Sarah Moss: ‘Ireland is progressing while England is rapidly and deliberately regressing’
Sarah Moss, acclaimed author of Ghost Wall, talks about leaving Brexit behind to move to Ireland and teach in UCD
Sarah Moss, author and new creative writing assistant professor at UCD. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times
“I started thinking about moving to Ireland at the West Cork Literary Festival two years ago, when John Boyne was talking about gay marriage and someone in the audience said something about the astonishing pace of progress in Ireland in the last 20 years. I thought how good it was to be in a room full of people who had hope for their country and the reasonable belief that life would continue to get better for coming generations.”
Sarah Moss, acclaimed novelist and professor of creative writing at Warwick University, is explaining why she is moving to UCD this year to join an impressive team led by fellow author Anne Enright.
“I know there’s the climate emergency, injustice and inequality everywhere in the world, and Ireland’s not perfect and has specific problems of its own, but it seems to be a country generally in progress while England is rapidly and deliberately regressing, our leaders and much of the electorate obsessed with a dishonest version of the past rather than any constructive ideas of the future.”
Moss welcomed not just the result of the abortion referendum but also how it was conducted, “the attention finally paid to women’s voices and stories more than to American-funded scaremongering on social media. I’d rather be part of a country that’s mostly able to have a heated discussion about change than one locked in division and rage, and one able to think about its traditions and move forward rather than longing for an imaginary past.
“There have been times when Irish people have moved to England for intellectual freedom and a more outward-looking society, and now perhaps, for those of us with the luxury of choice, it’s going to be the other way around.”
The alienating effect of Brexit is a push factor, but there is a pull factor too. “Ireland is a deeply literary place, a country that is deeply invested in its writers. It is also very beautiful. The landscape is a considerable draw as well.”
She knows it of old. “This always sounds much grander than it was but my parents had a boat, an old wooden boat, no winches or electronics of any sort. We sailed across the Irish Sea, going ashore in a dinghy to buy milk.”
Emigrating to Ireland is not Moss’s only big move. After seven books with Granta, her next novel will be published by Picador in September after a nine-way auction and a six-figure deal. Set in a Scottish holiday park one fateful rainy summer’s day, Summerwater, described as “swift, sharp and dark”, relates residents’ growing animosity towards a noisy outsider family, mounting to a devastating climax.
“Max Porter was my editor at Granta and he left to write full-time. If he’d stayed, I would have stayed with him, and he’s now a good friend – it’s been fun doing events together as writers. Granta is great even without him, but after 10 years and six books it felt like time for a move, maybe part of the same mid-life shift that made me apply for the job at UCD, and when I met Kish Widyaratna at Picador [also Sinead Gleeson’s editor] I knew I wanted to work with her. We’re all but finished editing Summerwater, which will be out in September, and I know I made the right decision.”
Porter, acclaimed author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny, is unstinting in his praise. “Sarah is a singular figure, I think. She combines extraordinary intellectual acuity with technical virtuosity in ways very few living novelists do, as if she was born to write novels.
“She is a political writer, and one of the great feminist novelists of our time, but she is also a magnificent stylist. Her books are frightening, and funny, and her analysis of human feeling is always startlingly insightful. She is a master of her art. She is one of the cleverest people I know, and a profoundly brilliant teacher of literature and ideas.”
Inspired by a visit as a child to Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement in Orkney, Moss hoped to become an archaeologist, and spent the summer as a 17-year-old working on a Roman dig in France, noticing how her fellow archaeological workers mirrored the ancient community they were uncovering and thinking that the parallel stories would provide the structure for a novel.
Reconstructing the past is a good metaphor for fiction and it is the literal backdrop to her debut, Cold Earth (2009), the story of an archaeological dig in Greenland, and her latest novel, the superb Ghost Wall (2018), about a troubled family and a group of students re-enacting an Iron Age settlement near Hadrian’s Wall. Haunting protagonist Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her. Moss acknowledges the influence of Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog bodies.
She is keen for it not to be seen as just a Brexit parable, but as a study of an unhealthy form of nationalism. “It would be great if Brexit was just a British problem but there is a nationalist populism spreading across Europe.”
Moss was born in Glasgow, grew up in Manchester (her father a computer scientist; her mother worked in the arts with people with disabilities), studied English at Oxford and lectured in Canterbury and Cornwall before moving to Warwick, with a year in Iceland in between, subject of a travel memoir, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). Both one of Theresa May’s citizens of nowhere and one of Michael Gove’s unwanted experts, little wonder she finds Boris Johnson’s Britain a cold house.
British or English?
She has always been politically engaged. As a child, she went on CND marches with her parents, later marched against Thatcher’s poll tax and most recently with her two sons to demand a second Brexit referendum.
“I grew up in Manchester and spent a lot of time in Liverpool and Yorkshire in the late ’80s, early ’90s. The miners’ strike is the first political event I remember. Manchester was a really poor place, I didn’t realise how poor until I left. I remember walking in Oxford and people were taller than they were in Manchester – a physical, skeletal difference. That really shocked me.”
Now she volunteers with young refugees in Coventry and while she might regard a passport as a flag of convenience rather than a badge of identity, she is aware of her privilege. “Their lives are completely different to my kids’ because of a lack of papers.”
She struggles to decide whether she is British or English, bogged down with baggage as both are.
Close reading has had its phases of being more or less fashionable but I still think it is the groundwork of any sort of writing practice. You need to be able to see where a whole story turns on a semi-colon
“I think I would have said [though thinking definitely of the north of England] that I was English until the Brexit referendum, when Englishness was so loudly claimed by right-wing Leavers. ‘British’ has always sounded a bit imperial to me but now I think in some contexts ‘British’ suggests a pluralism that ‘English’ denies. English feels pretty poisonous to me, the people who want to define themselves as English tend to be pretty far to the right. ‘British’ used to feel plural and inclusive, but especially since Scotland and NI voted so clearly to remain, it begins to feel as if that inclusivity might have a coercive dimension. ‘English’ used to feel like too narrow an identity marker, exclusive and nostalgic, but maybe now begins to seem realistic in a way that ‘British’ no longer does. I think I might be shifting towards saying ‘I’m English’ because it feels like a way of recognising what a very small country this is.”
Moss’s very traditional English degree at Oxford was central to her formation as a writer. She trained as an academic first, writing histories of chocolate; eating and cooking in British women’s fiction; and tales of polar exploration. She began to read contemporary fiction more seriously in her late 20s as she started writing fiction herself.
“I was much more interested in the prose than in getting the footnotes right, which is not how you need to do it. I love research and I still do it but it now takes fictional form.”
Moss is in no doubt that creative writing – learning to be a better reader and a better writer – can be taught. “I think if you can teach music and dance and fine art it’s not clear why creative writing would be any different, but I want to teach it as a practice rather than a job. Thinking of creative writing as an apprenticeship to being a novelist is not a great way to learn to read and write. It’s not as if there is a career path for writers. Even students who do very well in an undergraduate creative writing degree are unlikely to publish a novel in their 20s, with honourable exceptions. It takes time and life experience.”
Learning how to be a better reader is almost more important than writing, she says. “I learned to write by reading and fundamentally I teach people to write by teaching them to read. You can’t teach people to write in the abstract, they have to have written something that you can discuss, and if that isn’t produced through not just reading but literary analysis, thinking really hard about what is happening in a text at sentence level, then I don’t know how you learn. You write one word at a time, you have to read that way.
“Close reading has had its phases of being more or less fashionable but I still think it is the groundwork of any sort of writing practice. You need to be able to see where a whole story turns on a semi-colon; to be able to look at a sentence and see which word is doing which work so that then when you look at your own sentence you can see which word shouldn’t be there.”
Asked to identify the common themes and threads in her work, she says: “I think my preoccupations are to do with how family stories shape individuals. Freud gives us the family as an essentially narrative more than biological entity. The story of your parents and your childhood is the story of your life, and of course it goes back further than Freud; Wordsworth says ‘The child is father to the man’ and Rousseau and his followers were interested in the shaping power of infancy.
“Of course people always loved their kids, but there’s a historical idea that in the late 18th century, with urbanisation and industrialisation in Britain, the family story began to be about emotional as much as practical and economic commitment, not just in relation to romance but in rearing children. There’s an emerging idea that the way you treat a baby shapes his or her adult self, and that comes at about the same time as the novel in its modern form. So some literary critics have seen the modern novel and the family as dancing partners. Think about the beginning of War and Peace, or Pride and Prejudice.
“After that, writers are interested in the ways fiction can resist or question that essentially Victorian family story, not just in the essentially Victorian way of starting with an orphan or using the Gothic to see what’s been brushed under the rug in a patriarchal household, but what other possibilities we find for the form of the novel. And despite all the beautiful fireworks of 20th-century fiction, and the scientific debunking of Freud, both fiction and popular culture still understand that individuals are often stories told by their parents. Adam thinks about this quite explicitly in The Tidal Zone, which is partly a book about broken narratives and surviving without a story.”
Moss’s fiction feeds off the places she has lived. The fascinating story of the postwar reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral is a key narrative strand in The Tidal Zone. So the prospect of her keen narrative eye focusing on Ireland is an exciting and welcome one.
Her Icelandic experience will shape the way she thinks about this move, although being 10 years older might make it less agonising, she hopes. She is aware that because the language is the same here, as with the US, there is the risk of thinking things are more similar than they are.
“I think writers can be quite good at this because a lot of what you need for fiction is to be able to read a room, read body language, so it’s natural to hang back and see how things work because that is the narrative position.”