Interview by Victoria
Miranda Gold is a writer based in London. Her first novel, Starlings, published by Karnac in December 2016, reaches back three generations to explore how the impact of untold stories about the Holocaust ricochets down the years. She has taken part in Jewish Book Week and was on the panel for ‘Reading as Alchemy’ at Waterstones Gower Street. She is now crowd-funding with the award winning Unbound to publish her second novel, A Small Dark Quiet. In her review for The Tablet, Sue Gaisford described Starlings as a strange, sad, original and rather brilliant first novel, illumined with flashes of glorious writing and profound insight, particularly into the ways in which we attempt to reinvent ourselves.
Victoria: Here at Shiny we are big supporters of the innovative Unbound and have featured them in BookBuzz already. I’d love to know more about the process you’re going through towards publication and how it’s been for you so far.
Miranda: I think many agents and publishers underestimate just how sophisticated readers are, and a market dominated by page turners has neglected them. The difference with Unbound is that it invites the reader to play a crucial role in shaping the market, bringing them much closer to the writer and their work. That’s what I’ve appreciated most – the chance to connect directly with a readership, to build a community through a passion for literature that gives voice to under-represented subjects or, as with my work, a subject where the individual voices have been lost under what they have come to represent, the narratives homogenised. Being part of a community in this way is the counterpoint to the necessarily solitary nature of writing. Yet meaning can only take place in that space between the readers and the words, so it seems appropriate that the readers are vital to the process. Crowd-funding can be very rewarding but of course there are anxious moments, times when it feels impossible, and that’s when advice and support from fellow Unboundersmiths keeps me going. I’m quite new to social media (a friend hauled me into the 21st century about a year ago) so having advice from Unbound about how to navigate cyberspace has been invaluable. I don’t fit the stereotype of the introverted, hermetic writer but I do find promoting my own work very challenging. Making connections through literature is something that evolves just as meaning reveals itself by staying on the page. Social media is the antithesis of this gradual process so for me it’s been about finding ways to engage in meaningful conversation – the instantaneous is always seductive but it evaporates just as suddenly as it appears.
Victoria: And what happens next?
Miranda: Until the book is funded I’ll continue to focus on reaching potential readers. I’ve just received a very encouraging response to the book from Meike Ziervogel, novelist and founder of the wonderful Pereine Press, and I’ve been discussing an event with the writer and academic, Josh Cohen, on oblique responses to trauma in fiction – how do we tell the stories that resist not only narrative but language? How can we communicate the nuance, complexity and indeed the silence of a part of history so often lost beneath the clichés and myth? I’m also organising an event on the relationship between literature and music, a subject I’m very keen to explore further. The manuscript will be handed in once the book is funded and then the process of editing begins; there are several stages and all require rigour and sensitivity. The book a reader holds in their hands is the result of what might be countless drafts and revisions.
Victoria: Tell us about A Small, Dark Quiet. What was the inspiration for the novel?
Miranda: I think the one consistent element that drives all of my writing is the urgency to recall the sense of the individuals behind the numbers, statistics and symbols – who they might have been or become. I’m always drawn to a voice that has been cut off, sometimes because it didn’t have the chance to speak, sometimes because it didn’t know how to speak. The narratives I grew up hearing were fractured; fragments were told and retold so there was a chorus of ancient mariners always trying to get to the end.
I recognise that I’m drawn back to similar themes – how people carry a past that is inescapable yet never quite retrievable, the paralysis caused by the limits of awareness and fear, the sense of being an outsider, and the internalisation of persecution, being uprooted and displaced…the deep need to be seen and the fear of being seen, the gap between characters’ perception of themselves and and how they are perceived. Whether it’s a story, a play or a novel, I always begin by being in the company of a character and letting them show me their world. It’s only then that I can begin to look through their eyes – it’s about moving between empathy and compassion. All I can be sure of in terms of how the book began was my sense of a man sitting on a park bench with an empty suitcase, sandwich crusts at his feet, unable to go home, going over the lines he’d tell his family about where he’d been all day. I was curious – where had he come from? Why did he feel there was nowhere for him to go? As I came to understand his origins, and the loss that could never be quite known, however indelible it was, I found how tightly bound his story was to that of the woman who adopted him and the child that she’d lost. The parallels and patterns became obvious only in the process of writing.
Victoria: This is your second novel, Starlings being the first. I’d love to know more about that novel, too, and how your storytelling has developed from one book to the other.
Miranda: Starlings is an attempt to communicate the third generation experience as much as it is a search for a narrative that will some how contain the fragile but powerful legacy of persecution and survival. Both novels are deeply concerned with the themes of loss, migration and the search for belonging, but Starlings follows a single character as she looks back through her mother’s eyes, who in turn is looking back through her grandfather’s eyes. The past ruptures the present and, as Sally begins to piece together what might have been her grandparents’ journeys, she comes to understand why she has become so disconnected from her brother – they may share the same history but they can’t carry it together. I suppose I’m still exploring the way untold stories manifest, and the physicality in them suggests how entrenched they become – the intangible is written on the body. Perhaps that’s why the physical aspects of language – the aural qualities, the rhythm, are so crucial in my writing.
Victoria: Historical trauma is clearly something of profound significance for you. I wonder why you chose to approach this from a fictional perspective, rather than non-fiction?
Miranda: That’s such an important question, particularly when uncovering the facts is the first step towards reparation and, as living memory dies out and the trauma recedes, this legacy can all too easily be reduced into a singular, simplified narrative. However, what we do have to recall, is that history is still an interpretation; as Hilary Mantel put it so well in her illuminating Reith Lectures, ‘History is not the past, it is our method of organising our ignorance of the past’. I think the best way for me to explain why I wrote fiction is to quote from my essay, Unravelling the Knot of Inherited Memory: ‘When I first began writing Starlings I did not consciously set out to transcribe my story or my family’s – if I had done, I have failed abysmally. Instead bits of my history crept up on me and onto the page, mixing with the characters I’d met parts of and arranged into being. The question ‘Is it autobiographical?’ seems to me to have little value. Novels, like dreams, play out variations of ourselves, our lives – I know I can’t hide any more than I know I can’t, caught up in my own subjective experience, write about my own experience without slipping into fiction. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Is there really any other way to tell it? The truth often is slant – we are all seeing it from different angles and what catches the light today is rarely what we saw. There is also the more fundamental matter of just getting by, of muddling through moment to moment and then, later, withstanding the threat of memory – both its power and its fragility. Humankind may not be able to bear very much reality – but sometimes our survival depends on our instinct to keep it at a remove. Even as I write this I question how much an inescapable element of self-consciousness makes me stray.’
Victoria: I know that you’re also very interested in the relationship between music and literature. I wonder if you’d like to tell us a bit more about that?
Miranda: I don’t think I quite understood why some literature had such a profound effect on me – one that resisted explanation, one that couldn’t be summarised – until I read Daniel Barenboim’s ‘Everything is Connected’. One of the first ideas that struck me was his point that ‘if the symphony could be described the symphony wouldn’t be necessary.’ This has been essential to me in my writing because words alone can only catch at meaning yet point towards so much more, they can touch us at the visceral as well as cognitive level, sometimes bypassing the cognitive altogether. I’m also fascinated by his understanding of the relationship between sound and silence, perhaps because my work falls into the gaps where words stop or fail. Beyond this, I found the way he refuses to accept the simple binary of rigour and spontaneity, seeing both as fundamental to the musician’s practice: only by knowing every detail of the score intimately can the musician release this and draw on it spontaneously in performance. I don’t plan or research in a methodical way – I explore my characters’ worlds, connect with how their senses and perceptions are in a constant state of flux and how their history and context is shaping this. Then I might move towards sound archives and diaries, film footage…and then back to the writing…it may feel as though I’m transcribing my characters thoughts or translating their experience into words without looking up or back, but of course the truth is there has been so much background sketching, so much delving and questioning.
Victoria: Tell us about your writing routines. How do you go about the hard slog of transforming an idea into a finished novel?
Miranda: See above but add in intermittent middle distant staring, walking and copious amounts of tea!
Victoria: I think we also have a wonderful literary mentor in common – Jacqui Lofthouse. How was the experience of having that kind of support helpful for you in the writing process?
Miranda: I had just two sessions with Jacqui, but the way in which she supported me was as unexpected as it was invaluable. I was still working on my first draft of Starlings at the time and was struggling with long term health issues, unable to see a way forward with either. What Jacqui offered, quite simply, was the gift of taking my writing and my situation on their own terms. I’d expected a fierce timetable, goals and a good shake. Instead Jacqui recognised the Modernist influences in my writing and gave me licence to to find the unfamiliar shapes that might hold a non-linear, unconventional narrative. She wanted to focus on the coaching side and, while I was resistant to this and no doubt ran away too soon, it did help me accept the fact that the writing and the life support each other – that the writing itself could support me but I was going to have to support myself for it to do so.
Victoria: Who are your inspirational authors?
Miranda: The authors who had the most influence initially were James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Joyce shifts easily and irreverently between registers, and if Dubliners tells the city’s stories in mercilessly stark prose, Ulysses seems to laugh off the idea that there is any such thing as style at all, something I found very freeing. There is a playfulness and generosity in Joyce that sets him apart from the other modernists I read. Joyce seems to be less about the struggle to articulate than a delight in the possibilities of expression. Is he hiding behind all these different styles like a chameleon or are these different styles the only way to express the sheer multiplicity of being? Joyce is the trickster: the base presses right up against the sacred, high and low registers collide, it is never either/or, and myth could be just something else in the treasure box or what connects us back through time, underpinning the structure of our history and our lives.
Like Joyce, Virginia Woolf made extraordinary use of stream-of-consciousness. I didn’t read her as non- or anti-realist, but as offering another type of realism, one revealing the senses shaping and shaped by the world.. She catches at once both the fragility and vitality of moment to moment experience in prose so luminous that, no matter how fleeting the impressions, they are alive on the page. I was also drawn to the paradox that while there can be a sense of acute isolation, everything is still intimately connected, and this is mirrored by the use of stream of consciousness itself – we have access to a mind in a way we never could have in life, so the words on the page that consolidate this sense of isolation are also what breaks it. However brittle or distant, there continues to be a belief in that connection and empathy.
Reading T.S. Eliot was also formative and I think the reason I was attracted to these Modernist writers was because Modernism is peculiarly conscious of how we represent as well as what we represent. Moving a bit closer to the present, Pinter made me hear just how much can be burning beneath an apparently benign phrase, Beckett offered another version of heroism – Winnie from Happy Days and Krapp from Krapps’ Last Tape — and Nabokov conjured a transcendently beautiful lyricism even while unfolding the darkest of worlds.
Victoria: And what books are on your bedside table right now?
Miranda: Second Hand Time, Svetlana Alexievich, Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector (rereading this), Falling Awake, Alice Oswald
Victoria is Editor At Large for Shiny New Books.
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