author of Katherine Carlyle
Other Press: Katherine listens to and references a lot of music in this novel, including “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” What part does music play in your life and in your writing?
Rupert Thomson: I listen to a lot of music, but mostly on my phone, while traveling, or in the car. I never listen to music when I’m writing. Favorite artists include Howling Wolf, Cesaria Evora, Roxy Music, Nirvana, Diego Cigala, Van Morrison, Björk, The Fall, Diamanda Galas, and Nick Cave. It’s hard to keep up-to-date though. At the moment I’m listening to the soundtrack from the Iranian vampire movie The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night. Since music is something that defines people, it sometimes helps me to create a character. In Katherine Carlyle, the fact that Massimo puts on Suicide and then Miles Davis late at night tells you something about who he is. So does the fact that Kit’s father sings Dinah Washington songs badly when he’s driving. When my memoir This Party’s Got to Stop came out, there was so much music in it that the UK publisher made a CD and sent it to booksellers. It was an eclectic mix, everything from Jacques Brel to Alien Sex Fiend.
OP: Throughout the novel Katherine returns again and again to one of her favorite films, Antonioni’s The Passenger. What do you think about how consciousness is inhabited in fiction as opposed to in film? Are there any films that have had as deep an impact on you as The Passenger has had on Katherine?
RT: In the first draft of Katherine Carlyle I referenced The Passenger instinctively, without realizing how fitting it would turn out to be. I simply thought it was a film that someone of David Carlyle’s generation—also my generation—would have seen and admired. Also, David Carlyle might be attracted by the fact that the film is about a foreign correspondent—i.e., someone in the same profession. Gradually, though, I realized that the movie’s protagonist echoed my protagonist: they were both self-destructive while appearing to be spontaneous and carefree. Perhaps Kit even subconsciously imitates the story arc of her father’s favorite film in the hope that it might help him to follow her and find her. In any case, I found all kinds of ways in which the two narratives could play off each other.
In films you’re looking at people from the outside. It’s about surfaces—what you can decipher from what you’re being shown. In fiction you’re more likely to be inside, looking out. The miracle of fiction is that it allows you to inhabit different thought patterns, different characters, different worlds. You get to spend time in other people’s heads. No other art form penetrates human consciousness in quite the same way.
So many films have had an impact on me. A short list of directors I keep returning to would include Wong Kar Wai, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fassbinder, Billy Wilder, Wim Wenders, Paul Thomas Anderson, Visconti, John Cassavetes, Claude Chabrol, and Harmony Korine. Most recently I’ve become obsessed with Bela Tarr’s film of Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango. Some individual scenes last almost half an hour. You stop expecting jump-cuts, or even editing. (In an interview Bela Tarr’s editor once said: “The important thing is to know where not to cut.”) Watching becomes a form of meditation. I’m always looking for films that challenge the medium, that attempt what Susan Sontag once called a “heroic violation of the norms.”
OP: Katherine Carlyle is your tenth novel, and you’re well known for tackling widely varying subjects and genres in your writing. What is it that keeps you engaged with your work on a day-to-day basis?
RT: I have never felt that the word “genre” applies to my work. It’s just not relevant. The books are the books. They might have a thriller dynamic or horror elements, they might masquerade as historical novels, they might even appear speculative, as Margaret Atwood’s often do. In the end, though, they don’t fit any of the boxes. In the past critics have compared me to writers as different as Gabriel García Márquez and Elmore Leonard. I have also been compared to Dickens, Kafka, J. G. Ballard, Mervyn Peake, and David Lynch. I’ve even been compared to Grace Jones. Perhaps “genre-defying” is the best way of putting it. Critics also talk about my unpredictability. I actually think the books have more in common than they seem to think. The subjects and settings may vary, but the lack of similarity is superficial. Dig deeper, and you begin to see certain themes recurring. That said, I don’t feel I should be too aware of those themes. Self-consciousness is a form of constriction. All I’m interested in is what is coming next. The next challenge, the next journey into the unknown. The only interesting book is the one I haven’t written yet.
What keeps me engaged on a daily basis? Only last week my brother asked me if it was true that I worked seven hours a day, seven days a week. I told him it was. I couldn’t do that, he said. I couldn’t sit in a room all alone for seven hours a day. Then he said, I don’t know how you do that. I smiled. I can’t imagine living any other way, I said. I get to inhabit so many different worlds. I get to live all these different lives. Because—to paraphrase William Burroughs—if you don’t actually experience what you’re writing, if you don’t live it, it won’t feel authentic. Writing isn’t about any one particular book. It’s a life’s work. I think Günter Grass said that. The books are successive attempts to capture something, to get something right. But that “something” is always just out of reach. Perfection is necessarily elusive.
OP: You do a remarkable job of illustrating the world as Katherine moves through it, from Rome to Berlin to Arkhangel’sk. Did you travel or do any kind of research into these places?
RT: I wrote six or seven drafts of Katherine Carlyle without traveling anywhere at all. I knew Rome a little since I had lived there in the late 90s, and visited in the early 2000s. I’d lived in Berlin too, and spent a week in the city in 2007, researching locations. Russia and Svalbard were entirely unknown to me. For the first six or seven drafts I was content to imagine them, but I knew in the end that I would have to go, if only for a smell, a sound, a glimpse of something. I spent a week in Svalbard towards the end of September 2013, then traveled from Moscow to Arkhangel’sk with my brother some two months later. I had so many adventures! The reason why I insist that the writing comes first is because research of this kind—exotic, unpredictable—tends to provide too much material. The fiction is in danger of being swamped by real experience. If you aren’t careful, the novel morphs into a diary, or a travelogue. I like to distinguish between real facts and imagined facts. In a novel, the imagined facts must always take precedence. The best way to research is to do the imagining and then to set out on a quest for what has been imagined. Much of what I experienced and discovered in Russia and in the Arctic Circle was eventually discarded, including a whole chapter in the extraordinarily atmospheric steel town of Cherepovets, and yet a kind of flavor lingers—and I used certain locations and encounters, or versions of those locations and encounters, when they fitted into the book I had already written, or when they enriched or illuminated Katherine’s particular psychology. In the end, my two great hopes are that the novel feels perfectly authentic, and that the many hours of research don’t show.
OP: What is it about IVF that made you want to use it as an avenue to explore identity and the dynamics of a family? Was it difficult to inhabit Katherine’s mind?
RT: In the early 2000s I read a newspaper article reporting the birth in Barcelona of a child who had been frozen as an embryo for the previous thirteen years. Thirteen years. I instantly saw those years as a period of waiting. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the child had a sibling who had been born nine months after the original fertilization. In other words, the child had a sister—or a brother—who had once been the same age but was now thirteen years older. The child who was born second had missed thirteen years of his/her sibling’s life. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but see IVF—and especially cryopreservation—as some kind of metaphor. At first I thought about the sense of slippage, the idea that somebody could be two ages at once (in the novel Katherine says she is 19, but also 27, since she was frozen for eight years). Later, I began to see those years in the freezer as a very modern form of abandonment. In the novel Katherine uses the unique circumstances of her conception as the trigger for a journey of transformation. In traveling north, towards the Arctic Circle, she is in some sense returning to the place where she began. Psychologists call it “repetition compulsion.” As a fiction writer, I saw all kinds of possibilities in the fact that a young woman’s pre-existence could haunt—and influence—her real existence.
By the time I read that article I had already entered the world of IVF myself. My daughter was an IVF baby. She was also frozen while still an embryo, though only for three months. I found the science miraculous but hard to believe in. The techniques were still so new that nobody could predict what the physical and psychological consequences might be. I felt I was going into the unknown. I felt awe, but also fear. (An early title for the book was Frankenstein’s Daughter.) All this uncertainty and conjecture led to what I hope is an unexpected and gripping first sentence: I was made in a small square dish.
Inhabiting Katherine’s mind was something that came naturally to me. I didn’t have to work at it. I didn’t even have to invent her. She was just suddenly there, from one day to the next. It was as though she had always been there, waiting to be written about. And she came complete—with a physical presence, a voice, and an agenda. She came to me so naturally, in fact, that I became suspicious. I decided to try to distance myself from her by writing the third draft of the book in the third person. It was a disaster from page one, but I went through with it, all the way to the end. And it was good that I did. In the process, I learned why a first person narrative was so crucial for this particular book. Katherine Carlyle is an ecstatic novel. It’s narrated by a young woman in a state of wrongheaded exaltation. She is convinced that she has found the key to her existence, the right way to live, and as a result of this conviction she is highly persuasive. I felt that if I told the story from outside, readers would be less persuaded, less intrigued. Furthermore—and crucially—I could only shift seamlessly between Katherine’s account of her own life and her imaginary account of her father’s life if I wrote in the first person. If I used any other voice, the dreamlike quality would be lost, and the narrative would become awkward and unconvincing.