DG: You’ve written three novels – The Wilderness, All is Song and your new book The Western Wind – from a male point of view. Why?
If I’d written three novels from a female point of view, you wouldn’t be asking me why. I find this interesting. We tend to assume that novelists will write within their gender, even when we accept that much of what they write about is outside their experience. Readers seem easily as intrigued by the fact that The Wilderness is narrated by a man as by the fact that it’s narrated by a person with dementia. Yet I’ve met only a handful of people with dementia, and hundreds, possibly thousands of men – i.e. the condition of being a man is more familiar to me than that of having dementia; it’s the smaller imaginative leap, yet the one that seems more transgressive.
Novel writing is about curiosity. It’s the question ‘what is it like?’ I’ve chosen male narrators in the same spirit of curiosity that prompted me to imagine what it might be like to have dementia, or be a modern-day Socrates, or a late medieval parish priest. I don’t like to – or know how to – write about my own life through fiction; I love writing novels because I love to imagine my way from the raw materials of my own experience (which is all I have) into experiences that aren’t mine. I like to write about people who don’t always share my views, for example; it’s a way of debating with myself, and challenging my own assumptions, exploring what it would be like to be someone other than me – though always of course, inescapably, through the prism of me, so an exploration of myself too (whether I like it or not).
DG: The Wilderness tells the story of Jake, an architect both losing and finding himself through Alzheimer’s. Jake observes that few women become architects, or plane engineers, possibly because they forget to think big. This is Jake’s feeling, not yours but, as the daughter of architects and engineers – and as a woman who flies planes – I often wonder whether women writers are simply not expected to handle big concepts. What do you make of Jake’s thought that “an inbuilt humility means that they [women] can never create anything bigger than their own bodies?” Does inhabiting a female body impact on the art we create?
Surely, yes, inhabiting a female body impacts on the art we create, but here is an example of what I was just saying. I don’t agree with Jake in his assessment of how it impacts and I don’t suppose many women would.
Of course women can make things ‘bigger than their own bodies’ – of course. But I don’t know how we separate out the potential from the actual. As a point of fact, women don’t build as many bridges and aeroplanes as men, but then how could we? How would the opportunities arise when, until the last 100 years, we’ve barely been allowed an education?
Where Jake is categorically wrong is in his assertion that women forget to think big. Women, too, have ambitious and panoramic thoughts, vast and beautiful and complex views of the world. The judgment that these are trivial or indulgent is an old judgment of women made before the fact, and one that already assumes triviality. A woman can write a ‘domestic’ novel – take Marilynne Robinson’s Home, for example – it speaks for the state of the family. A man can write one, take Revolutionary Road and it speaks for the state of the nation. The default setting for authoritative social commentary is ‘male’, and this dictates value judgments of what matters, what’s important. So I think that any perceived smallness of scale in women’s art is one imposed on that art by these judgments, not inherent to it.
I want to give an example of a comment a reviewer made about Dear Thief. Dear Thief is about a love triangle, one woman writing a letter to the female friend who betrayed her. The reviewer remarked that the concerns of the novel were too middle class and trivial, that it was of no more concern whether the narrator could forgive her friend for this act of adultery than whether Waitrose had run out of quinoa. I can say with absolute surety that in the hundreds of reviews, comments and forum discussions that exist about Leonard Cohen’s song Famous Blue Raincoat (on which my novel is based), not one of them makes the same complaint against Cohen’s wrangle with forgiveness and hatred. Not one. Again, the inbuilt assumption of domesticity in women’s stories, that speaks only for women’s stories. When that same story belongs to a man, it’s an epic dark night of the soul, one that speaks for all souls.
DG: Maybe middle-class women aren’t allowed to feel torment. I love Dear Thief. That deep and exasperating love between two women who share a man feels recognisably true, to me. But the male writers in my reading group had difficulties with it. Are women writers better at imagining complex relationships than men?
No, not at all – and in fact the reason I was so drawn to write a novel based on Cohen’s song is that it depicts between two men exactly what you describe – a deep and exasperating love. It feels to me that a large part of the erotic, spellbound, unbreakable feeling in that song is between the two men, where the woman is the third party fleetingly mentioned. She is the means of betrayal, but the betrayal can only exist because of the potency of the bond between the men.
This strangled love-hate dynamic is what I hoped to capture in reverse in Dear Thief, and I don’t believe anything inherent or fundamental has to be lost or gained in that translation of genders (even if social value judgments impinge); I don’t believe that women are capable of more or less complex relationships than men, etc. I think we are all about the same in our complexity, and our potential expression of it.
As it happens, two other influences on that novel were both male relationships envisaged by men: Pinter’s play Monologue – a monologue given by a man to an absent male other, about a woman they once shared – and the relationship between Nadir and Zurga in The Pearl Fishers. (The pearl fishing scene in my novel is a nod to this influence).
Nadir and Zurga, both men, vow to leave their friendship untarnished by their love for the same woman, and the story is really their story – the famous love duet in that opera is between the two friends, not the lovers. I find that fascinating.
Samantha Harvey’s new novel, The Western Wind, is set in a fictional 15th C English village. When his friend goes missing, John Reve, the village priest, is pressured by the Church to find a murderer by cajoling confessions from his flock.
Samantha Harvey was in conversation with Soma Ghosh.