Anakana Schofield interview: ‘My only aspiration is my coffin is not plywood’

‘I feel very Irish because I am noisy, have a major talent for affront and I am very pious but as a writer I was made in Canada. It gave me opportunities and courage to write’

Anakana Schfield on Martin John: “The novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.” Photograph: Arabella Campbell

Anakana Schfield on Martin John: “The novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.” Photograph: Arabella Campbell


You were born in England, lived in London and Dublin but have settled now in Canada. Could you tell us a little about that?

I was born in England to an Irish mother and a Northern English father. I grew up in an Irish diaspora there and spent time throughout my childhood down in Mayo where my granny and extended family lived. I later lived in Dublin for many years before I shifted to Vancouver, Canada. I feel fortunate to have been exposed as a child to the cosmopolitan and hence diversity, along with rural Ireland and its very particular language and excessive volume of wind!

How has this shaped your Irish identity?

Er, I think basically no culture wants you unless you do something like win an Olympic bronze medal for weightlifting and then they all claim you. You’re not sufficiently enough of any one thing. But this “in-between” is a great place for a writer. Far too much is made of nationality which is nothing more than an accident of geography and footsteps.

I feel very Irish because I am noisy, have a major talent for affront and I am very pious but I feel equally Canadian because I like transit that shows up on time, I love the French language and now I worry temporarily about offending people. I also rejoice in excellent health care. My loyalties to all three countries are very fickle depending on who has the more interesting weather and who is willing to listen to me wailing on Skype and who wants to pay me to write and feed me and my son free food. If there were a country that offered cooked dinners for free daily for its citizens I would relocate. But as a writer I was made in Canada. This is the country that gave me opportunities and courage/space to write.

Since you left Dublin how has living in Canada impacted your writing?

I’ve been influenced by poetic movements in Canadian literature and working-class Vancouver novels from the 1970s and I’ve really appreciated thinking about the labour history in my province British Columbia and the city of Vancouver. But these seedlings were sown in England and Dublin. I grew up in a class-conscious time under Thatcher and latterly thought often of labour when living in Dublin because it was pre-boom time and unemployment was rife and the working poor worked very bloody hard.

In terms of your work Ireland seems to be the dominant influence.

I think form and language and sound are the dominant influences in my work. My work isn’t particularly concerned with geography. There are few physical descriptions of place or landscape in my novels. You might be luckier with the weather as I am an advocate of weather! I suppose it’s very true that I am influenced by Hiberno-English, so geography is apparent in the language I deploy and the way I use language. I do love the Irish language despite being superbly shite at writing and speaking it. Blanchot had a theory that the closeness of writers to their work might blind them to its full significance and that writers are merely the work’s first reader.

Did you always write? What was your entry point into writing professionally?

I didn’t always write. Rather I wanted to be a gymnast. Specifically I wanted to be Bulgarian and a gymnast, which was going to be tricky. But I had a very over-active imagination as a child (and continue to as an old lady today) so it seemed highly feasible to me.

I wrote out of a perceived lack and either a sense of desperation or curiosity. I carry on, but it might be more sensible to cease, but it is working out very well, it must be said. Much better than I ever imagined it might.

Your first novel, Malarky, was very well received by critics and also won the Amazon First Novel Award, the Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. How did you find that transition from emerging writer to being recognised as an author who had carved their name on the tree? Did you find the success impacted on your writing at all?

I found the experience very surprising indeed! I had spent 10 years writing Malarky, struggling and struggling to find a form for my work. I tried to write novels how I thought they had to be written and it was impossible to contract my prose to fit these conventional terms. Eventually when I thought more and more about busting form, I started to find a way out of the dense blackberry bushes.

As a pessimist and melancholic, middle-aged woman, very little makes an impact on me these days, other than the grotesquery of mankind such as the current obliteration of Yemen and her innocent civilians. I also have an enormous appetite for redundant information and am pathologically distracted by information that has no relevance to my daily life. I worry a great deal about my work and am convinced it’s always a disaster so success would really be up against it in that recipe. To be honest (and one should never be honest since it always seems to land me in trouble) the book prize money made an enormous difference to one thing in my life. I was able to fund my son’s needed orthodontic treatment, which was otherwise way out of my financial reach. I also purchased a very cheap concertina and have subsequently come to the realisation that playing it is also very much out of my reach.

The publicity from that First Novel prize win was mad by my standards. It’s a prize that has a long history in Canada and has marked the start of many significant authors careers. I was on breakfast television in Canada before the nation and the front page of <nameless sponsor’s> website for a whole week. It bought my work to the attention of readers that never would have gone near it and are probably unlikely to revisit it! But what harm!

Did it impact my writing? No. I find writing very difficult indeed. Nothing impacts it. It varies between two notes: despair and heavy despair. I never know if I have a book while I am writing it and I am prepared to fail. But amidst the misery, it is never uninteresting.

In your second novel Martin John the narrative jumps around sequentially, is told from different viewpoints and in different tenses. This, and the complex discomfort around the characters, has the Brechtian effect of not letting us get seduced by the story or character. The writing also reminded me of Beckett, at times, and the tools of playwriting – the set pieces, the monologues... and I wondered if you had an interest in theatre.

To clarify: the novel is predicated upon a loop, the form of the novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity. Martin John is fixated on “circuits” which he manifests through physically walking circles in Euston Station, obsessively examining the crossword clues and fixating on the Eurovision song contest. All of these items reoccur. The crossword is a daily occurrence, the Eurovision is an annual occurrence. The Eurovision concerns chorus. Martin John is governed by the aforementioned refrains that loop in his head and along with his mother’s voice. It was important to take this circular form into the syntax of the sentences thus they are looping, circular, they repeat and refer to each other. I am very curious about the physicality of prose and perhaps in this work, though I was not conscious of it while writing it, there’s a liturgical quality in the structure.

I like to provoke with point of view. I find the first person present and third person past interminable. I want to ask philosophical questions about point of view in my work, which is even more noticeable or distinct in Martin John because I employ a direct Brechtian address to the reader. I loop the reader into the novel. This is where we touch on complicity. I want the reader to be involved somehow or have a stake in the work they are reading. I suppose in Martin John I wanted to let them know I was aware and conscious they were with me as I wrote. I knew I was demanding on the reader but literature should demand of the reader. I want to be challenged when I read. Point of view is reflected in the chapter headings which fluctuate between What they know and What they don’t know.

I have a distant background in theatre but presently I am more interested in bird flu and infectious diseases than theatre. Currently I have a fixation on Francis Bacon and am pondering what I can import or cross-pollinate from him. Likely nothing, but I am a great woman for wasting time on utterly redundant pursuits. My pathetic attempts at carpentry and failing to play the concertina are testament to this. I’m primarily interested in response or departures, but do manage to do much metaphorical hopping on one leg getting no place.

What made you tell the story this way? I’ve read you have a mistrust of linear narratives.

I’m compelled by what the novel might become rather than what I know it to be. (Not that I’m unhappy at what it’s been.) Chronology and the linear feels like a falsehood to me. This probably makes absolutely no sense to anyone else in the world. There’s nothing chronological about one’s emotional life in my experience, aside from the obvious calendar but there’s plenty that’s repetitive and jagged in our emotional and physical trajectories. If anything we might go backwards or jump around to understand the present. Increasingly the more I think about the insatiable human appetite for violence time feels very static like it may never budge at all.

Did Martin John appear on your pages fully formed or did you do some research into mental health?

I’m not sure I comprehend “fully formed”. Nothing arrives fully formed for me. If only. But as far as research I did a small amount of reading, a great deal of thinking and a ridiculous amount of work. Pure-brewed anxiety was mostly what drove the enterprise. I regularly and continually despaired. I exchanged a couple of emails with a forensic psychiatrist who directed me to an old text I found helpful. I checked small details on the geography of hospitals and where patients would be transported to from Euston station and I asked a psychologist in Scotland a question or two. Other than that I made it up. I do not know Martin John. I am not Martin John. Fiction writers make shit up. But the form of the novel is the content in my work. We’ve become very hung up on verification and authentication, but this has no place in fiction. It belongs in social anthropology. Fiction is not qualitative research. It’s where we pose difficult questions, situations and philosophical inquiry that such research cannot, because it would be deemed speculation.

It struck me as I read that it is only when Martin John exposes himself to a boy that his actions have any major consequences yet when he does the same or worse to a girl it is excused away.

The lines are:
“It was when he did it to a man she really panicked.
She really, really panicked.
If he was taking it out and waving it at a man, it meant it was highly likely he wouldn’t have spared a woman.
Then she got a straight head on her.
Then she got him out.
To London.”

In fairness I think his mother is ill-equipped to respond because nobody is trained to respond to deviant behaviour in one’s child. I hope we’ve progressed where people would seek help, but I wanted to ask the question: is it reasonable to imagine a mother could sacrifice someone else’s child to protect her own. As the text says: “What would you do?”

You set the story in the 1980s. Do you think the story needed to be set then to work? Have attitudes changed since then, do you think?

I hope so. I trust we now recognise the scale of damage, fear, criminality, shame and denial that existed (and perhaps exists) around these depraved behaviours. But humanity has a strong pattern of consistent repetition. As a fiction writer it’s not my place to express opinions on the state of societal progress in the psychosexual arena, sex offenders and their victims’ incurred trauma. I work with literary tools to explore these questions and I create narratives with those tools. The psychiatrists, gardaí, social anthropologists and rape crisis centre would be the people to answer that question. As a woman, I continue to be deeply distressed by the stories I hear about rape, sexual assault, molestation and the failure of our criminal justice system to respond with proper sentencing and the urgent need to fund treatment of sex offenders and provide comprehensive support to the many victims of sexual violence.

I really have no idea about stories and whether or how they work based on time periods because they aren’t my aesthetic concerns per se. Prose should survive time and a moment. Not convinced by the merit of nailing of a time setting and place because it will always be usurped by a photograph or a piece of non-fiction. I think it’s slightly ridiculous to be hinged on this kind of authentication and time settings. Fiction is not Google street view. But I can see it’s very annoying when it’s poorly executed, but that’s usually due to a misfired project more than failing to bear witness correctly on the page to the precise telephone pole on the Euston Road in 1987.

Authors and musicians can often be afflicted with second novel/album syndrome – did that rear its head with you?

No. I think I am in a lifelong vice grip of second novel syndrome from the first moment I ever picked up my pen 20 years ago and likely to remain in same syndrome until I enter a wooden box. My only aspiration is that please God my coffin is not plywood. If I manage not to be buried in a plywood box, I’ll consider the syndrome overcome.

If you’re first to go I will make sure of that. And, despite the nasty grip, you were able to give us Martin John. This second novel made another impressive impact with a shortlisting for the internationally prestigious Giller Prize (Canada’s Booker Prize). How did that feel? What was the experience like?

It felt rather surreal. But affirming because I was very anxious about publishing Martin John and was near certain the novel would ruin me as a writer. A woman had once said to me in a taxi one time “courage is rewarded”. I honestly didn’t believe her but I liked the phrase. This experience suggested that sometimes courage is rewarded. Most significantly, it was a great shortlist and your work is only ever as good as the books it keeps company with. We, the five shortlisted writers, had a great laugh throughout the whole affair, which is somewhat like the Oscars. We had a stylist who worked a fashion miracle on this scruffy creature and my son read a 900-page book on naval history on his iPhone throughout the entire televised ceremony. This felt appropriate. I ate world-class snacks over the course of six weeks.

Cameron Bailey, the director of the Toronto International Film Festival, presented Martin John at the Gala and listening to him talk about the novel so beautifully was truly the most remarkable part. I was also immensely grateful for all the love and support I received from friends, fellow writers and kind readers. It’s hard, lonely work writing novels. It’s very nice when you are fed for writing them and your work is robustly engaged with. As Joe Strummer said, and as I quoted in my remarks at the event, “Without people you are nothing.” (This could be specifically amended to Without readers you are nothing).

Martin John is published by And Other Stories. Read The Irish Times review here
Paul McVeigh is the author of The Good Son (Salt Publishing)


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