Brought to Book: Anakana Schofield on parallel reading, the literary patriarchy and books as portals
‘I write in a very troubling manner that I wouldn’t advise anyone to adopt’
Anakana Schofield: Every book I read seems to change the way I think about fiction. Sometimes they drive me to despair by indicating how much more we need to demand from our fiction and other times they send me into orbit with the possibilities they reveal
Anakana Schofield is the author of the award-winng debut novel, Malarky, which is out now in paperback, a funny and moving tale of sexual shenanigans, martital discord and mental disturbance in the west of Ireland.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The Bunny Fluffs Moving Day, a Ladybird book about a bunch of bunnies moving house in a laundry basket and all their belongings tumbling into a river. It was read to me by my lovely mother Hannah, who grew up to become a farmer of Kerry cows and a great advocate for the bee population in Mayo. I think the moving house and tumble into the river were a predictive metaphor for the fact I am unlikely to ever own a house and still cannot swim. I do, however, own a copy of The Bunny Fluffs Moving Day, because I treated myself to an old copy I found online.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I think a very dog-eared library book about gymnastics. At that time, we used a mobile library van and the selection was limited. I read Enid Blyton’s girls’ boarding school novels, which mocked kids from my type of background! But they were full of strong female role models and friendships amidst all the poor-dissing and tuck boxes. (What is a tuck box?)
And what is your favourite book or books now?
What a terrifying question! How to isolate such a thing? My reading approach is peculiar, I often inter-read or parallel read books, so they tend to give way to each other, sit beside each other and they become important to each through their interrelation. I have about 20 books, many of which are out of print, very obscure to begin with even when they were in print, that somehow have individually and collectively given me important departures as a writer and hopefully a thinker. The work that has most recently been invigorating includes Anne Carson, Thalia Field, Cesar Aira, Clarice Lispector, Georges Perec (mostly because I am about to teach a workshop in a school on Oulipo, so cheers Georges for helping me with this job.)
What is your favourite quotation?
“No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow Stand. That or groan. The groan so long on its way. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up.” Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett.
And closer to home broadcasting on my everyday channel at the blue kitchen table: “Nobody cares, Mammy, nobody cares.” My 14-year-old son.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I like Shannon in Taxi by Helen Potrebenko, a 1970s feminist, Vancouver novel. I like her polemics while she is driving her taxi and navigating the streets. I like Dorothea in Middlemarch. Also, I really like The Tenants of Moonbloom fellow – I want to create a resurgence of interest in this 1963 NYRB Classics book, so please read it and send me a flare.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I don’t “rate” authors over or under. I find this one-upmanship of “ranking” unsettling. Literature is a continuum. Books give way to books. I also don’t read based on the geography of where someone happens to be born or live. Irish literature can feel overly patriarchal, with an awful lot of noise made repeatedly about the same male writers who tend to likewise make noise about each other. I admire many of our bilingual Irish women writers such as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Áine Ní Ghlinn.
I also miss very much the contributions to this newspaper of Mary Cummins, Mary Raftery and Mary Holland, all of whom I read in my 20s. I truly admire any writer who keeps going, since there are certainly sufficient reasons not to. I think the most under-rated Irish author is likely entirely unpublished, writing between several jobs, multiple children, an unwell parent and a dog with a prolapsed bladder.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I’m up for both. If I become curious about a book I must read it immediately and ebooks offer that immediate access. If struck I will buy a print copy because my brain likes a more tactile engagement and I usually mark them up. I’m very optimistic about new technology and have these notions of books becoming portals. (I hasten to add not a single other person appears to agree with these notions). I look forward to even more immediacy and being able to download a book onto my fingernail and the supersonic eye enhancer that will permit me to read it.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
It’s a toss up between Beckett’s Dream Journal, a book the University of Reading published which cost me $75.75, and a bunch of found on the side of the road books. Beauty is such an odd qualifier. Perhaps they’re not entirely beautiful these books, but they represent blind faith: one is a history of the railway in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, written by a self-published railway historian called Phyllis. I also love my just bigger than your palm, Modern Library type books. I have Stevenson’s essays, Madame Bovary and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. Again, completely random finds.
Where and how do you write?
I write in a very troubling manner that I wouldn’t advise anyone to adopt. I don’t have a routine per se because I have a job writing gambling and racing news; I juggle reviews and a teenager in as well and am faithfully chaotic. I work long hours at the weekends. I have a desk share with another writer in Chinatown. I am very often alone late at night in a building that used to be a pork test kitchen. Much of my process involves despair and shedding enough anxiety that, if harnessed, could power a more lucrative coffee-roasting facility. I do a very odd thing where I type and then I sometimes rewrite in longhand. I also create multiple documents and lose them, so am perpetually recommencing. Like I said: not recommended.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Every book I read seems to change the way I think about fiction. Sometimes they drive me to despair by indicating how much more we need to demand from our fiction and other times they send me into orbit with the possibilities they reveal. I can’t stand the ease factor that’s invaded fiction. I loathe how market forces are shaping our reading and this, by extension, our writing. I don’t want my reading and possibilities therein decided by a marketing person who doesn’t read widely and is tone deaf for language.
The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin changed the way I thought about the possibilities of form. Rob Kovitz’s Pig City Model Farm likewise introduced me to collage. Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness helped me recognise I could write about working class people, even though George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell had already taught me this and I failed to register it. Mary Robison helped me think in chunks. Thalia Field is Our Lady of The Fragment, and Anne Carson is tall and just so very remarkable on the page I don’t know where to start. I love novels of ideas and inversions, Jenny Diski has written 10 of them and her essays are for many of us loaves and fishes.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I have done lunatic research. I spent way too long researching the Catholic Worker Movement in New York in the 1960s for a novel I was never satisfied with. I once woke up at 5am to phone up a food inspector in New Jersey to talk about inspecting Mafia-owned bakeries. I have an enormous appetite for redundant information, hence I’d happily never write another book, just phone up people and talk to them on the bus about ideas behind a book.
What book influenced you the most?
It might be Ultan Cowley’s The Men Who Built Britain: The History of the Irish Navvy (http://www.ultancowley.com/UCHome.htm). It made me think about who we see and do not see on the page and why that might be. Claire Tomalin’s work on writers has been important to me. Betty Lambert’s novel Crossings was possibly one of the maddest novels I’ve ever read and I loved how unremitting she was in the portrait and nuance of violence in the relationship. It made me braver as a writer and forced me not to write around the dirty or disquieting stuff. Poetry has been important to me. Some of the most adventurous work takes place in the poetic form. Taxi by Helen Potrebenko gave me a relationship to the city where I now live.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
I wouldn’t give a book to an 18-year-old. I would give them MONEY. Then I’d ask for their hand-me-down clothes. By the time you are 18, you are probably fed up of people telling you what to read, since they’ve been at you since you were five.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Everything. I spent much of my childhood upside down, standing on my hands. I truly wish I had read or been able to read books in French, Irish and Mandarin/Chinese. I had to learn the Irish I know as an adult and had to suffer the subjunctive in French likewise and basecamp in my brain is likely closed in this lifetime for Mandarin. It’s the main reason I educated my child in French. It’s my biggest failing that I cannot translate from other languages to English. Imagine how one could contribute to literature, with such ability.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Take up gardening. The cycle ends much faster and it’s nutritious. Also, read. Read widely and read works in translation. Buy books excessively. If you want to be published you need to financially support the independent publishers, who are the most likely to take any risk and publish you. Otherwise they won’t exist. If for whatever reason nobody wants to publish your work, it may not indicate the value of that work.
What weight do you give reviews?
Criticism is a distinct form of writing and should be read as such. Reviews should be about ideas. The most important thing in a review is that it’s an engaging piece of writing in its own right, even if the book reviewed is terrible. Thus, by that reckoning, I give them great weight. I learn to be a better writer reading book reviews and long-form essays, even if I don’t always concur with their content. They make me reconsider; contemplate ideas, form, language and more. I give no weight to half-baked reviewers, who sound like they have been told what to read all their lives. There’s a certain entitled, often male, quality I don’t have much time for. If your prose is weak, you won’t convince me because you’re indignant.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Down the toilet. Rapido. The situation is pretty bleak. For literary fiction we need to find ways to create or reach new publics. How do we do this? Get back to me in 20 years.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I just spent time at a national forum discussing this in Montreal. The trend that has struck me has not yet happened. Thus it’s speculative-trend. I would like to know what literary criticism and literary culture and its dissemination might learn from video gaming, especially e-sports and the subcultures therein. Literary culture is so anachronistic it’s creaking, thus new media (which is old media now for many disciplines) is only just registering.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
I have learned everything that’s been useful from reading, except fixing my plumbing, which I learned on YouTube and screwed up. Then had to hail a relative who probably learned his plumbing from a book. I have learned that my partner gets particularly pissed off when he finds 42 books have taken up space in the bed in his absence. I have learned I’d like to be reincarnated as a penguin because they are spectacularly clever and because I have not mastered swimming in this lifetime. I have learned that the adverb is overused. I have learned that it pays not to be tin-eared when writing a novel. I have learned that I have a very unusual if redundant tic: when I read a book I can tell you if a word is repeated in it. It’s like a gong sounding in my ear. Yet I cannot do the same when reading my own work. Likewise I can repeat a line of numbers backwards to you. Both are totally redundant talents. I would much prefer to be able to do useful things like catch a fish or run after a rapidly departing bus.
What has being a writer taught you?
It’s a great privilege to be read and I appreciate any reader that spends time with my work or any piece of literature, even if it drives them spare. I wrote without any hope for a very, very long time. I have seen such passionate engagement from readers it’s humbling. It has also taught me worrying things about the market forces that are shaping our reading and how much the publishing industry underestimates readers, especially women. Being a writer has taught me I am nothing without other women. It has also taught me I am often the shortest person at festivals and not to sit too far back into the chair because when my feet don’t touch the ground, I have to make embarrassing paddling signals attempting to right myself upright. Finally, always bring a Tupperware container in the event there is excellent food at festivals or events. Most people are busy schmoozing and you will be so glad tomorrow that you nabbed this food.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I can’t cook. No one in their right mind would come to any dinner party I offered unless it was catered and on Concorde. Currently the person I most need to eat dinner with is a forensic psychologist, or someone who can teach me to build a tiny house, or explain composting toilets to me. I recently ate dinner with Daniel Handler. I ate two turnip omelettes. All three were exceptional company.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
My teen and I are big fans of Letters from a Nut. There’s a very funny scene in Night Desk by George Ryga but because I’m middle-aged I can’t recall the precise details. It seemed to involve an oven, boxing and a man.
What is your favourite word?
Douche nozzle. It covers so much, so many and so often. A word that was missing for so long from our daily vernacular. The urban dictionary is an adventure I endorse. Recently I had a warm feeling reading the words sagacity and rapacious. Stundered is another bon mot I learned from a Northerner.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
I would like to write a novel about Irish railway navvies in England, or a Vancouver labour history novel. Vancouver, where I live, was a hotbed of labour history especially during the 1930s. I published a paste-up book of source material called Rereading the Riot Act And On about it last year. I also have a very nifty northern English family history involving canals and sex that might be fun to pen sometime. (I may have invented the sex part, I confess)