I’m afraid I’ve been leading a terrifyingly un-literary life since winning the prize as I’ve been moving out of London. So that’s a life change I guess. The money certainly helped me out. And I think the prize may have altered the perception of my work, too, at some level. I am now, officially, an experimental writer. I don’t think people quite knew what kind of a writer I was before, because my work is so varied. Of course my themes are pretty consistent (paradox, transcendence, suffering, repentance, redemption) but I use many different forms in which to express them. Nothing I do is especially considered. Spontenaity is the key. Change is good. Challenge is good. And it’s fun to be put into a box as it gives you even more of a reason to bore through the cardboard and establish a peep-hole.
How does the experience compare to winning other literary prizes?
I like the fact that this prize is attached to an institution of learning – and one that I hold in high esteem. That makes it better, somehow. Some prizes are huge and life-changing. The IMPAC was an insane amount of money. I think the good thing about a prize – any prize – is that you become a small part of something positive. Prizes are celebrations. Kind of like little Christmases all year ‘round.
How did the process of writing H(A)PPY compare to your other books?
H(A)PPY was one of my shorter, quicker books. They generally interrupt bigger, longer books (which take many years) and are written joyfully – enthusiastically – in a burst of manic energy. H(A)PPY was very much in this mould. Sometimes books predict what is to come. It’s kind of mystical and magical. I imagine it must be something to do with the unconscious (even the world soul) expressing itself. So H(A)PPY was a disruptive work and it bought a great deal of disruption into my life. I didn’t sleep for about 8 months during the writing. Maybe an hour or two a night. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you are writing the book or if the book is writing you.
How do you mark literary success?
I don’t. Success isn’t a word or an concept that remotely interests me. I work because I love what I do. I write because I have an agenda and am driven to express it. Success is all about other people’s perceptions of you/ the world. I’m interested in finding fulfilment in a different and quieter way. I don’t crave approval – I never have. I try to be good. To do good. To be honest. To be sincere. To be present. To live in joy and in pain, if that’s what is necessary.
Did you make any significant omissions to the novel over the editing process or did it remain fully-formed?
I write my books by reading and rereading. It’s a laborious process. I’m a perfectionist and very controlling. The work can often be dense and complex. Kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle. So it’s hard to edit once it’s complete. When my beloved Agent, David Miller, died a year ago someone wrote in an obituary that he heavily edited my work. That was both weird and untrue. Because my work has never been edited, and David barely ever changed a word. The work is what it is. For good or for bad. And H(A)PPY is no exception.
Do you think your experimental manner of blending colour with language will pave the way for more experimental works?
The funny thing about the colour is that I never thought of it as particularly experimental. I work on a laptop and have always used colour without thinking. It only became an issue when I took the manuscript to my publishers because colour printing is hugely expensive. The colour is used in the text to express emotion – that’s what’s interesting about it, not the colour itself. I find it funny that things which in day to day life seem perfectly uncontentious suddenly become odd and innovative when they apper in a novel. But it’s really all just context.
Was this something you have previously encountered in fiction?
It wasn’t, but like I say it didn’t occur to me that it was anything particularly new or unusual. Why it was used was what mattered, not that it was used. Form only interests me insofar as it brings the narrative to life. It isn’t an end in itself.
You recommend reading the novel whilst listening to Agustin Barrios: The Complete Historical Guitar Recordings. Are you able to listen to music whilst writing?
Never! I wear industrial ear muffs to block out all sound while I work. Focus is key. The word – the shape, sound, rhythm of it. How it sits on the page and what that means. Sound is a distraction. I meant for the reader to familiarise themselves with Barrios’s work (and his world), in general, that’s all, because he is an important character in the book.
You’ve said that you’re a “great believer in boredom, challenge and suffering” (inews.com November 2017). Could you elaborate?
I believe in them insofar as I believe in the possibility inherent in them. I just moved house and I’ve spent a lot of time depending on other people to do stuff to facilitate the whole thing. I’m constitutionally incapable of waiting around. Impatience is my worst characteristic. So it’s been challenging not simply doing everything for myself, which is my natural way of being. I sincerely believe, though, that challenges bring out the best in us – are a means of learning about ourselves and the world. Overstimulation – and the craving for it – are deadening evils. They eviscerate the soul.
To what extent does your environment shape your writing?
That’s hard to say. Potentially not at all. My work is a little shell that I clamber into – like a hermit crab. I tuck myself into it. I find rest in it. Where I write doesn’t really matter. As a writer you create worlds within your mind and wander about in them.
Where did you write H(A)PPY?
Mainly in Hastings, in a bungalow on the Firehills, with beautiful views of the town and the sea.
Have you ever undertaken a literary pilgrimage?
My automatic response to that question was, uh, no. But then I realised that I did undertake a kind of literary pilgrimage a month or so ago to visit TS Eliot’s old London flat which is now the offices of the TS Eliot estate. It’s run by my former editor Clare Reihill and much of the place is as it once was. She gave me the most incredible guided tour. It was especially wonderful because she had known Eliot’s wife, Valerie, very well and had been with her there when she died. So I got to look at Eliot’s bed and his suitcases and his old typewriters (one still had a piece of paper in it that he’d doodled on) and his copy of Ulyysses, and his kitchen table and his drawings and his study and his photos of Ted Hughes and a million other wonderful, precious, intimate things. It was breathtaking.
In general, though, I only undertake pilgrimages for religious reasons. The last one I took was to the little church where Julian of Norwich had her anchorage. It was so lovely and quiet and full of light. I brought home a hazelnut (they leave them there for pilgrims) which now sits on my desk to remind me of her and everything she represents.
Do you have any advice for young writers/creatives in 2018?
Be brave. Don’t be too serious. Have fun. Eschew ambition (which is the death of creativity). Please yourself. Frighten yourself. Challenge yourself. Confound yourself. Declare all-out war on your ego. Write about what you don’t know. Be generous. Always try to have low expectations but high ideals.
What’s the best book you’ve been gifted?
There are too many to mention. When I was at school in Enfield a friend loaned me her copy of Satre’s The Age of Reason. It was revelatory for me. And when I was shortlisted for the Booker I was given a beautiful, handmade copy of my novel, Darkmans. It’s exquisite; bound in a hand-stitched patchwork of coloured leather with a little jester’s bell on the spine.
What do you work on in-between novels?
I work on novels in-between novels. I never stop working. Fiction is a kind of maddening, dripping tap that can’t ever be fully closed.
You mentioned in your acceptance speech for the Goldsmiths Prize that your victory was influenced by your tiny fringe, in a nod to Goldsmiths’ notoriously trendy haircuts. Who do you think has the second-best fringe in contemporary fiction?
I went to Russia with Louise Welsh for the Arts Council a year or so ago. She had a magnificent fringe which hung at a highly enviable angle. That fringe cheerfully upstaged mine everywhere we went.
Nicola will be coming to Goldsmiths on the 24th January where she will be in conversation with Tim Parnell and reading from her novel, H(A)PPY.
Words, Ellie Potts @eldpotts
Pic, Kevin Moran Photography