Yorkshire Calling: An Interview with Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips is a British writer, born in St. Kitts. He has authored and edited a wide range of works, including plays, screenplays, documentaries, and non-fiction. His novels, with geographies ...

Caryl Phillips is a British writer, born in St. Kitts. He has authored and edited a wide range of works, including plays, screenplays, documentaries, and non-fiction. His novels, with geographies that traverse the Caribbean, America, Europe, and Africa, are particularly celebrated—they have won numerous prizes, been widely translated, and together constitute a significant contemporary literature of the Black Atlantic. Titles include Crossing the River (1993), A Distant Shore (2003), and Dancing in the Dark (2005). Phillips is also a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New Republic and is currently a professor of English at Yale University.

His latest novel, The Lost Child, was published in March 2015 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Oneworld in the UK. An oblique, intricate re-writing of Wuthering Heights, the novel is set in Leeds, Yorkshire, where Phillips grew up. It alternates between three stories—that of Heathcliff, before he arrives at the Heights, Emily Brontë and her sisters, and Monica, a single mother struggling to survive in late 20th-century England, whose story resonates both with Catherine Earnshaw’s, and the Brontë sisters’. Though characterized by dramatic shifts in perspective, time, and place, the novel miraculously enables the radically different worlds it delineates to make sense of each other, and explores the tragedies of history through the pain and pathologies of its central characters. Here Phillips talks about the process of writing this novel, as well as his approach to novel writing in general.

Tanya Agathocleous: I thought we might start by talking about how The Lost Child is related to some of your earlier work. There’s the idea of the Middle Passage as modernity’s original sin, and the themes of slavery, empire, and racial injustice recur in many of your novels.  How have your concerns changed or developed over time?


Caryl Phillips: I never really see a book in the context of what went before because when I finish a book I try to press the delete button so that it’s wiped off the hard drive. For me, books are not about those perfectly legitimate things that you just mentioned: thematic ideas and grappling with narrative structure. All of that is definitely part and parcel of writing a book, but the real engine room of a book (for me) are characters. And I have to get rid of them because I wouldn’t be able to write another book if I still had all these people swimming about in my head making demands. So there’s a somewhat cruel process of pressing the delete button to create room for new people to speak and emerge. And in that process, of course, I kind of forget the book. I forget what happened. I forget plot. I forget the names of the characters.

So I’m actually the worst person to answer that question, “How does it relate to the previous?” because I don’t really know. I know that the book is dealing with some familiar questions to do with belonging and landscape and journeying, be it transatlantic journeying, be it journeying from city to country, or country to city. It’s to do with migration. It’s to do with loss. It’s “in conversation with earlier works,” but I’m quite not sure what’s going on in the conversation.

TA: I recently heard a critic apply Marianne Hirsch’s term “postmemory” to your novels—referring to the idea of second or third generations dealing with the trauma of their ancestors. She uses it specifically in relation to Holocaust literature. Do you think this is a useful concept for your work?


CP: It’s a very useful and legitimate concept if I was in a classroom talking about somebody else’s work. Because that is
interesting, to think of writers who are grappling with what it means to have to pick up the legacy of those who went before them, perhaps because those who went before couldn’t articulate it. I can immediately think of not just Maus, which is a book I admire a lot, but many other books that fall into that grouping. In the context of what I’m trying to do, there is a definite attempt to repair historical inaccuracy and to repair an omission, a complete silence. I guess that silence becomes very personal when you’re a little kid at school in England and you’re not in the history books. Or when you are in the history books, it’s not really an image of yourself you want to see. In a loincloth, you know, leaping around. Tarzan was cool; you were slightly less than Tarzan. So, you’re very aware that there’s something awkward and there’s something wrong, and there’s an attempt to repair memory or repair amnesia. As somebody who’s been shaped from early on by an affinity with the English language and the English canon, absences and omissions in that canon have always bothered me. Some of that I think feeds into this particular book.


TA: Why were you drawn to Wuthering Heights in particular? I know there’s an autobiographical connection because you grew up in Leeds. What does or did the novel mean to you—did you read it growing up?


CP: I read it growing up but to me, as a young man, the most interesting aspect of the novel (because I was a boy) wasn’t the romance. Oh Heathcliff! Oh Cathy! I wasn’t interested in any of that stuff. It was the moors, the sort of bleak desolate nature of this place which was just on the periphery of Leeds. I was growing up in Leeds, a place where if you saw a blade of grass, you immediately ran out and kicked a football on it. We didn’t have gardens, certainly not in the place I was growing up in, in council houses. We went to the park to kick a ball, we didn’t go to learn the names of the trees. We didn’t go on expeditions to flora and fauna.

But as I was getting older, I was aware that right on the edge of Leeds, there was this wild strange place that, as an urban kid, meant nothing to me. So there were two books that I was reading at that time that introduced me to the idea that there’s another kind of life to England—not just a natural life, but a literary life too—that is rooted in nature. One book was Wuthering Heights and the other was The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, whose opening section is just about Egdon Heath. There aren’t any characters in it: the heath is the character. That was the prism through which I looked at Wuthering Heights, and I had no fascination with the origins of Heathcliff or the romance at the center of it. I didn’t even have any fascination with the Yorkshire dialect they’re speaking. It was just these brooding descriptions of this place that was slightly out of reach to me. When I reread the Brontës later on, again it wasn’t Cathy and Heathcliff’s romance or the Yorkshire dialect, it was more the isolation of Healthcliff. Why did he become so malevolent? Why did he become so cruel? Why was he so angry? Why was he so prey to these spasms of bitterness? There’s another element that completely fascinated me by that stage and that’s Emily Brontë herself, because I just loved the strange ethereal nature of the woman. And so I was as much fascinated with what kind of sensibility had written this as I was with what was in the book. And I think many years ago, when I wrote the novel Cambridge, I called the central character Emily because of Emily Brontë. In the novel she was about 30 or so—the age Brontë was when she died—and slightly strange, singular, willful. All the things I imagined Brontë might be. Obviously she’s not Emily Brontë, but there was a slight private doffing of the cap to this fascination with the creator of Wuthering Heights.

TA: I was struck by the juxtaposition between the moors as a setting in the novel and the claustrophobic modern apartments and housing projects of Leeds. Though the moors are more connected with the Brontë story and the interiors with Monica’s, there’s obviously a strong atmosphere of claustrophobia in the Brontë parts too, especially with Emily’s illness and her burial. How do you think about the significance of setting when writing?


CP: Well, I try to put characters or nudge characters towards spaces that I understand. I guess I understand the small cramped college room at the top of the staircase that Monica’s in. I understand the nightclub that she went to in the third section where she met Derek Evans; I know that place. I understand the council house she’s in. When I don’t understand a space, but I feel it’s necessary to set a section of the book there or have a character inhabit that space, then I have to do this thing called research. So yeah, I did go to Haworth. I’ve been there quite a few times. I went and spoke to the arts office and they let me loose there for a couple of days and I could just wander around, both outside the house and inside the rooms when there was nobody around, and try to imagine myself into spaces that I wasn’t immediately familiar with. I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying that despite the broad breadth of vision that one might imagine you have on the moors, they’re claustrophobic too. They close in on you, they make you feel … they’re scary. I wanted it to be so that whether you’re inside or outside, there’s a feeling of quite intense claustrophobia and not being able to see much. There are a lot of characters who look through windows, and they don’t see much apart from trees swaying, branches. Throughout the novel, you don’t really see much through the windows. There’s not much freedom. Even in the section where Monica meets Derek in the nightclub, it ends with her looking out the window at him but all she sees is the bleakness of where she is and the matchstick figure of him going away. So there’s never a sense that you’re relieved by landscape or topography, or you’re released from the psychological anxieties or pressures that you’re having. Whether you’re walking on the moors or in a social space like a club or a pub or even in your own house, it’s still very tight.

<i>Haworth Main Street</i>. Photograph by Jaqcui Sadler / Wikimedia Commons

Haworth Main Street. Photograph by Jaqcui Sadler / Wikimedia Commons

TA: There are thematic connections between the Wuthering Heights story and the story of Monica, but when reading The Lost Child I also thought of the complicated narrative structure of Brontë’s novel, with the different frames of the unreliable narrators, Nelly and Lockwood, and the different generations that inhabit the Grange and the Heights. The disorientation of Lockwood when he first gets to the house is echoed in our historical disorientation reading your novel when we move from 18th century Liverpool to mid-20th century Oxford, and when we try to connect the Brontë parts to Monica’s story. The connections become clearer over time but there’s some delayed decoding, like there is for Lockwood. To what degree were you influenced by Brontë in terms of structure and narration?


CP: A little bit, a little bit—what you’re saying is true. Because, you know, Emily Brontë’s structure is one of the things I do like about the novel. There are things I don’t like about it. I think it gets a little bit clumsy in places. And there are too many Catherines. What’s that about? But one of the things I like is that it has layers you have to peel off, and you have to do a little digging of tunnels and building of bridges as a reader. You have to stay with it. It makes you do a bit of work. I’m not suggesting that, therefore, I wanted my readers to do a bit of work—I always want them to do a bit of work—but it seemed only appropriate that my novel shouldn’t have a straightforward, easily accessible narrative structure. Not just because there are two different centuries we’re playing with, but because I think Emily Brontë is right. If you’re trying to reclaim a history, as her novel is, it doesn’t move in a straight line. The Lost Child was never going to move in a straight line because it has these two time periods. It could’ve been much clearer, but I didn’t want it to be because I think that’s part of the process when you’re trying to reclaim the past. It doesn’t present itself. I wanted to get some of that lack of easy forward momentum, and a bit of circularity into this structure too.


TA: I was interested in the fact that the chapter headings of your novel are like a bildungsroman gone wrong. All the developmental stages are out of sequence—it goes from “Separation” to “First Love” to “Going Out” to “The Family” to “Childhood”—and so much the story is about non-development and unrealized potential. Were you thinking about the bildungsroman in terms of structure?


CP: I was definitely thinking about childhood, but I never think chronologically. To me, a novel doesn’t have any kind of legs to provide movement unless it’s powered by character. And that makes me a slightly old-fashioned novelist. I’m not really interested in capering in front of the footlights in full view of the audience. I’m much more the kind of writer who likes to be in the wings, behind the curtain, peering onstage and looking at what’s going on with the characters. I was raised and fed by 19th century, even 18th century, conceits about what the novel is. Robinson Crusoe. Silas Marner. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Madame Bovary. Oliver Twist. David Copperfield. To me, novels are about people, and it’s a very old-fashioned notion that novels are an investigation into people.

But because I have enough of the late 20th, early 21st-century understanding and fascination with form, I think of myself as a pretty conventional narrator, but a quite unconventional orchestrator. I never put this sort of structure before the characters. But at the same time, as the characters are beginning to speak to me, I’m not looking for “once upon a time,” and a narrative line from A to B. I’m always looking at how that chronological line is going to be disrupted. Because if you grow up in a society that didn’t include you—didn’t see you—you don’t trust anything. And you certainly don’t trust those stories that didn’t include you. You’re looking, always, for ways of reinserting, going back, checking, finding ways of complicating that narrative in an orchestral way. You can’t assume that this is going to move in this direction with a great degree of surety because it’s that degree of surety that excludes and doesn’t make people think, and people just go into a very comfortable neutral. They coast downhill to the end of the book. I don’t want people to do that. At the same time, I don’t want them to lose sight of that slightly old-fashioned notion that a novel is about shining a flashlight into those dark corners of human experiences that are best illuminated by words on the page. I’m trying to do things with human psychology and fear and frustration that you can’t do with film or the theatre because you can dwell really close to the fears and anxieties of a character in a novel. But I can’t write those novels of the 19th century because there’s something about the structure of them and the assumptions that go with them that are deeply problematic for me.

TA: For the main characters in the novel—the Brontë siblings, of course, but also Monica, and Ben—making and appreciating art is either an escape or, in the best case, a mode of survival. Is that how you think of it?


CP: I hadn’t really thought of it as you just expressed it, except I think people who are lonely or people who are solitary (and there are a lot of solitary characters) have to have some form of expressing whatever their fundamental anxieties are. They have to have some channel, some outlet in which they can at least imagine they might be able to organize their confusion in some way. To me that’s what art is. My own feelings about art have always been that it may be crap art, but you know if he or she isn’t doing it, they’re going to be pushing you off a platform into a train. So art is a way of organizing that excessive subjectivity that, if left unchecked, can get out of control. In that “Childhood” chapter, the pop songs that structure it and anchor Ben’s memory become the only kind of stepping stones by which he can understand his growth or his development. Without those songs, it’s just utter chaos. Monica loves poetry. She loves Wordsworth. She abandoned music, but she still loves writing. She has a dream … but she never gets it together, and subjectivity does well up and overwhelm her. My own feeling is you do need an affinity or a love of art, or a desire or a dream of pursuing art, whether it’s painting, whether it’s music, whether it’s writing. It’s often quiet crying for organizational help and clarity.


TA: You teach writing at Yale. What skills do you stress in the classroom? How do you teach your students to create a voice that sounds “realistic,” both in terms of being anchored in a specific time and place and in terms of being fleshed out as a character?


CP: Well, they have to write about something they understand, and a voice they know. I’m always telling them, ”You don’t have anything until you have the voice.” The only thing you have is an idea about a character. “First of all,” I tell them, “the hardest thing to find when you’re writing fiction is character, because it’s the characters that are the engine room.” Ideas are so cheap. Everybody has ideas about a book. What makes a novelist a novelist, or a literary novelist a novelist? It’s the engagement with character. Now, how does one get engaged with character? Who the hell knows that? You can’t teach that to anybody, because if you knew, you’d bottle it and sell it, or you’d keep it to yourself … The example I often give them is the thrillers we see in airports. I say, “You know, do you think Michael Crichton was more assiduous than Virginia Woolf? Do you think John Grisham works harder than Thomas Hardy? No! Writers who produce three books a year like Grisham or Crichton or whoever, these thriller writers, how can they produce so many books? Because their books are plot driven. They have characters, but character isn’t really what’s driving the book. What’s driving the book is plot. What you are trying to write is literary fiction, and what drives literary fiction is character. And that’s why the normal gestation period for a literary book is anywhere from three to five years. Not because those writers are lazy, but because they’re having to spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about the character, trying to find the voice, trying to find a certain degree of authenticity. Obviously, it would be wonderful if you could speed that up. We’d publish more. We’d have more money. We’d have therefore, a better life. But you can’t speed it up.”

In that sense, one of the worst places to be thinking about fiction is a university, or an academic institution, where there’s a deadline. I tell them, “If you write me five sentences that sound authentic by the end of the semester, that’s better than writing three short stories that are kind of okay structurally, but I don’t care about the people.” To get people you care about and to get them to trust you with their story, to have the right voice, takes a long, long, long time. I’m also trying to get them to understand that what they read, they will write. So they should read work that will feed them. If you’re trying to write a novel that’s set in Tennessee, then don’t spend all your time reading work that set in Marquez’s Columbia … unless the structure of what you’re trying to write in Tennessee is similar to what he’s writing about in Columbia. Then that’s useful, and you can use the structure. There are a few exercises they can do along the way. I always make them write an obituary of their main character because you have to know a hell of a lot to write an obituary of an imaginary character. There are things that I do to tease them towards character. I say things like, “Who would play your character in a film?” And they say “Kate Winslet.” And I say, “Okay, Kate Winslet’s sitting in front of you and she’s asking you questions: How do I play this character? Is this a character that gets on with their dad? What color coat would they wear?” So I’m getting them to think about character and not just about plot. That’s what I can do in terms of working with them on their fiction. What I never do with them is have them read criticism, because they have enough of that in their other classes! icon

Featured image: Ilkley Moor. Photograph by David Smith / Flickr