Friday, July 28, 2017

Fiona Mozley / I wrote a novel on my commute — now it might win the Booker Prize

Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley: I wrote a novel on my commute — now it might win the Booker Prize

At just 29 years old, Fiona Mozley is up for a prestigious literary prize. She tells Susannah Butter about the new gender roles, hutching up in a shared house and why Theresa May should read her book

Friday 28 July 2017 12:26

Fiona Mozley wrote her Man Booker longlisted novel Elmet on her phone while commuting. “To get it finished I just had to take it one sentence at a time, whenever I could,” she recalls.
Mozley, who at 29 is the second- youngest author to be up for the prize after 2013’s winner Eleanor Catton, then 28, started the novel four years ago, in secret. She had just graduated from Cambridge University with an English degree and was living with five friends crammed into a small house in Honor Oak Park, doing an internship at literary agency Artellus Limited.
“I was finding London life difficult — the strain of the capital was taking hold,” she says. “I was living for the next pay cheque and at a loose end. I didn’t know what career I was going to have or where I was going to live in the next year.” She was paying £600 a month to share a house where “we had secret tenants — when the landlord visited we had to fold away my bed and pretend it wasn’t there”.
Her friends have teased her that the book’s title sounds like the children’s book Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, which she takes with a laugh. In fact, Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England, between the fifth and seventh centuries, and later became the West Riding of Yorkshire. Mozley is completing what she calls a “niche” PhD at York University about the concept of decay in late-medieval towns and eco politics.Her novel addresses property ownership. It’s told from the point of view of Daniel, a boy remembering his life with his sister Cathy in a house their father built with his bare hands. They are not like other children. Their father is loving but prone to fits of rage, and his behaviour creates tension in the community.
“The father is a gruff, self-sufficient bare-knuckle boxer who builds a house on land he doesn’t own,” says Mozley, talking about her characters like they are people she knows. “The land isn’t being used but the owners don’t like what he has done. I feel no one can say anything these days without bringing up politics, but this book does touch on a community left behind. 
It’s no coincidence that I started the book when living in London.”
Does the Grenfell Tower fire give these ideas of home- ownership and rights new resonance? “Absolutely.”Masculinity, gender and bodies are also themes. “The father is the archetypal masculine man — he’s enormous and strong but he has these two children who in some respects aren’t like him at all — they don’t conform to expectations of gender. I wanted to explore that tension.” If a film was made of Elmet he’d “have to be played by Tom Hardy or Idris Elba”. Mozley says his violence is influenced by her love of Clint Eastwood films rather than any tension in her own family. “My own father [a retired social worker] is a gentle, lovely man. I wanted to write about people so different from me and my family.”
The novel touches on gender queerness, too. “In many ways it feels like we are living in the last gasp of old-fashioned gender roles, but perhaps that’s just people like me saying that and it’s more pervasive than we’d like to think. The situation in America [with Trump banning transgender people from the army this week] is dire.”
The novel’s setting came to Mozley on a train back to London from York on a trip to visit her parents. “I was looking out at the South Yorkshire landscape, the copses and outbuildings. I already had questions I wanted to explore, and those things came together.”
Mozley was born in Hackney but grew up in York and moved back there recently. She lives with her partner, Megan, who the book is dedicated to. She came out as a teenager and it was undramatic. Megan is also studying for a PhD (they work side by side) and they have a lurcher dog called Stringer, named after the character in The Wire. 
Writing about nature in a lyrical style was “escapism” for Mozley. There was no grand plan. She wrote “to give me a sense of achievement that I’d finished something”. Her friends were asking her what she wanted to do with the rest of her life and it was hard not to tell them about the book. “They were doing impressive things but I didn’t want to say too much because I didn’t want it to become real before it was the right time.” When her family and friends eventually found out, “they had just seen me on my computer and thought I was browsing Facebook or watching Netflix. Sometimes I was.”She announced the book’s publication on Facebook and was touched by the response. This became particularly poignant in the past few months. A friend of her best friend died in the Manchester Arena attack in May, and she went to his vigil. “Martyn [Hett], who died, was a mesmerising and magnetic individual. He had hundreds of friends but when I announced the book was published he took the time to congratulate me, which was much appreciated and testament to the person he was, making time for the little people.”
Mozley works part-time in a bookshop and wouldn’t give that up even if she won the £50,000 Booker money. She is adamant that shops have a future in the internet age. “People come in and say how much they love browsing and holding the real thing.” She’s recommending Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends to customers for summer. A second book by her is on the way, which addresses owning and renting property and land.
She doesn’t think she’ll buy her own house anytime soon. “The possibility of ever buying a house is distant. I don’t know how it could be resolved. In Elmet the repercussions of the right-to-buy scheme are covered. The London housing market is absurd.” She supports Jeremy Corbyn and was “hungover” after election night. Should Theresa May read the book? “Yes. There are characters and issues that probably seem distant to a lot of people and people of May’s generation and inclinations. Books help you imagine the lives of others.” 
Elmet is out on August 10, John Murray

The rest of the Man Booker longlist

4321 by Paul Auster
A hero’s life in a four-way narrative. 
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Love and loss between two soldiers. 
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
A teenage girl’s struggle. 
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
A reality-bending narrative on refugees.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
A celebration of small-town Ireland. 
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Abduction in a village.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Roy’s long-awaited second novel.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
President Lincoln mourns his son.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie 
An immigrant family at war with itself.
Autumn by Ali Smith
A post-Brexit story.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Friendship and rivalry, set across continents. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A haunting story about escape from slavery.

No comments:

Post a Comment