Photo credit: Heidi Stoner
Describe your latest book.
My debut novel, Elmet
, was published by Algonquin on December 3. It’s about a family of three — a father and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy — who build a house for themselves in a copse in rural Yorkshire, on land they don’t own. They live almost self-sufficiently for a time, away from the world, in a paradise of their own making. They hunt, they fish, they grow vegetables, and they spend their evenings smoking, drinking, and singing. The father, known throughout as "Daddy," is a giant of a man and a bare-knuckle boxer, who earns a living fighting in illegal bouts. After a time, however, the local landowners begin to take notice of this family in the copse, and try to move them on. The local community get behind Daddy, Daniel, and Cathy, and what follows is a clash of wills between two groups with a history of animosity.
What was your favorite book as a child?
. I would love to have a more unusual or sophisticated answer to that question, but I’m afraid I don’t. I loved the Harry Potter books with my whole heart. Moreover, I feel that I can claim something of a special relationship with them, as I liked them "before they were cool." My dad bought me a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
(as it’s called in the UK) for Christmas 1997, just after it had come out in paperback. I still remember the sensation of reading it for the first time, fresh, without any expectations or preconceptions. Being a very snooty 9-year-old, my first thought on the opening paragraph was: “Hmm, a bit clichéd.” Soon, however, I was hooked and I actually remember vocalizing “wow” the moment I had finished it, before immediately starting over again. I lent the book in turn to all my friends and — having heard somewhere there was going to be a sequel — I went to the local bookshops and asked about it. Nobody had heard of Harry Potter or this fabled sequel, but I managed to get a hardback first edition of Chamber of Secrets
a few months later, as soon as it came out. It would probably be worth a lot of money now if it wasn’t so thoroughly dog-eared.
When did you know you were a writer?
I made that decision quietly soon after finishing Elmet
. I didn’t yet have a publishing contract and I had told very few people that I had finished a novel or even that I had been writing one. However, following discussions with my partner, I decided that writing was going to be my priority. I knew full well that it might not be possible to make a living from it, and that I would probably have to continue working other jobs to remain solvent, but it was at that point that I made the decision that it would be my vocation (which is, after all, a very different thing from a job). That said, I didn’t start describing myself as "a writer" out loud and to strangers until after I was nominated for the Man Booker prize this summer. That’s when it felt real.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have many workspaces! I have a desk in a study that I share with my partner (who is working on a PhD). We work there together while our dog lounges on the guest bed. I also have a designated desk in a communal space at The University of York, where I’m enrolled. I enjoy working in cafes while drinking black coffee, and in pubs while drinking a pint of Yorkshire beer (served at room temperature, of course). More often that not, however, I find myself typing while slumped on my sofa with my laptop resting on my knees. Or on trains. I love to write on trains.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
This question took the longest to answer. My first thought was: “Well, I can think of a lot of things I care about less
than most people around me.” However, after thinking about it for a while, I can identify a few. One thing that really bugs me is a jobsworth. I’m not sure if “jobsworth” is a word you have in the US, but it’s essentially someone — usually a person who works in administration — who goes out of their way to be difficult. A jobsworth follows company policy to the letter. A jobsworth won’t overlook minor infractions. Jobsworths really bug me.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Having readers is a relatively new experience for me. I still can’t quite believe that I ever managed to finish writing a novel, let alone get it published, let alone have people reading it. That said, one of the best things about the whole experience has been having this story, that existed for so long within my own mind, appear suddenly in the minds of others. Some readers have had some really interesting takes on the novel. Unfortunately, for the most part, these takes have been on the ending, which I don’t want to give away!
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m a really, really, really slow reader.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I like John Burnside an awful lot, both his poetry and his prose. For the former, begin with Black Cat Bone
. For the latter, I would recommend The Devil’s Footprints
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I have obsessive tendencies and I would be a real hoarder if I didn’t keep myself in check. I therefore have a "one out, one in" policy. Many 35mm film cameras have passed through my hands, but I don’t allow myself to collect them. I buy one from eBay, I use it for a while, get to know its idiosyncrasies, then I sell it and buy another. My current camera is an Agfa 535. It’s very portable and cute and fun to use. I suppose I’ll know more about it when I come to develop the photos.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I spent a summer working at a betting stand at my local racecourse. It was great fun because I only ever encountered very excited or happy customers. Either they would come to me to place a bet for the next race, fully expecting to win, or they would come just after their horse had won to collect their winnings. Either way, they were full of joy. Of course, I never saw customers just after they had lost a bet.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I visited Tintagel Castle, the birthplace of King Arthur. The question is: Was that a literary pilgrimage or a historical pilgrimage? Answer: probably a literary pilgrimage.
What scares you the most as a writer?
I’m scared that I won’t be able to make a living from writing books, and that I’ll be forced to give it up in favor of something more stable. On the other hand, I’m also afraid that, if I do continue to write, I’ll lose touch with the world outside the literary scene and end up writing books about disaffected middle-aged intellectuals. I hate books like that. I guess it’s lose-lose.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Well, although it’s avoiding the question slightly, if I were to write a memoir I would want to call it An Autobiography Of Six Men
. It would be about me but also about six men, who, in one way or another, have had a profound impact on my sense of self. I’m still not entirely sure what manner of “queer” I am, but when it comes to gender, I certainly feel a deep sense of malleability or in-betweenness. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve always been very interested in men and masculinity. This might also be because (without being too general) I find lots of men quite difficult to understand. I don’t want to give too much away in case I ever write this book, but Kurt Cobain, Clint Eastwood, and Zinedine Zidane (the greatest soccer player to have ever lived) would feature heavily. I guess if someone else were to write a biography of me it might be called: Fiona Mozley, Where Is She Now?
But I hope not.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
“See the child.” It’s from Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy. What an opener!
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“There are dreams, Ewart. And there are memories. And there are memories of dreams.” This is from Elmet.
I guess it sums up one of the major themes of the book: the transposition of the politics and morality of different eras onto contemporary situations. Sometimes this is a good thing; sometimes it doesn’t work.
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream.
When I was a teenager I had lots and lots of dreams about fighting Nazis. They were all pretty horrible, and would involve me trying to rescue the people I love. On the plus side, I was able to exert a level of control within the dream (I think it’s called lucid dreaming) so usually I would win, and singlehandedly defeat the Third Reich. More recently I dreamed that a rival bookshop was set up close to the one I work for, and the other members of staff and I had to formulate plans to put them out of business, Wild West style. Bookselling is a cutthroat business.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Grammar gives structure to language and that’s important, but it should be an aid to meaning, not a deterrent to expression. I guess my biggest grammatical pet peeve, then, is people being fanatical about grammar in instances where it doesn’t really matter that much. I’m sure I make all sorts of grammatical mistakes, but what’s important to me is that I get my ideas across. That’s not to say that grammar never
matters, or that writers should throw out all the rules. It’s just that, as with any set of structures, we need to assess when it’s a help and when it’s a hindrance. I think, in part, this attitude comes from my training as a medievalist. In the period I study, spelling was not standardized and punctuation operated very differently. Even the practice of placing spaces between words was something that was invented by Irish monks in the early Middle Ages. I suppose what I’m getting at is that, as with everything, structures change and we should be ready to respond, either positively or negatively, as the situation dictates. That said, I really hate it when smart-arses wrongly correct other people on Greco-Latinate word endings. For example, someone will say “octopuses” and another person will smugly correct them to “octopi”. At this point I come along and correct that smug person even more smugly still, with: “Actually, it’s octopodes." Basically, “octopuses” is fine because we’re speaking English and “octopodes” is fine because it’s from a Greek root. But “octopi” is not okay. I guess it turns out I care about this stuff more than I thought I did…
Do you have any phobias?
Not really. I despise tomato ketchup, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a phobia.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I have so many lowbrow pleasures, but I try not to feel too guilty about them. I like watching cookery programs like Masterchef
or anything that involves Nigella Lawson. I like the Thor
films, for aesthetic reasons (ahem). During seasons of Game Of Thrones
I watch fan theory videos and things like that, and I also recently read a series of graphic novels
based in the Game Of Thrones
world, which I didn’t buy from the bookshop I work at because I didn’t want my colleagues to know that I was reading them. I also love fast food, and I do feel a little guilty about that because it’s bad for both my health and the environment.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Chill out." It sounds harsh, but actually it was, and still is, the best advice I’ve ever received. I used to take myself very seriously. These days I’m a little lighter.
Who do you want to win the 2018 World Cup?
I generally support Argentina because I lived there for six months and I have a huge affection for the country. I never support England because I’m not a total masochist.
This is a list of five books of short fiction that I have read and enjoyed in the last year:
Attrib. and Other Stories
by Eley Williams
by Daisy Johnson
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
The End We Start From
by Megan Hunter
Worlds From the Word’s End
by Joanna Walsh
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was born in Hackney but grew up in York and studied at Cambridge before moving to Buenos Aires for a year — without speaking any Spanish. After briefly working at a literary agency in London, she moved back to York to complete a PhD in Medieval Studies. She also has a weekend job at The Little Apple Bookshop in York. Elmet
is her first novel and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.