Nicola Barker is widely considered one of Britain’s most brilliant and Quixotic literary novelists, thrilling readers with a run of surprising books in the last two decades. She recently won the Goldsmith’s Prize and is shortlisted for The Gordon Burn Prize, for those who care for such matters. However, this ‘bottom-feeder’ refuses to accept advances for books. Nicola prefers to feel free to develop her own playful mindset for writing: “that moment when I feel overwhelmed by mischief.” She shared her thoughts on the gender of voice and her unpublished photography of places that inspire her thinking, around her local Kentish Coast.
DG: What attracts you about writing from any particular gender?
I know it may sound odd, but I very rarely focus on gender when I’m working. I begin writing with an a-genda. In a flurry of ideas (or a slurry of ideas, oftentimes!). Then there are the characters. Each has a special purpose. I don’t really dwell on the difference between male and female. A character consists of their history. They are carefully constructed from where they’ve been. And what they are struggling with. How equipped they are – emotionally, physically etc – to deal with the challenges I throw at them.
Gender operates on a continuum. I’ve always thought of myself (and very happily) as being towards the middle. So I’m a boyish girl. I was raised in the 1960/70s and my mother was extremely open and easy-going. She let my sister and I dress how we liked and talk how we liked. I was an inveterate swear-er from being quite small. It was never discouraged. My grandfather was working class and self-educated. He had three daughters and he always taught them that they could be whatever they wanted. I imagine this attitude seeped through.
My aunt was a radiographer in the 1960s and one of her main jobs was x-raying babies whose gender was uncertain. There was no shortage of them. This was talked about openly in the family. I was always keenly aware of the idea that nothing is precise or absolute. Life is infinitely – and magnificently – variable.
DG: Jean Rhys depicts the pressures on women to be humble, if they can’t win by society’s rules. Your books, from the minor-crime, epic thriller set in Ashford, Darkmans, or your recent H(A)PPY, set in a utopia of desirelessness that unravels, demand a lot of us: hurricanes of words, ideas and hilarity. Have you ever been told to be less wild and do you ever fear that no one will ‘get’ your next book?
I’ve never been told to be less wild. Who would dare?! I have been told – by men and women in publishing who I have opted not to work with – that I need more editing. And my interior response is, “Ha! Fuck you.”
But I’ve never been heavily edited (in fact I’m hardly edited at all because my work is very complex and almost impossible to access with an editorial scalpel). I create contained worlds. You either need to accept them or to avoid them. There’s no real middle ground. My editors have generally understood this quality and have supported it wholeheartedly. I am completely myself in print; uncompromised, unjustified. I’ve been incredibly lucky in this regard. And my long-term agent, the late David Miller, never gave a shit about what I said or did. He was a lunatic. Unruly. Mischievous. Anarchic. Fun. A total pain in the arse. He got me. He never judged. Our association was a great blessing. I miss him so much.
I’ve always understood that what I do is beautiful but rarified. It isn’t especially commercial. I won’t ever make a fortune from it. I see myself as a bottom feeder – living close to the ocean bed where there isn’t much light. The glamorous fish twist and sparkle overhead. But I serve a purpose. I deal in ideas and I subvert. Artists like me (and I barely delineate between the arts; painters, musicians, filmmakers, poets) play an essential role in the creative eco-system. We offer new, skewed perspectives. We tinker with accepted norms. At worst, we navel-gaze, at best, we revolutionise.
I can do whatever the hell I like with my keyboard. It’s mine! Who’s to stop me? I generally have a ball. I’m not precious.
Do I want to be ‘got’? No! Life isn’t coherent or understandable. Nor should challenging fiction be. Challenge is the key word here. I don’t apologise for stretching the reader. If you work hard, pay attention, suffer a little through the text, you will find freedom and joy and connection and transcendence. Suffering is essential. And submission. Because when you submit you are being generous. It is a gift the reader offers the author – and the text. It is gracious. Generosity is always enriching to the self.
DG: In The Cauliflower, you imagine goddess worship mainly from the point of view of Hriday, the nephew and carer of the 19th Indian saint, Sri Ramakrishna. Hriday reminded me of Shakespeare’s low comic characters. Why did you choose to approach Ramakrishna’s domestic wrangles and divine encounters from Hriday’s point of view? Did you ever consider the relevance of this story for a Western reader? What clichés should be avoided when writing about spiritual experience?
I never considered the relevance of the story to a Western reader. I never approach writing with that level of calculation or formality. I always start my books from a place of innocence. I’m an enthusiast, an opportunist. And I don’t write about what I know but about what I can’t understand.
Having said all that, the book is for Western readers. Eastern readers would have no use for it. The book is trying to show the West how clever Hinduism is. We have so much to learn from it. There has always been a prejudice against this extraordinary faith in the West. We think of it as primitive and basic – as mere idol worship. But Hinduism is actually the most profound, playful and challenging of all the great faiths. And Sri Ramakrishna was one of its most brilliant proponents. An extraordinary figure. Unlettered. Razor-sharp. Dangerous. Childlike. Infuriating. Unpredictable. Hilarious.
I chose to tell his story from Hriday’s point of view because I have always loved Hriday and felt so much sympathy for him. How he suffered! He is at once the least and the greatest of all the figures in the Ramakrishna story. He was the idiot servant but ultimately the gatekeeper. His love and support cushioned the religious awakening – the blossoming – of one of the greatest gurus in history. Hriday set the scene. He was a believer, a survivor, a pragmatist, a facilitator. He was dementedly patient. And in the end he was abandoned and destroyed. So he is tragic.
Hmm. Clichés about spiritual writing? I honestly wouldn’t know. Perhaps I don’t read enough to have an opinion on this? I respond to things sincerely, I suppose. I mean well. I am passionate. And I’m not ambitious, so I never really ponder what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. I am at once incredibly careful and I just don’t give a damn.
The problem with being an advocate of innocence is maintaining it when you are constantly being asked about what you do and how you think. Say anything enough times and it becomes a mask.
DG: You’re speaking on T.S. Eliot’s archival recordings this July at the LRB Bookshop. What do you get from listening to his voice and what is the value of listening to the voices of writers?
I don’t really know what I get from his voice, I just accept it as his voice and so love it because it is his. Loving a thing is often simply a decision we make to be open to its influence – to welcome it. Love is pragmatic! The same with, say, Sylvia Plath, whose reading voice is very uptight. But it’s her, so I love hearing it, love how something so crazy can come from somewhere so formal.
Oh please don’t come to the event expecting to hear me holding forth intelligently about T.S! I’m basically an ignoramus. But cheerful. And spontaneous.
I remember when I was a girl in South Africa ( aged 9 or thereabouts) and we had been told to learn a poem off-by-heart to recite in front of the class. When it came to my turn I walked up to the front and started to recite Snake by DH Lawrence. After two lines the teacher stopped me, laughed, and told me to sit down. We had been expected to recite one of the simple, rhyming, children’s poems not this poem (which was also in our textbook). She didn’t congratulate me for learning it. She punished me for stretching myself. She didn’t even let me show her what I had learned.
But I didn’t care. I was glad. And defiant. And proud.
I’m still that girl.
Nicola Barker was in conversation with Soma Ghosh.