You drew inspiration from your own family story when writing The Undertow. When did you first learn of this family history and what made you decide to turn it into a novel?
I don't think I would ever have come to write the book at all if it wasn't for a piece of family history I stumbled on through a chance encounter in Valetta, Malta, where I was on a writers' residency some years ago. At the time, I was working on my previous book, The Telling.
I used to go to the Barrakka Gardens - a beautiful place on the harbor walls. On one occasion an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. A mine of local information, he was soon pointing out buildings of historical interest, including an old hospital where, he told me, the wounded from Gallipoli had been treated. My great grandfather had served, and died, at Gallipoli - that was all I knew about him. I told the old fellow about this, saying that of course, having died there, my great-grandfather wouldn't have actually been in Malta. But, he told me, the ships refueled and took on supplies there on their way out. I realized that I was standing where my great grandfather may well have stood, ninety years previously, in radically different circumstances. The sense of connectedness, of time, gave me goose bumps.
When I returned home, I started researching my great-grandfather. There was not much known and there were no photographs, but the more I found out, the more fascinated I became, and the more aware of the starkness of his existence. He had grown up in a slum. No wonder he went to sea at fourteen. When he passed through Malta in 1915, he was on his way to die a very nasty, working-class death, trapped in the boiler room of his ship. I also came upon his post-card collection (which appears in the book), which revealed to me something of him as a person. The postcards, selected by him, preserved by his widow and then his son, showed him to be so alive to the world. He didn't just go for the tourist shots - he had, for example, amassed a large collection of pictures of the excavations of Pompeii. He had an artist's or a writer's alertness to the world, I felt, though he never had the slightest chance of realizing that. I, on the other hand, had had the privilege of an Oxbridge education, and had been brought to Malta simply to write. What lay between us, and between the astonishing differences in our life-chances, was simply ninety years. I had to explore that.
The Undertow follows one family through multiple generations, which you describe as a sort of narrative relay, with each character passing the baton to the next. Which time period was your favorite to write about?
Each period had its own pleasures and challenges, but I particularly loved writing the sections set in Battersea in the early part of the century, partly because the streets I'm writing about have disappeared - not just the houses, but the actual layout of the city there, the street-scape. Being close to the docks, the streets were flattened in the Blitz, and then built over after the war. It's a particular pleasure to reconstruct something that no longer exists - out of old maps, daydreams, and from stomping round the remaining neighborhoods in Battersea.
I also loved writing the Malta sections - both the present day and the World War I section. I enjoyed working out the continuities and differences over time. And, when so much of the novel is set in England, it was wonderful to let rip on Mediterranean color and sunshine!
Did you especially identify with any one character? Or were they all connected for you?
I identify with them all; they are all, in different ways, fractured and flawed, but still struggling with what life throws at them. Which is, I think, something everyone can relate to. But I do feel most sympathetic towards Billy, who has the least ability of any of the characters to articulate his emotions.
There are a few links that run throughout all of the narratives - objects that are passed down, the name "William" which each generation shares in some way - and one of them is a sinister figure who comes into the family's life after WWI. Did you always plan to have a "villain" in the story, or did he develop as you went along?
Sully was always there in the Gallipoli section of the story, taunting William, and I always planned for him to return... then he just kept cropping up as I wrote through the later sections. Like a bad penny, as William describes him. I realize now that he represents the dark side of inheritance, the things you don't want to know about your family. For Will, in particular, he is an unwelcome reminder of where he comes from and everything he's trying to leave behind.
This novel was originally published in the UK as The Picture Book. What, for you, is the significance of the US title, The Undertow?
The US title captures - rather nicely I think - one of the novel's main themes: the pull of history. History drags characters under, or side-swipes them out of the course they had foreseen for their lives. At times the undertow is literal - drowning, near drowning, fear of drowning - and at times it is more metaphorical - distractions and diversions, failures, unexpected changes in circumstances.
Each generation of the family experiences war in a different way, but either personal experience or the memory of war is an important part of their lives. Was this a theme you set out to explore, or was it just a product of following a family through the 20th century?
As I was writing the novel, I thought of it as a story of family and war, and a family at war. Even not experiencing war is an issue in the book - Will is seen somehow to be deficient in not having served. I also wanted to think about individuals' experience of the current war - the global War on Terror - in relation to that of the earlier World Wars.
Did you have any particular literary inspirations while writing The Undertow?
Like most writers I read voraciously and promiscuously, and so it's almost impossible to know exactly what leaks through and influences my work, and what just left me impressed and satisfied as a reader. As part of my research I made a point of reading the novels of the period, not just the history - for texture and detail. Of course, because this book ranges over the 20th Century, there were a lot of novels to choose from; but I think readers could notice references (or reactions) to the work of E M Forster, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and Kingsley Amis, amongst many others.
I don't know if it was exactly an influence, but I was also going through a full-on literary crush on Cormac McCarthy at the time of writing. His sentences are so lean, so active, and he has this extraordinary ability to convey so much about the emotional state of emotionally-inarticulate people.
What is your writing routine? Do you write at a particular time of day or in a particular place? The Undertow was written mostly at night. I was juggling a full-time job and two small children so sleep was the only thing I could cut back on. I'd wake at 3 am, go downstairs, and work till 7 am when the kids woke up (known in our house as 'The Sylvia Plath shift'). If it wasn't for insomnia I would never have been able to complete the novel at all.
Obviously, that kind of schedule isn't good in the long term; I was able to quit my day job when I sold the book, and can now work at more reasonable times. I write in a coffee-shop in town; first draft is always with a notepad and fountain pen, then redraft onto computer.
Turning to popular culture for a moment, have you watched the TV series Downton Abbey and do you think that fans of the series will find some similarities in the first sections of The Undertow?
I think readers will find similarities, but very much from a below-stairs point of view. I'm fascinated by the period Downton Abbey explores - a time of massive historical events and the social change that comes with them. The book's focus though, is on the working class experience. They don't have succession to worry about, so much as survival. They start the century with nothing: they have only their lives and their wits to call their own. I think the stakes are higher for them as a result.
What project are you working on now?
I'm very excited about my next book; I don't want to jinx anything, though, so I'm keeping quite quiet about it...
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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