Interview by Annabel
Annabel: I loved reading The Lie of the Land, and it had me giggling all the way through. Before I discuss some of the themes, I’d like to ask you about the vein of humour that runs through your novels. Often so close to life, but just a little exaggerated, which makes it so real. Is the humour intentional, or does it come from the situations that your characters find themselves in?
Amanda: I think the humour is very much my own. I am essentially a satirist, and one of my big influences (apart from novelists like Dickens, Waugh, Wodehouse, Thackeray and Austen) is Juvenal. He wrote a superb satire on life in Ancient Rome, The Vanity of Human Wishes, which is still so much like London life it’s uncanny (right down to landlords papering over the cracks in their rotten flats.) He says that human behaviour is so foolish that a philosopher must always be laughing or always be crying. I choose to laugh. It’s not unkind laughter, because I love all my characters (and many people in real life) faults and all. But it is close to what Puck says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”. I include myself in that, of course.
Annabel: You’re also known for reusing your characters. I clearly remembered Ivo Sponge from A Vicious Circle for instance. Quentin and Lottie appeared in Hearts and Minds and get their own starring roles here. All your novels stand alone, even though characters recur – are you reluctant to let them go, or is it a case of having imagined more life for them when you created them?
Amanda: I’m not reusing my characters so much as living with them. I carry a sort of portable parallel world in my head, which is slightly better than this one in that it suggests there may be more justice than is the case in real life. I am surprised more novelists don’t do this, because if you go to all the trouble of creating characters, you don’t want to say goodbye to them any more than you do a friend. I like seeing them age and develop over time, As I’ve been writing for 27 years, some who were babies in, say, A Private Place or A Vicious Circle, are now grown-ups. Of course, more of the adults will start to die, too. Just occasionally, I can be caught out – I’ve learnt not to be too specific about what minor characters do for a living, for instance, in case they become major. But it’s a game I enjoy playing, and one I hope readers do too. There’s a playful element to all fiction, including the most tragic.
Annabel: The central premise of Lottie and Quentin not being able to afford to divorce and continue to live well in London is one many readers will recognise and maybe sympathise with (although many won’t be as lucky to own a house worth over £1M). This scenario gives many possible pathways towards happy or not happy endings. How did you decide for them to deal with it by moving to the country – and all that ensues?
Amanda: I am very aware that Lottie and Quentin are luckier than many in having their £1 million London house – even if they are full of self-pity! In a way, it is the ludicrous distortion of the property market that was one of my inspirations.
However, their scenario is one that quite a few friends have undertaken in real life, not just due to divorce but due to losing their jobs in the recession and finding themselves broke. This is the third recession in my lifetime, and having graduated into the first in the early 1980s, I am always worried about money. I never had the fun people seem to have had in the 1980s, it was all fear and grind. Were I a young parent now, I’d be moving out of London too. Housing is a hideous mess, as we all know. I spent years thinking about it, especially from Quentin’s point of view. I have friends who have living in London or the country as part of their marriage pact, people feel as passionate about one or the other as they do about fidelity. I could see so many endings for their story – and in fact, it has an open ending for that reason. Lottie presents Quentin with a serious and painful decision. It’s part punishment, and part something that is going to require him to grow up at last.
Annabel: You use Lottie and Quentin’s move to the country as a means to comment on many areas of social justice – the most significant of which is probably jobs, especially for young people, in the countryside. You explore this using Xan, Lottie’s teenaged son from a previous relationship and perhaps my favourite character in the book. Xan ends up working at the pie factory which opens his eyes – and ours, could you comment on this?
Amanda: I’m so glad you liked Xan, as he’s probably my own favourite character in The Lie of the Land too – he will be returning, with Marta, in a future novel.
What Xan learns about the country was the hardest part to research and write, and I was pretty shocked myself by what I discovered. I am always interested in what is hidden in plain sight, and it’s quite easy to find stuff out if you get people to talk to you. Most city-people have an idea of the country as a place of holiday and recreation, rather than real poverty. It’s a place which demands so much hard work, for well below the minimum wage, and yet it’s treated as an irrelevance by politicians. Then when scandals erupt like horse-meat being passed off as beef, or vulnerable people being used as slave labour, everyone is appalled for about two seconds, before forgetting all over again because it looks so pretty. The food factories are grim, but better in many ways than picking daffodils or potatoes – there’s a reason why only immigrants do those jobs, mostly. It’s not a question of goodies or baddies, and it’s better for food factories and the jobs and convenience they bring exist, than not. But the economics of it are cruel. Supermarkets drive prices down not just to make profits but because people need cheap food – and they need that because of the very large numbers of workers who aren’t being paid enough. Being self-employed and on less than the minimum wage myself, in an industry which I’ve compared to being like a farmer confronted with Walmart, I am particularly aware of the importance of fair pay.
Annabel: Quentin and Lottie then each have their personal problems – Quentin, the long, slow death of his ageing father with whom he didn’t get on, and Lottie always having to be the family policeman while she tries to restart her career as an architect. I thought that Quentin’s story in particular, given what a pompous arse he was a lot of the time, was particularly moving. This must have been a hard story to write?
Amanda: Yes, Quentin’s story was hard to write – though I always enjoy my wickedest characters the most, and as a freelance journalist myself, his cynicism and despair over journalism was quite easy to access. I suppose I began to get a handle on him when I thought about two things I’d shown in Hearts and Minds: his hatred of poets, and when he tells his son Ian that he was sexually abused at school. I realised that he had to have a father who was a poet (I was thinking a bit of Ted Hughes and a bit about Charles Causley who lived near us in Launceston) whom he hated but also desperately wanted to impress. I also discovered that many of the biggest womanisers I know have had terrible childhoods, and are always looking in the wrong place to heal that. But Lottie is also much too controlling – for understandable reasons. I used to be a bit like her myself, sewing reflective strips onto my kids’ school rucksacks because I was petrified they’d be run over on a winter’s day and even disinfecting their mobiles, once. They soon stopped that….
Annabel: Now, I couldn’t not ask about Gore Tore – the elusive old rocker who’s nearly always on tour. He’s at the bottom of most of what happens in the village, ever present but rarely there… He’s rather the McGuffin in the novel, isn’t he? Also, I was wondering If you’d based him upon any particular musicians?
Amanda: Gore Tore first appears in A Private Place, as the father of the coolest boy – and bully – in the progressive school Knotshead, which is not completely unlike my own detested public school Bedales, where many children of the rich and famous are wont to be sent. He is both tremendously destructive, especially to women and children, and benign in that what he does, ultimately, with his many millions is what you hope the super-rich do – ie, help his community (albeit with an eye to some profit). I think of him as a kind of Dionysian force of energy and entitlement. Of course he’s modelled on several famous old rockers – I’m not going to give libel lawyers a head start, but one of them, David Bowie, is safely dead.
Annabel: Finally, we always ask this. What have you enjoyed reading lately?
Amanda: I’ve discovered two novelists this year whom I adore. One is the detective writer Mick Herron, whose Jackson Lamb stories about a bunch of failed spies is superbly written and reeks of London at its seediest. Another is the fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell, whose Greatcoats quartet about a bunch of failed Musketeer-type mercenaries trying to restore law and order to the land of Tristia is thrilling and funny. You may be able to spot a certain theme emerging….I also had the privilege of reading in manuscript Allison Pearson’s new novel, out September, How Hard Can It Be? which continues the misadventures of Kate Reddy (I Don’t Know How She Does It.) It’s the most heart-rending, hilarious account of life as a middle-aged working mother ever. Lastly, Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poetry Inside the Wave, about confronting death, is beautiful, lucid and compelling.
Thank you Amanda.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – read her review of The Lie of the Land here.
Amanda Craig, The Lie of the Land (Little, Brown, 2017) 9781408709290, hardback, 419 pages.
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