Questions for Kirstin Smith & Rowland Manthorpe about Confidence

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Interview by Victoria

Due to unusual circumstances, my husband read this novel out loud to me (we both loved it).  So, from a reading couple to a writing couple, how did it come about that you decided to write this book together?

Rowland: I love the thought of you reading it together! Because books are, as everyone knows, written alone, we took a while to get to the point of collaboration. Originally, I had this vision of a non-fiction/fiction mix looking at the philosophy of confidence, but I didn’t have much experience writing at length and it wasn’t too long before I’d got thoroughly stuck. (I did a TEDx talk about this btw: here.) Eventually Kirstin suggested we write it together. We’d always discussed it and Kirstin had given me lots of notes, but this was clearly going to be something different. We took a lot of what I’d done before in terms of thinking, but in many ways it was like starting again from the beginning.

Kirstin: Yeah, there was a long run-up to working together, but once it started, it immediately seemed right for the book. 

And how well did the writing process work? How did you find ways to divide up the sections and harmonise your voices?

Kirstin: We worked very closely — I find it hard to imagine how it could be done without living together. Basically, Rowland wrote first drafts of most of the philosophy and I wrote first drafts of most of the fiction. Then we’d swap and rewrite it or give notes. Then swap again. And again… and again. We also talked a lot about plotting, the characters, memories of university, and of course, Nietzsche.

Rowland: Writing with someone else is great. I’m always surprised it’s not more common. People often ask about the writing style but that actually wasn’t as much of a problem as you’d think. Partly that’s because we redrafted each other’s work, but it also strikes me that unless you have a very distinct style the idea of a coherent voice is a projection. The reader wants there to be one and so there is!

We are longing to know how autobiographical this novel is!

Kirstin: There are aspects of both of us in the characters but they are basically quite different to us. I’m probably more like Ellie than Rowland is like Charlie. My dad was laughing at the part where Ellie pretends to her parents that she wears a bicycle helmet because that is straightforwardedly true!

Rowland: It did draw a lot on our experiences at university – but we didn’t want to make it too autobiographical as it felt like that would get in the way. We took a research trip to my sister’s university where we strolled around and hung out with her mates and that was very influential in terms of grounding it in reality. 

Which one of you is the Nietzsche expert? What drew you to incorporating his theories into a work of fiction?

Rowland: I came across Nietzsche when I was researching the philosophy of confidence. It’s not exactly a defined topic so I was reading very widely and I began to notice that everything seemed to refer back to Nietzsche. Then when I looked at him and read about his life I realised he was the philosopher of confidence and I could approach the whole subject through his life and work. 

Mixing fiction and non-fiction is very Nietzschean – he actually did the same thing in Thus Spake Zarathustra – so in that sense his work fitted in perfectly. But really that idea grew out of this feeling that a lot of the way people talked about this area was very abstract, and didn’t relate much to the complications and messiness of real life. The best way to get at that was through fiction.

Kirstin: I had read some Nietzsche, but wasn’t an expert. I got pretty closely acquainted with him as I translated the quotes.

The characters of Ellie and Charlie struck us as highly authentic (I confess I used to teach at a university and have read many such dissertations and exam essays). Do you feel you needed the insight of your respective genders to get under the skin of these characters?

Kirstin: I’m not sure! It probably helped. I’m always amazed and impressed when writers create very believable characters whose experience, age and gender are totally different to theirs. In this case, it helped because I’d say our relationships to confidence are pretty gender-typical, so we could explore stereotypical young masculine arrogance and feminine diffidence, as well as more complicated aspects.

Rowland: I was surprised how much it helped. Gender is such an important aspect of confidence – working with Kirstin made me even more aware of that than I was before. 

This is an extremely funny book, but it also has a deeper message. Do you think higher education happens at the wrong stage of life for many people?

Kirstin: I’m really glad you thought so! I’m definitely in favour of learning throughout your life. But there’s something ritualistic and valuable about the sheer messiness of going to university in your late teens and early twenties. I think that’s important and character forming, even if what you decide is that you hated it.

Rowland: I’d agree with that. But in a truly humane world anyone would have access to higher education at any age. Education is too important and life-affirming to leave to a single lump in your early twenties.

Ellie’s attempts to write a dissertation made us both wince and relate (I winced, my husband related). Is this more about procrastination or the difficulties of education?

Kirstin: Learning is always hard. I teach in university now and it’s easy to forget that when you were on the other side, it was difficult and sometimes painful—as well as exciting and broadening. I also recently finished my PhD and can definitely relate to the feeling of writing something being like hand-to-hand combat with yourself. Though I’m not a major procrastinator, I still had a lot of days that seemed to end up with me doing YouTube karaoke and drinking lager by 3pm…

Rowland: I related to Ellie as well! That kind of writing is hard, so everyone struggles. I know I did; to be honest, I still do. I do think that universities could do more to help students though. The model tends to be to leave them alone to get on with it, when often they’re not equipped for what is really very high-level work. I write for WIRED so I get to see a lot of startups and the amount of help and advice they’re given is amazing. It sometimes feels we’re too enamoured with the idea of the individual researcher (a little like the idea of the individual novelist…)

What do you think will happen to Ellie and Charlie? Are you tempted to write a sequel?

Kirstin: We’ve disagreed about this. I don’t think Ellie and Charlie would necessarily stay together — they’re still quite unformed as people at the end of the book. But Rowland thinks I’m wrong! 

Rowland: I always really liked that part because it felt very romantic. Maybe I’m over-identifying with Ellie and Charlie but they seem to me very well-suited, and I think their experience have helped them grow up to the extent they can manage a relationship. If there ever was a sequel it would have to be about them being unhappy. I’m not sure I could bear that! I’d love to know what Rose did next though…

Nietzsche aside, were there other authors that influenced this novel? The campus comedy has a strong tradition in British fiction.

Rowland: I really like campus comedies but they do often feel very old-fashioned in the way they treat university. Students are much more professional and less political than they were when Malcolm Bradbury was writing (although that may be changing). Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love is probably the closest thing to this book in terms of style, but I found the characters in that hard to engage with, so that was more of a provocation. This book doesn’t tend to draw explicit lessons but (hopefully) lets the characters speak for themselves.

Kirstin: One thing I was very aware of writing this was that it was set before some of the important recent political stuff in unis happened, e.g. tuition fees and increased debt, Prevent, casualisation of HE and FE staff… I think we’re likely to see a new and revived era of campus politics, which is really welcome, and that might bring with it a different kind of campus novel.

And who are your most influential authors generally?

Kirstin: I’ve recently been rediscovering my love affair with Doris Lessing — she’s, you know, incredible. I’m a fan of a lot of mid-twentieth century female writers, including Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge, Patricia Highsmith and Clarice Lispector. I also have a soft spot for ultra-Modernists such as Jane Bowles, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein and Henry James. As to their influence on this book — I wish.

Rowland: I love science-fiction and fantasy, and when I’m being high-minded about it I tell myself that’s because they bring together philosophy and politics with fiction in a way that traditional literary novelists don’t tend to do. 

(Kirstin: Doris Lessing again! What a hero.)

Rowland: Ursula Le Guin is my all time favourite in that regard because with her it’s not all about spaceships and laser guns. Among philosophers, I don’t think anyone has ever jangled the neurons in my brain quite like Foucault, except perhaps John Gray. The approach to the history of concepts I learnt during my degree was also hugely influential. Once you start looking at things in that way it opens up a completely different way of thinking.

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Victoria is a Co-Founder and editor of Shiny.

Read Victoria’s review of Confidence HERE.

Rowland Manthorpe and Kirstin Smith, Confidence (Bloomsbury, 2016) 978-1408802540, paperback original, 320 pp.

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