Adam O’Riordan answers questions on The Falling Thread

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Interview by Harriet

As an already successful poet and short-story writer, what made you turn to the novel? Was it a sudden decision or a long-term ambition?

It was a decidedly long-term ambition. The novel always seemed the broadest canvas; the form that would allow me to deploy many different parts of my personality. I suppose a novel can be, and often by necessity is, many different kinds of books in one. In the novels that mean the most to me you have food writing, travel writing, writing about love and desire, species of action and adventure, existential reflection; a novel has room for all of these things in the way the singularity of a poem or short story might not. Incorrigibly plural as Louis MacNeice would say. 

How did the experience of writing at length compare for you with that of poems and stories – easier? Harder?

It was much harder. But I think that was structural. The novel had a gestation period of about eight or nine years during which Bloomsbury remained incredibly patient. The first draft, which took about three or four years, was essentially three loosely interconnected novellas which didn’t quite provide the narrative satisfaction we expect from a novel. The next draft took another three years or so, and saw the first of those three novellas written out, but it ended up being very over worked. It was just far too full. The final version, the version the novel that is in the world, is about half the length but again it took another couple of years to understand what to cut although the work itself, the final edit, happened in the space of a few weeks and then involved lots of fiddly knitting together. 

Can you tell us anything about what inspired you to write this particular story?

Manchester as a city has always been a sort of idée fixe for me. As a child growing up here you have it drummed into you that you are living in the aftermath of this tumultuous historical moment: the industrial revolution. You see evidence all around in the decaying grandeur of the buildings. I think it was especially pronounced growing up here in Manchester during 1980s and early 1990s and that post-industrial moment. But when you start writing about Manchester, especially during the period of 1890 up to World War One, you rapidly find yourself coming across it’s interconnectedness to the wider world, the modernity of the city going hand in hand with its links to, and dependency on, far off places.  

In terms of my novel’s central characters I want them to be archetypal products of the city. I think it’s commonly accepted that characters in novels are often amalgams of several people but in my experience it’s slightly stranger than that as they’re also fused with aspects of yourself. It sounds monstrous when you map it, though it happens quite organically I suppose there’s another layer too which is their literary antecedents. So for example the Schlegel sisters and the Dashwoods are in there in the DNA of Tabitha and Eloise. 

Given that The Falling Thread covers several decades, from 1890 to the early twentieth century, what kind of research did you do to get the details right?

I looked at a lot of photographs, there’s some early film too which gives glimpses of the city. I remember early on feeling I needed to look at all kinds of ledgers, timetables, newspapers, and I suppose if nothing else that attunes you to the language and registers of the period but if you’re not a trained historian these things are of limited use. Eventually once the storytelling comes to predominate you’re much less reliant and much more magpie-ish recognising details or objects you can use and swooping in for them. 

I was very interested in sewing minor characters from history into the novel and my characters into minor or overlooked moments in history. So Charles’ role in the by-election or Eloise being invited to join the artists’ colony in Paris, that sort of provided a framework to improvise around. I think just as important were the formal decisions: where to place the reader, what to infer, what to make explicit, what to leave indeterminate. That arc from saying too much to learning what to leave unsaid. 

I found all the characters fascinating, but I was particularly drawn to Hettie, whose story I found very moving. Although she puts in relatively few appearances, she seemed to me in many ways to be the centre of the novel. Was this intentional?

I’d like to think so, central but largely unseen. Hettie has the hardest time – she’s overlooked by Charles and Tabitha and Eloise, and in a sense the book makes the reader mirror this experience by being asked to notice her but then to overlook her. She was the missing piece in that without some exploration of her character and background the novel wouldn’t have worked, but also I suppose the piece that in some ways needed to remain missing and hard to define. Take the complexity of her relationship with Lady Victoria and Miss Coutts-Fowlie: are they simply the latest a line or people to take advantage of her or do they afford her an identity equivalent  to that of Tabitha and Eloise who find their own sense of self in radical politics and the artistic avant-garde? And when we meet Hettie for a final time is she deluded or enlightened? Especially when we compare her to her son or husband and the beliefs that drive their lives. 

Why ‘the falling thread’? Can you explain the title?

The title was the suggestion of a friend. I thought it was a perfect trinity in that contained the image of our notoriously inclement weather i.e. a thread of rain dops, but also the idea of thread being made into cloth, while also again suggesting the fragility and impermanence of the narrative threads that link the characters. Another friend pointed out that a novel is almost always a group endeavour with a host of people feeding in at various points in small but significant ways. 

What authors have been your inspiration?

Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge are an enduring inspiration – vividly conjuring the past while leaving room for humour and wit in their historical fiction. I think of them as sort of literary grandmothers or great aunts; repositories of wisdom and mystery. Closer by I’m continually impressed by the prose of Adam Foulds and David Szalay, who I think of reverentially as sort literary older brothers. I suppose from what for me is the parental generation, the inspiration comes from two literary heroes William Boyd and Alan Hollinghurst, the way they both use the past in ways that are by equal measure intelligent, entertaining and formally experimental. Falling avuncularly between the last two sets of writers, is Andrew Miller whose ability to create immersive historical settings in novels like One Morning Like a Bird set in Japan in the months leading up to Pearl Harbour or Pure with its evocation of pre-revolutionary France, is second to none. I love his contemporary work too: despite some very dark and disturbing subject matter there’s an underlying gentleness and a quiet sense of wonder that resonates through it. 

I think of James Salter as a sort of patron saint of late starting novelists and the overlooked. I was reading the 1975 New York Times review of his novel Light Years again recently. Albeit via flawless prose it constitutes a sort of ritual humiliation by the novelist and Columbia professor Robert Towers. It makes you wonder what purpose that kind of critical cruelty really serves in a literary culture. It must have been so wounding for Salter to read, if he did read it, and it would be almost another forty years before a widespread critical re-evaluation of his work, during which time Light Years, of course, had become a favourite novel of so many writers including Jhumpa Lahri and Sarah Hall. 

And what are reading at the moment?

I’m reading John Le Carré’s Silverview, pitched intriguingly as his ‘last complete masterwork’, suggesting there may be some interesting fragments still to emerge. It contains a brilliantly meta moment as W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn becomes a prop for some light spy craft with Le Carré offering a discernibly Sebaldian rendering of Suffolk where Silverview, like The Rings of Saturn, is partially set.  

Colin Thubron’s late masterpiece The Amur River, about a journey undertaken in his 80th year along the titular stretch of water between China and Russia kept me company through a recent bout of Covid. He embodies T.S. Eliot’s idea that the old men should be explorers and I regret not reading him sooner. I’ve also been reading Freya Stark’s Baghdad Sketches (historical evidence Eliot’s idea applies equally to young women). 

The philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature and Are You An Illusion were picked up recently in an attempt to work out where I stood on the (impossibly) hard problem of consciousness. Readers might know her from Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. Addressing the hard problem of consciousness is the kind of task that seems like a good idea between finishing one novel and starting another. 

Finally, what can we expect next from Adam O’Riordan?

There are two projects (that sounds slightly grandiose, doesn’t it? – what I mean is books, or more precisely what could-be books). One is a story of a young woman travelling through France in the late 1980s whose story intersects with that a of a group of Maquisards during the closing stages of World War Two. The other is a re-working of the two other novellas I mentioned earlier which I think perhaps have the potential to be a novel taking in Oregon of the 1890s (where my great grandfather was born) and Oklahoma during the Great Depression which I’ve been interested in ever since first seeing Walker Evans’ photographs of the period and again recently when reading his long interview with the publisher Leslie George Katz. There’s a wonderful quote from Walker Evans which I think is as true of writing as it is of photography:

Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

See Harriet’s review of The Falling Thread [here]

Adam O’Riordan, The Falling Thread (Bloomsbury, 2021). 978-408856536, 260pp., hardback.

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