Dark Matter: Michelle Paver Interview and Competition Giveaway

Posted by Sharon Deans on November 03, 2011 in Blog, Interviews tagged with , , , ,

Michelle Paver is a British-based, award-winning novelist.  In 1998 Michelle gave up a successful career in law to concentrate full-time on writing. After penning several romantic novels she embarked on the project that was to change her life – The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness – a series of Stone Age fantasy books for children which ended last year with the publication of The Ghost Hunter, winner of The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, 2010. Michelle then turned her considerable talents to producing a wonderful and deeply unsettling ghost story for adults: Dark Matter, published in October 2010. A spooky story set in the Norwegian Arctic, it follows a group of idealistic young Englishmen who leave pre-war London with high hopes of scientific discovery only to find out that they are not alone in the long Arctic night (see Glennis Byron’s review elsewhere on this website).  Dark Matter was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award 2010, which fact alone should give an indication of its calibre; it is now available in paperback from this month, and we have two copies to give away for the winners of our competition question which will feature at the end of this interview.

SPOILER ALERT

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Hello Michelle, firstly, congratulations on the commercial success of Dark Matter, and its attendant nomination for the Shirley Jackson Award in 2010.  This book was a big hit with the Gothic Studies Department here at Stirling University last year, and we had a Reading Group evening planned for it in January which unfortunately (and rather ironically) had to be cancelled due to the adverse weather conditions here in Scotland – no-one could get through the snow to discuss your Arctic-bound Gothic adventure!  Nonetheless, internet chat was subsequently engendered and I’m delighted to be able to put some questions to you that arose out of that.

Dark Matter is a ghost story in the traditional vein, isn’t it?  I’m thinking here of authors such as M.R. James, Susan Hill, Henry James etc.  Have any of these authors influenced you, and if so, what is it about this mode of ghostly storytelling that appeals to you?

To take the last part of the question first, I’ve loved ghost stories since I was a child, so it just seemed natural to try my hand at writing one.  But why?  Why do we like being scared by a story?  Is it because it gives us a chance to explore the great questions about life and death?  Does it paradoxically make us feel safe, to be thoroughly frightened in the comfort of our own home by something which we can tell ourselves is merely a work of fiction?  Or is it that we crave strong emotions, and fear is one of the strongest of all?  I don’t know, and I have to say that as a writer, my concern is less with the why (which I prefer to leave to my subconscious) than with the how.  How does one go about frightening people?  As with all my writing, with Dark Matter, a good deal of objective analysis came first; then once I was actually writing it and experiencing the haunting with Jack, the subjective element took over.  However I have to say that with Dark Matter, I did more planning than I usually do.  Usually when I write a story, I’m careful not to read other writers in the same genre, as I don’t want to be influenced, but with Dark Matter I approached things differently.  I’d read that MR James used to analyze other writers of the genre, so with that illustrious precedent in mind, I re-read my entire collection of ghost story anthologies.

Which brings me to your question about influences.  In the sense of favourite ghost stories being influences, there were many, including (but without limitation) The Kit-Bag by Algernon Blackwood; The Upper Berth by F Marion Crawford; Man-size in Marble by E Nesbit; The Jolly Corner by Henry James; Miss De Mannering of Asham by FM Mayor; The Open Door by Margaret Oliphant; At Chrighton Abbey by ME Braddon; The Little Ghost by Hugh Walpole; How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery by EF Benson; The Signalman by Charles Dickens; At the End of the Passage by Rudyard Kipling, All Souls’ by Edith Wharton; and, of course, pretty much all of MR James, but particularly Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.  Most of these are Victorian, Edwardian, or from the early part of the twentieth century.  Of more recent works, I’d single out The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – although that too is in the tradition of the classic Victorian ghost story.

In a way, all of these writers influenced Dark Matter, as they’ve shaped my idea of what a good ghost story should be; but if I had to pick one writer above all, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s MR James.  In fact, re-reading his work provided me with a few principles which helped when I came to write the story.  These include the notion that my ghost must have consciousness and intent; he must be malevolent; the haunting must be progressive, and evoked by means of suggestion rather than explicit horror; the setting must be realistic and convincing, so that in turn the haunting feels real; and Jack should be essentially innocent, undeserving of the haunting.

Another principle I elicited from MR James was his use of tradition.  By subtly invoking folklore and old beliefs about ghosts – such as the notion of whistling up spirits, or the prohibition against speaking to a ghost – he creates a sense in the reader that his ghosts are real, because they’ve been “verified by antiquity”, to borrow a phrase from Julia Briggs (Night Visitors: the rise and fall of the English ghost story, 1977).  I consciously adopted the use of tradition as one of my principles.

So in answer to your question about whether Dark Matter is a “traditional” ghost story, yes it is, and this was very much my intention.  For instance, the use of the letter to open the story is a classic “framing” device; the journal form of the story (harking back to Dracula – if you’ll forgive the pun); Eriksson’s dark warnings, and so on… All were deliberately used to evoke a sense of recognition and inevitability in the reader.

I am reminded, in particular, of James’ The Turn of the Screw, where we are never quite sure about the ‘reality’ of the ghost, and, for me, Jack’s ghost is a psychological manifestation. However, in interviews you seem to reject a psychological reading of the text, stating that the ghost is ‘real’ – something we Gothicists generally find hard to swallow!  Can you say some more about the ‘reality’ of the ghost versus Jack’s psychological state?

I decided at the outset that my ghost would be real, rather than a symptom of Jack’s emotional state, which is why I made sure that it’s not only Jack who is haunted, but also Gus, Algie, and even Isaak the dog.  I wanted the ghost to be real, partly in reaction to The Turn of the Screw – which I admire, but have never found particularly frightening – but mainly because I didn’t want to limit the story to an examination of what solitude and darkness can do to a man.  I wanted chiefly to explore what it would mean if consciousness could survive death, which is something I find far more horrifying than psychosis.

But writing a novel is never predictable, and when I was writing Dark Matter, I did find Jack becoming more disturbed than I’d anticipated, perhaps because it was only when I was going through the polar night with him that I felt the full effect of his isolation.  I suppose this means that the “psychological” explanation became more plausible than I’d intended – although it remains a reading that I don’t myself find totally convincing.

I’ve been surprised that many readers have inferred the sort of psychological ambiguity which wasn’t my original aim; but readers often interpret things in ways I didn’t intend or anticipate, and this is something I find intriguing rather than a source of dismay.

This is a book best read at one sitting, preferably on a dark, wintry afternoon/evening with the sun going quickly down, was the book’s length intentional?

Reading the book on a dark winter’s day is exactly what I’d suggest, and you’re right, I was quite deliberate about the length.  I felt that for the story to work, it would need a fairly simple, linear plot, with few characters, and a strong onwards momentum.  I also thought it would work best if it was short enough to be read at a single sitting, thereby not allowing the reader time to come up for air, but keeping him or her marooned with Jack in the polar night.

Amongst other things, Jack clearly goes on the Arctic expedition to escape his past, and there are many references to the fact that he hates ‘all this raking up of the past’, and ‘all this pawing over ruins’, indeed he insists on tearing down the old trapper’s hut and then the bear post which is the focus of much horror.  However, none of this stops the past resurfacing; but is it the past of the land, or Jack’s own past? Would you agree that rather than Jack finding something in the Arctic, he brought something to the Arctic with him in the first place?

I’m afraid I can’t agree that it’s a case of “either/or”.  I think it’s pretty indisputable that Jack learns about something horrifying which happened at Gruhuken in the recent past.  However, of course he also brings his own past with him – in the sense that we all carry our pasts with us, wherever we go – so to an extent he does come to learn more about himself, too.  Thus I think both are true, rather than one or the other.

The contrasts between light and dark are striking in this novel, and it is interesting to note that, for Jack, the ‘light should prevent one from seeing’.  Jack only begins to see the ghost after ‘First Dark’, and the sightings increase as the nights get longer.  He states that it is hard getting used to ‘that sense of the dark gaining ascendancy’, and for me this could be read ambiguously.  Can you agree that, along with the physical dark, it is Jack’s own ‘dark side’ that is gaining ascendancy (remembering that other ambiguous statement earlier in the text, ‘I suppose he means because I’m dark’)?   Also, Jack’s psyche splits during the course of the text: ‘I notice that I address myself as “we”.  Not “I” or “you” or “Jack”’, and he increasingly sees his own reflection in windows and eyes without always recognising them.  Is this solely down to cabin fever?

I never envisaged that Jack would have a particularly pronounced “dark side”.  I don’t see him as a bad man, merely lonely and repressed, and he certainly doesn’t have any “dark” secrets – apart from his sexuality, which he’s been keeping secret even from himself (and which is only “dark” because he’s living at a time when homosexuality is criminalized).  What I did intend was that the onset of the polar night would mirror Jack’s increasing awareness of the dark side of existence: of Man’s capacity for cruelty, of the indifference of nature, of the terror of death and the horror of what might come after.  As to his psyche being split, I didn’t intend to suggest actual psychosis, but rather the more subtle doubts and self-questionings which prolonged solitude and darkness might bring on.  Obviously, though, my intentions in writing the story are one thing.  Your perceptions as readers are another, and I’m pleased to come across readings that I hadn’t anticipated.

Repression features largely in the novel, most notably Jack’s sexuality.  Jack dismisses talking things over, because ‘talking about it would make it real’, and when he reflects, in his journal, on an incident from his past he says, ‘I don’t want to think about it, so I won’t … I refuse to write it down.’  He also admits in his journal that he has ‘been selective’ about what he writes.  This makes Jack an extremely unreliable narrator, wouldn’t you agree?

The notion of the unreliable narrator is, I think, quite a well-worn one, and it’s not one I find particularly interesting as a writer – at least, not in the sense of having it at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing.  But having said that, I always knew that the book would be in the first person, and this was partly because it gave me such scope for different interpretations as to what happens, how and when Jack reports them, what he leaves out, and so on.  So – er, you may be right after all.

I presume that the incident that Jack doesn’t want to think about is the gratuitous torture and blinding of a dog by some older boys which Jack witnessed when he was little.  Other than linking it to the supposed and imagined torture of the trapper, what is the importance of this incident to the narrative, the blinding in particular?

The main point of the incident was simply to foreshadow the trapper’s death by relating another instance of cruelty, and hence to make the reader fearful that there might be worse to come.  As to any wider significance, I prefer to leave it to the individual reader; but I did feel that the fact that the incident involved a blinding fitted well with the themes of perception, light and dark. 

Dark Matter is written in a spare and simple style, which is completely deceptive.  This is a book which rewards a second reading (personally, I’m on my third).  As with all the very best ghost stories we are never completely secure in our interpretation of events.  Was this your intention?

A good ghost story achieves its effects through suggestion, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.  So yes, I did want the reader to feel insecure as to how to interpret what’s happening – although as I’ve said above, it wasn’t my intention to favour the “psychological” interpretation in the way that some readers have. 

The more I read Dark Matter, the more Jack’s character chills me.  To me, Jack kills the thing he loves – Gus – then (albeit subconsciously) manoeuvres his way into an upper-class society that he has long wished to be a part of.  His semi-adoption by Gus’s parents is particularly chilling: ‘They thought me the very pattern of what an Englishman should be.’  (I am reminded here of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley). In addition, he focuses all his affection on the dog, an affectation that he had initially ridiculed as a preserve of the upper classes. The dog seems to function both as a link back to Gus, and as a substitute for him, as Jack continues to live out his life repressing the true nature of his sexuality in Jamaica.  Do you see any credibility in an analysis like this, or do you find it fanciful on the part of the  reader?

Blimey, I did not see that coming!  First: the charge of killing Gus.  Does Jack kill Gus?  He jumps overboard to save him.  I don’t think there’s much foundation for another interpretation.  Second: the charge of social climbing.  Hmm, certainly he doesn’t do this consciously, and my own view is that by maintaining ties with Gus’ parents, he’s seeking indirectly to prolong his ties with Gus.  However I can see that, on both counts, Jack’s actions are open to your interpretation, and I suppose this shows how different readers can come up with radically different views based on the same events.

I have to say, though, that it was never my intention to make Jack a social climber, or a chilling character.  I’ve always felt incredibly sorry for him.  After all, he’s lonely and repressed, and just at the time when he starts to blossom, he suffers an appalling ordeal and loses the love of his life.  But this isn’t to say that I deplore the alternative reading of him.  I’m used to creating characters who provoke disparate responses in different readers.  That’s just one of the interesting things about writing.

Ah well, I may have looked too long and too hard at that – it’s the training!  I acknowledge that we can sometimes be guilty of forcing meaning on a text that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; but I thank you for indulging me, and wholeheartedly agree that alternative readings, and the discussions they provoke, are one of the most interesting and important things about literature in the whole.  Thank you so much, Michelle, for taking the time to answer my questions, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thoroughly recommend Dark Matter as the perfect Christmas present or stocking-filler for lovers of the traditional ghost story.

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For those of you who don’t want to wait till Christmas, however, we have two paperback copies of Dark Matter to give away.  To be in with a chance of winning one of these, simply answer the following question:

In Dark Matter, Jack and his colleagues cross the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun and arrive in Gruhuken where they will spend the year.  But the Arctic summer is brief and polar night soon engulfs the camp in months of darkness. As night returns to claim the land, Jack increasingly loses his grip on reality.  The effect of 24-hour darkness or 24-hour daylight on the psyche is a common trope in Norwegian film and literature.  To win a copy of Dark Matter can you simply identify the 1997 Norwegian film (and its subsequent 2002 Hollywood remake of the same name, in which the action is moved to Alaska) which is concerned with the notion of 24-hour daylight?

Email your answer to me at sharon.deans@stir.ac.uk before 6.00 pm on Monday 14 November. The winners will be the first two names drawn from the hat, and will be notified by Wednesday 16 November (this competition is limited to UK readers).

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