesday 12 March.