In Conversation with Alice Thompson

Posted by Matt Foley on June 13, 2013 in Blog, Interviews tagged with , ,

On Friday 7th June 2013 Alice Thompson was kind enough to sit down with The Gothic Imagination to discuss her latest book Burnt Island. Her novels, which include Justine (1996), Pharos (2002), The Falconer (2008) and The Existential Detective (2010), are often polemics for the primacy of the imagination. Her latest piece charts the troubled story of Max Long who, harbouring ambitions of mainstream recognition, becomes writer in residence on a remote, often surreal, Scottish island. As Alice discusses below, influences upon her body of work include Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and the Scottish landscape. Burnt Island is out now courtesy of Salt.


MF: Thanks for talking to The Gothic Imagination Alice; it’s very kind of you. I have a couple of questions about your new novel Burnt Island (2013) to begin.

Reviews of the novel have read it predominantly as a satire of male writers.  In particular, it has been seen as a critique of the central literary characters Max Long and James Fairfax. Do you feel that ‘satire’ is an exacting description or does it miss the nuances of what you were trying to achieve?

AT:  Indeed, I myself decided to describe the book in this way as I was worried that people would miss its humour. I felt that my initial and early readers missed the ironic note to Max’s predicament. So, I asked my wonderful editor Nick Royle if he would put in the word ‘satire’ so that people came to the book aware that there was a level of irony to it: in the way that Muriel Spark uses irony, a dry sense of humour that I think that — on a quick reading — people may miss.

MF: Does the somewhat awkward protagonist Max become more sympathetic to the reader as the novel progresses?

AT: I had a lot of sympathy for Max. I did see him very much as hapless – he is not your conventional hero – and I do play with the idea of character development. He does become more active. His writing and the lack of love for his son are his limitations. I think that as he is on the island he becomes more aware of these.

MF: The satire seems clear in the name – Max Long – as you might expect a different type of male character.

AT:  I realised this after I finished. I was looking at the word ‘long’ as in ‘longing’ – he is deeply romantic and dissatisfied. The reason I chose it was because of this idea of wish-fulfillment on Max’s part. He is longing for success in his career, longing for love, and longing for some kind of resolution to his lack of contentment.

MF: That’s interesting because the description of ‘longing’ is often applied to Natalie – James’s missing wife. She is described as having longed for something that ultimately she could not have.

AT: Yes, that’s true. I suppose that the only character who doesn’t really long is James.

MF: And James seems to be a more classically Gothic and tyrannical figure. For example, his incest with Rose that is at first veiled but is then rendered more explicitly later.

AT: Yes, he is linked to Lucifer.  In a way he is Max’s alter-ego, he has his dark side, but he is also what he would like to be: successful, handsome and charismatic.

MF: Is a more serious satirical element the idea that James’s success involves some form of Faustian pact with the publishing industry?

AT: Absolutely, I think that the main crux of the satire is Max’s overriding ambition to be successful and what he would do to placate James in order for James to support him. I suppose I was satirizing the lengths to which people will go to become successful.

MF:  A vampire does appear briefly, in a hallucinatory moment, in the figure of James’s agent Lance. Is this a metaphor for how you may view certain machinations of the London literary scene?

AT: I think only in my lower moments. Publishers are struggling just as much as writers in many ways. I look at the vampire motif in terms, also, of how writers are vampiric towards reality. Of course, you have the erotic undertone of the vampire. It’s a very powerful image and metaphor. In the monologue that James makes about the vampiric quality of the publishing world – the agents, the publishers – we mustn’t forget that James is an actor, he takes on the guise of a writer. Everything he says has to be seen through the prism of his deceptiveness. He has plagiarised Daniel’s novel. In many ways James is the true vampire.

MF: Interestingly, Max and Rose are in a sense repeating the romance of Daniel and Natalie. I know that you mention Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) explicitly in the novel. In The Shining Jack Torrance is repeating the descent into madness of the caretaker who preceded him at the Overlook. Indeed, it is often the case that haunting or mental disintegration in modern Gothic repeats the experiences of those who have gone before. Does this repetition add an uncanny element?

AT: I think that’s really true. I find the whole idea of doppelgangers and repetitions fascinating – Sylvia Plath was of course very interested in it. Repetition or replication in a novel or in a person throws up questions of who we are and our own state. It makes you query your identity; it makes us less certain. I think we all go round being uncertain to an extent of who we are. If you meet your double it emphasises that feeling of confusion.

MF:  Did you draw from The Shining for Burnt Island?

AT: Well, King did a review of one of my books in America. I read The Shining in my early twenties and again while I was writing Burnt Island. I thought it was an amazing book. I feel an affinity towards him. He is more complex that people often think. He’s a master of plot. The images of The Shining as Jack goes mad are visionary and terrifying. I read it before I saw Stanley Kubrick’s version and I was disappointed in the film. I love Kubrick but I felt it was a difficult film to make. I found the imagery a little heavy-handed. The references to King’s The Shining are tangential, perhaps, in Burnt Island. The central themes of the scene of writing, plagiarism and doubling make my novel distinct.

MF: I felt also that the novel is really an extension of many of the themes that permeate your other works. For example, in Justine (1996) there is the doubling of Justine with Juliette but, in a surreal turn, they seem ultimately to become two sides of the same person: Justine acts as a kind of ideal-ego, the successful and beautiful ice maiden; whereas, Juliette is more what you may expect a writer to be — messy and neurotic. This doubling seems to me to be part of a wider alignment that you could make between your own work and Freud’s essay on ‘the Uncanny’ (1919). In particular, the focus on repetition and animism (an example of the latter is Simon in Pharos (2002) and his gift for bringing to life the inanimate).

AT: In The Falconer (2008), as well, the two sisters are very much reflections of each other. I think it’s just something that I do unconsciously (as Freud would say).

MF: Perhaps ETA Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816) is a common source for you both? In The Existential Detective the allusions to the Sandman are manifest and many; while, in Burnt Island, there is the perceptive (and female) figure of the therapist Dr Hoffman. I wondered whether this was taken from Freud, or whether it is more of a nod to Angela Carter?

AT: It was probably both. Or at least Angela Carter was the medium. It’s difficult to know where these ideas come from but I’m very interested in Freud. I think my writing is about the unconscious. These themes are a preoccupation that I keep coming back to. But not because of Freud. Perhaps because Freud agrees with me, and he echoes my interests, there is a dialogue there with him.

MF: That’s interesting because many contemporary female writers are keen to re-write Freud?

AT: I agree; he’s very out of fashion, that’s really true. I love his interest in dreams; some of his writing on sexuality is really interesting. I’m sure there are things you could find in him that are dubious but I think that he was an incredibly imaginative man. He understands how the creative impulses permeate our world.

MF: In terms of dream symbolism, I wondered if the Freudian idea of condensation – where one dream image may have multiple sources and connotations – could be considered as representative of how metaphor is employed in your fiction?

AT: I quite agree with that. And from my memories of reading Jacques Lacan and other psychoanalytical theory (I have read Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, for example) this is another reason that I’m drawn to Freud. I’m very interested in language and poetic imagery. He is someone who invites the analysis of language.

MF: Lacan’s famous mantra that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ comes to mind here. Perhaps one of the connotations of this phrase — drawn directly from Freud — is that dreams also are structured like a language, ultimately shaping desires.

AT: I think that analogy sums up one of the central reasons why I am compelled to write.

MF: You are concerned consistently in your work with the boundary between waking and dream realities. Burnt Island seems to put this idea forward most prominently of your novels to date.

AT: It’s very interesting that you should say this. It was only after writing that I realised that it was almost like a blueprint. It highlights and makes explicit what I do in my other books.

MF: Thinking in a more literary register, William Blake’s idea of the imagination as the primary faculty of the mind, one that encompasses reason, seems important to your work. Not just in the naming of the protagonist Will Blake from The Existential Detective (2010), but in terms of the ways that you engage with the imagination elsewhere. You seem to be a writer primarily concerned with the sovereignty of the imagination. Is that fair?

AT: Yes, well I think that Henry James’s interest in perception and subjectivity resonates here. There is a very narrow line between our own individual perceptions and our own imaginations forming perceptions. It’s impossible to disengage one’s unique vision of the world from ourselves. I’m very interested in how we each see the world differently and how imagination informs our vision. It’s a question of what is real and how our sensibilities affect what we see.

MF: The Gothic has always engaged with dreams, since the Gothic Romance figured the dream as a warning, or a premonition, of a trauma that is yet to come.

AT: Yes, I like very much the ways that our dreams and instincts are often more truthful than we give them credit for. One of my favourite quotes from Burnt Island is when Dr Hoffman says, ‘It wasn’t poetry but reason that sent me mad’. Thinking of Blake believing in the primacy of imagination – I sometimes think that reason gets us into trouble far more than imagination. In another line from the book, when he is discussing the collapse of his marriage, James Fairfax suggests that – when its premises are wrong – logic can take you to dangerous places.

MF: You’ve already explained that the way you work is to unconsciously let the words fall upon the page, but are there not recurring figures or symbols in your work? I am thinking, for example, of a link between Esther in Burnt Island and Grace in Pharos; a consistent concern is evident with young girls, trauma and forgetting.

AT: Again that’s very interesting. That’s perhaps the age that I started to become aware of my imagination and I’m attracted to that age. I think it’s a special time to be a girl: it’s pre-puberty and the world seems straightforward and linear. There’s a liberty and directness at that age that perhaps gets lost during adolescence and afterwards.

MF: Is there a link here, too, to The Existential Detective? William, in his capacity as a private detective, is looking for an older girl – Louise Verver – who has lost her memory. Waiting for memory to return is one of your key narrative hooks.

AT: I have noticed that. Again, it’s not deliberate but it is a recurring theme.  In a way it’s an analogy for writing. I have found that when I write a book I try to recall the existence of it. Someone else has described it as writing so as to find out what is happening. I keep coming back to this theme of amnesia because I write in a state of amnesia. It’s only when I finish the book that I remember what it is.

MF: It’s interesting to me that James’s novel is entitled Lifeblood, which is a word that appears in your other novels on occasion. In Justine its use is clearly vampiric in nature – it carries a more traditional Gothic sense – but in Burnt Island it’s linked to the creative act too. The connotations of blood as an object for the vampire are displaced onto creativity.

AT: Yes, again I would talk about the demonic possession of when you write. There’s very much a bloody, dark aspect to writing. I also was looking at the conflict between the imagination and the material world. There is Daniel’s book called Songs of Imagination which is then metamorphosed by James into Lifeblood. Again, there is a tension between our vision and our mortality.

MF: Rendering a Gothic register in your work is a set of images that put death at the very heart of life, sexual relationships and hallucinatory experiences. I’m thinking here of Max’s vision of Rose dying in the rock pool in Burnt Island; she becomes an Ophelia-esque figure.

AT: I think Burnt Island is where I am looking at mortality more directly and the idea of the doppelganger being prophetic of death. In an odd way it’s one of the attractions of the Gothic. Once you start looking at death life becomes very precious.

MF: In terms of the geography of the island, early on in the novel, there are instances of Max teetering on the brink of cliff faces, and the idea of almost falling is central. I wonder if this is suggestive of the tightrope your protagonists walk between life and death.

AT: That’s absolutely right. There is a lot of falling and of course Max has a fear of heights. It’s that idea of there being a narrow line between life and death – just requiring one step. Of course, there is falling in love and dying.

MF: The sparseness of your prose has certain positive qualities, particularly in terms of focus, and I wonder if you see yourself as a writer primarily of novellas?

AT: These are short novels rather than novellas. I do edit my books down so that they in some ways become a series of suggestions and images. That’s always been the process of my writing; the more I work on my book the shorter it gets. I would compare it not so much to a novella as to poems. You mentioned the condensation of an image – the meaning or significance of an image may last for ten pages.

MF: Is the sea a recurrent metaphor for the imagination in your work?

AT: Hopelessly that is the case: I’m very drawn to the sea on a personal level. It’s like a canvas. The landscape of Shetland very much informs Burnt Island; the west coast of Scotland does too. I’m very affected by landscape and the natural world. I love the wildness and the architecture of Shetland and the west coast, the incredible rock formations, which are structurally very dynamic. You also get the most incredible sunset. I think that the east coast is to an extent more ominous because there is less to look at.

MF: Would you regard yourself as a Scottish writer who fits with your contemporaries?

AT: Yes, well, Alexander McCall Smith is a writer who is very interested in language too. There is no doubt that being Scottish has affected how I write. The landscape affects it and there is a tradition of a Scottish Gothic that has very much influenced me. Muriel Spark is one of my favourite writers and there’s a dark realism to her writing which I very much identify with. Her weirdness is under-estimated. So, yes, I would definitely say that there is a Scottish lineage to my writing.

MF: There are other influences too. For example your novel Justine (1996) reminds me distinctly of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – a film that you mention explicitly in the book. Hitchcock was a master of the uncanny. I’m thinking here of The Birds (1963) and that moment in Marnie (1964) in which the mother’s shadow hangs eerily over Marnie’s bedroom door.  Did you glean The Birds allusions from Du Maurier or Hitchcock?

AT: Well Vertigo is a brilliant film of doubling. Actually I love Daphne Du Maurier too – The Falconer was a homage to her – but I didn’t realise until years later that Hitchcock’s version of The Birds was based on her story. I love the artifice of the film, the icy weirdness of it, the lack of any attempt at realism, and the glacial Technicolor.

MF: Is there also the surreal influence of David Lynch informing your work?

AT: I love David Lynch – Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet. He very much influenced my earlier works. It’s difficult to say how someone influences you; I think I realised this in retrospect. Early on I thought that David Lynch could have made a film of my work. It’s making dreams real that I love. You accept dreams as reality without explanation. My writing is very visual and it comes back to the idea of the poetic image: how you visualise and then read an image.

MF: Changing tact slightly — but still considering imagery — the epigraph from Burnt Island is taken from Plato’s The Republic. There does seem to be a link between your view of the Platonic Idea and your employment of imagery. Can you articulate this? Is it related to the purity of imagery and symbolism?

AT: There are certain references to the epigraph as the novel progresses, particularly in terms of how it can be difficult to see what is illusion and what is real. No matter how many times reality is pointed out to us we prefer illusion. I wasn’t so much looking at Plato’s notion of the purity of form – it’s very much focused on the central idea of that particular passage I use as the epigraph. It’s about people’s dreams and desires obscuring alternative realities.

MF: The escapism that comes from this imaginary world is something that you canvas for throughout your oeuvre; but when Max is travelling to Burnt Island it is a ‘ferryman’ that takes him. Is this space of the imagination purgatorial or hellish?

AT: The island is a crucible for Max. It is definitely the beginning of the end for him. Coming back to the point you made about Plato – I do believe that the truth will set you free. Burnt Island is a place where Max finds out about the truth. But this imaginary realm becomes almost too much to bear.

MF: Does the title Burnt Island suggest refining fires?

AT:  It works on a few levels. There is the destructive nature of the imagination, and the phoenix rising from it. This idea that we end up dead – as ashes – is important too.

MF: Your work is a polemic for the imagination. It often reminded me of the description of Guido in Dante’s Purgatorio. He is said to ‘jump back into the fires that refine him’ as if willing – almost joyfully – to return to a space which purifies yet is intensely painful. Do your protagonists jump back into this imaginary world in spite of the pain?

AT: Yes, the pain and the grief. I think that’s very much what Burnt Island is about: the battle one has between being imaginative and creative, and living one’s life happily. It does sound a cliché to a degree.

MF: Well, again, it is Blake who uses often the figure of the artist howling alone in the desert as a warning of what may happen if one is too creative.

AT: It reminds me also of Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874). It’s quite Blakean: that idea of being the loner who has these incredible visions in the desert. And the problem is whether that imagination is read by other people and how it is understood. There is a humorous interchange in Burnt Island between James and Max about who reads his novels: they are overly-symbolic and only the prejudiced are said not to understand them. Being understood is a lot to ask for an artist.

MF: These are meanings that are beyond realism in some sense. You are not a realist writer and that distinguishes you from your Scottish contemporaries perhaps.

AT: That is why I mention Muriel Spark – she is not a realist writer. If you think of Irvine Welsh and James Kelman they are formalist and they are interested in language. There are moments of surrealism in Kelman and hallucinatory moments in Welsh. There is a Scottish tendency, though, towards realism.

Shetland, Scotland. Alice Thompson was writer in residence in 2000

MF: Has this led new Scottish novelists to prefer to adopt this distinctly Scottish voice?

AT: Perhaps it’s a symptom of publishing; it’s difficult to know what comes first. I think it’s easier to sell something if it’s branded. You can become a slave to a country’s idiom and I think that’s very much driven by market forces. It’s difficult to know whether this attachment to realism is a natural inclination or whether it’s a subconscious attempt to gain a part of the literary market. The last three or four of my books have been set in Scotland, does this make me Scottish? Is it the geographical location? There are so many ways in which to be Scottish.

MF: Burnt Island is certainly metafictional Gothic but it is also a surrealist piece. Were you pleased with Iain Rankin’s description of The Existential Detective as Kafka-esque in this sense?

AT: I love Kafka but he is not an intentional source; when Iain Rankin mentioned this I was delighted. I hope that there is a philosophical element to my writing that I feel Kafka has as well. There’s a sense also of an organising force that isn’t on the page.

MF: I was interested also in the cross-gendered narration of many of your works. The male protagonist in Justine is certainly not sympathetically conveyed; but there seems to be an affinity between author and narrator in The Existential Detective and Burnt Island.

AT: It’s fair to say that. It’s always a major decision for me in writing a book to work out the gender of the narrator. I do find that writing from a male perspective in a way helps me to be a little more objective. Writing Max was a thorny issue for me as I did have to detach myself from him. For instance, when he stutters with his writing he is always Max, he isn’t my mouth-piece. Max’s identity is perhaps primarily as a writer rather than a man.

MF: I was wondering if there was a novel coming from you that would render the labyrinthine spaces of Edinburgh? You’ve already set your work in London, the Scottish Highland and Islands, and in Portobello.

AT: That’s a really good question. But like Max says in Burnt Island, I don’t like to talk about my work as it may jinx it. Certainly, it’s very important for me to find a place, because I start my writing with place.

MF: Yes, and it seems that you are drawn consistently to the spaces of Scottish Gothic. Alice Thompson, thank you for your time.

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