Q&A with Nicholas Royle, author of An English Guide to Birdwatching

Interview by Annabel

Annabel: Firstly, I must admit, when offered this book for review, I initially mixed you up with the other Nicholas Royle, something you must (both) get a lot. Has either of you ever considered writing under another name to reduce the confusion, or do you (both) like the coincidences generated by it?

Nicholas: This has a now quite long history – there is a detailed chapter about it (‘The Double’) in my book The Uncanny, published in 2003, as well as a photo of the two NRs at a fiction reading at the Gantry Arts Centre in Southampton in 1999. As you’ll see from that chapter, the other Nicholas Royle also published a novel, The Director’s Cut (2000), in which he ‘as good as murders [me]’: there are two characters called Munro (one based at the University of Stirling, as I recall, where I used to teach), both passionate about photography and film, and one Munro beats the other to death, on the top of a munro, with his camera. It’s pretty clear from the text which N.R. the author of The Director’s Cut has in mind as the murderee. In ‘real life’ (the scare quotes seem prudent) he and I have known each other for years and indeed we are good friends. We have numerous shared interests and affinities (many of which are discussed in ‘The Double’). We are also profoundly different – as should be evident from reading the texts we have written. Sometimes we have in fact published work under pseudonyms, but generally we are both pretty attached to the name we were given. I think we both understand, with a clarity that comes from our confusion, that one’s name is never one’s own. Like my earlier novel Quilt, An English Guide to Birdwatching is in truth very much a novel about anonymity. (In this respect, I think of E.M. Forster’s wonderful little essay from 1925, ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’.)

Annabel: An English Guide to Birdwatching really spoke to me too – I share its geography. I was born and bred in Croydon, my late mum’s favourite seaside town was Seaford and I worked in Great Yarmouth for two years. I’d describe myself as an armchair ornithologist thanks to Radio 4’s obsession with birds and ‘Tweet of the day’. Besides that, I love experimental and metafictional novels. Am I going to turn into Ethel?

Nicholas: That’s lovely. I have for many years been interested in the idea that a text can read its reader just as much as a reader can read a text. Kafka is the decisive instance here: what a reader says about one of his stories almost invariably reveals more about the reader than about the story itself. I love the idea – indeed, in a sense I write for the idea – that readers might find themselves in a novel, I mean find themselves as nowhere else, anew, with a new knowledge and sense of the world. I’d be charmed if you were to turn into Ethel: An English Guide to Birdwatching is a novel also about metamorphosis. Ethel is in a way, I suspect, the most important, vital creature in the text. She is a figure of forgetting but also of mourning. Her name, as you may have picked up, is an anagram of ‘Lethe’ – a play that is perhaps most audible in the phrase ‘Ethel’s Wharf’. See Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, where the Ghost observes:

I find thee apt.
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

Annabel: The book is structured in two halves. The first being a novel – a rather macabre story of obsession, adultery, anger and mistaken identity among its themes; the second is a set of essays: ‘The Hides’. I’ll come back to both halves separately in a moment, but wanted to ask if you ever thought of interspersing ‘The Hides’ between chapters? Or would that have diluted the tension in the novel too much?

Nicholas: Writing this novel took a long time – really, it’s been six years or more – and even longer in its ‘roots’ (I’d been thinking about writing a novel about a family of undertakers called Woodlock since the early 1980s). The form of the novel – especially how the ‘hides’ were to be fitted in – was a brain-numbing conundrum that would keep me awake like the gulls keep Silas Woodlock awake. In some respects it is just as the literary theorist Nicholas Royle says on p.55: the hides would ideally run along the bottom of the page, in a kind of subterranean textual space, so that the reader would constantly be aware of the idea not so much of a novel of ‘two halves’, but rather of a double novel. (As you’ll have noticed, An English Guide to Birdwatching is more or less constantly preoccupied with the idea of ‘two’, the double, the twi-light, and even the double double, the ‘to-two-too-to’.) But it seemed to me simply unreasonable to impose on the reader in that way. So then I devoted myself to a complete redrafting of the novel precisely along the lines you suggest: trying to intersperse the hides within a single, over-arching narrative frame. But it soon enough became clear to me that this wasn’t sustainable. The hides really are, in some sense, a world unto themselves and call to be situated with that in mind. So I spent an entire summer reworking the novel so as to enable ‘the hides’ to come after ‘the undertaking’, even though of course the temporal perspectives are all twisted, interwoven and retroactively complicated in ways that are eventually, I hope, enriching and enduring for the reader.

Annabel: Returning to the novel, the key event is when the journalist Stephen Osmer makes an offensive remark at an author event featuring both authors called Nicholas Royle. ‘You wouldn’t know powerful writing if it smacked you in the face with a brick.’ (p32). In the text, the two NRs have a cosy relationship, a double act formed from the confusions over who wrote what. In real life, do you know each other well? Given that you portray neither author in a particularly good light, the games you play in the novel obviously appealed to the real other NR…

Nicholas: Yes, I think I have probably covered this with my response to Q1 above. But I don’t think ‘cosy’ is a word I’d use in this context. I think the double always carries a feeling of threat. As Freud says in his essay on ‘The Uncanny’, the double is ‘the uncanny harbinger of death’. All the great doubles stories in literature (Poe, Hogg, Dostoevsky, Conrad and so on) are about that sense of disquieting, even terrifying intimacy.

Annabel: Even though the two halves of the book are nominally fiction and non-fiction, the novel half contains Stephen’s two critical essays, plus the short story ‘Gulls’ which assumes a fatal importance. The second half is mostly essays, but Hide 11 is really a short story and Hide 17 is the epilogue to the novel. As well as the meta-fiction of injecting the two NRs into the text, and the quotations throughout from Dickens, and other writers of fiction and non-fiction, it keeps the reader poised for what comes next – I’m at risk of repeating myself from Q2, but how did you decide which bits went where?

Nicholas: I don’t see the novel as ‘nominally’ fiction (Part One) and non-fiction (Part Two). Of course every reader will have their own way of choosing to talk about the text, and this is what makes novels (as opposed to political essays or scientific articles) so distinctive, so ‘rich and strange’ and potentially transformative. A novel really is like an orphan (to recall Plato’s figure for writing): as a writer you have to let it go and it goes off into an existence of its own. You may feel maternal or paternal about it in all sorts of ways and seek to give it as much love and sustenance and strength as you can, but once it’s published it’s on its own. You can’t bring it back and indeed nothing you, as author, say about it is necessarily any more compelling than anything anyone else says. It has a life of its own. So, for what it’s worth (but I doubt that this is very much at all), I don’t think of ‘The Hides’ as ‘mostly essays’, or Hide 11 as ‘really a short story’ or Hide 17 as ‘the epilogue to the novel’. I’m trying – no doubt without much success! – to elaborate a new kind of writing, something akin perhaps to prose poems, elegies, apocalyptic songs from the Anthropocene, fictive capsules or bunkers, psittical metamorphoses (in at least faintly Ovidian mode), ghostly variations or choral work, phantomatic audiobooths, philosophical catacombs… Anyhow, in the novel they are called ‘hides’. I love the word ‘hide’ in British English – and everything it seems to enable. Each hide is conceived as a sort of self-enclosed crypt, but there are also connections (some less visible, some more subterranean than others) between them (as well as between certain hides and certain chapters or passages in ‘The Undertaking’) and there is also, I hope, a discernible movement towards a (cryptic) conclusion. As far as I know (but I may be wrong about this), An English Guide to Birdwatching is the first novel in English to contain hides.

Annabel: I enjoyed the way that the Hides are really commenting on human nature, through the medium of birds. The blurb describes it as ‘wordwatching’ which is such a playful and accurate description of much of what goes on. From the pedantry of the five unnamed characters debating the meaning of the word ‘hide’ in Hide 1, to the fact that Ethel’s maiden name is Dunnock (a bird), but her married name is Woodlock (not quite a Woodcock) – that irony made me laugh. You must enjoy puns…

Nicholas: I am wary of puns, especially insofar as this word ‘pun’ tends to ‘connote a certain frivolity, a momentary bubble of fun, something contained and under control, a kind of calculated but ultimately pointless exhibition of linguistic playfulness’. (Forgive me for quoting myself on this: see How to Read Shakespeare, p.13.) People (even the most distinguished scholars and editors) talk about ‘puns’ in Shakespeare, but in important respects, it seems to me (and this is what I try to explore in How to Read Shakespeare), there are no puns in Shakespeare. (The word ‘pun’, in the sense of ‘a play on words’, didn’t even exist, for a start…) Words are amazing, they (to an uncanny degree) make us what or who we are and what we do: so ‘play’ here is also as serious as anything. Of course I love the way words play – but I’m especially fascinated by how they can play, as it were, by themselves. This is something, it seems to me, particularly evident in the writing of Shakespeare, but also Melville and other remarkable writers down the centuries. (In another book, Veering, I seek to explore this in relation to the notion of ‘wordlife’.) So, you may not believe me, but when I was writing I was not conscious of a number of the connections you’re referring to here. I didn’t foresee the ‘woodlock’/’woodcock’ linkage, and I didn’t think about the closeness of ‘woodlock’ to ‘woodlouse’: these were simply effects of language (and meaning) that emerged in the writing. Some things of course I was aware of – including the common noun ‘dunnock’ (his ‘old sparrer’, as I believe Silas somewhere calls her), and the ‘Ethel’/’Lethe’ anagram I mentioned earlier, and the reversal of ‘Woodlock’ and ‘Lockwood’ (the ‘conversation’ with Wuthering Heights that carries on, in a sense, throughout the text), but many of the instances of ‘play’ are just chance migrations, so to speak.

Annabel: Are there any particular texts about birds and birdwatching that you would recommend for those wanting to read more about the wildlife in the novel, avian or human?

Nicholas: Well, there are a number of excellent books that I reference in passing in the novel itself: contemporary work by Tim Birkhead, Tim Dee, Helen Macdonald, Mark Cocker, Esther Woolfson, Jeremy Mynott, and John Marzluff and Tony Angell, for example. All of these texts helped and inspired me in working on the novel.

Annabel: And finally, we always ask this: which books have you particularly enjoyed reading lately?

Nicholas: Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign (vol.2), Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and Hélène Cixous’ The Double Oblivion of the Ourang-Outang.

Thank you!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – read her review of An English Guide to Birdwatching here.

Nicholas Royle, An English Guide to Birdwatching (Myriad, 2017).  978-1908434944, 352pp.,  paperback original.

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