A Discussion with Carole Cadwalladr
This book successfully employs an unusual and complicated structure
while balancing multiple storylines. How did you decide on this particular
mode of conveying the lives of the Monroes? How easy or difficult was it to
maintain the structure as you wrote the book?
I wish I could say that I had some grand design for the novel, but I'd be lying. And the structure, the multiple plot lines, was something that evolved along the way. I started out with two plots the 1970s one and the 1940s one. A few months in, I realized that they weren't hanging together but instead of axing one of them (which would have been by far the most sensible option), I ended up writing a third set in the present day. Juggling these was like undertaking a huge never-ending jigsaw puzzle. As soon as I shifted around one segment, it impacted on all the others .and I spent months cutting and pasting chapters, striking them out, jigging them around, cursing myself for making life so complicated. A year or so into it, I developed intense pangs of jealousy for "simple stories well told" sorts of books: one timeline, one narrator, one perspective. But, at the end of the day, families and family histories are complicated and messy and refuse the neat packaging of a neat plot. And the way we accrue information about our past, our relatives, our history is not as a straightforward linear narrative but as a piecemeal and often contradictory set of stories. In this, I think, or at least, I hope, The Family Tree, is in some ways true to life.
Is The Family Tree based at all on your own family life?
Everybody assumes that first novels are autobiographical but The Family Tree is more like anti-autobiography. I stole the suburban background from my own childhood, but Doreen is the antithesis to my own mother. When I was growing up, I thought my family was incorrigibly dull there were no divorces, or deaths, or huge family dramas just camping holidays, and chops for dinner, and the sound of lawnmowers on a Sunday. It's only as I've grown older that I've realized how much effort goes into providing that dull, but stable, background. And having lived in my head with the ups and downs, and ins and outs, of the Monroe family for the duration of the writing this book, its a lesson that has been hammered home for me.
Rebecca is very good at putting Alistair's "science-speak" into layman's terms an average reader can understand. She paraphrases theories and explains models of scientific reasoning in a way that not only enriches her retelling of family history, but also helps to broaden the readers' general knowledge. What kind of research did you have to do in order to create Rebecca's confident, wonderfully non-patronizing clarification of, for instance, theories of relativity?
I'd reached a particularly frustrating impasse with the novel and went through a "what's the point?" and "why would anyone want to read this anyway?" stage and thinking about this made me realize that I did want a point: I wanted it to be about more than the particular trials of one particular family; I wanted it in some way to be about all families. And it was then I discovered on my bookshelf, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I must have bought it 10 or so years ago and it had languished there unread ever since. I finally got around to reading it and found it eye-poppingly illuminating. When thinking about families, we all, maybe unconsciously, think about genes about which bits of what we've inherited from whom; about why we are the way we are. And it was then that I realized that genetics could provide me with a framework on which to hang the novel. I went and raided the popular science section of my local bookshop and was hooked. I had no idea that the questions and dilemmas I was posing were also being tackled by people altogether better qualified to be able to answer them: scientists. I'm sure that a lot of people are well versed in these arguments but for me it was wholly new and exciting and stimulating. The so-called new sciences of human nature are attempting to answer questions that philosophers have grappled with for centuries: what it is to be human, what makes us who we are, is there such a thing as a "self"?
I was won over by a lot of the arguments but Rebecca always brought me back down to earth. For people like her, the idea that we are who we are because of the genes we've inherited, is a rather cold and comfortless universe. It doesn't leave much room for the individual quirks and nuances of character that makes us, us; that makes us love another person; that makes us feel human and in some way in charge of our own lives. Rationally, I probably agree with Alistair; but, emotionally, I'm in Rebecca's camp.
From where did the idea for this book spring? What were your intentions when you began the novel and how did they differ from your intentions when you finished the novel and began revising? How familiar were you with the "nature vs. nurture" argument before you began writing The Family Tree?
I wish I knew. My first draft 60,000 words that I wrote in a blur during a holiday from work and managed to wipe without trace from my hard-drive began with James, Tiffany's husband, in the throes of a mid-life crisis. The other characters evolved from there and somewhere along the way he fell almost entirely out of the story. The only thing I knew initially was that I wanted it to be a pleasurable read. I'm an impatient reader and am too easily bored by finely wrought sentences that don't really take you anywhere. I like stories books, films, TV programs that keep me reading or keep me watching, that entertain me, that amuse me, and that in some way move me.
It was only when I was mid-way through the book, tied up in the Rebecca story, that I began to realize that fundamentally it was about the nature-nurture argument. Before I started reading up on the science I'd always had some sort of hazy, flaky liberal ideas about child-raising and parenting. There was a single fact that I remember reading that made me revise all this: that adopted siblings brought up in the same home are no more alike than two strangers pulled off the street. This made me rethink everything I thought I knew and sent the novel spinning off in entirely new directions.
Have you ever researched your own family tree?
My father has a very complicated bit of paper with Cadwalladrs and Cadwalladers and Cadwaladrs scattered over it (as a family, we only learned to spell a generation ago). But genealogy has always struck me as one of those very male hobbies like model-boat building or stamp collecting. I tend to have rambling conversations with my mother which go along the lines of her saying, "You know, your Great Uncle Joe, who was my mothers brother, who was married to Barbara who lived in Derbyshire and had the farm and whose brother was your Great Uncle Noel who went to Canada. Anyhow your Great Uncle Joe . . ."
After I'd finished the book, I was having one of these conversations when my mother said, "You know, your Great Uncle Joe who was my sisters brother, who was married to Barbara, who was his first cousin, whose sister also married her first cousin . . ."
I obviously hadn't been paying as much attention as I should have. When I wrote The Family Tree, and decided to have two first cousins marrying, I had no idea it was something that was so close to home.
You make many pop culture references in The Family Tree. Were you influenced very much by television during your childhood?
I think television influences us in all sorts of ways we don't fully understand. When I was growing up, women on TV were either wives and mothers, secretaries (whose main role seemed to be to wear short skirts and sit on the boss's lap), or game show hostesses. Female equality is one of the most dramatic social changes to have occurred, ever, and it has taken place over the course of my lifetime. When I watch TV programs from the seventies, I'm always alarmed that at some level I absorbed all that, and it must, in some dark recess of my brain, still be a part of me.
TV has played a role in my life in other ways too. In Britain in the seventies, we only had three television channels, so inevitably we all watched the same programs, and the big televisual events, such as the shooting of JR, or the Royal Wedding, were really big events. As such they lodge in the memory every bit as vividly as a friends birthday party or a family holiday.
In my house, television viewing was split along strictly traditional lines the females watched soap operas, the males didn't. It was only half way through writing The Family Tree, that I realized that my plot was much like the television of my childhood; it revolved around families and relationships, and the big events weren't murders or bombings but marriages and births. And this, too, I think I learned from TV.
There was a strong bond between your character Rebecca and her grandmother Alicia. Whom in your family do you identify with most?
A: I think that everybody tries to figure out who they look like; which bit of what they've inherited from whom. Uncle Sidney's nose, or Aunty Mabel's chin . . . And with Rebecca, she's obviously her grandmother's granddaughter both in looks and in temperament. I suppose theirs is a relationship that has a certain sort of mystique for me as its one I've never had. I cant remember either of my grandmothers. One died before I was born and the other when I was three years old and as such I've never had any real sense of whom I'm descended from and what they've bequeathed to me. It's a family joke that I'm some sort of genetic freak as I don't really look like anybody. Which is perhaps why although it certainly wasn't a conscious decision its these very ideas, about genetic inheritance and familial similarities, that I've explored in the book.
Rebecca's mother, Doreen, is famous for her "Doreenisms." What were some of the bits of wisdom from your family?
In Britain, at least half of all human communication seems to take the form of stock phrases. If you ever have a piece of good news there's always someone around to say, "Well, its alright for some!" Or (more unusually), "It couldn't happen to a nicer person!" You'll be walking down the street, and a total stranger will say to you, "Cheer up love, it might never happen." (Which tends to have precisely the opposite effect: you don't cheer up, you just want to punch them . . . )
I think sayings are hereditary though. I was at a friends house the other day making a salad and she asked me if I thought she should wash the lettuce. Without thinking about it, I found myself saying, "You'll eat more than a peck of dirt before you die." These things are hard to shake.
You were nominated for the British Press Awards as Best Specialist Writer. In what kind of journalism do you specialize, and how did you make the move from writing strictly nonfiction to a unique, powerful first work of fiction? How does your writing process differ when writing nonfiction or fiction? Did (or does) one genre inform the other when you write?
I think the big difference is that in journalism the nature of the subject matter dictates the style in which you write. The wonderfully liberating thing about fiction was that I could decide the style in which I wanted to write and then invent the subject matter to fit that. In non-fiction, the facts have to take pre-eminence and you mould your argument around those; in fiction, if the facts don't fit, you just get rid of them.
As a journalist, I specialized in travel writing, starting out doing guide-books and moving into newspapers. A journalist suggested to me the other day that The Family Tree is "an anti-travel book": every time the Monroes try to go away, they're thwarted. I think there's some truth in this: when you go away from home, you are, to a degree, free to re-invent yourself. Whereas, the characters in the book are trapped: within their family relationships, within what others think of them and how they treat them, and within the parameters of the world they inhabit. The suburban setting was, to my mind, crucial to the book. Not just because of its comic potential but because traveling gives you the illusion of free will; whereas, as witnessed by Rebecca's dilemmas, I wanted to explore whether there really is any such thing.
You've traveled to, and written about, some fairly unusual places; do you think that this had an impact on your fiction?
This isn't something that occurred to me before but as an idea I find it interesting. The quirky, the extreme, the offbeat, the ever-so-slightly comic, have always appealed to me: places, as well as people. In my twenties, for example, I wrote a guidebook to Lebanon, a country and a people that have lived through some of the most extreme and terrifying events of the 20th century. You could argue that I put the characters in The Family Tree through a Lebanon of the emotions, and then examined the psychological impact upon their lives. Id like to think that like the Lebanese, they retain their spirit and their humor in spite of everything.
Do you have more works of fiction forthcoming? What are you working on currently? Do you intend to stay a journalist or to make a clean break into full-time fiction writing? Have you published, or do you have plans to publish, any nonfiction books?
Writing a novel was both the most satisfying and the most frustrating thing I've ever done. I've returned to journalism briefly and although I love the quick fix it gives you, (and the fact that you get to talk to people), I am impatient to see where my second novel will take me. Despite the science I've been reading though, I'm superstitious enough to not want to say what it's about.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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