|‘I don’t believe in book snobbery’ … Sophie Mackintosh. |
Photograph: Sophie Davidson
The first book interview
Sophie Mackintosh: 'Dystopian feminism might be a trend, but it’s also our lives'
The Water Cure’s author says she has not written a new Handmaid’s Tale, but it would be hard for any story centred on women’s lives not to be feminist
Thu 24 May 2018
he novel is set in the future but it could be now, it’s not a million miles away,” Sophie Mackintosh tells me, in her soft Welsh lilt, sitting in an east London cafe. “Sometimes you scroll through Twitter and there is a horrible story like the Belfast rape case. You see a lot of really upsetting stories. That can throw off your whole day. You get angry, and that can make you feel sick. So I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to imagine a world where you get ill from patriarchy.” She laughs, with irony.
Mackintosh’s debut novel, The Water Cure, is riding a new wave of clever feminist dystopian fiction. Publishing loves a trend, and the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale along with the success of Naomi Alderman’s The Power have spawned a renaissance of female authors exploring the treatment of women living in patriarchal worlds. The Water Cure was fought over in a seven-way publishing auction, and you sense that its 29-year-old author is still pinching herself. The book is set in a world not unlike our own, in a future where climate change has reached crisis levels and men have become, literally, toxic to women. We follow three sisters who live a sheltered life, having been told that any contact with men could kill them – only to see their fragile universe torn apart when two men and a boy wash up on their isolated island. I won’t give away more than that, except to say that it’s unlike any other dystopian fiction that I have ever read.
“I wouldn’t say it was straight sci-fi, and I worry that people might get disappointed if they are expecting some sort of Handmaid’s Tale story,” says Mackintosh. “The world isn’t really explored that much. For me, it is much more about the world of the sisters and what they are experiencing.”
Indeed, I’m not sure The Water Cure’s spare, episodic structure and poetic, dreamlike prose really fits the genre at all. It’s deceptively scanty; Mackintosh has dispensed with exposition, and the book is all the better for it. In many ways, its interrogation of femininity and sisterly bonds has more in common with The Virgin Suicides – which Mackintosh cites as an influence – than Atwood’s classic.
And with good reason: Mackintosh is very close to her sister, with whom she grew up in Pembrokeshire. “I’m from quite a big, Welsh, matriarchal family,” she says. “My grandma is boss. And I’ve got seven cousins and they are all girls around my age, so we all grew up together and are really close.” Her upbringing can be seen in the relationships between the girls in The Water Cure: “Exploring those dynamics, you love each other and you hate each other. My sister and I used to have our own secret language. Now our secret language is Welsh – we speak it in front of our mum if we don’t want her to know what we are saying. It drives her mad.”
Mackintosh devoured books from a young age and though she says her parents – a GP and a nurse – aren’t huge readers, they were encouraging. “I would read anything. My dad had medical journals around the house and I would read them. He’d be like, ‘Don’t read that’.” She still picks up anything and everything: “I really love a good thriller. Sometimes it’s just what you want. I don’t believe in book snobbery.”
Her grandfather gave her books such as Jane Eyre to read when she was still very young, and Stephen King novels, which she admits were hardly age appropriate. “When you’re that age and reading something like King, it really takes a hold of your imagination,” she says. “I remember reading Needful Things, and there’s a scene where two women fight with machetes in the street. They literally hack each other to death. And I was sitting at my grandparents’ house reading this and feeling really distraught. I’ve never forgotten it.”
This early taste of the macabre has seeped into Mackintosh’s prose, giving it a darkness and an unsettling brutality. She was educated in Welsh and cites Welsh mythology as an influence, as well as the work of Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson. She initially wanted to be a poet, but, once she realised fiction was her thing, she spent her 20s writing around various day jobs: working in a Starbucks, waitressing, tech PR. The advance from the auction has given her enough to be able to write full-time. “I just can’t believe that it’s my job,” she says.
Nonetheless, Mackintosh is wary of the overnight success narrative, having worked for years on the manuscript and writing short stories (she won both The White Review’s short story prize and the Virago/Stylist short story competition in 2016).
“I have experienced rejection,” she says. She lost count of the number of drafts she wrote for The Water Cure: “I have written myself into being a better writer. There is no better way than writing the words again and again, and again, and again. It’s practice. I think most people have a book in a drawer or have to rewrite something over and over. Even now, rejection doesn’t stop after a book deal, because you’re applying for residencies and prizes, and you’re getting rejected all the time.”
More fool them. Mackintosh is a writer of enormous talent, and The Water Cure deserves to be a roaring success. It is also timely, having arrived as a new generation of feminists find themselves grappling with inequalities they have been raised to believe had been settled.
“I didn’t set out to write a feminist book, but I think when you write a book centred on female voices and exploring what it means to be a woman in the world, it’s hard for it not to be feminist,” she says. “It came from a place that was a bit angry. I’m not sure I could have written it at any other time than 2016, where the world felt like it was changing. Being a woman felt difficult and dangerous. Trump was about to be president.
“There are so many things happening at the moment, such as #MeToo and the abortion referendum. It shows that women’s bodies are still very much up for debate. I read an article that said that dystopian feminism was ‘a big trend’, and I thought, ‘It might be a trend, but it’s also our lives.’”